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JAY-Z, Freestyling & the Decline of Mainstream Lyricism

How one of the greatest lyricists inadvertently stunted lyricism.

Freebandz rapper Doe Boy recently sat down for an interview with VladTV, and the subject of Future’s work ethic came up. Considering we’ve just recently received a double-dose of Future’s work ethic in the form of two albums in as many weeks, I was eager to gain some insight.

His comments begin at around the 3:00-minute mark:

Doe states that Future is commonly known to make upwards of 10 songs a day, claiming further, "everything you ever heard Future do, bro, he did not write that shit down. Every song that been on the charts, he did not write one of them songs." After two 17-track albums in the span of two weeks, and eleven projects over the last two-and-a-half years, it’s easy to assume that Doe Boy is telling the truth.

Doe went on to explain that he believes punching in two bars at a time and not writing anything down allows the freedom to give a more compelling delivery, and lyrically makes the verses more timely and more genuine. While he and Vlad debated the validity of his claims that the quality of their music actually improves using these methods, Vlad brought up JAY-Z’s name as an inspiration in “freestyling” verses, and the dots started to connect in my brain.

After an hour or so-long Pepe Silvia-esque freakout complete with yarn and thumbtacks, I’ve come to the conclusion that Hov, one of the greatest to ever write a rhyme, has inadvertently brought more harm to mainstream lyricism than a couple decades of heavy lean use could ever claim.

Before you start hiring friends to track my IP address so you can go all Jay and Silent Bob on me, hear me out.

It’s been common knowledge that Jay doesn’t write his verses—not in the literal sense, anyway. Hov’s ability to conceptualize entire songs without the use of a pen and pad has been a calling card of his for over two decades, and countless producers and artists have shared stories about witnessing him mumbling to himself in the studio before delivering a ferocious verse.

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Hov’s paperless skills took on near-mythological status as the years passed, seen by many as the ultimate boast for a lyricist; delivering a seething 16 without the use of a pen hinted at the kind of masterful ease that every emcee should want to possess. Kanye West, Big Sean, Rick Ross—many have claimed to have little to no need for a notepad. 

Rappers across the culture began to ditch their notepads, not fully understanding a technique that wasn’t really explained until years later. Hov wasn’t just freestyling everything on the spot, he was carefully crafting verses in his head with the use of specific memorization techniques he’d been perfecting for over a decade. To this day, I don’t think most people who cite Jay’s freestyle skills fully understand this.

In 2003, when Lil Wayne wrote “10,000 Bars” and vowed to leave the pen behind forever, it suddenly became passé to write verses at all. A generation had taken a bastardized version of his perfected methods and began misusing it, and Hov knew it. In a 2007 interview with MTV, Jay Z joked, “I've inspired a generation of bad writers.” That was a half-joke at best, and I don’t even think he realized how true it was at that point.

Today, a quick glimpse at the ensemble of usual suspects in hip-hop’s mainstream will give way to a plethora of artists who are half-using JAY-Z’s penless techniques as a kind of performance-enhancing drug. On-the-spot lyrical performances act as a steroid that allows artists to keep up with the pace expected by artists in high demand during the digital era, but as with any performance enhancer, there’s a price to be paid, and I argue that the price is lyricism.

Here's a prime example. In a 2015 interview with Dazed magazine, Young Thug made the following statement:

"I think as I go. I can’t remember 16 bars. Unless you write it, you can’t. I just do it bar for bar. I did a song in eight minutes. I thought everybody could write songs that fast. But working with a lot of them, they don’t. Wayne and Drake, it takes them so long to do a song. I understand why, because they want it to be perfect. But I think I can do a perfect song in ten minutes. I did ‘Danny Glover’ in eight minutes. ‘Stoner’ took me almost an hour."

Case in point. I’m not here to debate the validity of Thugger’s success; the guy is clearly pumping out music that people want to hear. But despite his quick backpedaling, he clearly knows he’s not producing rhymes at the caliber of Lil Wayne or Drake within a fraction of the time. Is he making hits? Yes. Is “Danny Glover,” or any Thug track for that matter, anywhere close to the lyrical potency of “A Milli” or “Song Cry”? Hell no. They're just not. 

While freestyling has been an integral part of hip-hop since the beginning, it was Jay Z that popularized ditching the pen and pad in a time where lyricism within the mainstream was still rather healthy. In the years since then, it has been the goal of countless emcees to be "nice" without having to write, and as time has progressed and tastes have changed, the “nice” part has, in the mainstream anyway, all but faded to the background.

Whether or not this is a grand example of the butterfly effect, we’ll never know. What I do know is that Future and who knows how many others are currently churning out multiple songs a day without writing, and none of them feature the lyrical complexity of a JAY-Z song. Not everyone can do what Jay, or for that matter, Wayne does. And while I genuinely enjoy the music that newer artists are able to crank out in mere minutes, I won’t for one second put those offerings on lyrical par with Hov or Weezy.


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