It seems Jay-Z, even as he revvs up anticipation for his new album, is not even seen as a rapper anymore. Just as he left his former shell as a crack dealer in Brooklyn's Marcy projects, Jay-Z escaped the normative confines of a quote-unquote "rapper" to become a Sports Franchise Owner, Agent, Major Label Executive, and, perhaps most prominently, the husband of the somehow-more-famous Beyonce Knowles.
However, focusing on Hova's rap career is perhaps the easiest way of separating the man from the myth. Indeed, like any other rapper, Jay-Z's style was not created in a vacuum. With that being said, here's a look at Jay's biggest rapping influences.
Needless to say, Biggie Smalls, as Jay-Z's mentor/big brother, set an example for the lyrical structuring that is essential to Jay-Z's ouvre. Biggie's artistic process is most famous for the lack of a pen and paper. Big Poppa never wrote down rhymes, and he never stockpiled lines out of the context of a song. Biggie would listen to the given beat first, sit on a couch in a studio, and intentionally construct phrases around the soundscape of the music. Jay-Z learned this technique from Big, and, if the Galaxy/Magna Carta Holy Grail promo is any indication, he stays faithful to the pen-free approach to this day.
In addition, Jay-Z has paid homage to Big in dozens of lyrical instances. Look to this rather derogatory video from Cam'ron that points all of them out.
In this video Cam'ron also points out the Slick Rick lines that Jay-Z uses. Although Cam'ron fancies these "bites" as an object of derision, considering the prolific size of Jay's career, a footnote or two from one of the Old School's must illustrious is not exactly a bad thing, IMO.
Even Biggie's most famous chorus, "Hypnotize" is a crib sheet from Rick's "La Di Da Di," and why not? The finer points of the Hip-Hop chorus was more or less pioneered by him. Slick Rick had a pop sensibility that gave rap an extra layer of confectionary goodness: a hook if you will. In this day and age, rappers' entire families eat off a catchy line in an otherwise unmemorabe lyrical performance. "Popped a molly, I'm sweating, WOO!" owes a debt to "La Di Da Di, we like to party" just as much as any of Jay, Biggie, or Snoop's ringtone rhymes. Same goes for the tangle of gold necklaces, so back off, Cam'Ron!
Daddy Kane had a lively on-stage persona that the less animated Jay-Z could never aspire to, however he did take a tip from Kane's rhythmic demonstration. Daddy Kane's machine gun flow could be called "Ye Olde Busta Rhymes."
Jay-Z's earlier freestyles and go-to rhyming structures are filled with breakneck pacing. Arguably, his most well known stylistic point was and is his ability to suddenly switch back and forth between slow and fast speeds. Rappers tried and failed to switch the flow with ambitious manner, but before Jay-Z, Kane was the only one who could lock it down convincingly.
East Coast lyricists have prided themselves over polysyllabic rhymes since time inmemorium. Jay-Z would have never been considered a candidate for greatest of all time if he was stuck rhyming in the gun/fun, mic/like, bitch/snitch territory. In my opinion, and the opinion of many real rap heads, the plural-word, or plural syllable rhyme, is a major aspect of what separates the scrubs from the real MC's.
For those who know the undisputed king of the polysyllabic rhyme is Harlem's very own Big L. "Somebody hit me with a can of beer/ then he ran in fear/ later they found him hanging from a chandalier" the late great rhymer said in "The Devil's Son." Jay-Z was a contemporary of L, and, as the now famous Stretch and Bobbito freestyle demonstrates, the two were keen not just to rhyme many syllables, but have that rhyme appear many times within a given bar.
In this radio appearance, Jay-Z is introduced as secondary to Big L, but ultimately wins the game of one-upmanship in the cyphe by twisting two rhymes together in format that pervades Big L's rather boxy A,A,A,A B,B,B,B rhyming scheme, brings the clever wordplay while still maintaining the polysyllable. "and like Tyson I'm slicin' through tracks/ they're screaming .. "Jesus .. Christ he's back/ and God knows he can rap!"/ Yes, indeed.