One day, sometime in the late 90s, Roc-A-Fella Records CEO Dame Dash walked into Def Jam Records’ New York office cursing loud enough for everyone to hear, looking for his business partner and best friend Jay Z to tell him what had just happened. Dash was bleeding from his head.
“Those motherfuckers don’t play!”
Dame Dash had just run into members of rival New York rapper Fat Joe’s Terror Squad crew and things got heated. So the Terror Squad cracked a bottle over his head. The incident has become part of rap beef lore in a storied and mysterious chapter of Roc-A-Fella Records’ feud with the Terror Squad. While so many rap feuds have taken place in public exchanges of diss tracks, this fight was mostly a cold war that rarely manifested itself as back-and-forth barbs on records. The details of the intra-city war are mostly whispers reserved for people with intimate knowledge of both parties. As for the rest of us, we had to settle for rumors and speculation as to when Jay Z and Fat Joe would actually let their passive aggressive battle boil over.
Then something unexpected happened. Jay Z and Fat Joe outgrew their feud. Both MC/businessmen are in their 40s, entering uncharted territory for rappers: being middle-aged and trying to maintain relevance in rap without being “corny.” They’re parents and CEOs who don’t have time to argue about whose dick is bigger. Last month they were seen posing together backstage at a Beyonce concert, causing the Internet to speculate about if they’d finally buried the hatchet.
Then they took things a step further and made it official. On Tuesday night the two Big Apple titans released a remix to Joe’s “All The Way Up”—a song that has rejuvenated Fat Joe’s uneven career—that featured the first Jay Z verse of 2016.
People don’t crowd around radios anymore waiting for new releases, but they do gather around Twitter to chime in for the biggest events—and this absolutely qualified. When Jay Z used to drop his new music, the whole city of New York would stand still. This time, he made the internet hold its breath. Not only was this Jay Z’s first verse of the year; it was Jay Z’s first verse since his wife, Beyonce, seemed to out his past infidelity on her latest album, Lemonade, which has been streamed across the world hundreds of millions of times. The spotlight is on Jay Z more than ever.
So it almost didn’t matter if Jay’s verse was any good or not as long as he gave the people the gossip they want. And even though the bars were unspectacular—“I’m in the room where real niggas not allowed / I’m the only one in the room that they fear right now / I think they’re clear right now” are standard Jay brags that come in between awkwardly long silences and a slightly off-beat delivery—they gave fans clamoring for any insight into the world’s most hotly scrutinized relationship something to sink their teeth into.
Jay Z has mastered the art of creating newsworthy verses without really revealing much about himself at all. And that’s exactly what he did with his verse on “All The Way Up.” The verse opens with “You know you made it when the fact / Your marriage made it is worth millions / Lemonade is a popular drink and it still is.” Guys. He did it! The mythical Lemonade reference. If you do a Google search on anything Jay-related, you’ll see that outlets across the net are covering Jay Z’s “blockbuster reaction.” Even though he never really gave one. Fans are already breaking down every line like it’s the clue to what Hodor means. Is Jay Z taking shots at Drake? Is he referencing the infamous altercation with Beyonce’s sister Solange when he references elevators at the end? What does it all mean? Jay will never tell, and that’s so much of the appeal.
This is the state of Jay Z’s brand in 2016. He’s a 46-year-old rapper who doesn’t need to prove himself anymore. He raps when he wants to and when he sees a window to boost the business of being Jay Z. He’s on cruise control, gliding through his rap golden years while millions of fans who treat his lyrics as gospel pant for any new morsel. Even if the main course has lost a bit of its flavor over the years.
Jay Z has made it clear that he’ll use any opportunity to maximize his earning power. As soon as Lemonade came out, rumors spread that Jay was capitalizing by releasing an album from his own perspective on the cheating scandal. Last week more rumors spread that he and Beyonce had already recorded a joint album, which could only increase the subscription numbers to the rap mogul’s Tidal streaming music service. There’s even buzz about some mythical new duet with Future that’ll come out on DJ Khaled’s album sometime in the next few weeks, all maybe leading to a full solo Jay Z album to come out on June 25th that will coincide with the 20th anniversary of his solo debut, Reasonable Doubt.
Nobody knows for sure. And that’s just the way he likes it.