Jay-Z performing and pointing to the camera

Photo via Debby Wong/Shutterstock (Licensed) Remix by Jason Reed

Good Jay-Z vs. Evil Jay-Z: A history

From grams to Grammys, the life and times of S. Carter still dominate hip-hop culture.


Sarah Jasmine Montgomery


Posted on Jul 1, 2017   Updated on May 23, 2021, 1:11 am CDT

Jay-Z released album No. 13 on Friday. The project, 4:44, is a return to form: No I.D.’s production is sounding good so far, and fans are responding favorably across the board to the album’s confessional lyrics and pop culture zingers. These days though, we hear more about Jay-Z in the context of Tidal mishaps rather than his music.

Since he “retired” as a rapper way back in 2003, Jay-Z has had major ups and downs as a celebrity (See: Lemonade.) He’ll excite hip-hop culture with an inspired performance on a remix, but then release clunker albums. 

As we spend our day trying to re-download Tidal, let’s look back at all the good and evil Jay-Z spells.

Good Jay-Z

Music from 1996 to 2003 — There’s no doubt that Jay-Z earned his place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame as one of the biggest rappers in history. His 1996 debut album Reasonable Doubt went platinum with no major label record deal and featured his friend, the legendary Biggie Smalls. He’s won 21 Grammys, and three of his records are on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. The list of Jay-Z hits is long, including “Izzo,” “Hard Knock Life,” “I Can’t Get Wid Dat,” and countless others. There’s a reason his nickname is Hov, short for Jay-Hova—he’s a rap god.

He seems to be a good dad — We don’t have any real way to prove this, but the GIFs and photos of Jay-Z with Blue Ivy make him seem like a loving father.

Of course just like any good dad, Jay-Z doesn’t really *get* Twitter, and has rapped a fair amount of dad lines. Take this verse from “Tom Ford” from 2013’s Magna Carta album: “Fuck hashtags and retweets, 140 characters in these streets.”

Oh, Dad.

Screengrab via Clevver News/YouTube

He signed some of the best artists — Music today wouldn’t be the same without Jay-Z putting on some of the best artists around. We’re forever indebted to him for bringing us Rihanna. Today he runs Roc Nation, founded in 2008, which represents new and old artists we love like Vic Mensa, T.I., and Big Sean. He’s not just here for hip-hop and rap artists either. The entertainment label also manages favorites like Haim, Grimes, and Shakira. For all his failed prodigies (Memphis Bleek, anyone?), he also unsheathed Kanye West upon the world.

Jay-Z is the supportive dad behind the scenes for so many artists, even if he’s not signing them. In a few of his recent tweets he shouted out everyone from Snoop Dogg to Playboi Carti. He’s keeping up with the times and giving his support to the other rappers, regardless of generation.

2013’s “Pound Cake”  — This collaboration with Drake was money, a standout recent track that shows he’s still got it. In the song Jay-Z raps that he’s “made more millionaires than the lotto did. Dame made millions, Biggs made millions. Ye made millions, Just made millions. Lyor made millions, Cam made millions.” Jay-Z doesn’t just make money for himself, he’s making sure everyone gets a slice of that cake. (Way back in 2010, Jay-Z likewise helped usher in the age of Drake when he performed on his major label debut album.)

Screengrab via DJ Akademiks/YouTube

Kevin Durant — Jay-Z might have sold his stake with the Nets, but his business in sports hasn’t ended. The mogul founded Roc Nation Sports back in 2013, and the company represents NBA champ, Warriors forward, and University of Texas alum Kevin Durant. Truly a slam dunk investment by Mr. Carter.

Screengrab via DJ Akademiks/YouTube

Evil Jay-Z

Music from 2003 to 2013 — Save a handful of tracks from Watch the Throne, Jay-Z’s bars haven’t been what they used to be. Some of the songs are boring and others completely miss the mark. The Blueprint III still hurts. Sorry Jigga.

Cheating on Beyoncé — The world watched Knowles sister Solange attack Jay-Z in an elevator at the 2014 Met Gala. We spotted the smoke, and when Lemonade came out in 2016, we really saw the fire. Beyoncé’s latest, and most ambitious album gave us a raw glimpse into the lows of the Knowles-Carter marriage. It was a shock coming from a couple that is known for its high level of secrecy. When Beyoncé’s voice cracks during “Sandcastles,” our hearts break. How could you hurt our Queen B like that Jay? 

Screengrab via Beyoncevevo/YouTube

Tidal — When Jay-Z took over the music streaming company, and announced it to the world surrounded by mega artists like Nicki Minaj, Jack White, Daft Punk, and others, it seemed like artists could finally take back some of the power they allegedly lost from streaming services like Spotify. We all have started free trials when something we really wanted to hear has an exclusive release through the app, but with so many bugs, a clunky layout, and a limited library, Tidal isn’t worth the $19.99 a month for its “HiFi” sounds.

Screengrab via Beyoncevevo/YouTube

Some of Jay’s, um, lesser signings — Jay-Z has put on some incredible artists, but with the good there are always a few bad eggs. I’m looking at you J. Cole. The North Carolina rapper’s fans are insufferably sanctimonious, and while Jay-Z supports a lot of younger artists challenging the genre, Cole attracts some very puritan rap fans. (He’s the only rapper who apparently makes “real hip-hop music” these days.)

“99 Problems” — Jay-Z might be with the woman who invented feminism, but that doesn’t mean his career hasn’t contained a plentiful amount of misogyny. “99 Problems” is one of Jay-Z’s biggest hits, and one of his most annoying. In the song and video, Jay-Z addresses poignant points about racism and exploitation of black art, but ruins it by contrasting those issues with images of strippers and “bitches.”

It’s a story as old as time, but unlike his wife, Jay-Z hasn’t used his fame to help us realize that black men aren’t the only ones subjected to those daily instances of violence. Black women encounter the same issues and yet are constantly reduced to “problems” not even worth having. Bey needs to upgrade his reading list with some Chimamanda. 

Screengrab via MTV

There have been good Jay-Z moments and a healthy number of sinister ones, but who are we kidding? From his early days to now, Jay-Z has remained a powerful symbol of hustle, even in his evil times. There’s a photo of Jay-Z that represents this. He’s standing on the roof of his old stash house, staring at the new Barclays Center a few blocks away. Jay not only performs at that center, but had his own money invested in Barclays at the time. He is standing on his past, while looking directly at his present and future. It’s the American dream:

Screengrab via MTV

Today Jay-Z has the baddest wife in the game, is the second-richest man in hip-hop, and has managed to stay relevant across generations despite a constantly changing music landscape—whether that’s through his own music or supporting other rappers of the moment. He’s a business, man. 

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*First Published: Jul 1, 2017, 1:14 pm CDT