Is Jay-Z really the Bob Dylan of Rap Music?
Last week Jay-Z released a song, “Open Letter”, co-produced by Swizz Beatz and Timbaland. In the song H.O.V. references his recent vacation to Cuba, and his political connections. He also goes on to address rumors of his recent attempts to sell his stake in the Brooklyn Nets organization. Most of the song consists of Jay boasting that, despite any recent allegations, he is still very much large and in charge.
In the second verse, Jigga makes a rather bold claim with his emulation of a rock legend:
“Idiot Wind, the Bob Dylan of Rap music.
You’re an idiot baby, you should become a student.”
By calling on a classic Dylan track “Idiot Wind”, (from his 1974 classic Blood on the Tracks), Jay-Z claims to be the man himself. That’s big talk, considering what Dylan did to Rock and Roll. This of course needs to be investigated. So, is Jay-Z really the Bob Dylan of rap? And if not, then who is?
We first need to assess and recognize what Bob Dylan did for popular music. Originally Robert Zimmerman, he left his home in Hibbing, Minnesota to play the folk music circuit in Greenwich Village, New York. Dylan’s politically charged messages resonated with audiences, who quickly labeled his music as “protest songs”. After quickly rising to fame, Bob put out a series of classic albums that are remembered today as revolutionary folk-rock music. Bob Dylan was and remains to be an iconic image of the 60’s American counter-culture. He was included in the Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century(1)
Did Jay-Z do the same thing to rap music that Bob Dylan did to Rock? Jay-Z hit the scene with his 1996 debut album Resonable Doubt. After a similar string of popular albums, Shawn Carter steadily moved up to the throne to become the biggest name in rap. Like Dylan, Jay-Z also reps the Yankee pinstripes, but that’s about as far as the similarities go.
Bob Dylan was looked upon by his peers as a visionary of his time. He practically wrote the anthem for the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Sparking a grassroots movement that swept the country, Dylan re-introduced rock ‘n’ roll to the sounds of Woodie Guthrie and Lead Belly, completely turning the genre on its head.
Jay-Z wasn’t exactly a voice for his generation. His first album received critical acclaim as he continued to work with huge acts like Biggie Smalls and Puff Daddy. Shawn Carter has always been in the spotlight, but he has never been regarded as an artist fighting “against the man”. Given, he gets rather political with “Open Letter”, Jay-Z isn’t known for making records speaking out against any social injustices.
He never “revolutionized” his genre of music, either. On the contrary, Jay-Z has followed many of the trends that have passed through hip-hop in the past decade and a half. Starting as an underground artist selling mixtapes out of his car and rapping about selling drugs, his style gave way to the Jiggy Rap movement at the turn of the century. In 2003, Jay-Z “retired” (something Dylan would/ never do), only to return 3 years later. Since then, Jay-Z has put out a steady stream of solid, popular, rap music.
The only reason I would be comfortable comparing Jay-Z and Bob Dylan as artists would be that throughout their careers, as they’ve aged, many people have asked “do they still have it?” Dylan was accused of “selling out” when he went electric. There are plenty of accusations of Jay-Z “going soft”(cough: The Blueprint 3). But clearly, H.O.V. wouldn’t be referencing this on his own record.
I could list plenty of things that separate Bob Dylan and Jay-Z as artists. Their beginnings, the amount of music they’ve recorded, their lyrics, their voices, the things they stand for. Jay-Z was probably referencing a Bob Dylan song and likened himself to the folk god. Because, hey! Jay-Z is a really good rapper! He’s one of the greatest of all-time. But he’s not the “The Bob Dylan of Rap Music”. Chuck D is “The Bob Dylan of Rap Music”.