In the same way that racial identity theory (see: William Cross, Beverly Daniel Tatum) examines the ways in which one makes sense of themselves as a "racial" being, I'm going to borrow from that tradition and posit that a hip hop identity allows one to investigate and make sense of attitudes having to do with being a "hip-hop head". As the music has gotten older, the generations identify with it differently much the same way my parents would eschew most of the R&B I grew up on for the Whispers, Temptations, and Gladys Knight of their youth. So follow me as I walk you through how Jay has been like no other in the hip hop game.
STAGE 1: CONTACT - The point at which we are introduced, and made aware of a new phenomena.
Jay comes on the scene with Reasonable Doubt after notable appearances on Jaz's "Hawaiian Sophie" and 'Can I Get Over" with Original Flavor. The album is an ode to the street life he came from and featured the instant hit Can't Knock the Hustle with Mary J. Blige. "Feelin' It", "Dead Presidents", and "Ain't No Nigga" also became classics. What's notable about this album is that it's often hailed as his best, but it took the longest to go platinum in sales. This album also introduced us to Roc-A-Fella records.
STAGE 2: IMMERSION/EMERSION - A period marked by total engagement into all things hip hop, a recognition of the larger context within which the hip hop world operates, and an action plan to institutionalize all that is hip hop.
Following Reasonable Doubt, the parade of almost endless hits continued, and you could not argue that Jay was outside of the Top five emcees all time. In My Lifetime, Vol 1 gave us "Who You With 2", "Imaginary Players", and "Streets is Watching". Vol 2 gave us "Hard Knock Life", "Money Ain't a Thang" with J. Dupri, "Nigga Wha, Nigga Who?" just to name a few. The hits kept coming on Life and Times of S. Carter, vol 3 ("Big Pimpin", "Do It Again"), Dynasty: Roc LaFamilia ("I Just Wanna Love You"). The critical juncture in this phase came when Jay ultimately ended up pleading guilty to a misdemeanor around the stabbing of producer, Lance "Un" Rivera, who allegedly bootlegged vol 3. In contrast to this incident, the music became more introspective as Jay did songs like "This Can't Be Life" feat. Scarface and Beanie Sigel and "Where Have you Been?" also featuring Beans. In analysis, the contradiction between Jay's actions and his music shows the multiple layers of the self with which we all struggle. In a hip hop sense, this was yet another example of how life and the music often combined like watercolors. Evidence of the emersion became apparent as the Roc launched Rocawear, and later took over distribution of Armadale vodka.
STAGE 3: INTERNALIZATION - Puttting all the BS aside, reclaiming the fundamental components of self, and being comfortable in that skin. The Blueprint came out in 2001, and featured "IZZO" and "Girls, Girls, Girls", but what amplified this album was the Unplugged version where Jay collaborated with The Roots to create a hip hop sound that was more vibrant because of the live instrumentation. "Song Cry" was better live. "Heart of the City" was better live. To illustrate that development is not a unilateral process, this apparent musical move forward came at a time when Jay was butting heads with Nas in one of the biggest rap "beefs" ever. The Blueprint 2 album also showed Jay trying to go in a different direction, and sacrificing some sales to do so. He hit paydirt with his 2004 Collision Course mashup EP with Linkin Park, which sold over 1 million in the US and won a grammy.
STAGE 4: COMMITTMENT - A sustained determination to take the hip hop game to places it has not been. It would have been easy for S. Carter to hang 'em up after The Black Album in 2003. He gave the full repertoire of his skill set on that album working with a top shelf selection of producers including Rick Rubin and Timbaland. There were party jams ("Encore"), bang in the car joints ("99 Problems", "Dirt Off Your Shoulder") and an increasing number of reflective numbers ("Moment of Clarity", "Lucifer"). This album was Jordan hitting a shot over B. Russell, Elway and Bettis winning Super Bowls at the end, and Sampras winning one more US Open. But yet he continues, and while pursuing numerous entrepreneurial endeavors, has given us now The Blueprint 3, where he continues to drop dimes about growing in the game, and how it is ludicrous to think that he would continue to rap about the same things in 2009 as he did in 1996 ("On To The Next One", "Home Already"). The song "Star Is Born" is especially telling as it recounts how the mantle in hip hop has been passed around in hip hop, and yet Jay still stands on top. He's made my MOUNT RUSHMORE of MCs (along with KRS, Rakim, and B.I.G) not only for the flow, but for the way he has influenced the whole culture of hip hop. "30 Something" no longer means the end of a hip hop career nor does it mean the death of your hip hop identity.