Jay-Z's 'Empire' Strikes Back at Last

His first #1 song is his first Pazz & Jop chart-topper as well. Go Yankees.

"That's why the third verse is dark, because, at the same time, the city is intoxicating," he says. "It can sweep you up, and you can get sidetracked. You come here, and you take the city for granted—nightlife, things like that. I've seen it a million times. I've seen people come into the city—new girls come into town, and next month, they're gone."

"Run This Town" wasn't exactly "the bridesmaid" that Jay-Z initially feared, at least not for the two other biggest rap stars in recent memory. Lil Wayne leapt on the beat—and nearly two dozen other reconfigured pop hits—for his typical, terrific mixtape No Ceilings. Wayne, due to struggles both legal and artistic, did not release a proper album in 2009 (leaks notwithstanding), but he did offer Ceilings, rapping with no context about little more than his dick, his heart, and his magnificence while brazenly chirping, "I'm proud of me." It was marvelous.

Kanye West also did not release a full-length this year, though he stayed in the headlines (sorry, Taylor) and occasionally swooped in to steal songs out from under their authors, be it "Run This Town," Clipse's "Kinda Like a Big Deal," or Rick Ross's "Maybach Music 2." But with the perennial P&J favorite absent on the album front, not one rap record made the 2009 Pazz & Jop Top 10 list for the first time in 15 years. Oh, wait, that's not right. It's just that an album from 1995 slid in there somehow. Raekwon's Only Built 4 Cuban Linx . . . Pt. II clocks in at #8, a nostalgic—regressive, in fact—choice that valued sonic efficiency and storytelling detail, if not innovation.

Finally, consensus.
Finally, consensus.


"Empire State of Mind," #1

The success of the Wu-Tang rapper's rehash of cocaine arcana belied a resistance to 2009's other emerging trends and characters. Mos Def—that's right, Mos Def!—returned from a self-imposed musical exile to actually rap again on the immersive, expansive The Ecstatic, a surprising and assured excursion into sounds foreign and domestic. Other critics rediscovered self-professed "boss" Rick Ross, humiliated by a photo incriminating him as a one-time prison guard, but also invigorated, and rapping with an almost impossibly improved skill on his elegant Deeper Than Rap, finally fit to bathe, indulgently, in the soapy glory of the beats he'd once wasted. Some even embraced Gucci Mane, a charming veteran East Atlanta rapper released from prison earlier this year (he's back, now) only to release a flurry—or blizzard, as it were, BRRRR—of mixtapes, and, eventually, a surprisingly accomplished and unfettered major-label album, The State vs. Radric Davis. Gucci's skills include a somnambulant flow, an intoxicating enthusiasm for vocabulary, and an adenoidal taste in beats from the South's best producers. But though he's arrived, so to speak, he released so much material, and with such varying quality, that there is still no one definitive Gucci document.

Not so for 22-year-old Drake, who already has a clutch of memorable verses, a gripping mixtape, and claim to the title of silkiest (read: softest, most suburban) young star ever. His So Far Gone EP redefined what a rapper could look, sound, and sing (!) like. His mellifluous flow on songs like "Best I Ever Had," "Successful," and "Lust for Life" signaled the first proper capitalization on what Kanye wrought with 2004's The College Dropout—a friendly, ego-driven, but ultimately relatable braggart.

Drake wasn't the only rap arriviste. Los Angeles's jerkin' trend reached critical mass with the New Boyz's undeniable "You're a Jerk," a theme song for a loosely assembled, shaggy dog dance and musical movement that led to spectacularly minimal tracks from Pink Dollaz, Cold Flamez, and even teen pop singer/actress Keke Palmer. Then there's 2009's two emergent gangsta throwbacks: L.A. by way of Gary, Indiana's Freddie Gibbs and Atlanta's Pill, embodying a controlled, good-ol'-thug style largely absent now from Jay's elevated untouchable or Wayne's syllabic overload.

But Pill and Freddie, much like Raekwon, represent a look backward. Much has been made among a handful of critics that this was the year rap died, or something. These proclamations always make for compelling copy, but they're rarely rooted in considered engagement. Sure, Jadakiss, Cam'ron, and Fabolous disappointed us again. But since when is that news? And now maybe hip-hop sounds like an Italian disco. But so what? If anything, rap is more alive than ever, atomizing with aplomb, from the Black Eyed Peas' shameless but irrefutably glorious disco-house futurist anthem "I Gotta Feeling" to Jay Electronica's arresting Nas update "Exhibit C" and all the way down to Das Racist's hilarious and faithful shot across the bow, "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell." Satire = love. Prankster, pundit, or proletariat, rap lives because it exists everywhere, in all forms.

Oh, and what was Jay-Z's favorite song of the year? Well, it was a tie.

"I think my #1 favorite is the Kings of Leon, 'Use Somebody,' " he explains. "Actually, it's a tie between the two singles they had this year. 'Sex on Fire,' too. [Caleb Followill's] voice, and the heart and soul in that, was incredible for me."

Like I said, rap music will never die.

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