There's an old joke that's not really funny. You've probably heard it at least once; Liz Phair even turned it into a song a long time ago. It always goes something like this: An old bull and a young bull are standing at the top of a hill, looking down at the herd below. The young bull turns to the old bull and blurts out: "Hey! I got an idea. Let's run down this hill and fuck one of those cows!" There's a pause, and then the old bull finally says: "Listen, kid, I've got a better idea. Let's walk down this hill and fuck all of those cows." It's not the kind of joke that would make anyone except the very drunk or the exceedingly imbecilic laugh out loud. But the older I get, the more I realize that, like the cliché goes, this joke is funny because it's true. And it's impossible to understand Jay-Z without realizing first that he is the old bull in this joke.
Pay attention to this: The president of the United States is a Jay-Z fan. Let me repeat that, because you need to really think about it: The president of the United States is a Jay-Z fan. That's the kind of shit that science-fiction writers would never write because it seems too weird to be plausible. Also too weird? That incredibly awkward moment, two weeks ago, when Jay-Z tried to teach Oprah Winfrey how to freestyle. Everything about it, from Jay-Z's ugly cardigan sweater to Oprah's painful inability to act like a human being, seemed to be the kind of YouTube-clip-making embarrassment that would seriously injure any other rapper's credibility. Could you imagine 50 Cent, that preposterous cartoon of a rapper, trying to act like a gangsta after yukking it up and talking about institutional racism with Oprah? It would be like a public castration. But Jay-Z walked out of it unscathed. He even scored the one true moment in that entire clip. When the generic backing beat started, he condensed the act of freestyle down to its most basic statement: "It's almost like double Dutch," Jay-Z said. "You gotta stay in the middle of that."
Jay-Z has stayed in the middle of that for almost 15 years now. A 15-year career is an impossible thing in his line of work. In hiphop terms, he should be dead, or a fossil buried deep in someone's dusty CD collection, or a star in his own family-friendly movie franchise by now. But he's still breaking out albums that make everyone else stop and pay their respects—more on that later—and he's still, somehow, at the top of his game.
When I think about Jay-Z, I don't think about him in terms of modern hiphop. I think about him the way I think about enormous figures like Elvis Presley, or Johnny Cash, or Neil Diamond. He's bigger than everyone else; he's more than a recording artist. He's less flesh and blood, and more the living embodiment of the ideal hiphop success story, from his early days hustling crack cocaine to his apprenticeship under the Notorious B.I.G. to his transformation from Biggest Rapper in the World into the successful CEO of Def Jam Records to his "I Declare War" concert, in which he basically put an end to the feud narrative in modern hiphop. And his story hasn't ended yet—there's his marriage to Beyoncé Knowles (making him the envy of virtually every heterosexual man on the planet), and the public snubbing of Cristal champagne after racist comments by the company's director, and the flashing of 500-euro bills in the "Blue Magic" video (leading some economists to seriously question whether the American dollar had lost its cachet), and there'll be something else next week and next year and the year after that.
It's not that he reinvents himself, Madonna-like, whenever he gets bored. It's more that he's consciously allowed himself to evolve as an artist and a figurehead, and his story is beginning to emulate (and occasionally improve upon) some of those great figures on the Mount Rushmore of pop music. Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond both sought out Rick Rubin when they were shadows of what they once were, and Rubin acted as a kind of musical fountain of youth. Jay-Z went to Rubin when he was at the height of his powers, and he came away with "99 Problems," which is maybe the best rap single of all time.
Much of Jay-Z's genius is that he figured out how to age in what remains a very young man's game. Popular music is the music of youth, but he doesn't try to hide his age, calling himself "Gray Hova" in a few post-retirement tracks. Rap is very much about swagger, and Jay-Z's lackadaisical flow and big-picture visualization means that he plays the old bull to everyone else's horny, eager young bull. After Tupac and Biggie died, Jay-Z realized that murder was bad for business, and so he did away with it. Just like that. He can go from a hoodie and baggy pants to a ten-thousand-dollar suit in a five-minute costume change and nobody blinks. He compares himself to Frank Sinatra all the time—twice on his new album—and he doesn't get laughed out of the room. The president can cop a move from an old Jay-Z video at an election rally and a stadium full of people will go wild.
That old-bull mentality has kept Jay-Z relevant in the age of digital music, too. Whereas the stuffy Beatles estate tried to sue DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Album into nonexistence, Jay-Z correctly saw it was the future and embraced it. Some of the best Jay-Z work of the last five years has consisted of fan edits: There's Max Tannone's Jaydiohead album, in which Jay-Z pushes against the suburban ennui of Radiohead and comes away looking livelier, and somehow more life-affirming, than the rockers. Viva La Hova combines Jay-Z with the mediocrity of Coldplay and pulls out what many people consider to be the best mixtape of 2008. And there's the Brooklyn Soul album, which backs the rags-to-riches story of American Gangster's narrative with a marvelous selection of Marvin Gaye horns, making all those times Jay-Z compared himself to Sinatra into a prophecy.
And the official, unmolested-by-armchair-DJ Jay-Z product is still pushing into interesting places. Jay-Z lost his footing with Kingdom Come, the first album after his ill-fated retirement, but the return-to-form thrills of 2007's American Gangster (classic Jay-Z self-mythologizing posing as Frank Lucas biopic) made for one of the best albums of his career, and one of the best hiphop concept albums of all time.
His newest, The Blueprint 3, might not please critics who are looking for the sheer pissed-off prizefighting fury of "Takeover" from the original Blueprint album, but it's much more interesting than a rehash of places Jay-Z has already conquered.
Whereas most bands can't age in rock and roll without hiding behind millions of dollars of smoke and lighting equipment to distract audiences from the 50-year-old man in too-tight pants wriggling around nostalgically on an arena stage to the same songs he danced to when he was 20, Jay-Z has gone a long way toward proving that an artist can intelligently and gracefully age in hiphop. Half the tracks on The Blueprint 3 practically qualify as easy listening—the opening song, "What We Talkin' About," opens with synth that could just as easily back up Hall & Oates, and the last track, "Young Forever," is the softest thing Jay-Z has ever made.
But Jay-Z is man enough to know that just because he occasionally makes soft music doesn't mean he's gone soft. "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)" is an attack on half the industry—"I know we facing a recession/But the music y'all making gonna make it the Great Depression." Even though it occasionally veers into Andy Rooney–style get-off-my-lawnism ("You nigga's jeans too tight/You colors too bright/Your voice too light"), he's still smacking the young ones across the face and reminding them that he owns them ("I'm a multimillionaire/So how is it I'm still the hardest nigga here?"). The Blueprint 3 could serve as a blueprint for the next 10 years of Jay-Z's career. It's hilarious and full of both swagger and the verbal barbs to back up that boastfulness, and none of it feels like a lie. He may be getting old, but this album is a warning flare to the world that he could do this shit forever.