Jay-Z, Ja Rule and how the ‘Rap Stories’ podcast came to be
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of hip-hop in conversations with Bun B, MC Lyte, Goodie Mob and many more
It’s Black Music Month, and to celebrate it and the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, Andscape has launched a podcast called Rap Stories. During the show — which is out now — I interview rappers about one of my favorite albums in their discographies, getting backstories and digging into their mindsets when they were creating their projects. The idea started forming in my head a decade ago. And it started with Jay-Z.
In 2013, Jay-Z dropped Magna Carta Holy Grail, his 12th studio album. A few months later, he posted a ranking of his albums on his website, Life+Times. Magna Carta was smack-dab in the middle at No. 6. That position fascinated me. Jay-Z had undeniable classics like The Blueprint and Reasonable Doubt at the top of his list, of course. But I always wondered what made him put out albums he knows aren’t as great as those? Shouldn’t we always strive to make our latest work our best? Why even drop an album that is middle of the pack?
Then I wrote a book.
When it came out, all I could see was its flaws. The word that wasn’t quite right. The phrasing that could have been better. The things that nobody else noticed but kept me up at night. And I realized that a book, like an album, isn’t done when the artist is finished. The project’s done when the artist is told that they have to stop working on it. And there will always be imperfections.
Which brought me back to that Jay-Z ranking and rappers in general. I wanted to know what these artists hear in their work that makes them want to bury their heads in the sand. The things that the rest of us will never notice. Conversely, I wanted to talk about the parts of an album that still sing to them, the moments that take them to that magical place where they were creating the best work they could.
Often, when entertainers are on press runs, they talk about their latest work as if it’s the best they’ve ever done. Maybe they actually feel that way coming off of the adrenaline of completing a project that they poured their souls into for months or years. Maybe it’s just how promotion works. Either way, getting an honest perspective on a new album on a press run feels almost impossible.
So I wanted to dig in the archives to discuss old, imperfect albums that were still great. Work where enough time has passed that the artists could discuss their dreams at the time, their growth, and what they would have done differently. Where we dig into the moments of creativity, luck, brilliance and the joy of seeing a project to completion. A conversation that doesn’t care about the headlines or drama or beefs. Just the music.
Which brings me to Ja Rule.
When I had the idea for Rap Stories, Ja was the first person that came to mind. He was one of the biggest music stars in the world, dominating the airwaves and TV for years. As his Verzuz performance proved, Ja Rule’s music defined a generation. But his legacy had been reduced to his feud with 50 Cent, the backlash against his dominance, the Fyre Fest fiasco, and the drama between Ashanti and Irv Gotti. Basically everything but the music.
And that’s disrespectful to the greatness of Ja’s music. I wanted a conversation in which we didn’t mention 50 Cent. Where we dig into the album that made him a megastar, his sophomore project Rule 3:36, and talk about his motivations, the way he found his groove musically, and what it took for him to be an automatic hitmaker.
And that’s exactly what happened. Luckily we were able to get Ja Rule on an episode this season and he seemed genuinely excited for a space to talk about the things he put together in the studio and on his notepad. And he didn’t have to talk about the painful memories outside the parameters of that creative genius.
Doing the conversation with Ja Rule, I felt like I was living out the dream I’d had since I first saw Jay-Z’s album rankings.
Overall, Rap Stories is a dream come true. Not just because I got to talk to my heroes, from Bun B to MC Lyte and Goodie Mob, and peers from the Blog Era like Curren$y and Freddie Gibbs, but also because I got to show love and learn what makes these geniuses tick. I really do believe we achieved those goals during all 12 episodes. And I can’t wait for you to hear them.