NEW YORK — Jay-Z, whose “Rain Man” recording process finds him mumbling words to himself in the studio before stepping into the booth to spit out a complete song, definitely has the corner locked when it comes to rappers composing full songs in their heads. Young tykes like Chris Brown and Sean Kingston even cite Hov as an inspiration for their own songwriting processes.
“I’ve inspired a generation of bad writers,” Jay joked to MTV News last week.
But the Def Jam president and iconic rapper obviously wrote down lyrics at one point in time. In fact, he revealed the last time he actually did so was for “Can I Live,” a standout track on his 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt.
“What happened was, I was doing that song with someone else, and they heard the first verse and they was like, ‘Man, you take that song. Finish it, ’cause it sounds like you got a lot more to say,’ ” Jay explained in a lengthy interview in which he discussed lyrics and songwriting. “You know, that type of thing. So I just wanted to get it down quick, I didn’t want to keep going over it. It was like [the album's] mastering time, so I just sat down in the booth and wrote that [verse].”
The verse contains multiple gems over the woozy, horn-laden production, like the lines: “I stepped it up another level, meditated like a Buddhist/ Recruited lieutenants with ludicrous dreams of getting cream/ Let’s do this, it gets te-di-ous/ So I keep one eye open like, C-B-S, you see me stressed, right?”
According to Irv Gotti, who produced the track, the song was supposed to be a collaboration between Jay and a member of the rap group Original Flavor. Gotti mentioned he believed Nas was also set to appear on the track. But after the OF member passed on the guest appearance, Jay got to work finishing the song.
“From what I remember, he actually didn’t write the full verse,” Gotti wrote in an e-mail to MTV News. “But since the verse was so long, he wrote a few words down, and that made him remember the whole verse.”
Although Jay has long since given up writing down lyrics himself, his advice for one of his nephews, who’s an aspiring MC in his own right, is to write as much as possible. Repetition is the key to perfection, according to Jay.
“Why I tell him to write every day is because it’s like anything else: [You have to] practice,” he said. “Basketball players play basketball their whole life, they practice every day. It only makes sense. You can only get better. The repetition. The more you do it, the better you do.”
Though Jay has removed himself from the writing process, he admitted the notion of actually penning lyrics still appeals to him. So much so that he wanted to write down lyrics for The Black Album, which he believed was going to be his last album. But he couldn’t shake the process that he’s made so famous.
“It just felt better [the way I do it now],” Jay said. “In my mind, I said, ‘OK, I’m gonna sit down and I’mma just write it and really do this thing a certain way.’ But your natural process is your process. It’s difficult to go back to what you was doing when you was 15, 16 years old. My process is different now. It sounds great on paper, like ‘I’mma sit down, I’m going to write the entire album like I did before.’ But once you get back in the studio and you’ve been doing this process for years and years now, so it just felt natural to do it the way I’ve been doing it: no paper, no pen, just listen to the music.”