One of the most crucial imperatives among scholars of African American literature over the last 20 to 30 years has involved highlighting the ways that black artists signify on or allude to the works of other black writers. That practice is known in some areas as intertextuality.
And that’s just it: part of what makes Jay-Z one of our greatest rappers is his ability to be so interconnected to other black artists. Like most black literary artists, Jay-Z also incorporates the work of other artists in his music.
On “A Dream,” Jay-Z used the Notorious B.I.G.’s first verse from “Juicy.” The Kanye West-produced track features the late Brooklyn rapper seemingly appearing to his predecessor, Jay-Z, in a dream. Similarly, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man invokes the memory of Booker T. Washington. During the “Battle Royale” scene the unnamed narrator delivers a speech telling people to “cast your buckets down,” alluding to Washington's 1895 Atlanta Exposition Address.
Ellison and Jay-Z both represent a long and varied tradition of signifying on popular works in African American artistic culture. Similar to what Amiri Baraka described as “the changing same,” the spirit and practices running through black artistic culture is ever-persistent. Collecting and interpreting this type of data has helped us to understand what information from Jay-Z’s production history would be most useful to help us visualize characteristics of his music. We have been able to start addressing how we can use data to solve various problems related to rap interpretations.
Collecting metadata related to production aspects of more traditional texts might reveal broader trends about the collaborative efforts in African American literature over an extended period of time. Describing the extent of interconnectivity of Jay-Z’s music might serve as a model to track interrelated features of black novels, short stories, and even poetry. This project serves as a blueprint sketching out ideas about how rap music might be used to chart new territories in literary and digital studies.