Digital Literary Study

What if a literary scholar taught a course on Jay Z rather than on conventional novelists and poets? That question drove my approach to offering a series of classes on this notable rap artist.

Jay Z, no doubt, has been a remarkable force in the field of hip hop. He is one of the best-selling musicians of all time, having sold more than 100 million records. MTV ranked him the "Greatest MC of all Time" in 2006. And, in 2012, Rolling Stone ranked three of his albums—Reasonable Doubt (1996), The Blueprint (2001), and The Black Album (2003)—among the 500 greatest albums of all time. Over the course of his career, Jay Z has received 21 Grammy Awards for his music, and with a net worth of nearly $610 million,  he is one of the richest hip-hop artists in the world. In 2017, Jay Z became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Even though many people place him among a cohort of legendary lyricists and moguls, I have found that my students, rap fans, and some educators may still wonder what makes Jay Z worthy of focused attention in a humanities course.

Traditionally, English professors have taught major author courses on figures like William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and William Faulkner. Over the last two decades, African American literature professors have taught courses on Harlem Renaissance writers, black women writers, and major author courses on Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, and others. 

As I thought about ways to move in new directions, I wondered what might happen if I used the major author approach, but inserted a significant rap artist in place of a novelist or poet?

Jay Z’s solo albums fit within a broad African American literary continuum of autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works by writers such as Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Malcolm X. His use of figurative language, especially his tendency to deploy similes throughout his verses, evidences his keen ability to connect his lyrics to a range of ideas, people, and locations.

Add that with the dozens (or should we say “hundreds”) of artists that Jay Z has collaborated with over the course of his career, the numerous samples he draws on in his songs, and his consistent and clever use of figurative language, and I view him as an endlessly fascinating gateway, linking to countless other figures in hip hop and the broader American culture. To a literary scholar who producers work in digital formats, I'm drawn to Jay Z because I see his entire body of work as being notably data rich.

Building on earlier generations of computational approaches to humanities research, I assembled an extensive dataset on Jay Z by drawing on a variety of sources, including Rap Genius, Who Sampled, Billboard, Wikipedia, and also Voyant text mining software to extract numerical data from his lyrics across 12 studio albums. 

In the course I teach on the rapper, #theJayZclass, we draw on the dataset to inform our discussions about Jay Z and enhance our close reads of the rapper. I also introduce my students to YouTube videos and interactive charts to illustrate the interconnectedness of Jay Z's music.  These types of interactive media facilitate our ability to make broad assessments about the rapper’s 12 solo albums while also making precise observations about individual songs.


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