The chart below visualizes Jay-Z’s most frequently used pronouns across 12 albums. Hovering the pointer over each individual word reveals the number of times it was uttered throughout his entire body of music. Clicking on a particular word will show a line graph that reveals how often each word was used on an individual album.
At the University of Texas at Arlington, I teach a course that places Jay-Z within a literary continuum of autobiographical and semi-autobiographical texts by writers such as Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and even Barack Obama. My Jay-Z course prompts students to expand their definitions of “lyrics” and “literature.”
I begin every semester by focusing on The Black Album. Advertised as the rapper's retirement album, the record serves in many respects as an autobiography. In particular, the song “December 4th” offers a lyrical overview of the rapper’s life up until that point.
"December 4th” is one of my favorite songs to use when discussing Jay-Z because it’s essentially a lyrical autobiography. Jay-Z narrates his life in three movements: first, his birth and childhood; next, his coming of age and selling drugs; and finally, his decision to choose rap over a life of crime. Jay-Z’s mother, Ms. Gloria Carter, chimes in on the choruses. She describes key moments in his life offering insightful commentary about his development.
Jay-Z’s repeated use of personal pronouns allows him to achieve a conversational tone throughout his music. Jay-Z uses the words “I” (2,480), “you” (1,852), “my” (1,092), and “me” (1,015) over 1,000 times in his verses. Jay Z’s persistent use of the first-person pronouns such as “I,” “my,” and “me” confirms the extent to which he places himself at the center of the narrative and connects his internal thoughts to narratives about crime life.
The word “I” accounts for one of the top 10 words when stop words were not applied to Jay-Z's lyrics. Throughout the song, Jay-Z raps:
“I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adnis Reeves”
“My self-esteem went through the roof, man, I got my swag”
“This is the life I chose, or rather, the life that chose me”
The use of the word “I” describes the extent to which he is providing a personal account of his life. Rappers often directly address a presumed listener. The word “you” ranks third among Jay-Z’s most frequently used pronouns. In same song, he raps:
"So you ain't gotta feel no way about Jay so long / At least let me tell you why I'm this way, hold on”
Jay-Z’s use of the word reveals his ability to address the listener in his rhymes, bringing them directly within the action of the story. Relying on words like “you,” “I,” “we,” and “they” establishes a direct connection to his listener.
Despite Jay-Z’s past life of crime and so many other barriers, in “December 4th” he describes his rags to riches story, or his escape from Marcy Projects and generational poverty. Similar to Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, and Malcolm X, Jay-Z narrates a personal story about his striving to reach higher degrees of freedom. Tracking the number of personal pronouns provides insight into how rappers and writers appropriate themselves to their audiences in their works.