Rolling Stone recently rolled out its list of 500 Greatest Songs. Who better to pen an essay on great songs than the man who’s made a few himself. Jigga. What follows is Jay’s thoughts on what makes a great song.
“A great song doesn’t attempt to be anything — it just is.When you hear a great song, you can think of where you were when you first heard it, the sounds, the smells. It takes the emotions of a moment and holds it for years to come. It transcends time. A great song has all the key elements — melody; emotion; a strong statement that becomes part of the lexicon; and great production. Think of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen. That song had everything — different melodies, opera, R&B, rock — and it explored all of those different genres in an authentic way, where it felt natural.
When I’m writing a song that I know is going to work, it’s a feeling of euphoria. It’s how a basketball player must feel when he starts hitting every shot, when you’re in that zone. As soon as you start, you get that magic feeling, an extra feeling. Songs like that come out in five minutes; if I work on them more than, say, 20 minutes, they’re probably not going to work.
When I was starting out, I was just trying to tell stories. I wasn’t thinking about melodies. Then I started to marry storytelling with everything I was learning from all these other great records: the great writers like Babyface and Lionel Richie; Rakim’s technique and syncopation; Dre’s whole package on the Chronic albums; Quincy Jones, the greatest producer of all time; Rick Rubin, who’s not too far behind because of all his genre-jumping.
Technology has caused the songwriting process to lose some of the magic. A lot of times now, people working on a song aren’t in the same room. Imagine if Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones hadn’t been in the same room! Those records would have been totally different. I’ve had times when I changed one word because of something that somebody said in the studio, and it changed the whole song. It’s so important to have other people in the room, vibing, saying, “No, this part is good, put that there.”