After listening to Jay Z’s(yes the hyphen is dead) latest album Magna Carta… Holy Grail, I stumbled upon this conversation by some of Grantland’s staff writers. It led to the following email exchanges between me and my boys about this latest iteration of Hov, his message, and his places in hip hop and black culture more generally.
Check it out out after the fold:
I was reading a Grantland article the other day that called into question how relatable Jay’s music is circa 2013. Much of the commentary I’ve seen on this question has centered on his age. He’s well into his 40s making music in a genre that continues to be dominated artists in their mid 20s. Raps’ audience is one that thrives on youth culture. So here we have Jay being compared Mick Jagger and mocked as a “well-moneyed family man” with nothing left to say behind the “rap superstar curtain”. This reading, I think, is largely misguided, and only takes into account Jay’s ever climbing age and bank account balance.
What’s been on my mind since at least Watch The Throne, is that Jay is writing for people of color who have crossed over. Stick with me here for a second. When Jay uses the term “new black elite” and we think Oprah, the Obamas, the Carters, and the Pinkett-Smiths. But we should be considering the buppies and black professional class that go to work everyday at white shoe law firms, enter the halls of corporate America, and fight for relevance on the campuses of the nation’s leading universities– the brothers and sisters that live Ft. Green, Atlanta, and Oakland.
In thinking about my own life, the more professional success I’ve had, the more I’ve related to Hov. When I go in to meetings with very powerful white people, I’m consistently the young, black kid. I’m always think to myself, “Why am I here? What do these people think about why I’m here?”… Soon after these thoughts I say, “Fuck that. I know why I’m here. Not only am I here, but me being here means all my niggasis here too!” That’s what I took away from this WTT gem:
Domino, Domino/ Only spot a few blacks the higher I go/ What’s up to Will? Shout out to O/ That ain’t enough.. we gonna need a million more/ “Kick in the door” Biggie flow/I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go
I remember preparing to speak on a panel at NYU School of Law this past year. I went over my remarks at least 20 times, and my outfit about 20 more. I was contributing to conversation with some of the most powerful attorneys in America today. I’m sorry, but Chief Keef and ASAP Ferg had nothing to offer me for that experience despite how “relevant” they are today.
Or this MCHG update:
I’m just trying to come from under the thumb of this regime / 1% of a billion more than niggas even seen/Still they wanna act like its an everyday thing
While the press has been quick to point how little stake Jay had in the Nets, I don’t think he needed to be reminded. I imagine he thought about that whenever he sat across from the Russian and real estate tycoon. Jay knew as well as anyone the extent to which he was being used, and parlayed it until he could move his own interests forward. That’s part of the game, or the new game that Jay is playing. It’s the same game that the first year black associate at Johnson&Johnson is playing. Yeah you’re glad you made 75k coming out college, but the guy who you work for makes that in a quarter.
Similarly, Jay’s name dropping on “Picasso Baby”, has provoked criticism from both rap and art heads. But if you pay attention the name dropping on the song consists of the most obvious and famous modern artists around. As a new entrant to the world of art, Jay looks fairly similar to kid who gets his first fat check and cops a Jesus piece, a Polo sweater, and a Louie bag. When you come up in the world, you grab on to whatever symbols you can to say to its current occupants, “I belong here too!”. The trade off is, of course, the occupants know that your purchases scream “new money”, while those who you’ve left behind think you’re snob.
I imagine this reading has been missed but the largely white chattering class, because they don’t know what its like to come up and be black. They’ve had 20 years of music to develop a sense of what it means to poor, angry, and brown. They get that. In a sense its a much less threatening, and disempowered version of black America. But they’ve got no sense of what it means to be an upwardly mobile person of color, who has to navigate the halls of privilege and power, with few models and allies. Think about it, our collective image of black professionals in pop culture are the Cosby Show and Fresh Prince, and those were focused on families from a bygone era. What does it look like for the kid that grew up on hip hop, to come up in 2013? Where is he represented in popular culture? That’s who MCHG is for…
I’ve been thinking about Jay-Z a lot lately, and the article about his gallery event really pushed it along. Here’s how it comes to me, with some points in response to you:
1. The idea of being black – as a pure concept, unattainable for people who aren’t – is powerful, and real. The “new money” issue, however, I think of more like Lady Macbeth –
Come, you spirit
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty! make thick my blood;
Stop up the access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief! Come, thick night,
And pall thee in the dunnest smoke of hell,
That my keen knife see not the wound it makes,
Nor heaven peep through the blanket of the dark,
To cry “Hold, hold!
In this scene, she knows she needs to do something violent, raw, and ambitious; how does she do it? She must become not a woman, because women don’t inherently belong to that world. She must embrace a way of thinking and feeling she understands as an outside, in order to do what men do. She must become a man like Jay-Z must have tea with Warren Buffett.This scene is one of the dopest in all of literature to me (although I’m not a rabid Shakespeare fan), because it speaks to what a great professor said to me:
>”Oppressed people take on the characteristics of their oppressors. (By the way, let me acknowledge my casting off of snobby references right now)
I think Jay-Z sometimes channels this idea. However, the downside, the condescending side, of Lady Macbeth as a written character, is back to the Jay/Prokorov idea – that she is bound to be “small-time” in the face of true, awe-inspiring ambition. My biggest dilemma is not Jay-Z’s rhyming about being upwardly mobile, and observing the world above the clouds, now that he’s there; it’s how do I read his I’m still hood stuff. I think of it first in this way… Minstrel show. Using stuff that sells to make the street kids buy records…but then I think:
<How, or why, should someone who spend the first 25 years of his life thinking, breathing, walking and talking in one way become inherently, fundamentally changed because he makes a lot of money and vacations in St. Tropez?
It reminds me of guys my father knew who were financial monsters – making 3 million a year, working long hours into their 60’s. I once asked him why these morons didn’t just cash out, and his response was, despite his own disgust that They love to make money – they do it for the activityof making money. They can’t stop.<
A part of me is an older hip-hop fan, and I identify “older” as the period in which hip-hop artists made I-am-here, protest art, and a precious few of them miraculously made money. I suppose the question is, always: Does Jay-Z make albums because he is compelled to speak, to report out to his people what it looks like as he climbs this bizarre beanstalk of American culture? Or does he make music because he long ago forgot what he was protesting, and he has taken on the characteristics of his oppressors? Or does he make music because that’s just what he does? Or is he leading a remarkable life, and our culture is so steeped in player worship / player hating that we no longer know what’s what?
Before I read their review, I heard a Grantland podcast where Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan both claimed that MCHG wasn’t relatable, which must mean that at some point they have related to Jay-Z’s music. I’ve long since gotten used to the idea that there are white people older than me who grew up on hip hop, in fact even more so than I did. When they were going out and buying Juice Crew and Jungle Brothers records I was in the back seat of my mother’s car listening to WBLS and occasionally catching the smoothed out sounds of Father MC or Chubb Rock. What I have yet to wrap my head around is the idea of white guys my age who know more about Cam’ron’s catalogue than I do. I was under the impression that when “gangsta rap” became the dominant form and pushed hip hop music to the “underground”, an inevitable divide had been created. What did MC Eiht have to offer a well educated, middle class kid (I left the racial qualifier out intentionally as I believe here and in many situations class means more than race. I’m from the Bronx and the only person I ever actually saw sell crack was white and poor like me) growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood? How does that kid relate or (for better or worse) aspire to what’s being said on The War Report?With that said, it was peculiar to me to hear Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald saying that they could relate more to earlier Jay than what’s being said on Magna Carta. If anything I would think that “Where I’m From” would be much more foreign language to a person who’s not actually from a place like the Marcy Houses than something like “Picasso Baby”. Actually, if we’re talking about the word “relate”, then this is fact. So clearly, they’ve used the wrong word. The question I’d like to pose is: Why was the word “relate” used to critique MCHG in the stead of a more accurate one?
To answer my own earlier question, kids who had no tangible connection to poverty, crime and violence were drawn in by fascination. They were hardly alone. From White Heat to Menace II Society to The Sopranos we can’t get enough of maniac criminals and organized crime families. “Crack Rap” extended the tradition. So it seems to me that when the most successful crack dealer of all time (this can’t be debated) who happened to be the greatest rapper of all time (you may debate) got so far removed from his days of moving weight that he could barely muster enough memories to do albums about it and instead started rapping about rubbing elbows with the world’s most rich and powerful people, some of us got bored and claimed snobbery while some of us felt proud and claimed victory lap.
I listened to my favorite Jay-Z song, “There’s Been A Murder”, while writing this and one line that I never thought much about stood out this time:
My life is like a see saw/ And until I move this weight it’s gon’ keep me to the floor
As only Jay-Z could, he predicted all of this.
In addition to helping us “navigate the halls of privilege and power” and giving us a glimpse of what it’s like on the other side I think Jay is very genuine about reshaping the images and messages that have been trotted out to represent hip-hop or black people in general; some of which he himself may have been responsible for. Though I’m tired of hearing about J. Cole the fact that Jay chose him as his flagship artist for his new music venture post Def Jam says a lot. If it were just about money, he could’ve been one with the machine and signed whoever was hot down south, any of the artists from the drill scene in Chicago or one of the many buzzing artists from LA but J. Cole is neither gaud or excess neither does he come with a dance or a subset to describe the genre of music he makes (snap, trap, trill). As Tav would attest, “the man is saying something.”
You know who else is saying something? Jay Electronica. The second artist Jay signed to his post Def Jam music venture. No gaud. No excess. No dance.
And though he may possess a little more flash and maybe plays the game a little more than both Cole and Jay Electronica, you know who else is saying something? Wale. And though he isn’t signed to Roc Nation the label, he is managed by Roc Nation.
Do you know who else he tried to sign? Odd Future and Joey Bada$$.
Of all of the aforementioned artists none represent the concepts of simplicity and negativity or ignorance that we’ve come to be associated with but all are rather articulate, astute and intelligent brothers and definitely aren’t the names you gravitate towards if you’re looking for the money.
What I’ve also been thinking about is the song Tom Ford. On the surface, it’s a song about popping tags of one of the more in demand designers right now with a lazy hook and some bad lyrics. Upon further review though, I’m seeing this thing a little differently. What if it’s an anti-drug song denouncing Molly instead with the purpose to thwart it like he sort of did auto-tune with D.O.A to get us off of that wave of destroying ourselves. Just saying.
In some ways, the flack that Jay-Z gets is the kind that women and minorities in all kinds of power positions get – selling out, being irresponsible with your position, etc. – and, as we know, it gets complicated when you step into power positions. If Jay-Z had told Prokorov to go fuck himself, a) most importantly he might have gotten poisoned, b) the Nets might not be in Brooklyn, c) he wouldn’t have been able to grow his empire, d) he might have gotten some extra credibility for keeping it real – but to what end?
It’s a strange thing, but during this past week the theme of kids like Trayvon having this extraresponsibility – of having to dress, look, and act minimally scary to white people – has some connections to this. Somehow, Jay-Z has stumbled into the line of WEB Dubois and others…this also has a lot to do with American political culture: You only have two bullshit choices, politically: be rebel, get arrested, be marginalized, maintain your pride while “pushing the dialogue” b) enter the establishment and be branded a sellout, and hopefully work “from the inside”. Now I’m going to listen to all the people you talked about Ty, so I can not be so ignorant.
The people most in need of guidance are the ones receiving none of it. When the low income, poverty stricken youth recite a Jay song, physiologically they become what’s being personified. In there mind, they’re the man rocking Tom Ford. What rarely (if ever) dawns on these individuals is that Jay is the 1 in 100 million. In reality they will never see 1 million none the less 500. How many of us in our youth dreamed of fame and excess? But as we aged got a larger grip on reality? Well imagine if that reality never came, and your 40 still trying to get your “big break”. We’ve all seen this disillusionment. Jay Z nearing 50, still has never addressed the elephant in the room. His Blueprint is a sham.
Another key (often neglected) fact about his Louis & Clark exploration of the “privileged and powerful” is his lack of conformity. “I did it my way”;Apart of me loves this idea. A dude from MY borough, Same projects my sister lived in, made it and god damn it he made it his way! Then reality hits; If we don’t assimilate in the real world, you get fired. On your way up the corporate ladder, you will swallow your pride and exercise great restraint. Those don’t make for great bravado music so there left unsaid. In reality its not his job to say these things. He’s an entertainer. So let’s just let him “Entertain”.
I think Ant’s response brings us back full circle. It’s interesting how this conversation about rap album, has become a meditation on race, masculinity, and class.
To push back a bit on Ant’s point, I fully agree that Jay’s “blueprint” is a shame for most people of color. But as the Rev. Al Sharpton recently said, “We live in the best of times and the worst of times”. More African Americans are going to college than ever before. We have a black President. Black Governors. A black Attorney General. We also have a latina on the Supreme Court. And most recently a second black female has inherited the most powerful job in national security. Holding aside these individuals politics and the merits of what symbolic representation means for the average black person, it most certainly means something for the growing number of people of color who are upwardly mobile. If anything, Jay’s message is the blueprint for them, even if its not for most kids in Marcy. In fact, I know a young man from Marcy that take that very same path if he lands in the right high school.
In terms of assimilation, the obvious counterexample is Dame Dash. Dame made it as far Jay did, and famously ruffled the feathers of the privileged, entrenched, industry establishment. Whereas Jay was pals with the old money, Dame seemed to revel in pissing them off. They’re trajectories since this time period couldn’t be more different. What does that tell us?
I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t connect this conversation back to Yeezus and Kanye’s work of the last few years, which more explicitly pushes race in to the conversation. Kanye seems to be taking a middle path between Dame and Jay, which is fitting given his back story, as Dame’s discovery, and later Hov’s “little brother”. On the one hand he goes on teevee and says “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and writes records like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead”. But then manages to dine with Anna Wintor and feature exotic white women in his runway shows(see: Anja Rubik). Ye, at least on the surface, challenges white supremacy and white power in way that I don’t Jay ever would, yet he as chummy with them Hov.
All of this, I think, speaks to growing divide within colored America, between those who are able to access the mainstream economy and culture and those who aren’t. This divide is facilitated inequality in schools and the economy more generally. What amazes me is when the divide appears on a single block, or even within a close knit family. Though the root is economic, its manifestation is Duboisian. We’ve got cousins that “we can’t take no where” and cousins who “went to school” sitting at the same dinner table. There are families where the uncles can’t find no job, and nieces who are breaking glass ceilings at work.
Tavian: Tis true homie but let’s not forget the positive effects of aspirations, role models and hope. I get what your saying. I put on my monkey suit 5 days a week. And yes I’ve had those dreams. Apart of me still does and the other side is I still got the itch. I wouldn’t go as far as to say music/entertainment is guiding people’s life decision. As you grow you realize bugs bunny wasn’t just about slap stick comedy but was also social commentary about WWII. The value of the content reveals itself as you get a grip on reality. So yes some kid may have a skewed sense of reality but another, probably the kid who parents check their homework at night, will away something more. Either way, as long as you shoot for the stars is all good if you land on the moon, You ain’t in the p’s anymore.
The Skip: I think Mr. Cuebas makes an important point, which is bigger than any hip-hop star. Americans judge themselves on how much money they make without doing any work. The ultimate fantasy is not that you will think hard, work hard, and earn a safe, healthy, stable life. It is that you will retire (or have the choice to) at 25 and “never have to work again.” Never mind the fact that the most fulfilling lives humans can live require struggle, work, necessity, ups and downs, and some meaningful degree of doubt. This fantasy, and it’s worst unhealthy symptoms, are saturated in the poorest communities (of all races). By calling it a game, it implies that everyone can play, and enriches the fantasy of the poorest people. Even middle income / working class people in our country – whose quality of life is better than 99% of the planet – play the lottery and watch reality shows about rich people on TV. I guess what I’m drawn to is artists (like the one we’re talking about) who can express doubt, and are able to reflect.
Is Jay-Z still relevant? That depends on the listener. For Bucks, Jay is providing the soundtrack to his upward mobility. To Tav, Jay represents the idea of “the black elite.” We can all find some connection to his music. For me, Jay is an icon. Forever will be. But the real question should be “Is relevant relatable?” I think that’s what most people’s issue with Jay-Z is. He is arguably the most successful rapper ever when you factor in talent, sales, longevity and relevance. He’s still on most people’s top 5 currently and of all time. But that is where the disconnect for some is. No other rapper in the current top 5, whoever yours may be, can even scratch the surface of the subject matter that Jay can. And with that, he disengages from many listeners. That’s why Grantland can have this discussion. Because for many, MCHG lost them after Picasso Baby. “I ain’t got no Picassos… Fuck this album.” Similar to how Kingdom Come had us saying Jay fell off. My gripe with Jay-Z is best stated in Rolling Stone’s review of MCHG… “But Jay often sounds like he’s trying to convince himself that he should still be excited about making music. What’s disappointing is, he doesn’t always seem to be winning that argument.”… Jay can do better. But does he want to? As much as I like MCHG, it was not much more than another great business move by Jay. I miss those moments where I didn’t know what the hell Jay was talking about. Not because I couldn’t relate, but because I didn’t know you could squeeze that many different ideas into two bars.
On a social level, I love what Ant said about Jay’s blueprint being a sham. Jay has done something that will probably never be duplicated. To go from a drug dealer to a global icon is not only rare, but frowned upon. And when looking at the history of black leaders and their demise, I often wonder if Jay is the Manchurian Candidate. Did “they” allow us Jay to give us a sense of false hope? I’ve asked myself that. Because at the end of the day, you don’t go from selling crack to owning basketball teams. (You also don’t say you own something when it’s only 1/15th of 1% but let’s not be technical.) “They” use Jay for their benefit. Jay uses “them” for his benefit. And in the end it still leaves me with the question, when do we benefit? Jay is a polarizing figure in entertainment. RELEVANT? Of course. RELATABLE??? Depends on where you are in life.
I want to tell a little story…
I’m in Lithuania on my wedding day at our reception. Making my rounds. Everyone there is white. Mainly Lithuanians. One Canadian woman. The head of my wife’s, Jole, alma mater and a British guy. One of Jole’s childhood friends new boyfriend.
So he’s a hip hop head. Early to mid thirties so his reference points start at public enemy and rakim. And like Darron brought up not only can he refer and wrote their catalog better than I can, to be expected, but same for pac and big and wu tang too. As we speak he’s spitting favorite bars and dropping the N bomb with fever. I didn’t know how to feel. Was he just a hip hop head and enthusiastic to have someone to speak about it with in Lithuania? A black American non the less? Was he a condescending prick who was laughing at me because I was just an ignorant nigger letting this white man demean him? Did he have black friends at home? Did they give him a pass to use the N word? It didn’t seem so. It felt like it was an opportunity for him to say it. I was offended and ended the conversation to continue my rounds a few niggas too late. Never reacted though. I mean it was my day and if in fact he was a bigot I was taking the high road. You think Hov ever been in that predicament? Listening to MCHG gives off this feeling to me. The fact is a white man could never fully relate to us in the same capacity. A bank statement can’t change that.