Life and Times: On Jay-Z

jay-z-obamaBirthdays aside, I’ve been meaning to do this post for a while. It first occurred to me that I wanted to write something about Jay-Z when I was watching the very last campaign event for Obama the day before the election in Ohio. Jay-Z opened for the POTUS in one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a long time.

Watch that video. Yes it’s the President of the United States entering the stage to Jay-Z’s “Encore,” which was itself preceded by a reworked version of “99 Problems” which saw the artist changing the words to “I got 99 problems but a Mitt ain’t one.” In case the significance and awesomeness of that video is lost upon you, that was our President; one embroiled in constant race-based criticism; coming out to give a FINAL campaign speech in the crucial swing state of Ohio, which is itself overwhelmingly White; to the tune of Jay-Z, a drug-dealer-turned-rapper who openly brags about quite a few things that make older and more conservative folks turn red. In all the hoopla about Jay-Z’s faux-retirement almost a decade ago, who would have thought his signature song from this phase would one day be used to bring out the most powerful man in the world?


Jay-Z started off only about 15 years ago as a standout talent in the rather homogeneous field of gangster rap, and like his contemporaries, he did (and still does, to a lesser extent) engage in misogyny, glorification of murder and the drug trade, and in cultivating an image of a lawless mafioso. Alongside the alleged events in his life detailed in his music, he’s had serious real-life run-ins with the law, including some unsavory things like a club stabbing and alleged assaults. A couple hundred million dollars and a decade and a half later, and he’s on the cover of Forbes and is generally considered a “safe” rapper for venue openings, benefit concerts, etc. What a trajectory.


On a deeper level, there’s something going on with Jay-Z that we probably won’t appreciate fully until we’re looking back on his career and life at some Lifetime Achievement awards in the future. This is something deeper than the rehabilitation of a once-edgy artist’s image. That comes to all artists with age (see Ozzie Osbourne). The two reasons why the rehabilitation aspect seems so remarkable for Jay-Z are that ultra-prodigious artists rarely reach the point of stability (and age) that allows for image mellowing and that rappers in general don’t have a long enough shelf-life to reach it (both of these points apply to Tupac and Biggie….and the jury’s still out on the first point for Kanye). In this sense, Jay-Z acceptability in the public eye is simply a function of him reaching a natural endpoint for artists of his talent and relative emotional stability. But there are more levels to it.
They key to Jay-Z is that as people have forced themselves to become comfortable with him in the public eye, they have also forced themselves to come to terms with some of the harsher elements of his material. Although Jay-Z has softened these elements considerably over the years (and some subjects of his are still largely indefensible), listeners began to color the rights-and-wrongs of his inner city tales with the nuance that comes with true understanding of the plight of the Black poor. While there isn’t any excusing the (mostly mythical) feats of violence, misogyny, and cocaine slinging, we can appreciate the excesses in a larger context of the same stories of necessity and struggle that make up our own family histories; the same way we can appreciate the themes involved in films like the Godfather, from which Jay-Z borrowed a good portion of his image. It’s what drew me as an adolescent to his music. I knew that the life described in Reasonable Doubt was mostly a morally bankrupt fiction, but also that the deeper themes of family, loyalty, and of growing up as a Black youth in a hood that provided very little good for me were like a mirror.
It's BOUND to happen

It’s BOUND to happen

And as Jay-Z grew and changed, so did the mirror. The second incarnation of Jay-Z, as a businessman concerned with hyper-capitalism and in attaining the wealth of the White upper-class, was another telling of the essential American story. By using capitalism (the American Dream), perhaps the most common of threads in our society, Jay-Z was able to connect the pathos of the underclass African-American story detailed in gangster rap with the ethos of American success championed by nearly everyone. Judging by the exponential growth of his net worth in a seven year period, it worked. He likened his story to those of the great robber barons like Carnegie and Morgan who were drawn by the allure of opulence and used questionable means to amass wealth, but are seen as paragons of the American Dream now and exemplars of success through capitalism. Also, in the cultivation of this story, he gave a voice to rich Black folks that was louder and less concerned with keeping up with appearances and code-switching. People had to become more comfortable with Black success, a development in which Jay-Z’s music played at least a small part. I actually think that Jay-Z helped in some way to create the racial environment in which Barack Obama was elected.
And now we have Jay-Z’s latest turn, as a legitimate tycoon; part Godfather, part father, part loving husband, part high-class trend-setting auteur, part high-power political benefactor, part sports-owner (a very, very small part). This is a man totally involved in arenas once mostly marked by a lack of diversity who deals with them deftly and with class, but also a man who is utterly unconcerned with code-switching or changing his behavior to match cultural-normative notions. This is a man who is unquestionably the biggest draw at any given music venue; who shuts down London and Paris and performs “N*ggas in Paris” over ten times a show just to prove a point. This is a man who had all of us deconstructing our beliefs about the “n-word” when we were alongside white folks singing and dancing to the same song at concerts. Once a caricature of status afforded only to Whites, once an aspirant, Jay-Z has finally become that which he and all of us sought. He has become legitimate in the deepest sense of the word. He is accepted by many not with a caveat for his race and story, but with a full embrace of it. And that’s what struck me about the video of him opening for Barack. It wasn’t the President offering a bone to an aspiring artist, it was a mogul lending a bit of credibility to the President. It was Jay-Z showcasing being accepted in a way that President Obama has struggled with, and in a way that many of us still aspire for. It’s in the very spirit of this blog.


To close, I’d just like to say happy birthday to my favorite rapper. The man’s having a helluva run. I just wanted to offer some perspective. There’s a lot of things to avoid that Jay serves as a cautionary story to, but for a lot of other things, he provides a damn good blueprint.



I totally missed out on an obvious part of this until I posted and heard back from readers. Marrying Beyoncé (and by extension, the birth of his daughter) had a CLEAR impact on his image becoming palatable to the mainstream.  You can’t really overstate the power of the ultimate music power couple. My bad.
2 Responses to “Life and Times: On Jay-Z”
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