These have been hard years for black people. Every woke person I know is spiritually exhausted from the sheer effort of bearing not the burdens of our ancestors but the current load of racism that confronts us every. day. in America. Trump and his Whisis army of lone shooters perpetrating a race war, killer cops who walk and the pain of daily witnessing our fellow citizens, friends, or even lovers wonder why we’re so upset. I really wouldn’t blame you if you just wanted to lay down and eat ice cream forever but fuck it if even lactose is out to get black people. Instead, black artists like a black ocean, leaping and wide are rising to the times and making art that matters.
Jay-Z. If you thought I was on some ballet when I said art, let me back up. Hip Hop is arguably the most critiqued genre of music, reviled for its misogyny, hyperconsumerism, and violence. Even the album I am about to praise will be torn down in the coming days beat by problematic beat to convict Jay-Z and his dirty, dirty hip hop of all the bad things. Is he threatening me/ all white people/cops? What will the children think? What are they selling us? What the hell is Tidal? I get it. It’s probably problematic. But in a world where Trump is the President, problematic is standard. Too often the critique of hip hop stops there without critics actually listening to the album. If you are this kind of critic, I have news for you: beyond the lean-bop candy-pop mumble rap, art is being produced to challenge old ideas of misogyny, consumerism, internalized racism and homophobia that were mainstream hip hop’s bread and butter. Let’s look at Jay-Z’s 4:44 for proof.
The title track of the album is an apologia to Queen Bey, Blue and the twins, Solange, women and basically the earth for all Jay-Z’s shitty behavior. Don’t expect hearts and violins, promises of walks on the beach or plaintive wailing. The track sounds like what it is: the haunted 4 a.m. thoughts of a man who has deeply hurt those he loves, honest and raw. Now I’m not advocating that men get a cookie for correctly identifying an emotion, but it matters that Jay-Z provides a blueprint for taking responsibility. Just as rap has been roundly critiqued for saying terrible things about women, and rightly so, there is increasingly a trend of rap’s biggest stars talking frankly about the hard work of relationships. Jay Z’s apology in 4:44, Kendrick’s These Walls or J Cole’s Folding Clothes all put words to the complex experience of navigating real life relationships. I don’t know another place in our pop culture where men are engaging frankly in real talk about the mechanics of making egalitarian relationships work. As rappers themselves age and engage in family life, they could choose to still play gangster to the world. But Jay-Z’s vulnerability signals to other men that there is life beyond hypermasculinity: that being open and vulnerable is necessary for personal transformation and growth, that successful men do desire and choose women who will require them to be accountable and respectful, that when wrong, one can and should take full responsibility. Songs give voice to things that are hard to say. Need to say sorry? Let Jay help.
Story of OJ
My favorite on the album at this early date: the Story of OJ tackles racism and its roots in capitalism and slavery. On the chorus Jay-Z Breaks down the parsing of the black experience: Even super-rich Jay is stuck in the loony tunes land of racism which he reconstructs for the video from scenes recreating racist cartoons like Scrub Me Mama and What Up Doc. Set to a beat sampling Nina Simone’s mournful Four Women Jay-Z describes a pathway to liberation through generational wealth and cooperative economics.
In the absence of the dismantling of the system of capitalism, power without wealth remains a myth. Black people can’t be satisfied with the trappings of wealth like bottle service and cars. “You know what’s more important than buying bottles in the strip club? Credit.” Jay-Z advocates real wealth–real estate, and art. It may seem incongruous to tell blacks no matter how rich they are they’re still marginalized and to tell blacks to get money–but in fact connecting these ideas is important. Jay-Z reminds us that individual wealth, especially when poured into consumer goods is death while, investing in generational wealth and purchasing property is about power. He reminds us that immigrant groups before us used this same pathway–think the Kennedy’s who rum running money soon enough had them running the country. In a few bars Jay -Z flips our understanding of race and money to focus on neither money nor race but power–the key to ending oppression. And the video deserves its own frame by frame analysis–soon come.
As I mentioned in the opening, these years are full of pain for black people. One of the most powerful skills black people are demonstrating in the face of unrelenting oppression is the ability to still find joy. Resilience. Strength that comes from the soul. The kind of happiness called #blackgirlmagic or #blackboyjoy which is created in response to cultural trauma. The rose that grows from concrete. Hip Hop in the gangster rap days was smile free: every issue of XXL was full of angry faces, sadness and pain was the mask the world put on black men, and they embraced that mask. Jay-Z reminds us to smile at the transformation wrought by our challenges. He’s not alone: other artists are also reminding us to embrace joy in these dark time: Lil Yachty’s I Spy, Buddy’s Shine and Pharell’s Happy are odes to joy. Far from being disposable pop, these songs are reminders that black people deserve joy. They are songs that help us summon joy from this painful chaotic world.
Not insignificantly, the song talks about Jay-Z’s mother struggle living in the closet for most of her life. One of the strongest criticisms of rap is the rampant homophobia. Like sports, it was considered taboo for rappers to embrace people of different sexual orientations. You may say that rap is late to the game recognizing the importance of gay rights, but remember that Michael Sam only played one season before they Colin Kapernicked him. Male discourse in our culture around gay people still remains highly problematic but Jay-Z embrace of his mother signals a long overdue change. Jay-Z’s mother Gloria gets to tell us herself the pain of living in the shadows. “Love who you love because life isn’t guaranteed”. Her story reminds us that smiles hide a multitude of pain, but they are more than masks, they are aspirations.
The final song of the album starts with the voice of little Blue Carter: “Daddy, what’s a will?” Bookending the album with songs that focus on generational wealth provide an important reminder to listeners of the role that cooperative family economics play in supporting the culture. Yeah, I get it, Jay-Z is so rich he can afford to invest and most people in America are broke, but decades of rap songs have young boys buying Bugatti’s and bottle service so are bonds really out of the question? Jay-Z’s Legacy gives listeners something else to work hard for–foundations and inheritance. He muses that the stacks of cash he has acquired be used for things to uplift the race
TIDAL, the champagne, D’USSÉ, I’d like to see
A nice peace-fund ideas from people who look like we
We gon’ start a society within a society
The idea of using economics to combat marginalization is not new–in fact, MLK’s war on poverty was so threatening to established power that he was killed (cough, cough, by the government). What Jay-Z does on Legacy is use his power both as an artist and as a philanthropist to create an aspirational pathway. While we’re fighting for the rights of black people in the voting booth, or the cultural sovereignty of black people in debates over cultural appropriation, Jay Z reminds us of the power of generational wealth as a path to liberation from centuries of oppression. You may not be able to buy a place in Dumbo, but even you can have a will, buy some bonds, and think about what you are leaving behind for your family and your people. That’s radical.
Nobody ever told Picasso stop painting nudes because the kids might see. No one stopped Pollack because his work was too aggressive. Van Gough cut off his own fucking ear and his paintings are worth millions. So forget your critique of Hip Hop and appreciate Jay’s latest for what it is: 4:44 is art. Art provokes, it makes us question, it reflects both our darkness and our shallowness. Like Picasso or Van Gough, Jay- is a grown man, not an empty headed thug or a disposable fuck boy addicted to lean. His experience, his poetry, and his flow combine to create a piece of art that we can unpack, reflect and meditate on, art that will provoke us to keep on in the face of America’s unrelenting hate of black people. He reminds us that raw vulnerability is worth something more that the mask of hypermasculinity. He reminds us to build and to grind, to love and to let others love, to smile. He reminds us to rise.