Jay-Z’s new album 4:44 starts with the words, “Kill Jay-Z” before going on to rap, “you can’t heal what you never reveal.”
So what does Jay-Z want to kill? And to reveal?
In the title track, he admits to womanizing (different from boasting about womanizing) and apologizes to his wife (Beyoncé, for those who wilfully live under rocks). He apologizes for falling short. He admits to crying in another song, Caught Their Eyes: “Memories may sneak down my cheek.”
“I suck at love,” Jay-Z raps. He imagines dying of shame when his daughter Blue learns of her father’s infidelity.
In the rap world, this is huge. Now dial it out to include our cultural ideas of black masculinity, personal storytelling, wealth and the uncomfortable truths around anti-blackness in America, because Jay-Z’s revelations and ensuing advice are no less ambitious.
The two main takeaways from this album are that he wants to atone for being emotionally unavailable to the women in his life, and that the way out and up for black people is to keep money in the family and grow it for generations to come.
First, let’s deal with the infidelity. Jay-Z didn’t need to tell us. We live in a post-Lemonade world, Beyoncé’s 2016 genre-defining multidisciplinary genius concept project detailing her rage (primo, white hot, on the money) and acquiescence (slightly less satisfying but no less truthful), an account of what it’s like to be cheated on and choose to keep the family intact.
“I think she gave him an opportunity to remain relevant,” says Mark Campbell, a cultural studies professor and director of the Forum for Cultural Strategies at Ryerson University in Toronto. “He could brush it under the rug, right?”
Could he really? Campbell explains that in a game that revolves around one-upmanship and braggadocio, Jay-Z’s rap rivals never called him out for cheating.
“I don’t think there’s a built-in accountability mechanism for black men in hip-hop when it comes to infidelity, because that’s part of the performance. Whether it’s true or not, a part of the performance of the bravado of the rugged black masculinity is infidelity.”
Until, with this album, Jay-Z decided to hold himself accountable. And he did it with accounting in mind. His second takeaway from this missive to mass culture is that black families need financial emancipation.
“We all lose when the family feuds. What’s better than one billionaire? Two.”
Indeed, his family business (or multitudes of businesses, which orbit around their shared luminous personal brand at the centre) is worth $1.16-billion (U.S.) combined. And he is aware that while he’s at the top, he was once at the bottom, a child gang member growing up in the projects in Brooklyn. He has always rapped about seeing crack take hold of neighbourhoods and family members. He made a career of rapping about a wild youth spent selling drugs: “Hov did that so hopefully you won’t have to go through that,” he rapped more than 15 years ago, referring to himself by one of his nicknames.
Now, he advises taking that drug money and “rinsing it” in real estate and art, or anything, regardless of whether you find that “bougie.” The point is to create inter-generational wealth to pass on to your kids, an opportunity many black families, including his, never had until now.
But of course, not everyone has capital lying around waiting to be invested. And more importantly, does capitalism truly free people?
“My biggest gripe with the album is that it’s one long ode to black capitalism, and not only do I find it really sad, I find it really American,” says Campbell, who counts himself as a Jay-Z fan.
“You know there’s no escaping anti-blackness through wealth,” Campbell says. “[The album] actually reeks of this black billionaires talk as if the American Dream is real. As if structural inequality is something that only exists for people in a certain tax bracket.” Campbell mentions Dr. Dre, another rap billionaire, who was handcuffed in front of his home after a dispute in which a motorist claimed Dre had a gun. After being searched, no gun was found.
“That’s what happens to a black billionaire,” Campbell says. “Oprah Winfrey can’t have a bag sold to her,” he says, referring to a 2013 incident in which an assistant at a luxury goods store in Switzerland refused to show the media mogul a $38,000 handbag because it was “too expensive.”
But it’s not that Jay-Z doesn’t know this. He knows his money doesn’t negate the reality of anti-blackness. In his song, The Story of O.J., he quotes O.J. Simpson (“I’m not black, I’m O.J”) and responds with the most laconic and laden, perfectly-delivered two syllables of doubt: “Okay.”
In the same song, Jay-Z calls himself a “field nigga with shined cutlery.” Jay-Z’s outlook, or reality, is not for those too delicate to hear his truth.
Jay-Z knows the world is stacked against young men who look like him but that there’s also a new conversation emerging in so many ways. This is an album where he calls a song Moonlight, referencing a massive cultural influence in our ongoing conversation on black masculinity. Jay-Z also questions rap’s cultural conventions, addresses his emotions and lets his mother, whom he reveals as a lesbian, get in some powerful lines on what it’s like to live in the shadows as closeted. (Followers of Jay-Z will recognize her voice, it’s not the first time he’s given Gloria Carter the mic).
As for men who are as wealthy as he is, it’s a privilege to be able to publicly admit to failings and expect to be embraced for being honest. It’s a privilege not every black man gets. Jay-Z took that risk. Does that make him a cultural leader? He is a leader regardless, for the artistic reasons that matter most. But all the influence he has in his wake makes him a leader in so many other ways, too.
But what’s that saying about behind every great man there being a great woman? Beyoncé’s Lemonade had the heft to push, nudge and necessitate that Jay-Z put his apology out front and centre, thus mapping out a new edge in his own cultural leadership.
Leading from behind. Now that’s greatness.Report Typo/Error
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