Jay-Z at 50. We look at his evolution as a cultural icon.
On what separates Jay-Z from the core and beginnings of hip-hop
“Well, he does it, but he does it better. He does it, but he does it more ingeniously. … The genre itself has produced extraordinary density. And I mean that in the good sense — multiple layers of allusion, self-reference, a kind of braggadocio, metaphor, metonymy, simile, analogy. All the poetic tools of trade that any great poet — Rita Dove or Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks or Robert Frost or Walt Whitman would deploy. He’s doing it, and yet he’s doing it to a beat. Langston Hughes didn’t have to rhyme to a beat. Robert Frost didn’t stand — except the internal meter of the particular foot of verse he was reciting or writing. [Frost] didn’t have to match the cadence of an externally-imposed musical selection, that had to ride with the beat, and the rhythm, of the song. That’s what he’s doing. And he’s doing it with panache, and he’s doing it with style, and flourish and confidence.”
On depictions of hustler life in Jay-Z’s music
“A conservative colleague of mine, a professor at a university I taught at — University of Pennsylvania. Professor Walter McDougall makes the argument that hustling is the central motif of American society. That American history can be summed up with the scofflaws and those on the take. On the one hand, the negative meaning of hustling. But the positive meaning — on the make, always coming up with a new idea, a new scheme, trying to figure out a new business, a new engineering concept, a new marketing plan, a new publicity one. Some new invention that will, you know, express and articulate the American soul. And that’s what Jay-Z has done. He’s done both. He was on the streets hustling, selling crack cocaine in what Mike Davis calls the political economy of crack. His back was against the wall:
‘Now, all the teachers couldn’t reach me
And my momma couldn’t beat me
Hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seein’ me
So, with that disdain in my membrane
Got on my pimp game; f— the world, my defense came’
“So, father absence, and existential misery, and economic suffering forced him into the streets to sell drugs in order to make a way out of no way. And then he, of course, has become hip-hop’s first billionaire. So his hustling ethic is at the heart of American culture, a quintessentially American move, where many legitimate businesses begin in crime. You know, running moonshine in the backwoods of Appalachia leads to political dynasties in Massachusetts. So the reality is that Jay-Z is quintessentially American. And people say, ‘Well, how can you write a book about a guy who sells drugs?’ They write books about founding fathers who sold human beings. So selling human beings has not de-legitimated totally those ingenious figures, who were at the heart of our founding. Neither should it delegitimize a man who began in the streets, but who has risen to iconic status globally. Not only in America, but around the world.”
On toxic masculinity and Beyonce’s album ‘Lemonade’
“Jay-Z responded like a fully grown man. He admitted his therapy. He talked about his mother as being gay and lesbian. He talked about his own toxic masculinity. He spoke about his mature maturation as a black man; coming to grips with it. Now some would say, ‘How ridiculous is it that you have to have a daughter in order to understand it?’ Well every man who has a daughter doesn’t understand it. Because there are a lot of men who got daughters and wives who treat them in horrendous fashion. So his maturation is edifying and remarkable, given his history.
“And yes, I think it is important that we put our fingers on the pulse of a poisonous patriarchy and toxic masculinity that all of us had to grapple with. Not only in hip-hop, but I preach in churches as well, and some women can’t even stand up on certain pulpits because they are, you know, desacralizing that space. So misogyny, sexism, patriarchy and a term I invented ‘femmephobia’ — just the fear of women — must be dealt with; must be addressed. Both in its explicit forms, as in hip-hop culture, and in its more subtle nuances — within religious and educational circles as well. But kudos to Beyoncé for calling it out. And kudos to Jay-Z for responding. By the way, they had a third album called ‘Everything Is Love.’ ‘Lemonade’ was the thesis. ‘4:44’ was the antithesis. And ‘Everything Is Love’ is the synthesis. It is a Hegelian moment in black culture in the 2010s.”
From The Reading List
Excerpt from “Jay-Z: Made in America” by Michael Eric Dyson
“Allow Me to Re-Introduce Myself”
In the late fall of 2011, the Today Show came to Georgetown to do a story on my course on the rapper JAY-Z. The course had garnered quite a bit of national press, and correspondent Craig Melvin (on his first assignment, now one of the show’s hosts) had been tasked to explore what we did in class. We discussed why a figure like JAY-Z belonged in a college curriculum, why some parents of the students were skeptical, and why it was important to parse JAY-Z’s lyrics as poetry. Most of the media coverage of the class was positive, but there was also predictable pushback. Conservatives contended that the class was cover for my leftist views, while educational purists wondered about the value of such a course because it didn’t fit
into the traditional curriculum.
I was a grizzled veteran of such discussions since by that time I’d been teaching hip-hop at the university level for fifteen years. I didn’t romanticize hip-hop, didn’t make it a fetish of class identity or an avatar of authentic blackness. Rather, I approached the genre as a fascinating artistic and cultural expression that had a great deal to teach us about America and race and class and gender too. By now this must seem like old hat because surely there are hundreds of hip-hop classes around the nation in colleges, and high schools too.
But that doesn’t mean that most folks in our society are convinced that it is a good thing to study hip-hop in the academy. The troubling resurgence of racism in American culture means that hip-hop is in the spotlight again. Judging by the hate mail I get for grappling with race in my courses on JAY-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Beyoncé, it is clear that discussions of hip-hop are as compelling as ever. In response to this critical moment, artists like T.I., Meek Mill, and Cardi B use their considerable clout and prominent platforms to speak up about social injustice.
Teaching JAY-Z is especially satisfying for me. I have taught courses on the murdered actor and rap icon Tupac Shakur at several colleges and universities. I have enthusiastically covered the history of hip-hop culture and music in detail in other courses. But teaching JAY-Z time and again through the years has been even more rewarding. It always involves a great degree of study with students about a range of issues and ideas, from class to gender, race to politics, public housing projects to blackness. JAY-Z provokes reflection on big social and moral concerns. And, of course, artistic ones too, although it becomes apparent the more I study him that he is no average bear, that he is, quite simply, a rhetorical genius whose wordplay and literary skill are nonpareil.
The more I pore over his lyrics, the more I realize that I am dealing with an extremely intelligent poet whose work matches the poets I’ve admired since childhood. My pastor at church used to trade lines of poetry with me from Tennyson and Hughes, Brooks and Yeats. I developed an appreciation for the epic sweep of culture that could be condensed into the poetic arts. JAY-Z is capable of doing the same; he can describe street hustling with an artistic verve that is every bit as beautiful and poignant as that of the best canon poets. His rolling or clipped cadences, his dense or simple descriptions, his slow or sped-up observations about life unfurl like a thickly knitted quilt cast over shivering bones.
I am impressed with how effortless JAY-Z makes it all seem. I have grown to appreciate just how much work goes into finding the right word, fitting in the right phrase, or making just the right allusion. He uses these skills to say that the rap game is in trouble, that racism is a persistent ill, and, most memorably, that no other rapper has enjoyed comparable longevity at the top.
There’s never been a n—- this good for this long This hood or this pop, this hot or this strong
With so many different flows, this one’s for this song The next one I switch up, this one will get bit up.
His verse is wildly eclectic. He can in one instant flaunt his own poetic virtue and the next instant portray the bitter contradictions of zealous belief.
I’m from the place where the church is the flakiest
And n—-s been praying to God so long that they
As I’ve studied and taught, I’ve learned of Jay’s great sense of humor, his sense of irony, his love for his craft. I learned how he uses words to make us feel the crushing heartbreak of a broken home.
Now, all the teachers couldn’t reach me
And my momma couldn’t beat me
Hard enough to match the pain of my pops not seein’ me.
As I listened to JAY-Z I knew I needed to write a book about the major themes of his art, how he put his words together, and why they make sense the way they do. Jay’s prodigious memory and his enormous cool made him that much more appealing. He is one of the few hip-hop artists I’ve seen in concert who can bridge the aesthetic gulf between the studio and the stage. The intimacies and implications of a hip-hop song are usually best heard in your headphones. It is far more difficult to catch a song’s meaning when it’s blurted out by a rapper onstage seeking to match the timing and tone of the sound booth.
I knew that to write about Jay meant to write about the themes he is taken with, to probe his verbal gifts, and to grapple with his growing political consciousness. His politics are sometimes subtle; sometimes just a phrase or a bar communicate so much meaning.
I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died
Uh, real n—-s just multiply.
In the brief scope of this couplet Jay does a couple of important things. He identifies with a fallen member of the sixties-era Black Panther Party who was unjustly murdered by the Chicago police and the FBI. He also suggests that Hampton’s spirit animated the birth of a revolutionary cultural figure like Jay himself.
It should be clear that JAY-Z is America at its scrappy, brash, irreverent, soulful, ingenious best. He is as transcendent a cultural icon as Frank Sinatra, as adventurous a self-made billionaire as Mark Zuckerberg, as gifted a poet as Walt Whitman. When we see JAY-Z, we glimpse the powerful silhouette of American ambition sketched against the canopy of national striving. When we hear JAY-Z, we listen to the incomparable tongue of American democracy expressed by a people too long held underfoot.
What JAY-Z thinks and believes, what he does and says, is the quintessential expression of who we are as a people and a nation.
The half-century mark for JAY-Z is here. He has become the genre’s first billionaire. He reigns as an elder statesman in a field brimming with artists half his age. He continues to produce relevant rap records that make the charts. And he is charting an artistic and political response to revived racism and renewed hostility to blackness. Jay has logged thirty years as a recording artist. His ideas, and the issues he addresses, offer us plenty to consider. Masculinity and black love. Hustling and elections. Gentrification and generational wealth. Criminal justice reform and neighbor-to-neighbor carnage. Visual art and the unbearable whiteness of museum walls. Racial injustice and the impact of slavery. The virtues of psychotherapy and its racial misuse. American myths of patriotism and empire. Police brutality and the overmedication of black youth. And lots more besides.
The induction of JAY-Z as the first hip-hop artist in the Songwriters Hall of Fame encourages us to explore his poetic gifts—his use of braggadocio and allusion, signifying and double entendre, metaphor and homophones, contronyms and metonyms. That signal honor and his towering stature also invite us to weigh his impact on hip-hop and to consider what his brotherhood with immortal MC The Notorious B.I.G., his beef with rap legend Nas, and his complicated relationship with rap superstar Drake teach us about ourselves and about hip-hop’s reach and limits. Since this is JAY-Z’s America, it is important to trace his influence on younger figures like basketball icon LeBron James and fallen rapper Nipsey Hussle, each of whom reflects elements of Jay’s vision of hustling. It is instructive how even a few words from Jay bid us to reinterpret leaders like Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King, Jr., and to scrutinize geniuses become scoundrels like singer R. Kelly and comedian Bill Cosby.
This seems an ideal time to grapple with JAY-Z’s lyr- ics and legacy, examine his ideas and imagination, assess his impact and importance. In 2003, Jay rapped, “Allow me to re-introduce myself,” in his song “Public Service Announcement.” Permit me to introduce his work and thinking to those who may not know him well. And allow me to re-introduce him to those who know him but haven’t studied his art and evolution closely.
In 2012, JAY-Z founded the Made in America Festival, an annual two-day musical event held in Philadelphia over the Labor Day weekend. As curator of the festival, JAY-Z brings together acts from a broad array of musical genres, including hip-hop, pop, R&B, Latin, EDM (electronic dance music), and indie, experimental, and alternative rock. “Through all the lines and things that are put in place to divide each other, all like-minded people gather together,” Jay said on the promotional video for the inaugural festival. “We’re more curious than ever. We create music to express ourselves . . . We’re all trading off each other’s culture. So no matter what lines you put . . . we’re all somehow gonna find a way to come together ’cause the lines and the titles can never keep us apart. This is what we’ve been. To put that on display for the world is . . . just being honest. That’s it, that’s what it’s all about. We are finally living out our creed.”
The American creed has been defined by countless thinkers and activists and politicians since the beginning of the nation as a set of ideals that govern our existence— an appreciation for the individual, a thirst for equality, the demand of liberty, the quest for justice. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963, six years before Shawn Corey Carter was born, stood in Washington, D.C., on sacred civic ground in front of the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall and dreamed out loud about an America that one day “will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” Through all of Jay’s hustling, versifying, and politicking, the American creed as King expressed it is what the self-proclaimed King of New York has in his own way sought to embody. It is the right time to gauge JAY-Z’s stride toward freedom as a cultural colossus and to take measure of his profoundly American desire to rise to the top here and around the globe while never forgetting the place and people from whence he came.
In many ways, this is JAY-Z’s America as much as it is Obama’s America, or Trump’s America, or Martin Luther King’s America, or Nancy Pelosi’s America, or Maxine Waters’s America, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s America. JAY-Z has given this country a language to speak with, ideas to think through, and words to live by. His lyrics have shaped the self-understanding of a culture that grapples daily with racial and social justice. He is an important thinker and consequential artist, and instead of looking at hip-hop or his life through the lens of, say, civil rights, or social respectability, or mainstream politics, it is time to see America through JAY-Z’s eyes.
From JAY-Z: Made in America by Michael Eric Dyson. Copyright © 2019 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Washington Post: “In Michael Eric Dyson’s new book, Jay-Z is the living embodiment of American ideals” — “When professor and author Michael Eric Dyson began teaching a class on Jay-Z at Georgetown University about a decade ago, not everyone was on board. Although the course, ‘Sociology of Hip-Hop: Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z,’ was one of the most popular on campus, hip-hop was not seen as a field of legitimate scholarly inquiry. Some parents were upset. Many students weren’t thrilled, either. ‘We dissect the lyrics of ‘Big Pimpin’,’ but we don’t read Spenser or Sophocles closely,’ one student complained in the college newspaper.
“In his new book, ‘JAY-Z: Made in America’” which has its origins in that now-long-running class, Dyson uses the rapper’s life story and lyrics as a lens through which to view America in the 21st century. He argues that Jay-Z is the living embodiment of American ideals, the ultimate hustler in a nation built by hustlers and strivers. ‘JAY-Z is America at its scrappy, brash, irreverent, soulful, ingenious best,’ he writes. ‘He is as transcendent a cultural icon as Frank Sinatra, as adventurous a self-made billionaire as Mark Zuckerberg, as gifted a poet as Walt Whitman.’
“Most hip-hop fans have never known a world without Jay-Z, who turned 50 on Wednesday and has been famous since the first Clinton administration. His origin story is as familiar as that of any superhero: Born Shawn Carter, he spent his childhood in Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects, his early adulthood as a crack dealer, and the past two decades as hip-hop’s most iconic star and first billionaire.”
The New York Times: “‘I’m a Business, Man’” — “Hustling is, as the sociologist Michael Eric Dyson puts it, ‘the central motif of American history, the dominant measure of the American character,’ and he thinks the rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z embodies every element, good and bad, of hustling culture.
“‘Jay-Z is always looking for his next deal, his next scheme, a new invention,’ Dyson says. ‘He started out selling drugs, and then he mastered the record industry,’ and from there he branched out to ‘clothing, alcohol, sports agencies, you name it. Hustling is the central motif of his life.’ That’s the theme of Dyson’s new book, ‘Jay-Z: Made in America,’ which enters the nonfiction list this week at No. 13, and of the course on Jay-Z that he has taught for the past 10 years at Georgetown University.
“‘There’s a lot to dig into,’ Dyson says of the class. ‘We spend the first few weeks looking into the Brooklyn projects where Jay-Z grew up, the effect Robert Moses had on the neighborhoods, on what it meant to grow up as a black or brown kid in a crack-cocaine era. It takes a few weeks before we even get to Jay-Z.’ No surprise: The class fills quickly, and there’s always a wait-list of students eager to take it.”
Salon: “Cancel culture is emulated from ‘an ethic of white supremacy,’ says Jay-Z scholar” — “I came of age in time where Bill Cosby’s infamous pound cake speech, that he delivered during the NAACP awards ceremony in 2004, defined my generation. He demonized our style, music, and even the way our moms raised us. Huge segments of young black Americans rejected old dudes like him, that bourgeoisie type of intellectualism or stuffy scholars who dared to speak on our culture without fully understanding it. Many of them came off like Cosby to us, old clowns that luckily made it out and then turned around and blamed us for racism, failed policy from rip-off-politicians, and poor policing. And it has been that way until Michael Eric Dyson exploded onto the scene.
“Dyson, a celebrated scholar, preacher, author, and editor of over 20 books emerged as a champion of the oppressed. He attended the best universities and didn’t use that education to demonize us, but to interpret our struggle to outsiders while uplifting the beauty that is created in the streets. Dyson wrote books on Tupac (‘Holler if You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur’), Nas (‘Born to Use Mics’), and many of our heroes who don’t normally get a fair shake in mainstream. Dyson’s newest book, ‘Jay-Z: Made in America,’ continues that legacy of celebrating the underdog.”
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.