Esquire Responds to the Firestorm of Criticism Surrounding Their Jay-Z Profile


You remember this profile — the one that described Jay-Z as “old-school double-dark-chocolate-chunk black”? The one that bowed down before the altar of Steve Stoute, of all people, and more or less claimed that Jay’s fans cower in the closet, hiding from the overwhelming evidence that the rapper is a “sell out”? It caused us no small amount consternation — a feeling that, after we put it out there, was echoed everywhere from Slate (“The Unbelievably Bad Metaphors in Esquire’s Profile of Jay-Z”) to Newsweek (Forget Harry Reid: ‘Esquire”s Jay-Z Profile Is the Real Racial Scandal). Yesterday, the latter even provoked Esquire‘s features editor, Tyler Cabot, to respond to Newsweek writer Raina Kelley.

So! Just how entitled was Lisa Taddeo to riff as if she were Stanley Crouch on the particular African-American archetype Jay-Z supposedly represents? Writes Cabot, who edited the original piece:

    I didn’t realize there was an enforced segregation of American culture into Black People Stuff and White People Stuff. Is there? Should Lisa simply have avoided the topic of race altogether: TOO SCARY FOR A WHITE WOMAN! STAY AWAY! Must she tiptoe around race, pretend prejudice and racism don’t exist, aren’t inextricably intertwined within American culture today?

I don’t think so. I don’t think putting white blinders on — pretending you don’t have an opinion on “black people stuff” because you’re a white woman — is the answer. You can disagree with Lisa about Jay-Z and race in America — she’s a strong and opinionated writer and her ideas are fair game. But not because she’s white.

Cabot goes on to defend Taddeo’s sources, her reporting, and even the engorged prose that led Slate’s John Swansburg to wonder aloud about “writing so baffling and incomprehensible that I hesitate to guess what the writer or her editors were thinking.” So what were they thinking, exactly?

    As for your complaints about her prose style: in your words, “like it was written by a drunk college freshman with three weeks of Journalism 101 under her belt”–as her editor, I take full responsibility. Her writing has energy. She’s not afraid of metaphors. And her playful use of the English language is far too rare these days. Lisa’s writing is both ambitious and entertaining.

So, that’d be “full responsibility” for sentences like “A campfire flickers in his widowed eyes” and “He’s real deal-eyed, and what first comes off as arrogance you realize later is sentience, with an extra side of arrogance,” right? It’s true. She is not afraid of metaphors — the more the better, it seems. “Like an endorsement-gathering snowball tumbling down the great white slopes, that relationship grew bigger and stronger with each partnership.” Playful indeed!

Our own critique doesn’t seem to have been mentioned, except with a passing reference to the story “generating quite a bit of chatter on the Web.” I supposed that’s us — though we’d still dearly like to know what Cabot thinks of the inside-out logic that basically led Taddeo to posit Jay-Z as the world’s most formidable con man. As opposed to say, what he is — a savvy businessman who’s been nothing but upfront about that fact since day one. But whatever. She’s a decorated writer and everything! Says Cabot:

In case you feel like giving her writing another shot, you can check out her stories in The Best American Sports Writing 2009 (for her profile of LeBron James) or The Best American Political Writing 2009 (for her profile of Obama campaign manager David Plouffe). I hope you do.

There you have it. The Best American Sports Writing 2009 can’t be wrong, can it?

The Esquire Editor Speaks: Tyler Cabot Responds to Raina Kelley’s Critique of the Jay-Z Profile [Newsweek]

Previously: On the Esquire Profile of Jay-Z That Is Making the Rounds Right Now

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