In 2003, this paper sent the writer Elizabeth Mendez Berry to profile Jay-Z on the eve of the release of what was then supposed to be his retirement record, The Black Album. Toward the end of the piece, which was published almost exactly seven years ago, Berry transcribes an interaction she had with Jay:
When I met with him, I gave him a copy of a critical–and I do mean critical–essay on Reasonable Doubt, Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter, and The Blueprint that I contributed to the book Classic Material. The following day, he called to tell me that it provoked him to write a new second verse for “Public Service Announcement.” He said that what he appreciated most about the piece was its honesty, and invited me to come to Baseline and hear the cut.
She hears it, eventually, but is left–along with the reader–guessing somewhat as to what role she played in the writing of the verse. Not anymore. On November 16, Spiegel & Grau will publish Decoded, the much anticipated “narrative journey through the lyrics and life” of Jay-Z, written by the rapper with the former Source editor (and occasional Voice contributor) Dream Hampton. In the book, Jay finally tells his side of the story as far as what happened between him and Berry, and how she influenced the writing of one of the great Jay-Z songs. We took the liberty of excerpting that part, below. Enjoy:
Just Blaze was one of the house producers at Roc-A-Fella Records, the company I co-founded with Kareem Burke and Damon Dash. He’s a remarkable producer, one of the best of his generation. As much as anyone, he helped craft the Roc-A-Fella sound when the label was at its peak: manipulated soul samples and original drum tracks, punctuated by horn stabs or big organ chords. It was dramatic music: It had emotion and nostalgia and a street edge, but he combined those elements into something original. His best tracks were stories in themselves. With his genius for creating drama and story in music, it made sense that Just was also deep into video games. He’d written soundtracks for them. He played them. He collected them. He was even a character in one game. If he could’ve gotten bodily sucked into a video game, like that guy in Tron did, he would’ve been happy forever. I was recording The Black Album and wanted Just to give me one last song for the album, which was supposed to be my last, but he was distracted by his video-game work. He’d already given me one song, “December 4th,” for the album–but I was still looking for one more. He was coming up empty and we were running up against our deadlines for getting the album done and mastered.
At the same time, the promotion was already starting, which isn’t my favorite part of the process. I’m still a guarded person when I’m not in the booth or onstage or with my oldest friends, and I’m particularly wary of the media. Part of the pre-release promotion for the album was a listening session in the studio with a reporter from The Village Voice, a young writer named Elizabeth Mendez Berry. I was playing the album unfinished; I felt like it needed maybe two more songs to be complete. After we listened to the album the reporter came up to me and said the strangest thing: “You don’t feel funny?” I was like, Huh?, because I knew she meant funny as in weird, and I was thinking, Actually, I feel real comfortable; this is one of the best albums of my career. . . . But then she said it again: “You don’t feel funny? You’re wearing that Che T-shirt and you have–” she gestured dramatically at the chain around my neck. “I couldn’t even concentrate on the music,” she said. “All I could think of is that big chain bouncing off of Che’s forehead.” The chain was a Jesus piece–the Jesus piece that Biggie used to wear, in fact. It’s part of my ritual when I record an album: I wear the Jesus piece and let my hair grow till I’m done.
This wasn’t the first time I’d worn a Che T-shirt–I’d worn a different one during my taping of an MTV Unplugged show, which I’d taped with the Roots. I didn’t really think much of it. Her question–don’t you feel funny?–caught me off guard and I didn’t have an answer for her. The conversation moved on, but before she left she gave me a copy of an essay she wrote about me for a book about classic albums. The essay was about three of my albums: Reasonable Doubt, Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter, and The Blueprint. That night I went home and read it. Here are some highlights:
On “Dope Man” he calls himself, “the soul of Mumia” in this modern-day time. I don’t think so.
Jay-Z is convincing. When he raps, “I’m representing for the seat where Rosa Parks sat / where Malcolm X was shot / where Martin Luther was popped” on “The Ruler’s Back,” you almost believe him.
And, referring to my MTV Unplugged show:
When he rocks his Guevara shirt and a do-rag, squint and you see a revolutionary. But open your eyes to the platinum chain around his neck: Jay-Z is a hustler.
Wow. I could’ve dismissed her as a hater; I remember her going on about “bling-bling,” which was just too easy, and, honestly, even after reading her essays I was mostly thinking, “It’s a T-shirt. You’re buggin.” But I was fascinated by the piece and thought some more about what she was saying. It stuck with me and that night I turned it around in my head.
We Rebellious, We Back Home
One of Big’s genius lines wasn’t even a rhyme, it was in the ad lib to “Juicy,” his first big hit:
Yeah, this album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I’d never amount to nothin, to all the people that lived above the building that I was hustlin in front of that called the police on me when I was just tryin to make some money to feed my daughters, and all the niggas in the struggle.
I loved that he described what a lot of hustlers were going through in the streets–dissed and feared by teachers and parents and neighbors and cops, broke, working a corner to try to get some bread for basic shit–as more than some glamorous alternative to having a real job.
He elevated it to “the struggle.” That’s a loaded term. It’s usually used to talk about civil rights or black power–the seat where Rosa Parks sat / where Malcom X was shot / where Martin Luther was popped–not the kind of nickel-and-dime, just-to-get-by struggle that Biggie was talking about. Our struggle wasn’t organized or even coherent. There were no leaders of this “movement.” There wasn’t even a list of demands. Our struggle was truly a something-out-of-nothing, do-or-die situation. The fucked-up thing was that it led some of us to sell drugs on our own blocks and get caught up in the material spoils of that life. It was definitely different, less easily defined, less pure, and harder to celebrate than a simple call for revolution. But in their way, Biggie’s words made an even more desperate case for some kind of change. Che was coming from the perspective, “We deserve these rights; we are ready to lead.” We were coming from the perspective, “We need some kind of opportunity, we are ready to die.” The connections between the two kinds of struggles weren’t necessarily clear to me yet, but they were on my mind.
The Renegade, You Been Afraid
The day after the listening session, Just finally played a track for me. It opened with some dark minor organ notes and then flooded them with brassy chords that felt like the end of the world. It was beautiful. When a track is right, I feel like it’s mine from the second I hear it. I own it. This was the record I’d been waiting for. I spit two quick verses on it–no hook, no chorus, just two verses, because we were running out of time to get the album done and mastered and released on schedule. I called it “Public Service Announcement.”
The subject of the first verse wasn’t blazingly unique. It’s a variation on a story I’ve been telling since I was ten years old rapping into a tape recorder: I’m dope. Doper than you. But even when a rapper is just rapping about how dope he is, there’s something a little bit deeper going on. It’s like a sonnet, believe it or not. Sonnets have a set structure, but also a limited subject matter: They are mostly about love. Taking on such a familiar subject and writing about it in a set structure forced sonnet writers to find every nook and cranny in the subject and challenged them to invent new language for saying old things. It’s the same with braggadocio in rap. When we take the most familiar subject in the history of rap–why I’m dope–and frame it within the sixteen-bar structure of a rap verse, synced to the specific rhythm and feel of the track, more than anything it’s a test of creativity and wit. It’s like a metaphor for itself; if you can say how dope you are in a completely original, clever, powerful way, the rhyme itself becomes proof of the boast’s truth. And there are deeper layers of meaning buried in the simplest verses. I call rhymes like the first verse on “Public Service Announcement” Easter-egg hunts, because if you just listen to it once without paying attention, you’ll brush past some lines that can offer more meaning and resonance every time you listen to them.
The second verse for “Public Service Announcement” was almost entirely unrelated to the first verse. I wrote the second verse, which opens with the lyrics, I’m like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex, as a response to the journalist. When someone asked me at the time of the Unplugged show why it was that I wore the Che T-shirt, I think I said something glib like, “I consider myself a revolutionary because I’m a self-made millionaire in a racist society.” But it was really that it just felt right to me. I knew that people would have questions. Some people in the hip-hop world were surprised by it. There are rappers like Public Enemy and Dead Prez who’ve always been explicitly revolutionary, but I wasn’t one of them. I also wasn’t a Marxist like Che–the platinum Jesus piece made that pretty clear.
Later I would read more about Guevara and discover similarities in our lives. I related to him as a kid who had asthma and played sports. I related to the power of his image, too. The image on the T-shirt had a name Guerillero Heroico, heroic guerrilla. The photo was taken after the Cuban Revolution and by the time I wore the T-shirt, it was probably one of the most famous photographs in the world. Like a lot of people who stumble across the image with no context, I was still struck by its power and charisma.
The journalist was right, though. Images aren’t everything, and a T-shirt doesn’t change who you are. Like I said in the song “Blueprint 2,” cause the nigger wear a kufi, it don’t mean that he is bright. For any image or symbol or creative act to mean something, it has to touch something deeper, connect to something true. I know that the spirit of struggle and insurgency was woven into the lives of the people I grew up with in Bed-Stuy, even if in sometimes fucked up and corrupted ways. Che’s failures were bloody and his contradictions frustrating. But to have contradictions–especially when you’re fighting for you life–is human, and to wear the Che shirt and platinum and diamonds together is honest. In the end I wore it because I meant it.