Jay-Z In Conversation With Cornel West and Paul Holdengräber
New York Public Library
Monday, November 15
[See our review of Decoded here.]
Usually, says tonight’s distinguished moderator, NYPL director Paul Holdengräber, “my goal at the library is to make the lions roar.” But this evening, we are informed, the library’s agenda for the stone statues outside is a bit different. “My goal tonight”–big pause–“is to make the lions rap.” And so together we stand in unison–us, the sold-out audience; Holdengräber, our bemused Belgian moderator; and, with him onstage, Princeton professor and Matrix veteran Cornel West–as Jay-Z bounds out to the opening strains of “December 4th,” and embraces at last the role of rap world cool dad.
It is easy, in the slapstick of the moment (or, as Holdengräber cheerfully puts it at one point, “the euphoria of ignorance”), to forget that Jay-Z’s headlining appearance at the main branch of the New York Public Library is a milestone as significant in its own way as the rapper’s ten Grammys and eleven number one records. In the front row tonight is not just David Remnick but Harry Belafonte, not just Lupe Fiasco but Zadie Smith. Decoded, the book we’re all here to celebrate, is a genuine accomplishment (more on this subject in our new issue) too, if not, perhaps, the one that that the entranced Holdengräber and West seem to think it is. (As autobiography, which is where most of the evening’s questions from both men tend to drift, Decoded is evocative, but elusive at best.) But we’re still allowed to laugh when Jay and his assembled moderators play Laurel and Hardy, right?
Jay-Z, talking about what kind music he listens to: “Everything from Thom Yorke to Ol’ Dirty Bastard.”
Holdengräber, staring blankly at Jay-Z: “You will lose me at times.”
Holdengräber, on his own, very different background: “I grew up listening to various versions of The Magic Flute.”
Jay-Z, staring blankly at Paul Holdengräber: “You will lose me at times.”
Tonight we get hyperbole (“It’s as if you became the Ezra Pound to your own T.S. Eliot,” Holdengräber says, regarding the way in which Jay-Z annotated his own lyrics for Decoded), questions that are not questions but statements (Holdengräber again: “For a man like me, you create a sense of intimacy”), and of course, Cornel West, who knows less about rap than he thinks he does, but still has the wit and revolutionary politics to call out Jay-Z for giving “Empire State of Mind” such an imperialist song title. “I’m in deep solidarity with my indigenous brothers,” West says, chidingly.
But as Jay-Z noted at the beginning of the evening, “Any lyric or any music without context is a lie,” and this, ultimately, is why we are here–to watch Jay quote Houston rapper Scarface’s lyrics on Jay’s own “This Can’t Be Life” to an audience otherwise largely unequipped to parse the song without its back-story, Scarface getting a phone call about the death of a friend’s son and walking straight into the booth to lay down his verse, Jay rapping the first couple bars to an utterly spellbound and quiet room. To watch the rapper begin talking about “99 Problems” in the third person–“this guy knows a little bit about the law, because he’s always breaking it”–and shift somewhere in there, along with his audience, to the first, riding off from the cops with drugs in the car just as the canine unit comes screaming down the highway in the other direction. Get it? he asks. “I got 99 problems–but that bitch ain’t one.” It’s probably the loudest laugh he receives all night, and the sound, however fragile, of a bunch of people understanding for perhaps the first time what it is to get away with it, and live to tell the tale. This why Jay-Z’s fans listen to his music, in part, and though a man who has sold as many records as he has probably doesn’t need the converts, it’s always nice to see him make a few more.
Oh, and he’s still talking about magicians for some reason. “The magician,” Jay said toward the end of the night, “has to learn the value of the feint.” He was talking about tricking the publishers of Annie into giving him the rights to sample their music, but he could’ve been talking about the slight of hand that led us all into the library last night, too, where hundreds of law-abiding New York citizens were induced by Jay-Z to cheer Shawn Carter’s criminal escapades in the early ’90s. Welcome to the rap fan’s eternal dilemma, assembled bourgeoisie. It never really gets any easier, but it definitely stays this fun.