Music

The Politicization of Jay-Z

The true focus of 4:44 lies in politics, not romance.

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Money, it turned out, was exactly like sex. You thought of nothing else if you didn’t have it and thought of other things if you did. — James Baldwin, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy”

Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor. — James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name

He drifted off to sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place. — Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Some of us even hoped integration would be the answer, but integration was one of the biggest mistakes we’ve made. It made the white man think he could be equal to us. I don’t hate the whites. But we must get ahead in business and then use the white man to work for us. Everyone must have his place and it’s time we took our place as the boss. — James Brown

Jay-Z is selling one-third of his Tidal streaming service to Sprint for $200 million, according to a report released earlier today by Billboard….He initially paid $56 million for Tidal….A Sprint spokesperson confirmed…that Jay-Z and his fellow artist-owners would retain equity in the streaming service. Forbes, January 2017

The lil radicals now online assailing Jay-Z for propagating that oxymoron Black Capitalism have got it all wrong. Try Black Tribalism, my nuh. Try Black economic nationalism, to be specific. Marcus Garvey wouldn’t be mad at Hov’s 4:44; nor would Garvey’s hero, Booker T. Washington; nor the heir apparent of Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam; nor Berry Gordy neither. Not to mention David Bowie, who related how, when he first shook P. Diddy’s hand, Diddy said, “Wow, strong grip — I need to meet your trainer.” To which Bowie retorted, “That grip’s not from the gym, Puff. That’s from forty years of trying to hold on to your money in the music business.”

It’s easy to forget in the fog of marital wars, Bey, and bling that Jay is a Brooklyn-project and New Jersey–public-high-school dropout who rapped his way to running a near billion-dollar empire that has already out-gripped Bowie in its myriad holdings. Now, if you take Hov at his word, he wants to use those Midas resources to go where no musical race-man before him has gone in putting his art, his philanthropy, and his boardroom acquisitions toward Black liberation.

Jay-Z’s thirteenth album is being rightly touted for its True Confessions and marital professions, but read between the coded lines, 4:44 is also a business primer from the only rapper in the top twenty of Forbes’s richest-celebrities list who’s been investing his money into new ventures as fast as he makes it. “Y’all out here still takin’ advances/Me and my niggas takin’ real chances,” Jay tells us on “The Story of O.J.” A cursory look at his wide range of investments — sports bars, sports teams, a sports agent company, real estate, hotels, beverages, clothing, and, at one point, a group looking to build a racetrack casino in Queens — affirms his sense of financial adventurism. The philanthropic bent that saw him setting up trust funds for Sean Bell’s children, bailing out Black Lives Matter activists, and producing a documentary about the brutality at Rikers that drove Kalief Browder to suicide is less apparent from scanning Jay’s Forbes updates.

4:44 finds Jay and innovative, intimacy-obsessed producer No I.D. reinvigorating Jay’s capacity for superlative rap artistry with a dreamy banquet of plaintive tracks that treat samples from Nina Simone, Donny Hathaway, and Stevie Wonder as portals to spiritual and pecuniary deliverance. Jay’s in high messianic mode as flawed father, husband, and community business leader throughout. There’s mos def a newfound passion and a purpose to his writing as he ramps up the gravitas of his verses, demands respect for his adulthood, and expands his multigenerational and gender-nonconforming flock like no rapper before him. (“Smile” ’s embrace of his mother Grace’s coming out and his couplet in defense of Young Thug’s dandyism strike us as warm, palpitating gestures in that latter regard.) In terms of sustaining millennial relevancy into middle age, he’s become like the Rolling Stones, the hardest-working measure of how long beyond the age of forty you can sell out stadiums in a youthcentric genre.

Contrary to social-media punting, 4:44 isn’t defined by The Apology — though don’t get it twisted: It is one helluva apology, eloquently worded and full of excruciatingly personal detail. But last time we checked there’s only one person on the planet who has to find Hov credible in actual life, and as savvy as the scenes-from-a-marriage gambit proved to ensure a boffo opening week, the true focus of this terse and finely composed, fiercely quotable album lies more in politics than romance. Simply put, 4:44 is the most provocatively pro–Black Nationalist rap album since Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet — hell, for the implications of this lyric from “Legacy” alone: “We gonna start a society within society/That’s major/Just like the Negro Leagues…Generational wealth that’s the key.” That sentiment is underscored by “Family Feud”: “What’s better than one billionaire? Two. ’Specially if they’re from the same hue as you.”

Those lines aren’t about the part of Black Nationalism that has to do with a plan for sticking it to the man. They’re coming from that microeconomic level of Nubonic consciousness that made Kwanzaa creator Maulana Ron Karenga devote an entire day to meditating on Ujamaa, the principle of “cooperative economics” as defined this way: “To build and maintain our own stores, shops, and other businesses and to profit from them together.” A substantial portion of 4:44 is devoted to Jay trying to convince We the People that his purchase of Tidal was motivated by that boilerplate Black cultural nationalist ethos, building on Garvey’s vision of the Black community becoming a solvent tribe who would nationalize every business that profited in their community. Obama showed us the limits and leverages of Afro-pragmatism. While the best minds of our millennial generation subdivide over Afrofuturism versus Afro-pessimism (a pitting of our Venusians against our Nietzscheans, essentially), Jay returns to remind of the kulcha’s true cosmological constant: namely, Afro-hustle-ism, that scheming and dreaming, make a way out or no way out, innovate or die survivalism at the heart of our aesthetic pursuit of market performance excellence.

“You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club?” Jay asks in “The Story of O.J.” “Credit. You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it.” Anyone who takes offense at Jay going there doesn’t know how much the Black Nationalists admire Jewish culture and financial combat in Anglo America. Hell, even today we got a whole sect of aggressive Bible-studying street corner lecturers wanting to cut out the middle-mensch and prove with scripture that Blackfolk are “The Real Jews.”

Jay being a rapper means he’s prone to exaggerate for effect. “All the property in America” is therefore poetic license. “Hella property in America” might be more accurate. And in any event, those still wanting to charge Jay with a lyrical hate crime will have to get in line behind all my grassroots Black cultural nationalists with zero tolerance for irony, who now want him tarred and feathered for portraying Nina Simone and Huey Newton as minstrel acts in the “Story of O.J.” video. Everybody talks about the white gaze of white supremacy, but damn if he didn’t throw it up on the screen in buck-and-winging black-and-white while giving us (a) the sexiest and most hypnotic use of a Nina classic for a beat, ever; (b) the most grotesque, grueling, and catchy chorus of the year: “Light nigger, dark nigger; faux nigger, real nigger; rich nigger, poor nigger; house nigger, field nigger — still nigger”; and (c) as sniper-scoped an assault on the shady internecine delusions of various parties within the race as we’ve heard since Brother Malcolm said, “You don’t catch hell ’cause you’re a Methodist or Baptist. You don’t catch hell because you’re a Democrat or a Republican. You don’t catch hell because you’re a Mason or an Elk, and you sure don’t catch hell because you’re an American; because if you were an American, you wouldn’t catch hell. You catch hell because you’re a Black man.”

Fifty years ago, Black Nationalist systems analyst Harold Cruse composed the very contrarian Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, a tome whose core argument held that all our movements for justice to date had been doomed because they failed to forge a dynamic synthesis of politics, culture, and economics. Those of us who knew our Cruse thought hip-hop was poised to become the Movement that implemented that pyramid schema. We were quickly disabused of that fantasy by the throwback gangsta-centric Bling Moment — a bubbly and boobalicious rebuke of conscious rap in favor of conspicuous consumption, a turn of the boom-bap screw promoted by hip-hop’s first generation of corporate nouveau riche, the tribe who, yes, found their most relentless avatar in one Shawn Carter.

It is to some degree the function of celebrity to obfuscate, if not choke off, the conversation about income disparity and wealth redistribution in this country. Which makes Jay the last guy you would expect to be on a race-man mission to save his peeps with his profits — and certainly the last one many would like to find credible in the role. But here he is on 4:44 attempting to declare that he’s exactly all about That Life now. In the rudderless free fall of this post-Obama void, when old-school organized African-American politics lies fallow and even Black Lives Matter seems muted, if not neutered, by Mein Chumpf–ism, all eyes being on Bey-Z, Kendrick, and Solange makes perfect agitpop sense. All four have become our default stand-ins until the next grassroots groundswell of racially motivated rageaholics arrive straight outta Combahee. Bey-Z in particular have become the ready-made meme targets of everything our online punditry considers positive or abhorrent about Blackfolk in the 21st century. In this regard, the net effect of Black America’s most polarizing couple and their mutually woke stances since Lemonade made this reporter recall his favorite celebrity quote ever about fame, fortune, wagging tongues, good intentions, and the salty, fickle public eye. The celeb in question was one Howlin’ Wolf, who put ’em all in check, naysayers and glad-handers alike, with: “I must be doing something, because if I wasn’t doing nothing, wouldn’t nobody be talking.”

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