“For black America needs a politics whose first mission isn’t the reinforcement of the idea of black America; and a discourse of race that isn’t centrally concerned with preserving the idea of race and racial unanimity. We need something we don’t yet have: a way of speaking about black poverty that doesn’t falsify the reality of black advancement; a way of speaking about black advancement that doesn’t distort the enduring realities of black poverty.”
-Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Shawn Carter is the most singularly successful individual in Hip Hop history. He is the poster child for the hustler who masquerades as a rapper. A pen scripting life to the realities of the street corner. A voice adding melody to the symphony of the slums. A salve which eases the pain of countless stick up kids and dealers whose existence is filled with nothing more than the mission to experience another sunrise. Shawn Carter is the ghetto’s Jesus. A black man who dared call himself “Jay-Hova” (Hov for short) and, having proven his lyrical prowess so great that such blasphemy was universally accepted. He is corporate America’s go-to taste maker for fashion, liquor, and product placement. He is a conglomerate unto himself. He is husband to the most famous living entertainer. He is a new father to the most fawned over twins this side of the Olsens. He is, with respect to Dos Equis, the most interesting man in the world.
And such is the potential of all black men who have proven themselves unique, talented, and with the capacity to crossover. Moreover, Jay-Z represents the rare black artist who has crossed into mainstream popularity while retaining virtually all of his urban credibility. In this sense, Jay-Z is the embodiment of everything black men strive to attain. The respect of the larger black populace, the admiration of the white gatekeepers who hold the keys to financial immortality, and the hearts of the very project street corners from whence he was birthed. This is not to suggest that there haven’t been hardships along the way, it’s just that any perceived adversity seems so easily conquerable that it is hard to imagine someone of Jay-Z’s stature in any state of real distress. Which is why his latest studio album, his 13th overall; is such a stunning revelation.
4:44 is Jay-Z’s most personal work since his 2003 “retirement” offering, The Black Album. It’s also the most socially and racially conscious album of his entire career. What makes this project special isn’t that fact however, it’s how Hov chooses to convey his thoughts. The album is essentially a message to the black man. It is a point by point breakdown of how the black male in America can achieve within a system built to profit off of his failure. He lays down the blueprint (if you will) of every tool needed to begin one’s journey to economic security, and he does so by utilizing the best example at his disposal.
The album’s opening track, bleakly titled “Kill Jay-Z” is an intense examination of missteps in both his relationships with family, his wife, and those thought to be his closest associates. To quote a Nas lyric, “It’s not your enemies who get you, it’s always your own people.”
“You got people you love you sold drugs to
You got high on the life, that shit drugged you!
You walkin’ around like you invincible
You dropped outta school, you lost your principles
I know people backstab you, I felt bad too
But this ‘fuck everybody’ attitude ain’t natural
But you ain’t a Saint, this ain’t KumbaYe
But you got hurt because you did cool by ‘Ye
You gave him 20 million without blinkin’
He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinkin’?”
The lyrics read like proverbs to any and all black men. We are not all drug dealers, and we certainly do not all have twenty million dollars laying around that we can loan out to overly ambitious associates who seem to be mentally trapped in the sunken place. But we do understand what it means to experience regret at decisions we’ve made both selfishly and selflessly. We are trying to survive, and survival means not always having the opportunity to decode right from wrong within the moment. However, there are certain mistakes we as black men oftentimes make that cannot so easily be pinned on others or circumstance.
“You egged Solange on knowin’ all along
all you had to say you was wrong
You almost went Eric Benét
Let the baddest girl in the world get away
I don’t even know what else to say
Nigga, never go Eric Benét!
I don’t even know what you woulda done
In the Future, other niggas playin’ football with your son
You woulda lost it
Thirteen bottles of Ace of Spade, what it did to Boston”
The manner in which some black men treat their black spouses is controversial to say the least. Many black men feel that black women have given up on them. Many feel as if they cannot find true love or respect through black coupling. Sometimes these feelings are generated from true instances of heartbreak or rejection, but the majority of times these sentiments are an excuse for black men to shun the responsibility of leading the movement towards true reconciliation. Jay-Z is a man who can call one of the most desirable, intelligent, and dynamic women on the planet his own, and yet even he fell victim to the age old temptation of infidelity. This put at risk the most high profile black marriage next to Obama and Michelle. Not to mention potentially damaging his relationship with his children and a blow to his reputation and empire. The phrase “Nigga NEVER go Eric Benet!” is as simple a call to black men as it gets. We HAVE to do better when it comes to faithfully keeping the structure of our families intact. If you have a successful, faithful, woman whom you have chosen to give your last name, the last thing that her and your children deserve is to be torn apart by our own carnal desires. This is of course easier said than done, but commandments weren’t written to be easy, and neither is life.
The second track, “The Story Of OJ” is the reemergence of “Woke” Hov, not heard from since 2011’s Watch The Throne track Murder To Excellence. It is a parable using the infamous OJ Simpson’s tragic story of racial betrayal as a warning for those black men who conveniently forget their heritage once the white gatekeepers toss them a piece of the pie. It is also a checkpoint for those looking for the easiest “answer” in cracking the code of black wealth.
“You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit . You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it.”
This is the hook, the promise of being granted the access to riches beyond your wildest imagination. What does it take? An offshore bank account? Investments in African diamond mines? A trip to the nearest New York Life Insurance branch? Let’s read on…
“Financial freedom my only hope
Fuck livin’ rich and dyin’ broke
I bought some artwork for 1 million
2 years later, that shit worth 2 million
Few years later, that shit worth 8 million
I can’t wait to give this shit to my children
Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine
But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99”
Paintings Hov? REALLY!?!?! Is what some would shout after hearing those lines so confidently spit by our boy Jigga. Who the hell has the money to invest in Basquiat’s finest while they’re struggling to pay monthly rent? But again, the trained ear is listening to Jay take his own life and utilize it as a tool for the listener to incorporate into their own present circumstances. Investment in property for the sake of one’s future and not one’s immediate ego is the key. It’s the difference between an LLC for a small business or the latest Jordans. Whatever stage of financial path you are currently walking can be surpassed with the mindset that you are a potential business, and the first investment should always be in yourself.
The album’s third track, “Smile”, is a look into Jay-Z’s life we haven’t had the pleasure to experience. Long silent about his immediate family (save for 1997’s You Must Love Me and 2003’s December 4th) Jay-Z confesses his mother’s sexual orientation and the toll it took on her hiding it for most of her adult life.
“Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian
Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian
Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate
Society shame and the pain was too much to take
Cried tears of joy when you fell in love
Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her
I just wanna see you smile through all the hate
Marie Antoinette, baby, let ’em eat cake”
Jay takes his mother’s struggles, his own failures at securing a major label deal early in his career, and the degree earned from attending the school of hard knocks; and flips it into an empire that boasts platinum records, Grammy awards, and millions of dollars in worth. But what he is truly attempting to attain is what black men have been universally dreaming for since we walked off the plantations, financial independence as a collective.
“Fuck a slice of the apple pie, want my own cake
Chargin’ my own fate
Respect Jimmy Lovine
But he gotta respect the Elohim as a whole new regime
And niggas playin’ for power, huh
So our music is ours
Niggas only own houses
Ours was, “Fuck you, pay me”
Now it’s, “Fuck payin’ me, I pay you”
As a black community, we cannot truly be free until we are self sufficient. Jay-Z is playing a very precarious game where his attempts at a full transition from corner thug to boardroom boss is ultimately more important than dollars and cents. It’s about power. It’s about the white gatekeepers being blinded by the light of black excellence and using that momentary advantage to seize the one and only solution to poverty, economic infrastructure completely operated and controlled by the black community.
This message is reinforced in Track 4, “Caught Their Eyes”. Similar to Story Of OJ, Jigga gives a real life example of the ills that oppression has inflicted upon the black male psyche. However, instead of the foolishness of OJ, it is the genius of Prince that is utilized as an example.
“Sat down with Prince, eye to eye
He told me his wishes before he died
Now, Londell McMillan, he must be color blind
They only see green from them purple eyes
They eyes hide, they eyes high
My eyes wide shut to all the lies
These industry niggas, they always been fishy
But ain’t no Biggie, no lazy eye, huh
This guy had ‘Slave’ on his face
You think he wanted the masters with his masters?
You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house
I’m surprised you ain’t auction off the casket”
Prince, along with Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder, represents the shining royalty of black popular music in the modern era. Prince was a fearless proponent of an artist’s right to control their own music. He went to war with both his record label Warner Bros. in 1993, and the internet itself in the 2000’s. Taking all of his music off any and every streaming platform save for Tidal. Upon Prince’s death, his financial handlers immediately made streaming deals with Apple Music, Spotify, and other streaming services, thus conflicting with Prince’s own words and actions while he was alive. Jay-Z’s righteous rage is an archetype for solidarity amongst black artists, because until our art is truly our own, we will always create from the constraints of shackles.
The title track 4:44 is a brutal self flagellation of shame and regret. The saying goes that behind every strong black man is a black woman. And as we take our black women for granted, losing their love and respect, so do we lose our strength. Jay-Z is no better example of this, as his courtship and marriage to Beyoncé has resulted in the two officially becoming a billionaire power couple as of May 2017. However, as Jay-Z would learn, there is no price to be put on heartbreak.
Our love was one for the ages and I contained us
And all this ratchet shit and we more expansive
Not meant to cry and die alone in these mansions
Or sleep with our back turned
We supposed to vacay ’til our backs burn
We’re supposed to laugh ’til our heart stops
And then meet in a space where the dark stop
And let love light the way
Like the men before me, I cut off my nose to spite my face
I never wanted another woman to know
Something about me that you didn’t know
I promised, I cried, I couldn’t hold
I suck at love, I think I need a do-over
I will be emotionally available if I invited you over
I stew over, what if you over my shit?”
The thought of losing the woman you love over a situation that is entirely of your own doing is the paradox from which the epic tragedy that is the downfall of man is written. In our hunger to claim and conquer many, we lose the one that is most important. And in the mission to reforge a black commonwealth, we simply cannot continue to fracture ourselves from our one and only ally, the black woman. To join in one flesh is to construct in one goal. Jay-Z, for all of his street smarts, ambition, and brilliance is but a shooting star. Paired with Beyoncé, who matches him in poise and purpose, they are a Nebula of endless possibility. To lose sight of that is to squander the objective. Black man be warned, you are only one half of the equation. You will not triumph without she who fortifies your back and calms your soul.
Nor will you sire offspring who are worthy of being heirs. It is through our children that our legacies are decided. The Financial, spiritual, and most importantly moral fiber of black families within our community constitutes the best hope for salvation. Children who witness their fathers destroying the mythology of absentee black patriarchy will in turn carry on the practice until a new tradition is born, as Jay explains on the 6th track “Family Feud”.
“A man that don’t take care his family can’t be rich
I’ll watch Godfather, I miss that whole shit
My consciousness was Michael’s common sense
I missed the karma that came as a consequence
Niggas bustin’ off through the curtains ’cause she hurtin’
Kay losin’ the babies ’cause their future’s uncertain
Nobody wins when the family feuds
We all screwed ’cause we never had the tools
I’m tryna fix you
I’m tryna get these niggas with no stripes to be official
Y’all think small, I think Biggie
Y’all whole pass is in danger, ten Mississippi”
There is also strength in numbers. Huey Newton once said that Black Power is giving power to people who have not had power to determine their destiny. Raised in conditions not suited for the lowest zoo animal, Shawn Carter forged friendships of eternal loyalty amongst the decay of Brooklyn’s Marcy Project housing. These young black men, some who were once criminals, were shown a different path through Jay-Z’s success. Though these men’s names don’t ring as loftily or inspire the same esteem, their new lives as entrepreneurs further the design of black progress. Peep Jay’s pride on the fiery and electric 7th track “Bam”.
“Once upon a time in the projects
Shawn was in flight mode, I bought a Pyrex
I was in fight mode and now it’s “fuck me, mijo”
I was movin’ them kilos, help you move your peoples
Sometimes you need your ego, gotta remind these fools
Who they effin’ with, and we got FN’s too
Before we had A&R’s, we had AR’s too
We the only ones really movin’ like y’all say y’all do
We still movin’ like y’all niggas say y’all did
Emory passed you niggas and he did a bid
Ty Ty jumped over niggas and he’s like 5’6″
Today, Jay-Z’s cousin Jamar White is the owner of a Brooklyn based eaterie called Buffalo Boss. Jay-Z’s best friend TyTy Smith is cofounder of Roc Nation, and helps manage the careers of Rihanna and J.Cole. Emory Jones is an apparel specialist for Roc Nation, with his own shoe and clothing line through Puma. Jayvon Smith, the younger brother of TyTy, is cofounder of No Label Watches and owner of the upscale Manhattan Brew & Vinery bar. Putting black men in a position to gain their own power and craft their own legacies is perhaps the greatest example of this album’s premise.
Leading the thirsty to water oftentimes proves difficult when the well is surrounded by the sea. The problem with the sea? It’s salt water, and as our kidneys take in more salt than water, we will dehydrate even as we become thirstier. Such is the music business today. A horde of talented, desperate artists. Dreaming of fortune and fame while the record industry executives drain them of their creativity and vitality. Thirsty for stardom, they sign slave deals from which they will never recoup; giving up ownership of their masters, publishing, and even touring grosses. This can be explained as the almighty conglomerates preying upon the young and easily swayed, but Jay-Z is tired of excuses and implores black artists to utilize personal responsibility and business acumen when navigating the music industry’s treacherous waters. On track 8, “Moonlight” he spits:
“Y’all niggas still signin’ deals? Still?
After all they done stole, for real?
After what they done to our Lauryn Hill?
And y’all niggas is ‘posed to be trill?
That’s real talk when you behind on your taxes
And you pawned all your chains
And they run off with your masters
And took it to Beverly Hills
While we in Calabasas
And my head is scratchin’
Cause that shit is backwards
That shit ain’t right
Lucian is cool but Lucian don’t write
Doug ain’t this tight, so
Fuck what we sellin’
Fuck is we makin’?”
As he so succinctly surmised 16 years ago, Hov did that so hopefully YOU wouldn’t have to go through that. Jay, along with Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke founded their own label, the famous Roc-A-Fella Records, and took destiny into their own hands. They are living proof that black progress is born not from diplomas and certifications, but from the iron will to create prestige from poverty. Imagination is better than knowledge says Einstein.
No classic Jay-Z album is complete without a return home. As T’Challa must inevitably return from all of his globe trotting adventures to Wakanda, so too must Shawn Carter walk the pavements of Marcy Projects. He must breathe the air, hear the sounds, taste the bitter and sour memories of a lifestyle long since abandoned. He must come to grips with his destiny and his demons, he must come full circle. Track 9 “Marcy Me” is Jay-Z’s concerto of the eternal hustler.
Streets is my artery, the vein of my existence
I’m the Gotham City heartbeat
I started in lobbies, now parley with Saudis
I’m a Sufi to goofies, I could probably speak Farsi
That’s poetry, reek of coca leaf in my past
Came through the bushes smellin’ like roses
I need a trophy just for that
Old Brooklyn, not this new shit, shift feel like a spoof
Fat laces in your shoe, I’m talkin’ bustin’ off the roof
Hold a Uzi vertical, let the thing smoke
Y’all flirtin’ with death, I be winkin’ through the scope
Shout out to all the murderers turned murals
Plural fuck the Federal Bureau
Shout out to Nostrand Ave., Flushing Ave., Myrtle
All the County of Kings, may your ground stay fertile
Shout out to Big Poppa, Daddy Kane, heroes
Thus concludin’ my concerto; Marcy me”
Fathers are the first superheroes for children. We look into their wizened faces and see a certain fate reflected back at us. Do we ever truly need to know our fathers? Because in a way whether large or small, do we not end up becoming them? Marvin Gaye’s father was a preacher who also happened to be a violent crossdressing man filled to the brim with jealousy for his son. Marvin himself faced personal and professional demons most of his career until the day his father murdered with the gun Marvin bought for him as a gift. Joseph Jackson was a hard nosed disciplinarian who instilled in his sons a sense of worth through entertainment. Michael Jackson would later become the greatest performer to ever live, whilst also being a stone cold businessman and an obsessive perfectionist. Adnis Reeves left his son at the age of 11 to pursue the person responsible for stabbing his younger brother to death. Would Shawn Carter do the same to his wife and daughter? Would he let his past problems and present desires blind him to the greater calling that his talent and reputation demanded? Would he allow himself to be destroyed by actually believing that he really was what the white world calls a Nigger?
“Take those moneys and spread ‘cross families
My sisters, Hattie and Lou, the nephews, cousins and TT
Eric, the rest to B for whatever she wants to do
She might start an institute
She might put poor kids through school
My stake in Roc Nation should go to you
Leave a piece for your siblings to give to their children too
TIDAL, the champagne, D’USSÉ, I’d like to see
A nice peace-fund idea from people who look like we
We gon’ start a society within a society
That’s major, just like the Negro League
There was a time America wouldn’t let us ball
Those times are now back, just now called Afro-tech
Generational wealth, that’s the key
My parents ain’t have shit, so that shift started with me”
As evidenced by the 10th and final track “Legacy”, the answer is no. Many people think that Jay-Z and Shawn Carter are two different entities, one the mask enshrouding and protecting the soul within. This is untrue, Shawn Carter and Jay-Z are one and the same, Jay-Z is simply the moniker by which Shawn Carter has chosen to express his highest form of freedom. A freedom that allowed him to embrace every aspect of himself; hustler, rapper, CEO, husband, and father. A freedom that allowed him to fall and rise. A freedom that allowed him to admit mistakes and seek forgiveness. A freedom that allowed him to speak to every single black man who has ever dared to dream that they are more than their immediate surroundings. His legacy will be one of the first black men who made Hip Hop a handbook for black entrepreneurship. His legacy will be one of a family whose blackness wasn’t a color to ignore but a hue to celebrate. His legacy will be one of a man who wrote his own album, released it on his own label, and distributed it through his own streaming company.
His legacy is one of black excellence, opulence, and decadence.
You are looking at one smart black boy.