A brother ain’t a brother unless he’s struggling.
That’s a notion Jay-Z has battled for years, as white critics -- and even some white fans -- have told him to shut up already about his money. Every American, regardless of race, has been conditioned to be suspicious of black capability and success. Jay’s wealth rap blows Cohiba Comador cigar smoke in the face of that conditioning.
His latest, 4:44, is a response to many things – to Beyonce and to Kanye, to growing older, to being a husband and a son and a father, to the tenor of indirectness in Trump’s America. But as No I.D.’s pristinely paced and buttery production melts into the flapjack of the MC’s impassioned yet stern dad/CEO flow, Jay also uses the occasion of his 13th studio album to offer something more: an explanation of the virtues of black success.
It starts with O.J.
Jay opens his bars on “The Story of O.J.” with “O.J. like, I’m not black, I’m O.J. … OK.” In that pause, more pregnant than a twin-carrying Bey, you hear a black man shrugging at another’s way of confronting the mindset of niggerdom, the belief in inherent shortcoming. O.J. Simpson’s attempt to assimilate was his personal approach to the dilemma James Baldwin once identified – either you accept the role of the violent black subhuman, or you live twisting in the margins with no identity at all. Maybe O.J.’s methods weren't perfect (cough), maybe Jay sees hints of O.J.’s psychological unraveling in those methods. But maybe they built the backbone for a perspective that paved the way for Simpson’s unprecedented success as a public figure and black athlete.
“Family Feud,” the album’s best song, plumbs the depths of black insecurity, then rises again, buoyed by the beauty of Bey’s family hug of a feature, to the triumph of being Puffy’s peer and of just drinking some black-ass Ciroc. But along the way, Jay lays bare the logical fallacy at the heart of a standard hip-hop boast. “I would say I'm the realest nigga rapping,” he slow raps. “But that ain't even a statement/ That's like saying i'm the tallest midget/ Wait, that ain't politically correct, forget it.” Niggas can’t be real, can’t have insight, poetic ability, Jay suggests. And then he apologizes. Not to black people or to himself for considering black faculties limited, but to little people for using that insensitive term, maybe even for comparing them to niggas. That’s black self-loathing at its finest.
Jay-Z is the first rapper to remain commercially and artistically successful into middle-age. And as Dave Chappelle once joked, being the first black anything should be avoided. The first black president, Chappelle said back in 2004, would be blamed for everything. In his “Black Bush” sketch Chappelle suggested that if George W. Bush had been black, his sketchy decisions and justifications for them would have seemed immediately specious to white people, who’d already be prone to seeing a black president’s actions as stupid to begin with.
Watching this, as a black person, before Barack Obama was elected, I laughed at the satirical exaggeration. But it couldn’t prepare me for Congress’s spiteful stonewalling of Obama’s agenda, for the snide phrase “Thanks Obama.” Even with Chappelle screaming the truth at my black self, I couldn't anticipate how much white people disdain successful black people, especially black people who are the first to do something. Rise to the top, and what does many a white see? As Jay puts it: “Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga – still nigga.’” Even we win, its about how we didn’t lose.
In the Obama era, Jay and many other rappers started letting loose. I mean, my president is black … and, you know what, man, I have a Lamborghini and it’s fucking blue. It was a time of black celebration and potential realizations built on a new baseline sense of finally having at least some social standing. Hip hop now had abstract space to work in. Rappers, freed of having to assert their basic human dignity, delved into more trenchant ambiguities of blackness and of existence in general, creating more impressionistic hip hop beats and flows. The mold was (slowly) breaking for black art and for black people.
But now? In a time of distrust and confusion and double-speak and hidden tax returns and nonexistent cable news standards, the exuberant, melodramatic, exploratory, abstract stuff just isn't what we need. (Paging Kendrick Lamar, paging Kendrick Lamar and his too-smart-to-settle-on-a-cohesive-message grad-student-forever flow.)
“America like me ruthless,” Jay-Z raps straightforwardly on “Smile,” hard-sprinting against the headwind of No I.D.’s amped beat. Throughout the new album, he explicitly lays out the virtues of generational wealth and the traps that stunt black wealth accumulation, but this has been the obvious subtext – if not the text-text – of Jay-Z celebrating his ability to achieve from the start. Jay’s rhymes have always been about moving up and staying up.
But as Jenna Wortham said recently on the "Still Processing" podcast, black people have national hashtags for when we get murdered, not for when good stuff happens to us. We’re supposed to be remorseful. Any album where Jay boasts of “busting open Bentley doors like we invented doors” has to include a track where he confesses how foolish every V12 engine purchase was. Jay can’t just simply say “Knock, knock, come see what your neighbor ‘bout skkkkkkkkkkkkkrt.”
Black joy is disdained, as though it lacks depth or nuance, maybe even as though it’s unnatural or insincere. The scene in the ESPN documentary O.J.: Made in America that shows the celebrations after O.J.’s acquittal is the happiest I can recall seeing black people in any footage anywhere. I wept, at first at the sight of that joy, then at the realization that the only way black people can eke out even that small portion of joy is through some really fucked up circumstances. Victory is so scarce, control of our stories so rare, black life so routinely discarded, that we had to seize and relish the distasteful opportunity of acquitting and freeing this surely guilty black man, just so we could stay sane.
Having broken free of the stereotypical black struggle, Jay instead opens up about his personal record, his long career as a public figure, and there’s plenty for him to be self-deprecating or apologetic about, plenty for listeners to quibble with, from his spat with Funk Flex to his stabbing of Un. There's more history here than if Hillary Clinton dropped a record.
So the people got what they wanted: a more sober, more somber Jay. 4:44 has been called a return to greatness, and it is his most concise and direct album in a while. But more to the point, times like this demand an album like this – properly reflective in tone and lyric, but modern and present. No I.D.’s production feels classic, a perfect medley of soul samples with an ear for trippy, trappy repetition and structure. After Lemonade, Jay had to dig deeper, to apologize in order to move on, and this story of acknowledgement and acceptance and optimism demands that he look at himself, at blackness, at Kanye. (Please be friends again, guys. This is worse than if Jay and Bey split up. Worse than when my parents did.) But if this is the album 2017 needs from Jay, it’s not the end of the story. He might drop 10 more in his lifetime. There's gonna be a lot going on besides just project niggas scrapping for some livelihood. There’s gotta be.
A capable, confident brother is a scary thing, and the closest some white people can come to imaginging such a threat and a horror is a Planet of the Apes movie. But as expectations keep descending lower, Jay keeps raising the ceiling higher – like we fucking invented ceilings.