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Dissecting Jay-Z

Yesterday’s New York Times profile of Jay-Z (courtesy of unimpeachable novelist/memoirist Zadie Smith) took a precariously laudatory tone toward its subject, a tack that helped both to highlight the Jiggaman’s extant qualities (of which there are many) as well as the contradictions that make those qualities such a tough pill to swallow.

The article’s cause célèbre—the opening of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which will house the partly-Hova-owned New York Nets—exemplifies this apparent contradiction.

Housed in Jay-Z’s neighborhood of origin, the center will drive economic resurgence in a region long considered low on the social rungs. However, it’s hard to say whether Jay’s involvement is better described as charity or mercantilism, since he undoubtedly stands to add to his $460 million personal fortune as an upshot of the deal.

This conflation of his personal betterment with the betterment of his community spills over into his music, a phenomenon of which Smith proves a passionate proponent.

Here she is in regards to Jay and Kanye West’s collaborative album Watch the Throne from last year:

[The album] paints the world black: black bar mitzvahs, black cars, paintings of black girls in the MoMA, all black everything, as if it might be possible in a single album to peel back thousands of years of negative connotation.

While this optimistic view of the LP casts it as a manifesto for community empowerment, other critics have looked with scorn on the album’s baroque materialism, especially coming as it did in the midst of the vituperative, if somewhat soft-headed, Occupy Wall Street movement.

Like many celebrities whose fates hinge on their ability to maintain a broad appeal, Jay voices sympathy for the little men while simultaneously betraying the reality that he no longer counts himself amongst their ranks.

Here he is talking about Odd Future: “People have a real aversion to what people in power did to the country. So they’re just lashing out, like: ‘This is the son that you made…Look at what you’ve done.’” But when confronted with questions about Occupy Wall Street, a movement that (at its best) claimed the aforesaid logic as its own, Jay responds, “What’s the thing on the wall, what are you fighting for?”

Smith pays lip service to the contradictions inherent to hip-hop’s DNA—“Jay-Z writes that ‘rap is built to handle contradictions,’ and Hova, as he is nicknamed, is as contradictory as they come”—but comes out clearly in support of the view that hip-hop serves as a moral force for good within the African American community.

Sussing out whether or not that assertion holds true is so tortuous as to be nearly impossible, owing in large part to the truth of Jay’s assertion—hip-hop is indeed well-suited to the simultaneous housing of conflicting themes.

Whether or not you think that scheme winds up putting more check marks in the “positive” or “negative” side of the moral ledger likely depends on the political beliefs you carry into the debate to begin with. And since crawling into that rhetorical scrum to pry truth from artifice smacks of Sisyphusian scale, perhaps it would be of benefit to both artists and observes if we judged the art of hip-hop for its resounding merit as art.

About the Author


Shane Danaher's affection for pop music has peppered his adult life with a variety of aesthetically rewarding and financially disastrous decisions. After moving to Portland, Oregon for college (because that's where he heard Modest Mouse was from) Shane has wound up participating in the music world in roles ranging from 'drummer' to 'promoter' to 'bathroom floor scrubber.' He has toured without money, written about almost every band ever to have come out of the Pacific Northwest, and one time traveled all the way to Los Angeles just to see a catch hip-hop show. He currently resides in Portland, where he writes about hip-hop, pop and rock music for a variety of publications. He still plays drums. He wants to meet Kanye West.

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Posted in: Hip Hop Music