The symbol of JAY-Z exists far beyond that of just: a rapper. He’s everything that the world has come to love and hate about a black man in equal measure: He’s rich, successful, multitalented, and his close relationship with Barack Obama has no doubt had an influence.
But, of course, he’s a much more complex than his persona. We must acknowledge the complexity of being both JAY-Z and Shawn Carter and how black masculinity can be affected and harmful in a number of ways.
Since his marriage to Beyoncé, JAY-Z has staked very few public risks with his reputation, making the choice of subject matter of his new album, 4:44, all the more significant. It would be inaccurate to say that 4:44 is the first time he has explored his childhood and private life, but the frankness and vulnerability of his introspection on display certainly feels new.
Critics and fans alike have lauded the album, particularly the titular song, as his most expressive yet. However, if we’re to admire him for beginning to delve deep on 4:44, we dismiss the other stories he’s told across twelve albums and by doing that we view him through a singular lens. There’s no one type of JAY-Z fan, he exists in a variety of different spaces and this does end up ultimately dictating how he’s perceived within pop culture.
JAY-Z grew up as Shawn Carter in the Marcy Projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. He had a life as a drug dealer at a time when Reaganomics and the ‘war on drugs’ impacted urban America like never before. At the age of 12, he shot his older brother in the shoulder during a period when the latter was addicted to crack.
He first shared this experience with The Guardian in 2010 - but he’d littered clues to this formative incident across his discography. On ‘You Must Love Me’, a track from 1997’s In My Lifetime Vol. 1, he rapped: “Got intense real intense as we got older, never believed it would lead to me poppin' one in your shoulder / Where my rings? Knew you had it cause you took too long.” The line suggested a lack of remorse at the time, that JAY-Z wasn’t about to apologise for the things he had to do in order to survive, even if it meant shooting his brother.
The complexity of the story suggests Carter acted out of fear more than anything. In the interview, goes so far as to say. "It was terrible. I was a boy, a child. I was terrified.”
That the reaction to 4:44 is that it’s being considered his most fallible release yet suggests that violence is something that come to be expected of black men in hip-hop. It could be that, given the stereotypes that inform society’s attitudes towards hip-hop and black men, the shooting wasn’t unimaginable - or even particularly remarkable - in the eyes of many. It would be extreme to demonise him for the incident, but to ignore its impact only contributes to continued stereotyping and prejudice. Every record where JAY-Z recounts tales and experiences of being shot at is reliving a trauma that has become normalised within our society.
Last year, Gucci Mane revealed his own testimony of living with PTSD. And while there has been a growing conversation regarding the low-income environments working class black people come from, we are yet to reach a place where every time someone shares their experiences of growing up around guns and gang culture, compassion and empathy is the first emotion we employ rather than distant, condescending sympathy. Largely this angle is often ignored as it requires people to have a broader understanding of trauma and as we know, the nuances of black experiences tend to be disregarded the most.
By no means am I diagnosing Carter with PTSD, I’m far from qualified, but how often have young rappers been equipped and guided through an industry that wasn’t built for them? The stabbing of his associate Lance “Un” Rivera in December, 1999 becomes much easier to understand when you consider the lack of support there is in the music industry, combined with the hyper-masculine energy surrounding hip-hop at the time.
If there’s an exploration of a universal experience of which most can relate to and something JAY-Z has come to symbolise over the years, fans and critics are choosing to hear relatable stories of love, relationships and infidelity, while othering those stories that seem distant to them. Not forgetting that JAY-Z’s contributions to black culture have fed into pop, what that does mean is that those distinct experiences that have defined him have now become homogenised?
Pop culture is still a vehicle for the colourblind whiteness that exists within the entertainment industry. The empathy and precision needed to navigate symbolic figures like JAY-Z can often be found lacking.
JAY-Z has shared his traumatic experiences over the years with his double entendres and metaphors but the mainstream lens in which hip hop is consumed doesn’t cater to the nuances of diverse, black stories.
There’s a disconnect with 4:44, however, which lies in the complicated way in which he is perceived within the black community. Many people have come to take ownership of the symbolism of ‘JAY-Z’ because of what he may mean to them, but this is where hero worship often leads to our own disappointment. And ultimately ends up being the gift and the curse of being JAY-Z.
Over the course of his career, JAY-Z has consolidated his position as the figurehead for ‘black excellence’. He released his debut album as an underground rapper and in less than a year he was the future - the black rags to riches story. Atlanta-based hip hop writer Yoh wrote an article for Mass Appeal on how Hov’s Reasonable Doubt and the Blueprint trilogy are, themselves “the blueprint to being a rap legend, a crossover success, and finally, an iconic God amongst men.” And it’s true.
JAY’s leaning towards black capitalism leaves a lot to be desired. After transcending the realm of hip-hop into business, he became part-owner of the Brooklyn Nets, convincing to relocate from New Jersey. In many ways, this decision would be the catalyst for the gentrification of downtown Brooklyn. Rather than feeling remorse for this, he instead laments his decision not to capitalise earlier and buy property in the area (DUMBO) on ‘The Story of OJ’. “I coulda bought a place in DUMBO before it was DUMBO / For like 2 million / That same building today is worth 25 million / Guess how I'm feelin'? Dumbo.”
On the same track, he raps “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.” Intergenerational wealth is a layered issue and given that the majority of black people across the world are working class, access to it becomes more distant.
We revere JAY-Z for attaining a place in life that he speaks freely about on ‘The Story of OJ’, and it’s a great thing to achieve, but capitalism fundamentally relies on people losing out. It means he is an artist who simultaneously uses his music to explore the hardships of his upbringing, while also rueing missed opportunities to profit from gentrification. This seems disappointing when many basic survival needs, such as the Affordable Care Act, are under constant threat.
Ultimately, he’s not ours to forgive. JAY-Z isn’t ‘ours’, but our deification defines him. It gives us something to discuss, but in doing so, we must contextualise him, both within our multi-layered pop culture, and as an artist removed from it. He’s still the first rapper turned billionaire and maybe that means something, but his nostalgic visit back to Brooklyn on ‘Marcy Me’ tells us one thing - he isn’t afraid to be Shawn Carter.
“Old Brooklyn, not this new shit, shit feel like a spoof / Fat laces in your shoe, I'm talkin' bustin' off the roof.”