It’s strange to think how a white boy from the north shore of Chicago could see himself in the music of a hustler from The Marcy Projects. But I love Jay-Z. I also saw myself in the music of a rude boy from Trenchtown. I love Bob Marley. It’s tempting to say I love the music of Jay-Z, it’s tempting to say I love the music of Bob Marley, but it’s a lie, an understatement in trying to downplay how tightly I’ve woven my identity into the tapestry of their storytelling.
The greatness of their art is undeniable. When Bob Marley sang, “Get Up Stand Up, Stand Up For Your Rights,” I took it as an invitation to make a break from the things I was told that I had to be when I was growing up and bushwhack my way on a path I still cannot explain, on a path where I still cannot see how it ends. I’m one year past the halfway point to one hundred. You’d think by now I’d see the light. But I’m surrounded by darkness and I’m okay with the darkness, it’s sexy.
“I’m a hustler homie. You’re a customer crony. Got some dirt on my shoulder, could you brush it off for me?”
If Shawn Carter’s dad made it too hard on him, well then my dad made it too easy on me. I remember when I finally earned the opportunity to go to school in New York City, I opened up my life to everyone I knew, inviting them to crash on my floor, wanting to share the moment. My dad was paying the rent. This is what he said to me, “How can you help other people when you can’t even help yourself?” I was naive. This is the downside of being raised spoiled. I can’t blame my dad, he was trying to do the right thing which is never an easy thing to see when you love someone. You think you’re helping by giving them what they want but really you’re stealing from them the turbulence they need to better understand a world filled with friends who are stealing your mojo, girlfriends and boyfriends who are holding you back, siblings you’re better off shooting.
Legend has it, Sean Carter shot his brother when he was 12 years old for stealing his jewelry. Think about what jewelry means to a child living in the projects. It’s status. It’s success. It’s a signal, in a very small world, that you’re someone who’s going places. All of this is bullshit but not through the eyes of a 12 year old child.
Unfortunately, my time machine is broken so I can’t go back in time but if I could, I would throw everyone out of my apartment, I would throw everyone out of my life. Then I’d go back further in time and never invite them to join me in New York City. Then I’d go back further in time and never quit the swim team going into my sophomore year of high school. At the time, I quit the team because I was tired of going back and forth in a pool, it was boring. I reeked of chlorine, my skin was chalky. I wanted to get a job, save money, buy a car, kiss a girl. But if I had only fought through the boredom, allowed myself to reek and applied lotion, if only I had denied myself the obsession of romance, maybe it would have occurred to me to shoot my brother before he stole my future. Probably not. I’m not a violent person. But when I sing along to Jay-Z, it’s fun to imagine being ruthless.
“Got a project chick that plays a part and if it goes down, y’all, that’s my heart. Baby girl so thorough, she’s been with me from the start. Hid my drugs from the NARC’s. Hid my guns by the park.”
I’m having a hard time processing the deal Jay-Z made with The NFL. Please understand, it doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t care about you. He certainly doesn’t care about Colin Kaepernick. He does in so far as he knows how to use Colin Kaepernick to get where he wants to go, but Jay-Z is not interested in making a difference, Jay-Z is interested in making a deal.
Imagine if Dr. King had been interested in making a deal, if after the deal he kept Rosa Parks off the bus, if after the deal he encouraged everyone to call off the march from Selma to Montgomery, if after the deal he encouraged everyone to keep sitting in the back of the bus, for now. That he struck a deal with the bus company, and his deal was enough, and his deal was beyond kneeling.
Take it or leave it, Rosa.
The miscalculation in the math of my social justice word problem is Dr. King was preaching in a small room on Dexter Avenue unlike Jay-Z who raps in sold out stadiums. I saw in Jay-Z something that was not there. I’m having a hard time processing the deal Jay-Z made with The NFL because I’m too stupid to see what’s right in front of my face.
I did the same thing with Barack Obama.
I looked underneath the word problem when he said his thoughts were evolving on gay marriage. It didn’t add up. I should have taken him at his word. I couldn’t imagine being smarter than Barack Obama. I doubted myself. I’ve got 99 problems and this is one.
Yes, Barack is more accomplished. Yes, Barack is more famous. Yes, Barack meant what he said. There is no subtext in politics, there is no subtext in life – take people at their word – save the subtext for art.
“Baby I’m a boss, I don’t know what they do. I don’t get dropped. I drop the label. World can’t hold me, too much ambition, always knew it’d be like this when I was in the kitchen. While you in the same spot, me I’m dodging raindrops, meaning I’m on vacay, chilling on the big yacht. Yeah I got on flip-flops, white Louie boat shoes. Y’all should grow the fuck up. Come here let me coach you!”
In the music, I’m being coached. In the music, I’m being schooled. In the music, I’m plugging into the bravado. I cannot tell you how many times I sang along to the music of Jay-Z to recapture a sense of who I wanted to be despite the disappointment of who the world consistently showed me I was. If he could do it, escape the Marcy Projects and sell out Madison Square Garden, while I was singing along, it felt like I could do it too.
This is the problem I’ve had my whole life.
Here it is. You ready?
I liked the lie.
Growing up, there was a kid down the block who made up this story about two girls he was having sex with. I knew the girls, I was friends with the girls, and yet I went along with the story. I used to go over to his house. We’d play ping-pong as he weaved his tale of sexual debauchery into the tapestry of our childhood, his commitment to the details of the lie should have been a tell, but I didn’t care. I wanted to go along, I liked the lie. Let me say this again because it’s important to call myself out: I was friends with the girls, I should have known better, but I went along, chipping away at my character, teaching myself not to see what’s right in front of my face.
“Financial freedom my only hope. Fuck living rich and dying broke. I bought some artwork for one million. Two years later, that shit worth two million. Few years later, that shit worth eight 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 trying to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.”
4:44 is a masterpiece. It’s the latest album by Jay-Z. Instead of the usual bragging, he gets underneath problems in his life. This is unusual for Jay-Z. In every other album, if it’s not bragging, it’s bravado. This was fun when he was still coming up, almost like he was carving his future out of words. But as he became famous, as his wealth became a calling card of the brand he was building, his bravado turned into bragging. The only thing more off-putting than listening to a billionaire rap star brag about his Picasso collection is watching a billionaire president standing on the White House lawn just before boarding his helicpoter calling himself “The Chosen One.” Having said all that, to address rumors of infidelity, this is how Jay-Z apologized to Beyonce…
“What good is a ménage à trois when you have a soulmate?”
That’s not an apology. That’s a chest-thump. Just like Colin Kaepernick isn’t the centerpiece of the NFL Deal, he’s an afterthought. And me, what am I doing about it? Hashtagging. What’s that going to do? Who’s that going to help? Really. This year at the Super Bowl Halftime Show, I’ll do what I’m told, “Throw your hands up in the air. Wave ‘em like you just don’t care.”