“Like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex.” Jay Z, “P.S.A”
If I ever got the chance to ask JAY-Z for a jewel of wisdom (not on one of those $50,000 lunch dates Twitter likes to debate) I would ask about his definition of winning.
In a magazine interview from a little after the beef with Nas was buried, Hov said something to the effect of: “It’s better to love to win than to hate to lose” (this was right before all content was SEO-ready, and I can’t remember what magazine published it, so let’s pretend for a second that the person on the other side of your screen can be trusted).
JAY’s reasoning was that those driven by the negative feeling of losing would stoop to any level to avoid its pain; But on the other hand, he believed those driven by the positive feeling of legitimate success would rise to unimaginable heights to achieve a fair victory; One they could feel proud of.
The logic is clear: If you have to cheat to win, are you really the best? Only the person who loves to win would even care to ask.
I found it funny that, around the same time, Nas said, “It’s cool to love to win, but it’s better to hate to lose/There’s only one Nas, ‘bout a hundred thousand yous,” on Rich Boy’s “Ghetto Rich (Remix).” But I have no proof that he read JAY’s interview and felt the need to contradict it out of spite and pettiness, so you can do what you want with that info and draw your own conclusions.
It’s still up for debate if JAY or Nas won their proverbial war of words. And most opinions will have more to do with random elements of time and space than anything objective or factual. But still, with much larger battles on the horizon, do Hov and God’s Son’s polar philosophies reveal any realistic paths to hedging America’s crooked odds?
Sorry To Bother You Director Boots Riley recently expressed reasonable doubts about that possibility to The New York Times. Riley is the former lead MC of heralded underground Oakland group The Coup.
Riley, whose staging his own corporate coup of Hollywood with the help of Tessa Thompson and LaKeith Stanfield, challenges the natural desire to celebrate Black success in White spaces, asking if the individual’s success is a trigger or barrier to true revolutionary change: Riley’s point was, “JAY-Z is saying: “You can do this, I’m trying to give you game. And it ends up explaining poverty as a system of bad choices .” Bad choices Jigga once endorsed whole-heartedly.
Riley argues that the illusion of happiness JAY gets from his excessive success keeps everyone else playing the lottery in hopes of becoming the next him. And it shames them for not lucking into his immeasurable odds.
The same polarity that makes Nas and JAY essentials of their era exists in the many differences between Barack Obama and Donald Trump‘s administrations of the current political era. If Barack’s election was proof that JAY’s corporate infiltration was capabe of tangible social progress, Trump’s election put Hov and Bey in pop cultural debt to their loyal subjects.
If we’re looking for culture warriors capable of defeating The Donald while the O’s collect Netflix checks, don’t JAY-Z and Beyoncé have as good a track record as anyone of out-witting corporate America without compromising their identities?
”I’m the ghetto’s answer to Trump, I’m cancer to the Hamptons. $40 million a wop, ransacking mansions,” a younger Hov bragged on his third volume, Life And Times of S. Carter.
With recent power pivots like the investment and development of Tidal, the production of social justice-themed documentaries and the signing of Van Jones to Roc Nation’s newly-created “social activism” division, JAY and Bey appear to be planting the seeds to harness the world’s most powerful current force: digital media. And both their track records and tracks suggest that they won’t fumble the bag like Trump did his inheritance.
After publicly offing his ego on 4:44 and showing up to see it buried at the Grammys, JAY-Z’s shots at George Zimmerman, Donald Trump and the America that made them on “Top Off” foreshadow the final act of that corporate takeover he always raps about, but rarely speaks on.
But even if the Carters really are compiling the tools to coup the current administration and secure a rare win for the lost tribe, do our Bonnie’s & Clyde’s, Martin’s & Malcolm’s and Hov’s & Bey’s have to die martyrs to avoid becoming Killmongers in the process?
”I’m the only lady here, still the realest nigga in the room. I break the internet, top two and I ain’t number two. My body, my ice, my cash, all real, I’m a triple threat. Fuck it up and then leave, come back, fuck it up and leave again.” Beyoncé, “Top Off”
Like it or tolerate it, JAY, Future and Bey’s “Top Off” is more than just your annual DJ Khaled radio bait; when you lean in and listen close, what initially seems like a codeine-cutter anthem for foreign cars and clubs transforms into a declaration of war: The only casualty? America’s Commander in Cheeto.
“All our shit real, too,” chuckles JAY before the beat drops, and him and the only FLOTUS we acknowledge post-Michelle commence to bodying. And they slay, faithfully, like the cold-blooded serial bar killers they’ve always been; Vaguely motivated by a higher cause than the industry-standard advance or royalty check.
Tucked between Future and Khaled’s high and low vibranium bursts, Hov and Bey spend a cool 1:55 in their collective pocket, checking down their every intent to Bonnie and Clyde the house White Supremacy built; Presumably putting Agent Orange out with the trash; And all with enough time to provide juice boxes, emotional nourishment and psychological protection for their babies.
The Carters’ subliminal bid for the washdedest throne isn’t based on emotional appeals or fake ads — but they can thank the U.S. Government for unknowingly co-signing the bricks that founded their billion-dollar partnership; A stroke of legislative luck that helped launder JAY’s lifetime of guilt, pain and rage into a legitimate hustle that neither police nor his peers could knock.
Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, coincidentally the year of Jay’s corporate debut, the government has allowed media monopolies to form across the country, creating behemoths like Time Warner, iHeartRadio, Disney, and until the mid-2000’s, an independently-run rap empire known was Roc-A-Fella records. The Roc translated the corporate pyramid scheme into a street-accredited lifestyle and executed it like the triangle offense.
The casualties that got left behind on JAY’s journey to the peak of the pyramid, the Beanie Sigel’s, Young Chris’s and Peedi Crak’s in Philly, or the Kanye’s and Dame’s who appear at least partially sunken from the exchange, can’t complain any more than fans can.
“We don’t take over, we borrow blocks. Burn it down and you can have it back daddy, I’d rather that.” JAY-Z, “Hard Knock Life”
Only a hustler cold-blooded enough to colonize foreign Black blocks and sell crack can justify the kinds of trade-offs JAY has made thoughout his career. It’s just impossible for us, or even him, to know if it was truly done in self-service or sacrifice.
Meanwhile, the passing of the Telecom Act invited America’s most ruthless entrepreneurs to try cornering the fast-emerging digital market, trusting the dot-com-boom’s promise of infinite possibilities in the millennium ahead. Legal Acts like this commonly overhaul entire industries, creating and destroying fortunes with the stroke of the pen. And this one created a market that made print, audio and video media into some of the country’s most lucrative commodities.
All things considered, it’s really no coincidence that the self-taught entrepreneurs who survived New York’s Rockefeller drug era into the mid-90’s thrived in the increasingly ruthless media game. And, it’s even less surprising that someone of JAY’s rare pedigree, who could cash straight bets off of both street and lyrical credibility, became unstoppable in the era of MC Gusto’s and clueless executives that soon followed the new millennium rush of bling and Black expression.
With the year 2000 approaching, the new legislation had America poised to commercialize music videos, singles, and cultural merchandise on a scale that cranked profits faster than any artistic or industrial period before it. As someone who’d once made a living stretching pure cocaine into crack, it wasn’t hard for JAY to figure out how to capitalize on the bull market. It just took a little longer for America to accept him as a capitalist hero than it’s taken some to realize Donald Trump won’t even be able to sell a cold glass of water in hell.
”We hustle out of a sense of hopelessness/Sort of a desperation/Through that desperation, we become addicted/Sort of like the fiends we accustomed to servin’/But we feel we have nothin’ to lose/So, we offer you, well, we offer our lives, right?/What do you bring to the table?” “Can I Live”
After a turbulent decade spent flowing aimlessly between the streets and beats, JAY survived Reaganomics to incorporate his life and times into a now 22-year-old opus — A declaration to individual independence that both endorsed and contradicted the American Dream.
From “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” to “Can I Live,” to “Regrets,” Reasonable Doubt gave voice to a genius conscious deferred — one that some thought went up in smoke when Big and Pac were murdered. And, as JAY would whine on his first commercial smash, “Hard Knock Life,” his cleverly disguised conscious wasn’t fully appreciated until years later.
He didn’t have the kind of X-factor that made Pac, B.I.G. or DMX resonate so instantly and intensely. But those who knew rap knew, the guy could flow for days. And his wordplay had a way of coming back to hit you days later, sometimes with multiple layers. And those who’d silently survived the 80’s with him, studying 120-degree lessons and faithfully betting on Black when all they saw was red, could tell he was moving for more than just the green.
There was knowledge of self and society that made him move more calmly than Pac. His calculation made people nervous, but like a machine, he delivered results like clockwork. Eight straight summers, a feat similar to LeBron’s current postseason dominance. Computing flows for Dr. Dre, Foxy Brown and many more as a ghostwriter, his money talked volumes that made his high-pitched East Coast drawl ring as deep as B.I.G.’s baritone on the rapidly-expanding digital landscape.
Meanwhile, his surviving peers on the mic (Nas, Prodigy, DMX) weren’t prepared to thrive in a game that made them the product. But JAY’s delayed entry gave him a different perspective; And a partnership with two like-minded entrepreneurs from Harlem (Damon Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke) gave him a kind of leverage no artist or executive could box in. An angle Jigga is still playing to this day, even after divorcing his former partners and teaming up with the Black American Princess of corporate America and Creole soul.
”You’re still alive/Still that nigga. Nigga, you survived/Still getting bigger, nigga living the life/Vanilla wafers in a villa, illest nigga alive
Michael Jackson, Thriller.” JAY, “Holy Grail”
Beyond the music, Reasonable Doubt made JAY’s life a piece of performance art that is still more compelling than most of the publicity stunts his peers can dream up. And lyrically, there’s no need for deliberate acrobatics, abstract symbolism or the kind of animation that’s makes Busta Rhymes or Ludacris appear less-serious, despite similar skill sets and commercial aspirations.
In a way few other artists in any field ever access, JAY’s daily existence is the stunt: In spite of 25-year-life projections and “super-predator” labels, he’s the one-in-a-million that rose to the top in spite of it all.
But don’t exceptions prove rules?
When he suggested years ago that his mere presence was a form of charity more valuable than tradition activism, it struck many as arrogant, however accurate it may still be. But is Shawn Carter done repenting and repaying his past sins following the suicide of his former super ego?
When you view his Hov-status as the elusive tip of a corporate pyramid scheme, his illustrious recording career could be colored as shameful as his former profession. Unless you see the honor in the fact that he’s is still going; And not because he loves fame or it’s trappings, but because he feels he can’t abandon the generation of gullible fish he led to America’s corporate shark tank. Or, some how some way, he truly believes that one fish can save a village if he’s the one chopping it up.
That’s why JAY’s refusal to (permanently) quit a game designed to ruin him decades ago symbolizes more than any simile, metaphor or entendre can convey via airwaves. He can fix odds like Rothstein, but instead of bankrupting casinos he’s wise enough to invest in his own.
Like the Obamas, the Carters look like the exception that proves rules can be overcome. But do the hopes and dreams that these heroes inspire ever trickle down to their loyal subjects and followers?
Queen Bey’s infamous Black Panther-themed Super Bowl performance was a clear sign that the Carters had formulated a new creative/corporate balance where doing good could be profitable. Still, both will always be harshly criticized in the social justice space for profiting off of revolutionary ideas that always seem to lead back to their lucrative endeavors.
From Jay’s collaborations with Dead Prez and Mos Def to Bey’s proudly declared preference for Jackson 5 nostrils, they’ve gotten just as many side-eyes as salutes for their insistence on keeping it real while getting rich. Everyone from the awful 45th president to the great Harry Belafonte has questioned their sincerity as well as the ultimate impact of their pro-Black and anti-establishment media messaging — mainly because the couple’s own deep roots in corporate capitalism is what makes their resistance possible.
But is it time everyone stops believing that activism and profitability have to be mutually exclusive?
I’ve long believed The Carters’ talent for entrepreneurship and retail activism should be studied as a blueprint for the next generation of artists and activists, both of whom must maximize impact with minimal resources. If the nightmare at DONDA’s House foundation is any indication, media alone does not have the power to save souls. Like a bible without a pastor, the codes and values that blessed JAY and cursed his generation are easily misread out of context.
Was the ice he always bragged about a trinket that compensated for mental slave shackles, or a revolutionary investment? Would Che Guevara see the complex genius in wearing a war chest across your chest, instead of keeping it in traditional financial institutions?
Society will always try to force artists to make a choice between being rich and being real. And JAY-Z and Beyoncé will always be hailed as pop culture deities because of their rare abilities to defy that unfair false-binary. Their unapologetic independence made each of them extremely successful in their individual realms before they joined forces; But together, they’ve upgraded each other with each passing year, until now, as they sit cooly on schedule to be Hip Hop’s first billionaire couple.
There’s no telling how they’ll use those B’s to change things (or keep them the same), but ever since the independent woman and shameless dope man made it official in 2003, they’ve exceeded expectations and understanding in every challenge they’ve taken on.
Both members of pop culture’s first billion-dollar couple have always been as unapologetically real as their mainstream ambitions would allow. A young JAY rapped cockily about rocking a du-rag to the MTV awards as testament to his authenticity. And from “Bootylicious” to Lemonade, Bey has done everything short of releasing a luxury bonnet line to project a royal image of Black American femininity on the mainstream stage. But many question how much their illuminating symbolism matters as people are being shot dead in the streets and a geriatric reality star works daily to push America back to the 1950s.
“And I come with du-rags to your so-called awards… like fuck y’all all.” Jay Z, “Hova Song”
Looking to celebrities like The Carter-Knowles Clan as potential leaders in the resistance may be expecting too much — they don’t owe the world anything more than the dreams they sell — but they may be the few among us with the tools necessary to significantly impact the globe’s most pressing threat: A leader no human should feel proud about taking an alien race to meet.
The idea of the starving artist or embattled revolutionary is romantic to most. Many see money as a corruptive force and project their insecurities on those who are skilled with it. That explains why Illuminati speculation and residual distrust from the game’s history of artistic exploitation have cast a lingering doubt on the couple’s true ambitions and allegiances. No matter how much they give or represent, it won’t be enough for everyone.
Most understand that it takes assets to challenge social systems. But is it possible for anyone to maintain their revolutionary integrity while securing the essential resources of a revolution?
If the struggle for social justice is a literal war, the resistance won’t win without warriors capable of countering Donald Trump’s Adolf-Crow poli-tricks. We definitely shouldn’t be looking to pop culture icons to save our world in the first place, but I’d still ask JAY how many billions him and Bey would need to win the revolution, in his estimation.
Not that I have it to invest; I just know the smart money’s been on the Carters since the days I was stealing their music from Limewire. And the pirate in me has been holding out hope that they’re compulsively hoarding dead presidents because they’re planning their greatest heist to date; Bigger than topping the Forbes list off drug money and or hacking the Super Bowl with soul music.
But then I have to remind myself that they could just as well be narcissists of the same ilk as President Trump, selling a dream to the resistance while privately sipping champagne with the top one percent of the One Percent.
It’s possible that studying their legacies for anything more than marketing genius is fruitless.
But who wants to believe that?