Acts of Creation

Originally posted in 2012.

“New Day” – the song at the heart of Jay-Z’s and Kanye West’s collaborative CD Watch the Throne – is about the prospective joy (and pain) of fathering a…Brother.

Samples of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” – “Birds in the sky know how I feel / Fish in the sea know how I feel” – prompt each rapper to sound off about natural highs of fatherhood. “It’s a brand new day for me” sings Simone and the rappers talk up living in the light of their own sons.

West may be stuck on himself but the idea of a boy-child opens a path out of self-rapture (and self-laceration):

And I’ll never let my son have an ego
He’ll be nice to everyone, wherever we go
I mean, I might even make him be Republican
So everybody know he love white people
And I’ll never let him leave his college girlfriend
And get caught up with the groupies in the whirlwind
And I’ll never let him ever hit the telethon
I mean even if people dyin’ and the world ends
See, I just want him to have an easy life, not like Yeezy’s life
Just want him to be someone people like
Don’t want him to be hated, all the time judged
Don’t be like your daddy that would never budge
And I’ll never let him ever hit a strip club
I learned the hard way, that ain’t the place to get love
And I’ll never let his mom move to L.A.
Knowin’ she couldn’t take the pressure, now we all pray

West’s rap cuts and pastes episodes from his life story. (The last couplet invokes his mother’s death from complications resulting from cosmetic surgery.) Jay-Z gets confessional too, providing another “mo’ money mo’ problems” take on pressures of celebrity – “Sorry junior, I already ruined ya / ‘Cause you ain’t even alive, paparazzi pursuin’ ya.” Jay looks forward to assuming a preceptorial role shirked by his own father. He imagines adding color to other group’s rites of passage (“black bar mitzvas”) and pours his own: “At 13 we’ll have our first drink together.” Yet Jay’s sense of the temporal takes in nightmare scenarios: “And if the day comes I only see him on the weekend / I just pray we was in love on the night that we conceived him / Promise to never leave him even if his mama tweaking.” Jay nails his affirmation of unconditional love with a triple negative: “Cos My dad left me and I promise never repeat him. Never repeat him. Never repeat him.” This dis distances Jay from his deadbeat dad, but there’s more here than a dutiful one’s cold dish. While Jay anticipates beating his past, his pledge is shadowed by a heavier surety since no mortal – not even one like Jay who toasts himself as (Je)Hova – is fated to win the future. His repetitions leave a listener musing on a paradox (“Never repeat him. Never repeat him.”). Past proving his bona fides 24/7 to his gone pop; Jay-Z sounds (for an instant) like he’s fighting the power of Time that takes Everyman out. A sample of Nina Simone floats by seeming to catch Jay’s drift as an alarm keeps ringing in the mix (Like someone’s biological clock? And/or a constant reminder it’s later than you think?) Amping up Jay’s movement of mind, the track goes back where it all started as Simone sings: “It’s a new life for me.”

The magic of “New Day’s” repetitions is informed by its creators’ instinct for form-as-content. West has a great ear for samples so he’s probably behind the artful/meaningful returns to Simone’s “Feeling Good.” (Though “New Day’s” official co-producer, RZA, gets official credit too.) Those samples lose the original’s slightly clunky drumming and the horn section’s Broadway blare. But the most important change is to Simone’s voice which is vocodered into something different even as it retains the singer’s aura. The new Simone is at once original and “in the tradition.” She slurs and slides like Billie Holiday – “God Bless the Child” is in her genes. Since “New Day” is a song for unborn sons of hip hop moguls, its auteurs must have picked up on Billie’s message – “…Papa may have but God bless the child that’s got his own” – as well as her distinctive flow. Linking art to life (and to black personhood in particular), “New Day’s” creative vocalism hints our wannabe fathers are alive to the need for roots and individuation. Their art song soundtracks a shared African American vision of human continuity.

Both West and Jay Z begin their separate raps with shout-outs to “New Day’s” co-producer – “Me and the RZA connect.” These twinning expressions of solidarity not only help shape the track, they bespeak openness to emotional ties and lineages that define America’s Black Nation[1]. (“I love us” proclaims Jay-Z elsewhere on Watch the Throne. And another track traces that love to childhood by Muppetizing a sample that cops to more conflicted emotions – “Ooooh I love you so/But why I love you/I’ll never know.”)

Throne relies on healthy samples from iconic black singers such as Simone, Otis Redding and James Brown who serve as tribunes of the black “republic” (to use Jay-Z’s term). Michael Jackson is there too. Though his voice is absent, the missed presence of the beloved “leader of the Jackson 5” is signaled by a guitar riff from “I Want You Back.” The most compelling new generational voice on Throne is Odd Future’s Frank Ocean who lives up to his name by getting deep into gospel truths and Striver’s Row values as he sings the chorus of “Made in America:” “King Martin, Sweet Queen Coretta / Sweet Brother Malcolm, Sweet Queen Betty / Sweet Mother Mary, sweet Father Joseph / Sweet baby Jesus, we made it in America.”

“Made in America,” like “New Day,” cultivates the sense of possibility sparked among African Americans by Obama’s rise. Jay-Z nods to POTUS on Throne – “shout out to O / that ain’t enough / need a million more / kick down the door” – and the entire CD may be heard as variations on a theme in Obama’s Towards A More Perfect Union speech[2]. Its high-low Kingdom is (as per Obama) as rangey and morally complex as the black experience in America. Throne means to meld the rappers’ “luxury rap” with the-whole-way-of-life-of-the-black-nation and the-best-that’s-been-sung-and-said. Though nobody should give our culture heroes a pass on the missing Arnoldian term. While Throne is anything but mindless – rhymes latch on to rhymes and pull – thought is still undervalued. The rappers waste too much of their minds on “mogul talk” and crap about “black Maybachs.” It’s not all good when they mix up “black excellence” with “black decadence.” “New Day,” though, steers clear of that sort of conflation.

It’s a model of imagination more than worthy of Obama’s example. Though, on the real side, Kanye West would resist such a comparison since Obama famously chastised him for a acting like a “jackass” a couple years back. Instead of saluting the Commander-in-Chief, West identifies with street “soldiers” dodging bullets or dying in ghettos: “It’s time for us to stop and redefine black power, 41 souls murdered in 50 hours.” He traduces his compassion for those souls somewhat by advertising ambivalence about his role as a citizen – “nothing on the news but the blues” – but his focus on dangers faced by young black boys-to-men provides more context for the alarm ringing in “New Day.”

The significance of that sound has grown on me in part because I’ve been listening to a white Southern relative of “New Day’s” celebration of fatherhood (and black on black creativity). “Georgia Rae” – John Hiatt’s song for his (then) infant daughter – dates back to 1988 but it was new to me last month when I started playing it side by side with “New Day.” The subject of fatherhood isn’t all the songs share. Hiatt (like the rappers) takes a major cue from one of black America’s vocal avatars. He was inspired by Ray Charles as his chorus spells out – “Georgia Rae…Ok…Georgia Rae…What’d I Say.” Hiatt’s voicing of exaltation isn’t up to the joys of the new Simone in “New Day” (or to Brother Ray’s classics). But his song has its own unforced charm:

She is beautiful, she is small
She don’t want to play basketball
But there’s no tellin’ what she might do
Before her doin’ days are through
But right now she can’t even crawl

Compared to “Georgia Ray’s” rhymes, “New Day’s” raps on fatherhood feel a little abstract. Georgia Rae, after all, is for real. And that allowed Hiatt to encompass his family’s gentle wonder at her livingness: “Your brother and sister don’t understand…your tiny feet and tiny hands…but we all think it’s grand.” If Jay Z and West come back to parent rap – and Jay probably will soon since Beyonce’s preggers – I hope they don’t assume it’s unmanly to go tiny or get lamby-pamby or otherwise try on their own tenderness.

Gender differences between “Georgia Rae’s” real girl and boy-crazy “New Day” probably make themselves felt in the tonal variances between these songs of fatherhood. But I want to zero in on differences that suggest race matters too. While the daddy in “Georgia Rae” allows “this whole damn thing might unwind,” he’s not wound as tight as “New Day’s ” prospective pops. Easy (not like Yeezy?) about Georgia Rae’s future – “there’s no telling what she might do” – he’s secure enough to tease her and himself. Jay Z and West have been known to kid themselves, but when they pose as Fathers of the Race, they wear dignity suits and that alarm keeps sounding in the mix (beneath the singer’s glad tidings) as they do their Tighten Up. Pop Hiatt plays it looser throughout “Georgia Rae,” which fades out on a self-mocking note – “Lucky for you girl, you look like your mama.” Big Ups to him for his sense of humor, but his capacity to take parenting lighter than Jay Z and West may be mixed up with heavier truths about this country’s heritages. Hiatt clearly abhors any vestige of racism as “Georgia Rae’s” riffing on Ray Charles proves. Yet, through no fault of his own, “Georgia Rae’s” sweet ease brings to mind a resonant line on white skin privilege in the fine 1970 movie The Landlord. It’s spoken by an African-American actress who means to have her mixed race baby adopted by white folks: “I want him to grow up…casual like his daddy.”

1970 was a long time ago, of course, but my sense race is still in play in “New Day” and “Georgia Rae” flows out of my own life as a father of a mixed race child. His immigrant African mom doesn’t belong culturally to Jay-Z’s republic, but her parenting style is shaped by a race-related striver’s imperative (and a Great Fear of the Street) I don’t share. You could say I’m more…casual. I worry my wife’s worries will weigh on my little boy, forcing him to think too far ahead (or look over his shoulder) rather than stay in the moment of innocence. But if it turns out he’s owed some unselfconscious fun when he gets older, lucky for him “he’s got his mother’s eyes.”

To quote a line from Bob Dylan’s “Lord Protect My Child” – a song that blows up black and white categories of feeling I’ve constructed above. While Dylan expresses his joy at watching his boy “at play” in “Lord Protect My Child,” the singer’s worried mind and piety bring him near fears (and faith) of parents in many intact black American families.

I’m not prone to his or their Abrahamic leanings. A God who says “kill me a son” is my idea of a son of a bitch and anyone who tells my kid there’s a Hell below will have a fight on his hands. But I’d be lying if I pretended my parenthood has been bereft of divine intimations.

When my wife and I brought our infant back from the hospital years ago to our empty nest (and fridge), we felt unprepared – almost embattled. I had to break out from mother-and-child to find food and baby supplies on the block. Stepping off into a summer storm, I looked up at the heavens and flashed on a writer-friend’s maxim:

Watching an oncoming storm from behind a window in a cottage in upstate New York, the dark treetops waving against a black sky, lightning along the horizon, all in all a perfect happening. It is hard to believe this is only mechanical forces at play without any divine orchestration. [3]

Taking the storm in as I splashed across the street to a take-out joint, I suddenly felt (for as long as you truly feel any emotion) blessed. I was sure Creation was on my child’s side.

Knowing me I must’ve started singing in the rain. But I can’t remember what song. So – what the hey – in the absence of a divine editor, let’s cut to the present. Today was the first day of school. Me and my boy played imaginary baseball on the sidewalk until the bus came. Once we were on board, he read his book as I looked out the window, ruing the end of summer even though fall’s my season. When we got off at our school stop, another parent teased us about how much my third-grader had grown over the summer. I looked with new eyes across at my little…no, long boy and heard myself singing one of “New Day’s” Holiday makeovers of Simone: “Birds in the sky know how I feel / Fish in the sea know how I feel / It’s a new life…”

God bless the child.

 

Notes

1 Those connections are based on family and neighborhood, though they aren’t bound by them. (Jay-Z and West switch places in Throne on a “Just Like Compton” shout-out – Brooklyn’s Jay rolls down “South Shore Drive” and Chi-Town’s West “makes a left on Nostrand Ave.”) Black Church experience (pace Adolph Reed) is foundational as well. The rappers put themselves in the pulpit – “Preach!” – not just the throne.

2 No offense to writers like Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray (author of The Omni-Americans) who underscored the variousness of African-American experience back in the day. But Obama spoke on this in the mass media. And, of course, he’s now walking the walk in the White House (not The Century Club where Ellison and Murray used to hang).

3 See Hans Koning’s Little Book of Comforts and Gripes.

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