Back to Life (Redux)

Excerpted from a piece originally published in First in 1999.

When rap star Jay-Z was fourteen—angry about a stolen/borrowed piece of jewelry—he ended up shooting his older brother. He rhymes about this in “You Must Love Me” (In My Lifetime, Vol. 1)

We used to fight every night, but I never would suffer
Just smile—my big brother trying to make me tougher
As we grew, fussing and fighting continued
As I plundered through your stuff and snuck your clothes to school
It got intense—real real intense as we got older
Never believed it would lead to me popping one in your shoulder

Where my ring? Knew you had it cos you took too long
As Mickey, Angie and the one who bought it looked on
Huffing and puffing, gun in my hand, told you “step aside”
Hoping you’d say no, you hurt my pride
Made our way down the steps
Maybe you thought it was just a threat
Or maybe your life was just that crazy and you were begging for death

Try to justify this in my young mind
But the adrenaline and my ego-hurt combine
Drove me berserk, saw the devil in your eyes
High off more than weed
Confused I just closed my young eyes and squeezed
What a sound.
Opened my eyes just to see you stumbling to the ground…
Damn…What the fuck I done now

Running around in the circle—think I’m ass-out
Hot gun burning in my waist, run straight to Jazz house
Like a stranger
Damn, I just shot my nigga
And ran up into the night as if it was not my nigga
Left the scene, how could I go out that way?
Still you asked to see me in the hospital the next day
You must love me

The liner notes to Jay-Z’s new CD/cassette have a shot of him perched on the backrest of a park bench in front of housing project; he’s listening to a Discman as a little kid looks up to him. Jay-Z has lately been competing with Puffy, DMX, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Black Rob, Eminem, et al. in tabloid culture’s bad boy modeling school. He was arrested last December, accused of a knife attack on a former friend-turned-bootlegger. But “You Must Love Me” proves he offers his fans more than just another sad—or notoriously clever—example.

This song could help some young mind bust out of the prison house of self (and self-hatred). Might even keep a hip hop head out of the joint or save a life. Jay-Z’s mini-moral education matters because he cares enough to get the flow of feeling right. There’s that wishful pause after “Hoping,” those innocent “young” eyes closing and opening (never to be young again), the hard echoing sound/ground rhyme that wakes Jay up to nightmarish fact of his brother falling, that mucho macho “hot” gun in his waist, the guilty self-estrangement, the graceful turn—“Still you asked to see me in the hospital the next day,” and that final love-revelation. (I remember talking with a friend about this track and he chided me for saying the title wrong; I was calling it “You MUST love me.” Like the fascist Madonna song from Evita, but Jay-Z’s rap underscores the emotion not the imperative. Though of course, we don’t choose who we love.)

Jay-Z tells two other unconditional love stories in his rap. In between his tales, a choir echoes the title tag line while a girl-singer wonders up front—“After all the wrong I done…” This back-up to lead-Sister moans low during Jaz-Z’s raps, and when she obliges at the end of track, she become a voice for every body—“Say that you love me…Say that you love me.”

As a track in an oral tradition, “You Must Love Me” has something in common with—no, this is not a stretch—The Iliad. But it matters because it’s not Homeric. Simone Weil once pointed out in her essay “The Poem of Force” how the warriors in The Iliad—time and again—act without any sense that they themselves might soon be going down hard. Their unconsciousness isn’t far removed from the pitiless kill-at-will posturing of gangsta rappers. Jay-Z’s “You Must Love Me” leaves that kind of mindlessness in the dust. Where they are all equal now.

Jay-Z talked (for a moment) to a Vibe Magazine interviewer last summer about the actual fratricidal beef at the heart of “You Must Love Me,” but his questioner didn’t seem to care that Jay-Z had kept it truly real. The journalist’s lack of interest in his subject is probably a sign of a certain kind of sophistication. Hip hop “intellectuals” tend to buy into a street version of formalism. They treat rap as a game. It’s about “skills” not emotion. But hip hop—like any art form—counts most when it moves you back to life.