Citizen Jay-Z

Originally published in 2001.

Jay-Z is a “citizen” in that specialized sense that the movie Starship Troopers – a delirious cautionary fantasy on war and patriotism – distinguished from “civilian.” (“What is the moral difference, if any, between a civilian and a citizen? A citizen accepts personal responsibility for the safety of the body politic, defending it with his life. A civilian does not.”) This pop-satirical “citizen,” willing to fight for his or her people, country, planet and species (an expansive universalism), defines hiphop’s highest ideas of how an artist earns privilege and esteem.

Always projecting fraternity, Jigga (as Jay-Z immortalized himself on the 1999 track “Jigga My Nigga” ), seeks artistic solidarity for his civilian self (nee Shawn Carter of East Trenton, N.J.). He does it through such identities as “Jigga Man” or his current parodistic-sanctimonious badge “Hova” (as in Jehovah), but especially through music. Biggie Small’s death cleared the field but through terrific, under-appreciated craft, Jay-Z has ascended to the top of the rap pack. The ultimate test of Jay’s citizenship took place when his new album The Blueprint dropped (music industry lingo for premiered) on September 11. Better than an old school “Prophet of Rage,” Jay-Z proved he was, simply, ready. An exemplary American artist-citizen.

In the midst of the confusion most Americans feel post-Sept. 11, track 5, “Jigga That N”””, took on uncanny resonance. “If y’all got love for me/ I got love for y’all/And if y’all go to war for me/I go to war wit’ y’all,” Jay-Z rapped. Coincidentally, members of socially conscious rap groups Black Star and The Roots have gone on record opposing black participation in military action after 9/11 – received wisdom from the Vietnam/Civil Rights era (a time before most practicing rappers were even born). Without going political, Jay-Z remains practical. “What you’re about to witness is just my thoughts. Right or wrong it’s what I was feeling at the time,” he says on the album’s now timeless introduction. His artistry is defined by his capacity to evoke the felt quality of contemporary black street and home culture.

Increasingly prolific and popular, Jay-Z has turned back the reign of gangster rap by mellowing such rancid sentiments as “We don’ love them hos.” His all-star album The Dynasty featuring Snoop Dogg, R. Kelly, Beanie Siegel and others is full of songs that blend social hostility into harmony. A kinder, gentler thug, Jay-Z takes you back to the origins – forgotten by Black Star and The Roots – of loyalty and solidarity (nascent forms of patriotism).

Jay-Z’s “I go to war wit’ y’all” expresses the opposite of the disagreement and fractiousness usually heard in rap records. Instead of neo-Black nationalism, Jay-Z promises to return the favor of protection and defense. It’s an instinctive oath rather than an intellectualized, ideological response but the implied fidelity, learned from living a street life and interpreting it, is as good as any political commitment. That faith is kept in the phrase’s sing-song rhythm and Jay-Z’s virtually patriotic assertion, “He is I and I am him.”

Personally redeeming the term “nigga” (a mountain to be scaled on some future expedition), “Jigga That N”””a” is all about building one’s self-esteem and defending one’s life. “He is I and I am him” comes out of Jay-Z’s sense of family – as does his knack for the popular which is evident in The Blueprint’s marvelous choice of samples. Reaching out towards brothers everywhere, Jay-Z complicates rap’s typical bellicosity: “Sensitive thugs y’all all need hugs.” Better than some politicians or the black intellectuals and careerists who ride hiphop’s coattails, Jay-Z understands his pop moment is a cultural phase that he’d best make the most of and do his best with – an occasion for pride plus largesse: “I know you waitin’ in the wings/But I’m doin’ my thing.”
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Jay-Z’s thing protects and defends the range of African American life. His influence was unmistakable on last year’s “This Can’t Be Life,” when his guest-artist Scarface, of Houston’s Geto Boys, got surprisingly churchy and testified: “I could have rapped my hard times in this song/But heaven knows I wouldn’t been wrong/ It would’t been right/ It wouldn’t been love/ It wouldn’t been life.” Each song on The Blueprint – poised between the Tough and Tender – comprehends habits and attitudes germane to Black American experience. Unconfused in the current upheaval over flagwaving vs. patriotism, The Blueprint lays out the essence of Black American life others have garbled. Jay-Z doesn’t need to show stars and stripes (or green, black and red) because, his inherently recognizable drama is more than political, and, for open-minded listeners, it transcends borders. There’s no part of the pop universe that is unavailable to Jay-Z for sampling and improving: The Doors on “The Takeover,” (even turning David Bowie’s “Fame” into “Lame”); The Jackson Five on “Izzo”; Al Green on the title track; Bobby “Blue” Bland on “Heart of the City.” This is the world-conquering hiphop achievement first defined in Jay-Z’s summer 2000 single, the irresistible “Big Pimpin”- one that Sean “Puffy” Combs has tried for but only partially pulled off on record. (Puffy’s exploits on Wall Street and in the Hamptons are more resonant than his raps.) The Blueprint is a call-out to whoever imagines themselves in the hiphop Community – which would be all those who can find their way into these uniquely constructed, startlingly affecting tracks. Hearing one of the cuts on the street coming out of a car stereo or a radio, you get the redoubtable feel of American community.

Appreciating Jay-Z’s art in the face of a conventional rap screed like DMX’s “Who We Be” requires re-orienting oneself to the particular sensations associated with the making of a social identity. You have to feel Jay-Z’s accounts of the struggle to sustain a self – his fight to hang on to integrity within society and despite the music industry’s constant challenges. DMX tries to do this through now-co-opted, formulaic anger; The Blueprint clarifies this issue of authenticity in the course of articulating Jay-Z’s artistic crisis. The song that digs deepest into his psyche is “Girls, Girls, Girls” (even moreso than “Takeover” – the amazing throwdown to less talented rappers like Nas and Mobb Deep who should not leave the house now that Jay-Z’s whipped them). In this of protection and defense. It’s aromance, Jay-Z enters male hiphop’s especial kingdom of the baller-mackdaddyhood. “Girls, Girls, Girls” is not a self-regarding, heterosexual pronouncement (like Lou Reed’s fatuous “I Love Women” from 1982’s The Blue Mask); Jay-Z raps like his favorite women are inside him. (The album’s closing, title track “Blueprint: “Momma Loves Me” is “Girls, Girls, Girls'”complement.) He appreciates that they provide his cultural backbone (pace Chaka Khan). Jay-Z’s self-examination through the Other recalls nothing in popular culture so much as Fellini’s 8 +, especially Guido’s harem sequence where assorted women from the artist-hero’s history reappear in his imagination, forcing him to rethink his past and his objectives. It begins “Je t’adore Jay-Z” – like Prince’s “Boys and Girls” – but goes on to relay the international pleasures of hiphop experience (joy packed into the way Jay-Z’s ascending notes boast about being on tour as “on tah!”). Having risen out of the ghetto, he expresses his pride in vernacular dialect. The Spanish, French, Indian, Chinese, African, even the project chick – so many girls across the globe, foreign yet specific – evoke Rick Nelson’s “Travelin’ Man” as well as the Beach Boys’ “California Girls.” A smorgasbord that reverberates like a recurring dream of affirmation tied to cross-cultural achievement. If the song’s Tom Brock quote (“This world!”) sounds androgynous, that only serves to hint at the range of Jay-Z’s cultural allegiances. The echoing (female) voice derives from the same pop vocabulary Green Gartside employed in Scritti Politti’s “The Word ‘Girl’.” It’s a tune we all whistle, acknowledging pop’s generic romantic ideology, a predominantly male hierarchy.

Pop’s ubiquitous courtliness communicates to men as well as women, conveying a fluid gender appreciation. (A ploy used last year on “Parking Lot Pimping’s” all-girl Jay-Z chorus, “You can catch me in the parking lot/Hollerin’ at bitches/ Parking lot pimpin’/ Everyday we be off the chains/Workin’ with brains/ Sittin’ on things.”) So the backing vocals heard on “Girls, Girls, Girls” not only echo sexy enthusiasm, they express a star’s sweetest appreciation and -despite the gender-specific details – affirm a multivalent affection for his audience. The “Ahh, Babys” that well-up after Jay-Z’s grateful rap are also an encouragement. Jay-Z’s rapping could be praised for its Joycean quotidian (parse the orgiastic lines “Hopefully they menage before I reach my garage”) yet a more apt and laudatory comparison is to Biggie Small’s ingenious wordplay. Jay-Z extends hiphop’s tradition of uncommon creativity through common language. “Girls, Girls, Girls” is animated by Jay-Z’s sense of beauty and by an r&b aesthetic which doesn’t simply conform to hegemonic patterns of storytelling or pop songwriting. Men, women, gays and straights can hear how “Girls, Girls, Girls” catches an esprit de corps – and that’s what makes Jay-Z a citizen.
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Consider “Izzo.” It’s a new kind of sing-a-long – ineffably infectious like 1998’s “Hard Knock Life,” which borrowed from the Broadway musical Annie for the truest, subtlest expression of Black/Jewish solidarity; one in which common American experience of struggle, uplift and entitlement were explicated through established musical institutions (Broadway meeting Hiphop). The children’s voices on “Hard Knock Life” underscored a cross-cultural truth – not every “Annie” is a red-haired white girl. Jay-Z’s child’s play countered injustice and was practically a civic virtue, justifying hiphop by linking it to another cultural tradition. That’s also the charm of The Blueprint‘s “Heart of the City” where Jay-Z’s accounts of black pop history – “First the Fat Boys break up…Biggie’s death…And then The Fugees go break up…Then Richard Pryor go and burn up, and Ike and Tina Turner break up” – allude to parallel instances of social heartache and dolor. These tricky cultural references prove Jay-Z’s got the moral goods to measure life by hiphop standards. He rebukes jealousy (“Respect the game/ That should be it/ What you eat don’t make me shit”) and reasserts his personal imperatives – “I got nephews to look after/ I’m not lookin’ at you I’m lookin’ past you”). His pride isn’t simply boastful (“I told you ’96 I came to take this shit and I did.” “Jigga held you down six summers, damn!/Where’s the love?”) but magnanimously acknowledges the pressures of everyone’s everyday life.

Bearing up under those pressures is what prepares one for patriotism, citizenship. The Blueprint is engaged with the difficulties of social life. The final track, “The Blueprint (Momma Loves Me),” is Jay-Z’s shout-out number, but it’s also his It-Takes-A-Village song. Familial love replaces the stridency of rap’s cliche radicals and gangsters. Here, finally, is a true depiction of African American striving (“just make the transition from the streets to the fame”) that most rap artists sell-out and falsify for commercial success. Jay-Z refuses to distort or abuse hiphop; he doesn’t romanticize this cultural form by treating it as an excuse for manifestos against racist oppression or turf wars. (“Song Cry” is the first composition by a hiphop artist that consciously uses music to express the inexpressible.) Jay-Z’s interest in the particulars of enjoyment and struggle clarify what is worth fighting for in this life (and in this country). There’s no way Jay-Z could have planned The Blueprint as a response to 9/11 but it stands up beautifully in the aftermath because he has found a way to make art out of America’s complexity.

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