Grown-Up Hip Hop

Jay Z & His Mom

Jay-Z & his mother Gloria Carter rap about her coming out in “Smile”–an exemplary track on 4:44.

Jay-Z didn’t invent the idea of grown-up hip hop but his new CD 4:44 may be first rap record to fully realize the concept. It’s no coincidence Jay-Z is acting like the adult in the room when the oval office is occupied by a puerile thug. (Per Nathan Osborne’s First piece on what Trump took from hip hop.)  Of course there’s a more personal reason why Jay-Z chose to put away childish things and quash his Magna Carter ego. He had to “kill Jay-Z” (as he puts in in 4:44’s opener) once he realized he was on the verge of losing his wife–“the baddest girl in the world.”

As every pop lifer knows by now, Jay-Z apologizes in 4:44‘s title track to Beyonce for his womanizing, which she’d exposed on her last CD, Lemonade. (He even bows to Bey’s younger sister Solange who went off on him in public a couple years back.) He cops to having watched the innocence leave his wife’s eyes and muses how she matured earlier than her greedy man. (“I suck at love.”) His apology takes in his nada response to Beyonce’s early miscarriages, his joy at their newborn twins and shame at risking his ties with them and his daughter Blue (“You did what with who?”)…

“If I wasn’t a superhero in your face
My heart breaks for the day I have to explain my mistakes
And the mask goes away and Santa Clause is fake
And you go online and see
for Blue’s tooth, the tooth fairy didn’t pay”

Jay-Z, proud part owner of Tidal streaming service, likes  techie talk and Rap Genius helpfully equates “Blue’s tooth” with Bluetooth, a wireless technology enabling short-distance data exchange that might someday facilitate one of Jay-Z’s kids’ stumbling across online gossip about their father’s infidelities.

Jay-Z’s producer, No I.D., isn’t unbiased, but his comment on Jay-Z’s sorry song is on point:

Everything it covers about being a man, being in a relationship, being a father, how you affect your kids. These things don’t really get touched on in music, especially in hip-hop.

Jay keeps coming back to family. His CD opens with an invocation of the time in his youth when he shot his elder brother–an episode he once evoked in a confessional rap, “You Must Love Me” (1997) that prefigured ones on 4:44. [See here for more on that song.]  4:44 ends with him underscoring “legacy legacy legacy”–talking up a red, black and green dream of empowerment through familial wealth building and community empowerment.  (Jay-Z’s five-year old daughter prompts “Legacy’s” lesson in black capitalism by asking:  “Daddy what’s a will?”)

Throughout 4:44, Jay Z links his own halting progress toward maturation with black people’s history of mastery (“black excellence”) and drift. He mocks his younger self for locking onto luxo vehicles that depreciate in value (unlike real estate or the Basquiat he recently bought). He riffs on the “Freudian slip” that rappers call their favorite cars “whips.” He means 4:44 to be an affirmative action but he’s unillusioned about the state of the black nation. Per the chorus of “The Story of OJ”:

“Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga
Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga
Still nigga, still nigga”

That track has my favorite vocalism on 4:44. Jay-Z quotes OJ’s notorious pre-arrest line: “I’m not black, I’m OJ” and then responds with a judge-not-yet-knowing: “Okay.”[1]

“The Story of OJ” features a lovely sped-up Nina Simone sample that’s a Sister to the inspired one on “New Day”–the 2011 track in which Jay Z (and Kanye West) imagined what fatherhood might be like. [See here for more on “New Day.”] Jay-Z’s projections on 4:44 are getting closer to his core: “You had no father, you had the armor/You gotta daughter now, gotta get softer.”  What he has to lose through a divorce is for real for real now as he reminds himself: “I don’t know what you would’ve done/in the future other niggas playing football with your son.”

Despite 4:44’s surfeit of self-crit, Jay-Z’s angles on the future tend toward positivity. “Assume a virtue if you have none” he raps towards the end of 4:44 before Hamletizing:  “Lord we know who we are/but not who we may be.” (Act 4, Scene V, Line 44.). His own mother has proved that all night to him. Jay-Z’s evocation of Gloria Carter’s changes amount to his CD’s heaviest revelation. Jay’s mother, who had four children, recently came out as lesbian. She offers her own moving testimony in the song “Smile” and her son has her back:

“Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate
Society shame and the pain was too much to take
Cried tears of joy when you fell in love
Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her.”

Gloria Carter knows it’s past time for her and her kind to be free: “Love who you love,” she declares, “because life isn’t guaranteed.” Mrs. Carter’s son shares her urgency on 4:44.  The CD’s title refers to the early morning hour when he woke up to compose his confession to Beyonce.

I’d bet 4:44’s maker is also hip to John Cage’s “4’33”–a piece which sought to cultivate modernist attentiveness without any musical content.[2] Cage’s formalist jape probably worked (briefly!) on Jay Z–who’s surely aware the hybrid nature of his own performance art has sparked debates among culture critics arguing over whether hip hop is music. (Or doggerel?)[3]

I wouldn’t expect Jay-Z to cite “4’33” any time soon, but he’s posted a list of songs behind 4:44, including Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” Prince’s “Purple Rain,” Marley classics and new and Old School hip hop tracks. (It’s a commercial move in part as those songs are available on Jay-Z’s streaming service.) After checking his official hip hop picks, it occurred to me “Smile” is something like an answer record–twenty years after–to OutKast’s “13th Floor (Growing Old).” On this cut from ATLiens (1996), OutKast’s duo (along with down home guest lecturer Big Rube) took their own shot at growing up hip hop and instantiating nationtime. A side-trip South to their not-so-oldie but goodie may amp up appreciation for Jay Z’s achievement on 4:44–and his mom’s audacity of hope–so…

“13th Floor (Growing Old)” starts deliberately with Rube’s spoken word preachments. Then it’s Andre 3000’s turn to spell out OutKast’s “dead serious” intentions. Clocked by a drum machine clicking like a second hand, he and Big Boi teach more lessons “from the South.” As they segue from truth attacks on northern chauvinism to images of the Motherland to celebrations of the South Bronx’s Zulu Nation, “13th Floor (Growing Old)’s” groove hints how black music is black history.

That message is in the melody as well. A diva finds its minor key to the past, hooking listeners with notes of regret. Her tremulous voice evokes a Southern American Sirocco[4]–”feels like breezes of autumn have finally blown my way”–as she plays a woman breaking down after bearing an undefined personal/racial burden for “most” of her years–”Sounds of laughter and happiness turn my teardrops to rain.”

When she falls out of the mix, wind chimes toll until OutKast’s rappers try for their own autumnal tone–“Trees bright and green turn yellow brown/Autumn caught em, see all them leaves must fall down, growin’ old.” While these then twenty-somethings’ effort to break out of their own age-cage shouldn’t be forgotten, their mature purpose is (momentarily) subverted by their adolescent objectification of women: “Fat titties turn to teardrops…growing old.” They try for a little tenderness, but end up sounding a little callous. They’re too doomy too. Sorry to make you wait for the last word but Gloria Carter could be talking back to them when she sums up her life lesson: “Smile.”

Lines in Big Rube’s rap at the top of “13th Floor (Growing Old)” help clarify the felt distance between her earned glee in 2017 and the way of the Black world in 1996.  Rube mused about how “we want to be at a presidential level“ but Obama-time was unimaginable: “we’re fooling ourselves, clowning ourselves, playing ourselves.” Rube wasn’t a narrow nationalist. His vision of hip hop was pretty expansive: “If you understand the basic truths contained within this music, you probably are an outcast…someone who’s not accepted because of his clothes, his occupation, his beliefs or his skin color.” But in 1996 one set of marginals need not have applied to the ATLien nation. Rube allowed on “13th Floor (Growing Old)” he couldn’t abide gays. My guess is he’s no longer grieving about “sodomites getting all the rights.” But his old plaint brings home a revolutionary truth. Trumpism notwithstanding, America was forever transformed after a black person got to the “presidential level” (finally) and enabled gay people like Gloria Carter to become full citizens (not aliens) in the USA.

Jay-Z has always had an instinct for what’s historic in breaking news and he’s a natural-born voice of a generation. He calls out his younger competitor (and former collaborator) Kanye West on 4:44 and he also mocks elders like Al Sharpton and Bill Cosby whom he busts for failing to invest in him (emotionally or financially).

This tweener’s bottom lines (“What’s better than a billionaire? Two, if they’re the same hue.”) don’t keep him from going high. On the spiritual tip, he comes on as a seeker who’s into Buddhism and Sufis even as he seems to be making his way back to the black church, which he once dissed because his gone bad dad was a preacher. His spiritual side, though, finds its deepest expression in the soulful music that’s vital to 4:44’s life-histories. His raps rest on samples from a Black Atlantic aural canon that includes Rastas and gospel shouters, R&B players (Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway et al.) and divas like Nina. Producer No I.D.’s heart-in-his-ears add-ons to 4:44’s confessions can’t be overvalued. No I.D. goes to creamy extremes when rejigga-ing the horns on Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll All Be Free” or the piano run in “The Story of OJ”’s Simone sample. His most daring dive into the crates orchestrates “Marcy Me,” which may turn out to be the sweetest of Jay-Z’s many raps about coming of age in Brooklyn’s Marcy projects. The melody on that track comes from a Portuguese pop song dating back to 1970. Repurposed lines from “ToDo o Mundo et Ninguem “ punctuate “Marcy Me”’s final stretch. First there’s a vocal from The-Dream who “translates Jay-Z’s memories into harmony”: “Marcy Marcy Me/Just the way I am/Always gonna be,” he sings, alluding to Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).”[5] The-Dream vows to take Jay Z’s inner city self “to the moon,”presaging a sampled verse from that Portuguese song (which translates as follows): “How do you have a name, knight?/I have the name of The Whole World/And my time.” Lines that put a chivalric spin on Jay-Z’s (and The-Dream’s) quest. “Marcy Me”s finale not only evokes his grand tours as an international pop star but also echoes a demotic comic threat–”to the moon, Alice”–favored by Ralph Kramden, that notoriously provincial Brooklyn tenement-dweller (and permanent Honeymooner).

Jay-Z is attuned to personas developed in long-running city sitcoms (Norman Lear and Martin get shout-outs on 4:44). Epic movies of the streets have also contributed to his sense of selves-in-sequence. Though he now realizes his fanship for The Godfather amounts to one of his greatest misses since he got stuck on Michael’s “common sense”: “I missed the karma and consequences.” There’s a more buried reference on 4:44 to another saga of hoods, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. In that four hour valedictory (as Bill Krohn points out here): “Time is Leone’s subject more than ever.” That’s true of 4:44 too.  It’s a CD which suggests Jay Z’s future as an artist may be defined by his effort to figure out what’s perdurable in his own figura and those of his family members. (Gloria Carter’s evolution could have an extra charge on this score.[6])

 You’re forgiven if you roll your eyes at my borrowing the term figura from Erich Auerbach’s MimesisThe Representation of Reality in Western Literature. I’m not suggesting Jay Z’s drylongso art has been shaped by the literary realism upheld by Auerbach. Flics and sit-coms, not literature, are central to the ecology of Jay-Z’s imagination. And his sense of character owes more to street wisdom of hustlers than to acuities of Auerbach’s favorite humanists. Yet when Jay Z’s peaking, as he is on 4:44, his keep-it-realism is much more than a con. It’s in the tradition.


Pace Richard T. whose own “okays” in convos are worthy of Jay’s.

2 I can’t be sure Jay-Z has come across Cage’s piece but given his new readiness to put museums and gallery hops on hip hop’s map…

3 Jay Z must have picked up on the conflict over form that broke out when Bob Dylan won the Nobel. Dylan’s not an avatar for him or most other hip hop lyricists (though Chuck D recently composed a rap made up almost entirely of lines from Dylan songs), yet he can’t help being aware of Boomers’ pride in their major wordsmith. The number-play on Dylan’s last release, Triplicate, with its three 32 minute long albums, may also be in 4:44‘s equation (since the title track runs 4:44 minutes). This is probably the place to note 4:44’s Cagey link is reminiscent of the pop modernist inflection point of the title of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, which was a play on Malevich’s “White on White.”

4 The standard of comparison here is probably the “Unforgettable” scene in Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, not “The Summer Wind.”

5 This phrase is from a Rolling Stone summary of tracks on 4:44.

6 The frisson of her coming out reminds me of St. Loup’s–that notorious lady-killer turned wolfish homosexual who gets his make-over volumes into Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. I’m aware Jay Z and fam live forward whereas Proust held the only true paradises are paradises one has lost. Yet, as I’ve argued in the body of this essay, time–future and past–is of the essence on 4:44.

Jay-Z, btw, is getting more bookish. While Remembrance of Things Past’s city of light may be a pont too far, I’d lay odds Jay-Z’s line on his Paris sojourns–“I seen the Eiffel, I seen an eyeful”– was inspired by this passage in Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me where Coates writes to his son about their Paris trip:

Do you remember how your eyes lit up like candles when we stood out on Saint-Germaine-des-Pres? The look was all that I lived for.

And even then I wanted you to be conscious, to understand that to be distanced, if only for a moment, from fear is not a passport out of the struggle. We will always be black, you and I, even if it means different things in different places.

Jay-Z re-ups on Coates’ homie wisdom in “Marcy Me”’s English envoi:

“Couldn’t change me if I wanted to
You couldn’t change me if you wanted to
I’ma take this with me to the Moon”