Novelist Zadie Smith interviewed Brooklyn's own Jay-Z for T Magazine and the resulting article is fascinating not only for what it fails to reveal (namely almost anything new or actually revealing) but also for what happens sometimes when you have two incredibly fascinating and brilliant artistic minds come together—absolutely nothing. Well-written nothing, but nothing all the same.
Jay-Z has a lot going on these days. Just speaking to what pertains specifically to Brooklyn—because, really, that's all we care about—Jay is about to play eight shows at the brand new Barclays Center, now home to the Nets, a team which, as you've probably heard, Jay holds a minority stake in. Despite only purportedly owning 1/15 of 1% of a share in the team, Jay-Z has already had a lot of influence on decisions ranging from the design of the new Nets logo to the music that will be played during the games (less Springsteen, more Santigold.) In addition to this, Jay-Z remains one of the most fascinating people in the world of hip-hop and is, as Smith notes, that rare creature "an artist as old as his art form."
So why does this profile go down like cotton candy? Why is the most interesting detail that comes out of their lunch the fact that Jay-Z "likes to order for people"? I mean, that IS an interesting detail, because how presumptuous can someone be? I would HATE if someone thought that they knew me well enough after just meeting me to know what kind of food I want to put in my body. You don't know me, Jay-Z, is what I'd be thinking, You don't know me at all.
Anyway. The profile is ostensibly about Jay-Z's transition from hustler in the Marcy Projects to "elder statesman" of hip hop. Assuming that there is an inherent contradiction here, Smith reminds us that Jay-Z observed in his best-selling book "Decoded" that "rap is built to handle contradictions." Smith continues to highlight the contrasts that Jay-Z supposedly represents, namely that he was once poor and is now rich. This questioning of authenticity has been done a million times before and while sometimes it is appropriate, as in the case of Rick Ross's prior work as a prison guard or, as Jay-Z mentions, Vanilla Ice's career-killing lies about being stabbed, in situations like this, it is decidedly irrelevant.
Here's the thing, as I see it, anyway. Jay-Z got where he is today due to his talent, intelligence, and ingenuity. The fact that he has flaunted that success through traditionally capitalist expressions like the overt consumption of material goods shouldn't be even remotely surprising when you consider that he is a product of American society, where we are constantly being told that what we own defines who we are (see: Brooklyn creatives and their Apple products.) Why should he have to be any more politically conscious than the other once-poor-now-wealthy people who embrace their new opportunities and disassociate themselves from the burdens of their pasts? Jay-Z does do an impressive amount of charity work through the Shawn Carter Foundation, but he also—if this article is to be believed—has a very simplistic view of what people who are still struggling are actually fighting for.
On the topic of Occupy Wall Street, Jay-Z tells Smith "'What’s the thing on the wall, what are you fighting for?' He says he told Russell Simmons, the rap mogul, the same: 'I’m not going to a park and picnic, I have no idea what to do, I don’t know what the fight is about. What do we want, do you know?'”
Smith says that Jay-Z's problem is that he "likes clarity." Jay tells her, "I think all those things need to really declare themselves a bit more clearly. Because when you just say that ‘the 1 percent is that,’ that’s not true. Yeah, the 1 percent that’s robbing people, and deceiving people, these fixed mortgages and all these things, and then taking their home away from them, that’s criminal, that’s bad. Not being an entrepreneur. This is free enterprise. This is what America is built on.”
Which, to me, is not the most clear statement ever! But, you know what? Does it really matter? How does this make him any less authentic? Simply because we want our musicians and artists to have an altruistic bent, it doesn't mean that they will or ought to have one. The very fact that they rose to the top of incredibly, undeniably competitive professions almost automatically means that they are used to putting themselves first. None of this means that they won't give back, but to expect them to have some automatic bent toward helping the masses rise up in protest is absurd. You could even say it would be inauthentic.
However, that doesn't mean that Smith should just take everything Jay-Z is saying as some sign that he really does care or that he has anything more than a facile understanding of the political issues he is asked to address. This is the guy who made a bunch of money off shirts referencing the Occupy Wall Street movement. Smith doesn't probe him any further though on the topic of that protest or others that he references. Instead, she says he possesses "some canny, forward-looking political instincts" because he apparently foretold the London riots of last year when he asked a friend "‘What’s going to happen in London?’ This was maybe a month before the riots. He was like, ‘What?’ I said: ‘The culture of black people there, they’re not participating in changing the direction of the country. What’s gonna happen there?’"
But how "canny" is that? There's no real follow-up from Smith, even in the sense that the riots in London weren't racially specific as Jay-Z predicted they would be. They were a class movement, not dissimilar to Occupy Wall Street, which Jay-Z professes not to understand. Smith acknowledges that it is unfair to expect Jay-Z, or other artists who have risen through similar trajectories, to sever the connection "between material riches and true freedom" when the rest of America hasn't. And that's all true. I completely agree with that. But then why pretend that this is what Jay-Z is doing, in any way? Why fantasize that, for Jay, "maybe the next horizon will stretch beyond philanthropy and Maybach collections"? What indication is there of that?
None. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Jay-Z can do whatever he wants—including living in Tribeca (which, ugh, WHY?)—without owing an explanation to anyone. However, it makes for a singularly disappointing profile. Nothing is revealed and, while it is nicely written, it is all just so much fluff. And instead of getting some new angle on a really fascinating artist and mogul, the readers get force-fed the same old storyline about authenticity and the dubious repercussions of living a real life rags-to-riches story. And getting fed something that the author or the magazine expects you to swallow just because they assume you'll like it feels like a betrayal of sorts. I mean, just because someone tries to order your food for you, it doesn't mean that you need to eat a fish sandwich when you really want the chicken parm. A fish sandwich is not the same thing as chicken parm.
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