“Like Che Guevara with bling on, I’m complex.” Jay Z, “P.S.A”
If I ever got the chance to ask JAY-Z for a jewel of wisdom (not on one of those $50,000 lunch dates Twitter likes to debate) I would ask about his definition of winning.
In a magazine interview from a little after the beef with Nas was buried, Hov said something to the effect of: “It’s better to love to win than to hate to lose,” (this was right before all content was SEO-ready, and I can’t remember what magazine published it, so let’s pretend for a second the person on the other side of your screen can be trusted).
His rationale was that those driven by the negative feeling of losing would stoop to any level to avoid it; But, on the other hand, he believed those driven by the positive feeling of legitimate success would rise to unimaginable heights to achieve a fair victory. One they could feel proud of. His logic was, if you cheated to win, are you really the best?
I found it funny that, around the same time, Nas said, “It’s cool to love to win, but it’s better to hate to lose/There’s only one Nas, ‘bout a hundred thousand yous,” on Rich Boy’s “Ghetto Rich (Remix).” But I have no proof that he read JAY’s interview and felt the need to contradict it out of spite and pettiness, so you can do what you want with that info and draw your own conclusions.
It’s still up for debate if JAY or Nas won their proverbial war of words. And most choices will have more to do with random elements of time and space than anything factual. But with much larger battles on our collective horizon, do Hov and God’s Son’s polar philosophies reveal tangible paths to hedging America’s crooked odds?
Sorry To Bother You Director Boots Riley recently expressed reasonable doubts about that possibility to The New York Times: Riley challenges the natural desire to celebrate Black success at all costs, asking if the individual’s success is a trigger or barrier to true revolution: “JAY-Z is saying: “You can do this, I’m trying to give you game. And it ends up explaining poverty as a system of bad choices.” And the illusion of happiness he gets from this success and excess keeps everyone else playing the lottery in hopes of becoming the next him.
The same polarity that makes Nas and JAY essentials of their era exists in the political and philosophical differences between Barack Obama and Donald Trump‘s administrations. But if we’re looking for culture warriors capable of defeating The Donald while the O’s collect Netflix checks, don’t JAY-Z and Beyoncé have as good a track record as anyone of out-witting corporate America without compromising their identities?
”I’m the ghetto’s answer to Trump, I’m cancer to the Hampton. $40 million a wop, ransacking mansions,” a younger Hov bragged on his third volume, Life And Times of S. Carter.
With recent power moves like the purchase and development of Tidal, the production of social justice-themed documentaries and the signing of Van Jones to Roc Nation’s newly-created “social activism” division, JAY and Bey appear to be planting the seeds to harness the world’s powerful current force: media. And their track records and tracks show that they won’t fumble the bag like Trump did in the 90’s.
After publicly offing his ego on 4:44 and showing up to see it buried at the Grammys, JAY-Z’s shots at 45 on “Top Off” foreshadow the final act of that corporate takeover he always talks about.
The Carters clearly have the tools to coup the current administration and secure a rare win for the lost tribe. But do our Bonnie’s & Clyde’s, Martin’s & Malcolm’s and Hov’s & Bey’s have to die martyrs to avoid becoming villains in the process?
JAY, Future and Beyoncé’s “Top Off” is more than just your annual DJ Khaled smash; when you lean in and listen close, what initially seems like a codeine-cutter anthem for foreign cars and clubs transforms into a declaration of war: The only casualty? America’s Commander in Cheeto.
“All our shit real, too,” chuckles JAY before the beat drops, and him and the only FLOTUS we acknowledge post-Michelle commence to bodying. And they slay faithfully, like the cold-blooded serial bar killers they’ve always been, motivated by a higher cause than the industry-standard advance.
Tucked between Future and Khaled’s high and low vibranium bursts, Hov and Bey spend a cool 1:55 in their collective pocket, checking down their every intent to Bonnie and Clyde the house White Supremacy built and put agent orange out with the trash; all with enough time to provide juice boxes and emotional nourishment and psychological protection for their babies.
The Carter’s bid for the washdedest throne isn’t based on emotional appeals or fake ads, even if much of their careers have been boosted by their rare distribution opportunities. Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, coincidentally, the year of Jay’s corporate debut, the government has allowed media monopolies to form across the country, creating behemoths like Time Warner, iHeartRadio and Disney.
The passing of the Telecom Act invited America’s most ruthless entrepreneurs to try cornering the fast-emerging digital market as the dot com boom of the late 90’s promised infinite possibilities in the millennium ahead.
So, it’s not coincidence that the self-taught entrpreneurs who managed to survive New York’s Rockefeller drug laws and see the mid-90’s thrived in this ruthlessly exploitative media game. And someone like JAY, who could cash straight bets off of both street and lyrical credibility, became unstoppable in an era that was poised to commodify music videos, singles, and merchandise faster than any artistic or industrial period before it.
”We hustle out of a sense of hopelessness/Sort of a desperation/Through that desperation, we become addicted/Sort of like the fiends we accustomed to servin’/But we feel we have nothin’ to lose/So, we offer you, well, we offer our lives, right?/What do you bring to the table?” “Can I Live”
After a turbulent decade flowing aimlessly between the streets and beats, JAY survived Reaganimocs to incorporate his life and times into a now 22-year-old opus — A declaration to individual independence that both endorsed and contradicted the American Dream.
From “Can’t Knock The Hustle,” to “Can I Live,” to “Regrets,” Reasonable Doubt gave voice to a genius conscious deferred — one that many thought went up in smoke when Big and Pac were murdered. And, as JAY would whine on his first commercial smash “Hard Knock Life,” his cleverly disguised conscious wasn’t fully appreciated until years later.
But those who knew rap, knew, the guy could flow for days. And his wordplay had a way of coming back to hit you days later, sometimes with multiple layers. And those who’d silently survived the 80’s with him, studying 120-degree lessons and faithfully betting on Black when all they saw was red, could tell he was moving for more than just the green.
There was knowledge of self and society that made him move more calmly than Pac. His calculation made people nervous, but he delivered results like clockwork. Computing flows for Dr. Dre, Foxy Brown and many more, his money talked at a volume that made his high-pitched East Coast drawl ring as deep as Biggie’s baritone over time.
At the same time, his surviving peers on the mic (Nas, Prodigy, DMX) weren’t prepared to thrive in a game that made them the product. But JAY’s delayed entry gave him a different perspective; And a partnership with two like-minded entrpreneurs from Harlem gave him a kind of leverage no artist or executive could box in. An angle Jigga is still playing to this day.
Beyond the music, Reasonable Doubt made JAY’s life a piece of performance art that is still more compelling than most of the publicity stunts his peers can dream up.
There’s no need for deliberate acrobatics or abstract symbolism. His daily existence is the stunt: In spite of 25-year-life projections and dilapidated housing, he’s the one in a million that rose to the top. When you view his status as the elusive tip of a corporate pyramid scheme, his illustrious recording career is as shameful as his former profession. Unless you believe he’s is still going because he feels he can’t abandon the generation of gullible fish he led to America’s corporate shark tank.
That’s why his refusal to (permanently) quit a game that was designed to kill him decades ago symbolizes more than any simile, metaphor or entendre can convey through airwaves. Like the Obamas, the Carters are the exception that proves rules can be overcome. But do the hopes and dreams that these heroes inspire ever trickle down to their loyal subjects and followers?
Queen Bey’s infamous Black Panther-themed Super Bowl performance was a clear sign that the Carters had formulated a new creative/corporate balance where doing good could be profitable. Still, both will always be harshly criticized in the social justice space for profiting off of revolutionary ideas that always funnel back to their lucrative endeavors.
From Jay’s collaborations with Dead Prez and Mos Def to Bey’s proudly declared preference for Jackson 5 nostrils, they’ve gotten just as many side-eyes as salutes for their insistence on keeping it real while getting rich. Everyone from thenawful 45th president to the great Harry Belafonte has questioned their sincerity as well as the ultimate impact of their pro-Black and anti-establishment media messaging — mainly because the couple’s own deep roots in corporate capitalism is what makes their resistance possible.
But is it time everyone stops believing that activism and profitability have to be mutually exclusive?
I’ve long believed The Carters’ talent for entrepreneurship and retail activism should be studied as a blueprint for the next generation of artists and activists, both of whom must maximize impact with minimal resources.
Society will always try to force artists to make a choice between being rich and being real. And JAY-Z and Beyoncé will always be hailed as pop culture deities because of their rare abilities to defy that unfair false-binary. Their unapologetic independence made each of them extremely successful in their individual realms before they joined forces; But together, they upgraded each other with each passing year, until now, as they are right on schedule to be Hip Hop’s first billionaire couple.
There’s no telling how they’ll use those B’s to change things (or keep them the same), but ever since the independent woman and shameless dope man made it official in 2003, they’ve exceeded expectations and understanding in every challenge they’ve taken on.
Both members of pop culture’s first billion-dollar couple have always been as unapologetically real as their mainstream ambitions would allow. A young JAY rapped cockily about rocking a du-rag to the MTV awards as a testament to his authenticity. And from “Bootylicious” to Lemonade, Bey has done everything short of releasing a luxury bonnet line to project a royal image of Black American femininity on the mainstream media stage. But many question how much their woke symbolism matters as our people are being shot dead in the streets and a geriatric reality star works daily to push America back to the 1950s.
“And I come with du-rags to your so-called awards… like fuck y’all all.” Jay Z, “Hova Song”
Looking to celebrities like The Carter-Knowles Clan as potential leaders in the resistance may be expecting too much — they don’t owe the world anything more than the dreams they sell — but they may be the few among us with the tools necessary to significantly impact the globe’s most pressing threat: A leader no human should feel proud about taking an alien race to meet.
The idea of the starving artist or embattled revolutionary is romantic to most. Many see money as a corruptive force and project their insecurities on those who are skilled with it. Baseless Illuminati speculation and residual distrust from music’s long history of artistic exploitation have cast doubt on the couple’s true ambitions and allegiances. Most understand that it takes assets to challenge social systems. But is it possible for anyone to maintain their revolutionary integrity while securing the essential resources of a revolution?
If the struggle for social justice is a literal war, the resistance won’t win without warriors capable of countering Donald Trump’s Adolf-Crow poli-tricks. We probably shouldn’t be looking to pop culture idols to save our world, but I’d still ask JAY how many billions him and Bey would need to win the revolution.
Not that I have it to invest, I just know the smart money’s been on the Carters since the days I was stealing their music from Limewire. And the pirate in me has been holding out hope that they are compulsively hoarding dead presidents because they plan on pulling an even greater heist than topping the Forbes list off drug money and soul music.
But then I have to remind myself they could just as well be narcissists of the same ilk as President Trump, selling a dream to the resistance while privately sipping champagne with the top one percent of the One Percent. It’s possible that studying their legacies for anything more than marketing genius is fruitless.
But who wants to believe that?