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Is Jay-Z Still Necessary? – The New York Times

Is Jay-Z Still Necessary? – The New York Times
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Is Jay-Z Still Necessary? – The New York Times

Is Jay-Z Still Necessary? – The New York Times

In my last year of high school, I joined the student council. I knew it might sound fishy – adding another extracurricular program so late into the game – but I figured putting the effort in might work in my favor as well. I imagined eagle-eyed college admissions officers leaning over my file, spotting all the latent passions uncovered in the fire of application season. Half amused, they scribbled their verdict in the margins: “Ashamed but hungry.

By then, in the fall of 2003, I had already mapped out the next 10 years of my life – college, work, home, car. My family lived in the suburbs of Houston. My parents, born in agrarian villages in colonized Nigeria, had moved there in the mid-1990s as middle-class academics. Like my older sister, who was then two years in finance and had her own gravity-defying trajectory, I had spent most of high school on a mission to do something respectable with myself.

I joined the National Honor Society, the Peer Assistance Leadership and Service and the French club. I took double credit courses at the local community college and drove around town for SAT preparation. I played basketball and trained for the 200-meter relay. In the hallways after one activity or another, I would see other black and brown kids on similar tracks and nod my head. I remember when we left college football to focus better on our AP lessons. His teammates and even some teachers were stunned. But I got it. The mission always came first.

While I was doing this whole plot, there was one artist who seemed the very embodiment of challenged gravity, the Patron Saint of the Mission. In 2003, at age 33, Jay-Z retired from hip-hop at the height of his abilities. “The Black Album”, his putative swan song (the “retirement” lasted about three years), was released in November and became my soundtrack.

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I must have looked absurd, driving volunteer jobs in my Nissan 98, shouting about being in the back of a Maybach, or, what is not more plausible, “in the kitchen with soda” . But, between the lines, I saw the ultimate chess player in Jay. Here is someone who had studied the rules of the great game in America – where black men consistently earn less than white men, even those who grew up in the same neighborhood and have a similar education and family background – and have it. beaten by genius and enterprise. It was exactly what my friends and I were hoping to do.

“The Black Album” was Jay’s biggest bet to date. He didn’t just want to retire (in itself a stunt in a genre that tends to leave you before you can leave him), he wanted to retire as the greatest of all time, the holy grail of the hip-hop. It was an almost impossible goal. 50 Cent, riding on the shoulders of Eminem and Dr. Dre, was the most popular rap artist on the planet at the time. And the apotheosis of Biggie and Tupac – only six and seven years dead – left virtually all of the remaining contenders in the running for third place.

To grab the top spot, Jay assembled a dream team that included several of hip-hop’s biggest producers: the Neptunes, Kanye West, Timbaland, Just Blaze and Rick Rubin. On “The Black Album” he uses their best offerings – large canvases constructed from re-upholstered soul, rock, and gospel – to corroborate what is in fact a series of arguments, in which Jay, as a defendant stands. representative in court, presents his case for rap supremacy. Songs range from artful autobiography (“December 4,” “Moment of Clarity”) to mind-blowing pyrotechnics (“What More Can I Say” “Public Service Announcement (Interlude)”), with several performing both functions at once. (“99 Problems”, “Again”) The moment the last one wears off, you feel pity for the accusation.

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For a full year after the album was released, my black and male friends and I cheered as Jay seemingly won one triumph after another. He was our champion in laurels (the sample “Gladiator” at the start of “What More Can I Say” – Are you not having fun? – was no mere swagger), performing death-defying feats in an arena rigged against us.

There was the sold-out Madison Square Garden show, the theatrically released documentary film “Fade to Black,” the glamorous appointment to head the record label Def Jam, and a reported relationship with Beyoncé. The athlete Jay compared himself to most often was Michael Jordan. But the openly racial and political valence of his accomplishments placed him more naturally in a league with Jack Johnson – too fierce a contender for any great white hopeful to contain him.

My mission in high school was ultimately successful, if not exactly the way I had imagined. I was fortunate to get scholarships at schools of my choice and find my path to a career that suited me. (The house and the car, as my parents sometimes remind me, are still under construction.)

Somewhere along the way, however, my thoughts about the meaning of mission changed. In my rush to beat the odds as a teenager, I never really considered how my family – and the other black and brunette families I knew – had been under such extreme pressure in the first place. In all my efforts to master the rules of the game, I never dreamed that it would be possible to change them.

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Last summer, as a global Black Lives Matter movement flourished in response to the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I saw millions of people take to the streets to demand rule changes. They were working collectively to reinvent a system that, for too many people, dispenses prosperity by the thimble and punishment by the pitcher.

Jay-Z, who often encourages black Americans to get up by their boots – even as he has become more active in tackling institutional racism in recent years – taught my friends and I to want to be him. But the re-energized racial justice movement envisions a world in which young men and women of color don’t need to be exceptional to survive and thrive – a world in which Jay-Zs are no longer needed.

I live in New York now, but recently, after we all got our Covid-19 shots, my wife and I went to Houston to visit my parents. In their garage, I dug up my old Case Logic CD cabinet and smiled when I saw “The Black Album” inside. I went alone for a ride in my father’s car (there is always a CD player) and turned up the volume. The lyrics rushed through me in a wave. When I got home, I put the CD back in its sleeve, closed the binder, and left it where I found it.

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