Jay-Z Gets the Scholarly Treatment

JAY-Z: Made in America by Michael Eric Dyson

I haven’t followed Jay-Z his whole career. I bought his first two albums on CD but then lost interest as he seemed to move in a more commercial direction. But I came back around with his Black Album and now have several of his discs. Interestingly, that album was supposed to be his swan song. He announced his retirement from the game with that project, but fortunately for all of us, we got more from him, much more.

Now we have a scholarly work that goes over his career and influence. Michael Eric Dyson has written and spoke about hip-hop music and culture with his unique blend of passion and academics. I have followed his talks, articles, and books for some time now. I knew I needed to dive into this one on what many people call one of the greatest rappers of all time.

Here are passages that spoke to me and a bit of a commentary on them .

Dumb It Down

Jay-Z is able to make pop music with layers of substance that still appeals to a mainstream audience that doesn’t have an appetite. In a lyric he famously said, “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars.”

Michael Eric Dyson believes that “is a misdirection of sorts.”  He writes, “Jay’s lyrical cleverness masks his deeper intellectual reflections on the world and on black culture itself. “Moment of Clarity” is one of the clearest explanations of the logic behind his approach to making commercial music with intellectual heft. Jay asks his listeners to study intently his body of work—from Reasonable Doubt to the Black Album, on which the song appears. He promises them that if they’ll “listen close, you’ll hear what I’m about.”

Hear It On Repeat because the Meaning Can Be Hidden

Sometimes you can’t even get what he really said until the fiftieth time you’ve heard it.

“The eye more easily captures the meaning on a page, or onscreen, in hindsight, after careful reading, but the ear must hear the lyrics repeatedly to get their full meaning. Such is the nature of JAY-Z’s craft. The claim to dumb things down is meant to allay the fear of depth. Jay loses none of his sophistication in his strategy to say smart things in an accessible fashion. He layers his lyrics with multiple meanings; he waxes philosophical and poetic while keeping the party lights on.”

That’s why I’d like to see printed lyrics available alongside the songs we bump regularly. I used to love reading liner notes like that. Maybe we can get back to that in the digital realm somehow.

Jay-Z “has proved along the way that hip hop is a way to say the words that matter the most to our moral advance. As is the case with many Negro spirituals, political meaning is often hidden in the lyrics, crammed between the lines, or tucked away in songs that are lesser hits so that their meaning takes, well, fewer hits—lest those surveilling the content identify its liberating or subversive intent. That may mean that some quarters of conservative or respectable black America overlook or ignore those messages too.”

Give Artists Time to Grow

Jay-Z, Method Man, Common are just three artists where we can see the growth and maturity they’ve acquired over the years. It shows on their records. Too bad not all artists have had the time to grow.

“It is especially tragic that Christopher Wallace (Biggie) and Tupac Shakur didn’t get the opportunity to mature as men and find their way past the abhorrent visions of masculinity that imprisoned them both as young men. Thank God that Shawn Carter was given more time and space to work through his own views of women and relationships in a way denied these other two lyrical legends. Jay also would have many more beefs, mostly inconsequential skirmishes, but they were instructive both for their lack of violence and for showing how one can disagree, and be quite disagreeable, at first, before finding one’s way to peace.”

Everyone Samples

Andy Warhol “reshaped the gateways to the fine arts world by unapologetically embracing a pop art aesthetic and relentlessly sampling and remaking popular culture as fine art, aesthetic features that made him interesting and inspiring.”

Just think of him painting Soup cans that included the brand logo. That is sampling, right?

“Obama sampled Jay during his 2008 presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton when he symbolically brushed the dirt off his shoulders, signifying that her attacks on him were easily discarded, mimicking a move made in the video for JAY-Z’s ‘Dirt Off Your Shoulder.’ He tweeted a reference to Jay’s ‘My 1st Song’ from his Black Album (a song stressing that one should treat one’s last song like one’s first, one’s first like one’s last, staying hungry and putting one’s heart into the effort) while adding the finishing touches on his last State of the Union Address. Jay’s words on his supposed swan song before retirement in 2003 inspired Obama as he faced the end of his office.

Jay also tweaked an anonymous poem that was widely circulated on the Internet in 2008. The poem was based on a February 2008 speech by former Louisiana congressman Cleo Fields, who said that ‘W.E.B. DuBois taught so that Rosa Parks could take a seat. Rosa took a seat so we all could take a stand. We all took a stand so that Martin Luther King, Jr., could march. Martin marched so Jesse Jackson could run. Jesse ran so Obama could WIN.’ Scholar DuBois and civil rights leader Jackson, two of our most important icons, were removed in the popular online poem. Jay rapped that ‘Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk / Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run,’ which Obama in turn paraphrased in his 2015 speech at the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Selma march. ‘We honored those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar.’”

If we think of all the ways we sample in everyday life, we really need to reconsider copyright law and the fair use of work. Drawing on things that came before us to creatively communicate or create art is one the foundations of great communication.

Shine a Light

Sometimes we need people to illuminate things that we’ve grown blind or accustomed to. Then we can band together and make change. To that end,

“Jay told David Letterman in 2018 that Donald Trump is ‘actually a great thing’ because he is ‘forcing people to … have a conversation and band together and work together.’ Jay argued that one “can’t really address something that’s not revealed,’ and that Trump ‘is bringing out an ugly side of America that we wanted to believe was gone … We still gotta deal with it. We have to have tough conversations—talk about the N-word, talk about why white men are so privileged in this country.’

Things are never ideal, and systems of white oppression co-opt us all: teachers, advocates, athletes, organizers. I don’t spare myself. I have spent nearly five decades—in speeches, books, and college courses—advocating for social justice. Yet I teach at Georgetown University, a school that sold 272 enslaved souls, including children, to bankroll its future. This is how the world works: All of us have blood on our hands and dirt beneath our nails, and we can scarcely afford to reject every institution we encounter as irretrievably tainted. The charge of being a sellout, and the instinct to “cancel” people indicted in this way, often comes full circle. (Malcolm was later deemed a traitor to his cause and murdered by members of his own group.) The language of betrayal cannot provide lasting moral satisfaction. Instead, as JAY-Z has amply provided, we need a vocabulary of moral accountability and social responsibility that is nuanced and capacious, giving us air to breathe and room to grow.”

Go In-Depth

It’s interesting to see that a commercial rap artist can have a scholarly work written about him. Who would have thought that could happen, and that we could have so much to learn from the pages?

My Reading Log of 2021 – coming soon!