The House That Hova Built
By ZADIE SMITH | September 6, 2012
It’s difficult to know what to ask a rapper. It’s not unlike the difficulty (I imagine) of being a rapper. Whatever you say must be considered from at least three angles, and it’s an awkward triangulation. In one corner you have your hard-core hip-hop heads; the type for whom the true Jay-Z will forever be that gifted 25-year-old with rapid-fire flow, trading verses with the visionary teenager Big L — “I’m so ahead of my time, my parents haven’t met yet!” — on a “rare” (easily dug up on YouTube) seven-minute freestyle from 1995. Meanwhile, over here stands the pop-rap fan. She loves the Jiggaman with his passion for the Empire State Building and bold claims to “Run This Town.” Finally, in the crowded third corner, stand the many people who feel rap is not music at all but rather a form of social problem. They have only one question to ask a rapper, and it concerns his choice of vocabulary. (Years pass. The question never changes.) How to speak to these audiences simultaneously? Anyway: I’m at a little table in a homey Italian restaurant on Mulberry Street waiting for Mr. Shawn Carter, who has perfected the art of triangulation. It’s where he likes to eat his chicken parms.
He’s not late. He’s dressed like a kid, in cap and jeans, if he said he was 30 you wouldn’t doubt him. (He’s 42.) He’s overwhelmingly familiar, which is of course a function of his fame — rap superstar, husband of Beyoncé, minority owner of the Nets, whose new home, the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, will open this month — but also of the fact he’s been speaking into our ears for so long. No one stares. The self-proclaimed “greatest rapper alive” is treated like a piece of the furniture. Ah, but there’s always one: a preppy white guy discreetly operating his iPhone’s reverse-camera function. It’s an old hustle; it makes Jay chuckle: “They think they’re the first one who’s ever come up with that concept.”
He likes to order for people. Apparently I look like the fish-sandwich type. Asked if he thinks this is a good time for hip-hop, he enthuses about how inclusive hip-hop is: “It provided a gateway to conversations that normally would not be had.” And now that rap’s reached this unprecedented level of cultural acceptance, maybe we’re finally free to celebrate the form without needing to continually defend it. Say that I’m foolish I only talk about jewels/Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it? He’s not so sure: “It’s funny how you can say things like that in plain English and then people still do it.” He is mildly disappointed that after publishing “Decoded,” his 2010 memoir, people still ask the same old questions. The flippancy annoys him, the ease with which some still dismiss rap as “something that’s just this bad language, or guys who degrade women, and they don’t realize the poetry and the art.” This is perhaps one downside to having the “flow of the century.”
With Tupac, you can hear the effort, the artistry. And Biggie’s words first had to struggle free of the sheer bulk of the man himself. When Jay raps, it pours right into your ear like water from a tap.
The fish sandwich arrives. Conversation turns to the schoolboy who was shot to death, Trayvon Martin — “It’s really heartbreaking, that that still can happen in this day and age” — and, soon after, to Obama: “I’ve said the election of Obama has made the hustler less relevant.” When he first made this point, “People took it in a way that I was almost dismissing what I am. And I was like: no, it’s a good thing!” He didn’t have Obama growing up, only the local hustler. “No one came to our neighborhoods, with stand-up jobs, and showed us there’s a different way. Maybe had I seen different role models, maybe I’d’ve turned on to that.” Difficult to keep these two Americas in your mind. Imagine living it — within one lifetime!
In “Decoded,” Jay-Z writes that “rap is built to handle contradictions,” and Hova, as he is nicknamed, is as contradictory as they come. Partly because he’s a generalist. Biggie had better boasts, Tupac dropped more knowledge, Eminem is — as “Renegade” demonstrated — more formally dexterous. But Hova’s the all-rounder. His albums are showrooms of hip-hop, displaying the various possibilities of the form. The persona is cool, calm, almost frustratingly self-controlled: “Yeah, 50 Cent told me that one time. He said: ‘You got me looking like Barksdale’ ” — the hot-blooded drug kingpin from HBO’s “The Wire” — “and you get to be Stringer Bell!” — Barksdale’s levelheaded partner. The rapper Memphis Bleek, who has known Jay-Z since Bleek himself was 14, confirms this impression: “He had a sense of calm way before music. This was Jay’s plan from day one: to take over. I guess that’s why he smiles and is so calm, ’cause he did exactly what he planned in the ’90s.” And now, by virtue of being 42 and not dead, he can claim his own unique selling proposition: he’s an artist as old as his art form. The two have grown up together.
Jay-Z, like rap itself, started out pyrotechnical. Extremely fast, stacked, dense. But time passed and his flow got slower, opened up. Why? “I didn’t have enough life experience, so what I was doing was more technical. I was trying to impress technically. To do things that other people cannot do. Like, you can’t do this” — insert beat-box and simultaneous freestyle here — “you just can’t do that.” Nope. Can’t even think of a notation to demonstrate what he just did. Jay-Z in technician mode is human voice as pure syncopation. On a track like “I Can’t Get With That,” from 1994, the manifest content of the music is never really the words themselves; it’s the rhythm they create. And if you don’t care about beats, he says, “You’ve missed the whole point.”
Plenty did, hearing only a young black man, boasting. I got watches I ain’t seen in months/Apartment at the Trump I only slept in once.
But asking why rappers always talk about their stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies. Because boasting is a formal condition of the epic form. And those taught that they deserve nothing rightly enjoy it when they succeed in terms the culture understands. Then something changed: “As I started getting life experiences, I realized my power was in conveying emotions that people felt.” He compared himself to a comedian whose jokes trigger this reaction: “Yo, that’s so true.” He started storytelling — people were mesmerized. “Friend or Foe” (1996), which concerns a confrontation between two hustlers, is rap in its masterful, full-blown, narrative form. Not just a monologue, but a story, complete with dialogue, scene setting, characterization. Within its comic flow and light touch — free from the relentless sincerity of Tupac — you can hear the seeds of 50, Lil Wayne, Eminem, so many others. “That was the first one where it was so obvious,” Jay noted. He said the song represented an important turning point, the moment when he “realized I was doing it.”
At times he restricts himself formally, like the Oulipo, that experimental French literary group of the 1960s. In the song “22 Two’s,” from 1996, we get 22 delicious plays on the words “too” and “two.”
Ten years later, the sequel, “44 Fours,” has the same conceit, stepped up a gear. “Like, you know, close the walls in a bit smaller.” Can he explain why? “I think the reason I still make music is because of the challenge.” He doesn’t believe in relying solely on one’s natural gifts. And when it comes to talent, “You just never know — there is no gauge. You don’t see when it’s empty.”
In the years since his masterpiece “Reasonable Doubt,” the rapper has often been accused of running on empty, too distant now from what once made him real. In “Decoded,” he answers existentially: “How distant is the story of your own life ever going to be?” In the lyrics, practically:
Life stories told through rap/Niggas actin’ like I sold you crack/Like I told you sell drugs, no, Hov’ did that/So hopefully you won’t have to go through that. But can’t a rapper insist, like other artists, on a fictional reality, in which he is somehow still on the corner, despite occupying the penthouse suite? Out hustlin’, same clothes for days/I’ll never change, I’m too stuck in my ways. Can’t he still rep his block? For Jay-Z, pride in the block has been essential and he recognized rap’s role in taking “that embarrassment off of you. The first time people were saying: I come from here — and it’s O.K.” He quotes Mobb Deep: “No matter how much money I get, I’m staying in the projects!” But here, too, he sees change: “Before, if you didn’t have that authenticity, your career could be over. Vanilla Ice said he got stabbed or something, they found out he was lying, he was finished.” I suggested to him that many readers of this newspaper would find it bizarre that the reputation of the rapper Rick Ross was damaged when it was revealed a few years ago that he was, at one time, a prison guard. “But again,” Jay says, “I think hip-hop has moved away from that place of everything has to be authentic. Kids are growing up very differently now.”
Sure are. Odd Future. Waka Flocka Flame. Chief Keef. Returning to what appear to be the basic building blocks of rap: shock tactics, obscenity, perversely simplistic language. After the sophistication of Rakim, Q-Tip, Nas, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West and Jay himself, are we back on the corner again? “Yeah, but Tupac was an angel compared to these artists!” He shakes his head, apparently amused at himself. And it’s true: listening to a Tupac record these days feels like listening to a pleasant slice of Sinatra. But Jay-Z does not suffer from nostalgia. He loves Odd Future and their punk rock vibe. He sees their anger as a general “aversion to corporate America,” particularly as far as it has despoiled the planet. “People have a real aversion to what people in power did to the country. So they’re just lashing out, like: ‘This is the son that you made. Look at your son. Look at what you’ve done.’ ”
But surely another thing they’re reacting against, in the Harold Bloom “anxiety of influence” sense, is the gleaming $460 million monument of Hova himself.
Years ago, Martin Amis wrote a funny story, “Career Move,” in which the screenwriters live like poets, starving in garrets, while the poets chillax poolside, fax their verses to agents in Los Angeles and earn millions off a sonnet. Last year’s “Watch the Throne,” a collaboration with Kanye, concerns the coming to pass of that alternative reality. Hundred stack/How you get it? Jay-Z asks Kanye on “Gotta Have It.” The answer seems totally improbable, and yet it’s the truth: Layin’ raps on tracks! Fortunes made from rhyming verse. Which is what makes “Watch the Throne” interesting: it fully expresses black America’s present contradictions. It’s a celebration of black excellence/Black tie, black Maybachs/Black excellence, opulence, decadence. But it’s also a bitter accounting of the losses in a long and unfinished war. Kanye raps: I feel the pain in my city wherever I go/314 soldiers died in Iraq/509 died in Chicago. Written by a couple of millionaire businessmen on the fly (“Like ‘New Day,’ Kanye told me that — the actual rap — last year at the Met Ball, in my ear at dinner”), it really shouldn’t be as good as it is. But somehow their brotherly rivalry creates real energy despite the mammoth production. And in one vital way the process of making it was unusually intimate: “Most people nowadays — because of technology — send music back and forth.” But this was just two men “sitting in a room, and really talking about this.” At its most sublime — the ridiculously enjoyable “Niggas in Paris” — you feel a strong pull in both men toward sheer abandon, pure celebration. Didn’t we earn this? Can’t we sit back and enjoy it? It’s a song that doesn’t want to be responsible, or to be asked the old, painful questions. Who cares if they’re keeping it real? Or even making sense? Check that beat! Then there’s that word. “It’s a lot of pain and a lot of hurt and a lot of things going on beyond, beneath that.” He offers an analogy: “If your kid was acting up, you’d be like, ‘What is wrong with you?’ If they have a bellyache — ‘Oh, you ate all the cotton candy.’ You’d make these comparisons, you’d see a link. You’d psychoanalyze the situation.”
Rappers use language as a form of asymmetrical warfare. How else to explain George W. Bush’s extraordinary contention that a line spoken by a rapper — “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” — was “one of the most disgusting moments in my presidency”? But there have always been these people for whom rap language is more scandalous than the urban deprivation rap describes. On “Who Gon Stop Me,” Jay-Z asks that we “please pardon all the curses” because “when you’re growing up worthless,” well, things come out that way. Black hurt, black self-esteem. It’s the contradictory pull of the “cipher,” rap terminology for the circle that forms around the kind of freestyling kid Jay-Z once was. What a word! Cipher (noun): 1. A secret or disguised way of writing; a code. 2. A key to such a code. 3. A person or thing of no importance. “Watch the Throne” celebrates two men’s escape from that circle of negation. It paints the world black: black bar mitzvahs, black cars, paintings of black girls in the MoMA, all black everything, as if it might be possible in a single album to peel back thousands of years of negative connotation. Black no longer the shadow or the reverse or the opposite of something but now the thing itself. But living this fantasy proves problematic: Only spot a few blacks the higher I go/What’s up to Will? Shout-out to O/That ain’t enough, we gon’ need a million more/Kick in the door, Biggie flow/I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go. You’re 1 percent of the 1 percent. So what now? Power to the people, when you see me, see you! But that just won’t do. It’s Jay-Z who’s in Paris, after all, not the kids in the Marcy Houses, the housing project in Brooklyn where he grew up. Jay-Z knows this. He gets a little agitated when the subject of Zuccotti Park comes up: “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?”
Jay-Z likes clarity: “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.”
It’s so weird watching rappers becoming elder statesmen. I’m out for presidents to represent me. Well, now they do — and not only on dollar bills. Heavy responsibility lands on the shoulders of these unacknowledged legislators whose poetry is only, after all, four decades young. Jay-Z’s ready for it. He has his admirable Shawn Carter Scholarship Foundation, putting disadvantaged kids through college. He’s spoken in support of gay rights. He’s curating music festivals and investing in environmental technologies. This October, his beloved Nets take up residence in their new home — the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. And he has some canny, forward-looking political instincts: “I was speaking to my friend James, who’s from London, we were talking about something else, I just stopped and I was like, ‘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?’ He actually called me when it blew up, he was like, ‘You know, I didn’t really understand your question, or the timing of it, until now.’ ”
But still I think “conscious” rap fans hope for something more from him; to see, perhaps, a final severing of this link, in hip-hop, between material riches and true freedom. (Though why we should expect rappers to do this ahead of the rest of America isn’t clear.) It would take real forward thinking. Of his own ambitions for the future, he says: “I don’t want to do anything that isn’t true.” Maybe the next horizon will stretch beyond philanthropy and Maybach collections.
Meanwhile, back in the rank and file, you still hear the old cry go up: Hip-hop is dead! Which really means that our version of it (the one we knew in our youth) has passed. But nothing could be duller than a ’90s hip-hop bore. Lil Wayne? Give me Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Nicki Minaj? Please. Foxy Brown. Odd Future? WU TANG CLAN 4EVAH. Listening to Jay-Z — still so flexible and enthusiastic, ears wide open — you realize you’re like one of these people who believes jazz died with Dizzy. The check comes. You will be unsurprised to hear the Jiggaman paid. At the last minute, I remembered to ask after his family, “Oh, my family’s amazing.” And the baby? “She’s four months.” Marcy raised me, and whether right or wrong/Streets gave me all I write in the song. But what will TriBeCa give Blue? “I actually thought about that more before she was born. Once she got here I’ve been in shock until maybe last week?” Her childhood won’t be like his, and this fact he takes in his stride. “We would fight each other. My brother would beat me up,” he says, but it was all in preparation for the outside. “I was going to have to fight, I was going to have to go through some things, and they were preparing me.” He smiles: “She doesn’t have to be tough. She has to love herself, she has to know who she is, she has to be respectful, and be a moral person.” It’s a new day.