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Jay-Z and the Politics of Rapping in Middle Age

It’s the production, by the longtime hip-hop and R&B producer No I. D., that most gives the album its psychology. He puts samples by the Alan Parsons Project, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, the Clark Sisters and Hannah Williams & the Affirmations to masterly use. Where Jay-Z is inclined to be passive, the music insinuates. It makes him seem more culpable, vulnerable, spiritual and transparent than he might even realize. No I. D. is a studio wizard. He’s also Dr. Melfi.

Jay-Z’s old creative and sexual promiscuity have been replaced by an act of commitment. No more women, just his wife. No more gluts of great producers, just this one. These are the new risks for him: monogamy, focus, trust. There are new existential concerns, too. The ambition here extends from his own plight to the straits of black people all over America. Nothing like a coherent thesis emerges, but he’s feeling his way toward if not a moral capitalism then the idea of who capitalism is for.

Jay-Z began his career talking about all the money he had and how he made it. Now, he’s aged into a man with time to think about what the money means, what else it can do. He has become wealthy, and wealth is money with dimension, vision and heirs.

Every time I’m reading a magazine and see one of those ads for a Patek Philippe watch, I take a second to wonder about the meaning of wealth. (This is a timepiece you take out a mortgage for.) The ads usually feature two or three generations of handsome white people, and the tag line is something obnoxiously poignant, like “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”

It’s a mission statement about legacy and affluence that’s rarely mentioned in rap, which is sometimes pathologically obsessed with the optics of spending. Saving never comes up. Neither does nonmusical posterity. To be fair, what’s sexy about those?

Promiscuity is a rap subject. Paternity, not so much. Young men, understandably, aren’t too concerned with the future. New money tends to burn holes in pockets. Putting something away, having something to hand down, those tend to be old-person concerns. Certainly, other rappers have wills. But Jay-Z is actually ruminating about his. He’s wondering, too, whether your money’s doing all it can.

On “4:44,” he gets churlish about that. In “The Story of O. J.,” he asks and answers, “You know what’s more important than spending money in a strip club? Credit.”

A line later, he is asking, regrettably, if we know why the Jews own all the property in America. His phrasing perpetuates one stereotype to emphasize another about black people and capital — that, compared with white people, they have none. His pointing this out at 47 requires you to know what he was like when he was 27, when the gentleman at the club was him.


Beyoncé and Jay-Z at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey in 2016.

Larry Busacca/PW/WireImage, via Getty Images

Some of the risk of being an old rapper is that the old posturing won’t do. You actually have to stand for something. Jay-Z also has to reckon with where he has stood — with the Obamas on one hand but also cavalierly against womankind on the other. What does he make of his track record, his history, say, with women, and what will his children make of that?

Maybe this is why young rappers don’t rap old. The evolving nature of maturity can make you seem like a hypocrite.

This idea of legacy becomes a halting socioeconomic lecture on “4:44.” He’s working hard for his estate so that death won’t leave a hole. It will leave a whole. This is an ultrapractical view of the end of life that testifies to the sort of bootstrap conservatism that argues that because one black person has overcome the systemic and self-inflicted roadblocks to success, anyone can. These are his rags-to-riches racial politics. He’s made his black life matter, so should you.

The emotional twist on “4:44” is that despite years of his rapping about the empire he’s built, he didn’t know its value until he almost lost the woman who helped build it. Maybe he was being too much of a man to notice. Not long after the album’s release, Jay-Z put out an awkwardly short companion video in which famous black men (and Aziz Ansari) discuss being lovers and fathers and living at an emotional disadvantage in relationships with women. It’s fascinating but also probably beside the point of his adultery. The video’s point is: We black men can talk about the difficulties of being black men. We can emote!

You saw something like that a couple of weeks ago on an episode of “The Bachelorette” when a suitor — one of the very last — named Eric sincerely warns Rachel that his life in Baltimore isn’t as posh as in some of the show’s European locations or as stable as those of the white men he is up against. Eric started as a cutup. But we are supposed to believe that Rachel has grown him up. And so his moving admission of mere circumstantial inferiority (he’s poor) was meant to enhance his worth as a man.

The beauty of Barry Jenkins’s romance “Moonlight” — some of it, anyway — is the way it didn’t have to work half as hard to let you see deep inside a character who over time graduates from impressionable child to impenetrable adult thug. You never lose sight of the emotional void that he winds up driving half the night to fill.

As popular culture archetypes, these used to be scary black men. But every once in a while, they’re granted a humanity that, with old-school rappers, is harder to come by. It’s not an art form that forgives weakness, concession or blame. It runs on burnishing and destroying egos. It thrives on the performance of flawless maximal authenticity and lyrical supremacy. Jay-Z doesn’t relinquish his ego on “4:44.” But on “Kill Jay-Z,” the rueful opening song, he contemplates the downsides of having such a strong one: “Die Jay-Z, this ain’t back in the days/You don’t need an alibi, Jay-Z/Cry Jay-Z, we know the pain is real/But you can’t heal what you never reveal.”

This is Jay-Z driving half the night, to some place we’ve never seen him go, perhaps to some place he’s never even been. But part of maturity — whether or not you’re a rapper — is being human enough to accept that the first step is getting in the car.

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