The question of ‘authenticity’ is what really lies at the center of this debate. At what point does an artist’s work cease to be authentic? Perhaps the more important question is: Who is the authoritative voice that gets to decide? Mixed opinion on the arch of Jay-Z’s career goes without saying. There are some fans who feel he has grown, matured, and improved with age; while others believe that as Jay-Z’s success and popularity rose to the top, his music sank to the bottom.
Many hip hop fans with whom I have spoken (and who, I might add, have much more knowledge on the topic than I do) argue that Jay-Z has ‘sold-out.’ Being called a ‘sell-out’ is a pop culture phrasing no artist ever wants to hear. A brief look through American music and popular culture history tells a different story. Bob Dylan was called a ‘sell-out’ when, in 1965, he went from protest-poet laureate, to the folk revivalists, to rock ‘n roll star with a five-piece electric backing band. Years later, Dylan fans around the world acknowledge this change as perhaps the greatest moment of his career and rock scholars synonymously recognize it to be one of the most successful and profitable (in terms of talent and career-direction) transformations in the history of American music. So if the root of ‘authenticity’ lies within public opinion, which I think it does, then the verdict is still out on whether Jay-Z is a continuing success or not.
There can be no argument that Jay-Z is beyond successful when speaking in terms of financial gain and world-recognition. Shawn Carter (aka Jay-Z) was born in the projects of Bedford-Stuyvesant’s Marcy Houses (located in Brooklyn, New York) where as a young teen he reportedly shot his brother for stealing from him and was a self-proclaimed crack-cocaine dealer. Now, Carter is the CEO of a multi-million, multi-faceted corporation known as Roc Nation, which includes entities such as Roc-A-Fella Records, Rocawear, and many other profit and non-profit organizations. Answers.com reports Carter’s January 2010 net worth to be greater than $785 million. Couple that with his wife, Beyoncé Knowles, net worth of $461 million (also sourced from Answers.com) and you get a total family worth of $1.246 billion. From a business standpoint and social upward-mobility point of view, there is no arguing that Jay-Z falls under the category of “success.” But what about his music? Has it suffered or flourished for this wealth and fame?
Jay-Z’s most recent album (The Blueprint 3) was also, by all accounts, a massive success. Independently, the single “Empire State of Mind” stayed in the number one spot for five consecutive weeks on Billboard’s Hot 100, and the overall LP was number one on Canadian, UK, and U.S. R&B, Rap & Hip Hop, and Pop album charts when it debuted in 2009. Had Jay-Z turned pop? And if so, how did the hip hop nation feel about it?
In a recent African-American Studies class of mine at Columbia University, I played a segment from the Forbes interview with Warren Buffet and Jay-Z and asked whether Jay-Z’s overcoming social-class oppression was an example of what is possible in 2010 America, or a one-off exception to the rule. One student voiced her opinion, stating, “Jay-Z wasn’t a success at all,” but that he was rather “just a corporate puppet.” This particular student is extremely bright, and she defended her point of view well. In her mind, success isn’t about sitting in a three-piece suit next to Warren Buffet on Forbes TV; it is recognizing the unjust disparities in this nation between the rich and the poor and seeking to bridge the gap–something Jay-Z has yet to do. To Erica (the student), Jay-Z isn’t a symbol of social upward mobility, he is an agent of capitalist appropriation and a puppet to help sell the myth that anyone in this country can “make it.” It should come obvious then, that Erica could care less for his “hip-pop.”
I don’t know where I stand in the debate. One of the common complaints about my editorials posted weekly here on BreakThru Radio is that I never offer my reader my stance on the cultural debates I present. I have been accused by some of asking the questions and then wavering, or just plain omitting, which side of the fence I stand on. Therefore, in order to appease those readers who would prefer I act more Bill O’Reilly’esque in the question of whether Jay-Z is an example of success from the streets of a tough neighborhood, I would have to disagree with Erica and say that he is. Although I understand her point and appreciate her idealism, I guess I am more optimistic about the possibilities a democratic state has to offer, as imperfect as it is. Seeing Jay-Z being interviewed alongside Warren Buffet in a $15,000 suit and knowing his background brings a smile to my face; not disgust. And to think that the man did this on the back of hip hop beats and witty rap lyrics further supports my feeling that so much is possible if one is just willing to look inward as opposed to living a life with no mirror.
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– Kory French