The Philosophy of Jay-Z
“Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it”? Renegade.
I planned to do a traditional concert review for Jay-Z’s 4:44 concert in Phoenix. You know, breaking it down track by track the energy, inspiration, and the performer Jay-Z is. However quickly summarizing Jay’s performance would be a disservice to his 13 albums and book, which literally “decodes” his rhymes. So instead I’ll focus on proving a basic assumption, that Jay-Z has not only been telling us the same thing he raps about on 4:44 for years, but that he also has become bigger than a rapper. He’s a philosopher.
I’ll be honest, originally I wasn’t that big of a Jay fan. “All he talks about is money and drug dealing”. Through the recommendation of a friend I ended up reading his book ‘Decoded’, which walks through some of his iconic lines and double entendres. It completely changed how I perceived Jay’s lyrics. He doesn’t throw away any lyrics. ANY OF THEM. He doesn’t walk into the booth and thinks ‘what rhymes with kitchen’. He’s very specific and calculated with every word and metaphor he uses.
He took that same calculated approach with 4:44’s promotional run, gaining way more anticipation than he did with his last album Magna Carter. He could have gotten another pre-sale deal with Sprint or Samsung, but instead he wanted the world to know this album is dropping. Bus ads, billboards throughout Times Square, (also it was great marketing for his music streaming service, Tidal, two birds one stone). After the album released he did a podcast with Rap Radar and discussed it. This was crucial to understanding his mentality because in the podcast he was both defensive and competitive at the same time. He’s curious to know what the world believes, but wants to be clear he never pandered to it. His “first” woke album, wasn’t his first at all… we just weren’t listening.
“I’m Jay Guevara with bling on, I’m complex”. Public Service Announcement.
I loved 4:44, listening to it for weeks straight. It was advice from the rich uncle I never had. Girls, money, investments everything. He was preaching on this album, finally accepting the leadership role we all wanted him to have in the Rap community. I attended the concert stop in Phoenix, with pen and pad ready. This was my first time seeing him live so I anticipated he’ll be continuing this trend, dropping nuggets on New York City housing inflation or the price of copper in Saint-Tropez (It’s in France by the way). But in Jay-Z fashion he doesn’t tell you what to do, he hides it in his music.
He started the concert with images from his career going up in flames. Pictures with the original Rocafella team, the chain, Jay-Z with a wave cap and fitted cap, all melting as he comes out to his song “Kill Jay-Z”. He set the tone of the show. Remove all preconceived notions of him, but then for the next two hours he comes for you. His lyrics discussing religion “Is pious pious cause God loves pious?” from “No Church in The Wild”. He addresses the thugs in “Lucifer” and “D’evils” (get it?). Then comes for the haters in “Where’s the Love”, the lazy during “Run This Town” and finally the adulterers in“4:44”. Death of the ego.
At this point I was at a lost for words. I wanted deep introspective Jay-Z, why is he playing all this old stuff? That was the point. 4:44 wasn’t the golden unicorn that came from the heavens, it is the latest thought a kid from Marcy Projects was ready to publicly discuss. Composing the show in this way showed not only his progression as an artist but the surprising consistency of his ideals.
In the next act he talks about dealing with conflict. Whether it be internal which he talks about in “BAM”, overcoming conflict like in “Jigga” and “Izzo”, or external conflict on “Dirt off your shoulders” and “On to the next one”. He masterfully ties it together on my favorite “PSA” where he says “even back then you can call me, CEO of the ROC”. He WAS a hustler, but he was ALWAYS a boss. He had a wealth mentality and strived to build but was forced to drug deal. “I pulled out the pot when we was out of options” (BAM).
He wraps up both arguments in the conflict act with “Family Feud”. “Super bowl goals my wife in the kitchen feeding the kids liquid gold”. His wife, Beyoncé, and kids are having family dinner. He’s showing how he dealt with his ego and overcame conflict to peacefully eating with his family. That’s the American Dream. In case there was any doubt, on the same song he says “I cooked up more chicken when the kitchen closed”. Now that I have more options, I walked away from the streets. You can make more money getting away from the bullshit not doubling down on it. We all got problems, we all ‘beefing’ but nobody wins when the family feuds. He skips some of his biggest hits in his career like “Change Clothes”, “Can I Get A-”, and “Young Forever” to drop these Easter eggs. He ends his second act resolving the conflict.
He completes the last act by talking about legacy. He starts with Moonlight, which reminded me of the music video. It was cool that he recreated Friends, but more important it was telling the lack of fanfare it received. We can do the same exact thing but because of the melanin it won’t be accepted. We can’t be them, we must be us. So instead of sulking, he turns up the energy with “Niggas in Paris”. Before I dive in the lyrics, think about calculated Jay-Z organizing this set. He recreated one of the most popular sitcoms word for word with an all black star studded cast and the video falls flat. Instead of sulking about the lack of acceptance, he performs arguably the most arrogant song in his catalog. Since we won’t be accepted anyway I might as well have fun and be myself. “Don’t shit phase me, Nets can go 0 and 82 and I’ll look at you like this shit gravy… If you escaped what I escaped you’ll be in Paris getting fucked up too”. Yeah, I’m a mogul and I own part of a NBA team but if it doesn’t work ‘oh well, it was a good ride’. That says more about this show than anything else.
“Jesus can’t save you, life starts when the church end”. Empire State of Mind.
Every excuse you can muster, ‘my neighborhood is poor’, or ‘my relationships is shitty’, Jay-Z has a song to resolve that conflict. During ego, he turns down the lights and everybody was screaming for “Song Cry” since he was performing his old hits, but he did “4:44” instead and that’s when I got it. “Song Cry” is the prelude to “4:44”. I’m dealing with shit with my girl, now I’m dealing with shit with my wife. He does the same old new transition going from “Where I’m From” to “Empire State of Mind” and then to “Marcy Me”. He’s chronicling his journey. I was in the hood, now I live in the nice part of town, now I’m in the Middle East so much I can speak Farsi. This entire time we thought 4:44 was Jay-Z’s grand revelations, when I will argue it is the part 2 and 3 of his previous tracks. This entire time, we’ve been listening to his music album by album horizontally, when realistically it should have been vertically. 4:44 feels so raw and real because for the first time, he has an entire album of these continuations, that aren’t lost in lyrical Olympics, or ego driven ‘for the club’ records. With 4:44 he becomes bigger than a rapper or a businessman. He is now a mindset, a school of thought and either you have it or you don’t.
We, as a society overly romanticize the ideas of the past. We commodify nostalgia. Yet, now is the best society has ever been. Musicians now must play multiple instruments and promote their own projects. Toyota Corollas are better than horse and carriages. YouTube is better than TV. But because of this love of the past we often miss the geniuses of our time. Socrates’ school of thought developed after he died. James Baldwin, one of the greatest authors who was so influential the CIA had him listed on a watch list because of his influence on the black community, was but a footnote only mentioned in February. Now years later we teach their books, we repeat their philosophy and use their words to order our steps. And in true Jay-Z fashion he is even prepared with a lyric expressing just that.
“Maybe you’ll love me when I fade to black”. December 4th (which he doesn’t play at the show).