Amazing Phases: “We all Hustlers”

In the struggles of urban youths for survival
and pleasure inside capitalism, capitalism has
become both their greatest friend and greatest foe.
–Robin D.G. Kelley, Yo Mama’s DysFUNKtional

I got the rap patrol on the gat patrol,
Foes that wanna make sure my casket’s closed,
Rap critics that say he’s “Money Cash Hos.”
I’m from the hood, stupid. What type of facts are those?
–Jay-Z, “99 Problems”

Playboy: Every time you say, “I’m from the hood,”
you screw up your face like a cartoon villain.

Jay-Z: Because it’s funny. “I’m from the hood.”
It’s a joke. You can’t take that seriously. Rappers,
we ain’t from the hood. We got nice homes and nice
cars. We from the mansion.
Playboy (April 2003)

Lately, Jay-Z‘s been spending time at Nets games. With “hottest chick in the game” Beyoncé by his side, he’s turned into sports-TV’s favorite courtside celebrity, suggesting his new “respectable” status. No longer “just” a threatening hiphopper, now he’s a basketball team owner, a social activist, a man with a stake in enterprises that Middle America (whoever that may be) can appreciate.

In part, Jay’s new standing has to do with his much-ballyhooed retirement from actual rapping. Roc-A-Fella continues, as do Roc-A-Wear and his kicks contracts with Reebok, but his own tastes reflect his shifting sense of responsibilities and effects. As Guy Trebay writes in the New York Times, “Last November when the Black Album by Jay-Z was released, the rapper made the point succinctly. ‘And I don’t wear jerseys, I’m 30-plus,’ Jay-Z rapped. ‘Give me a crisp pair of jeans… Button up.’ As early as last August, he signaled a shift in his sartorial direction by wearing a jacket with well-defined shoulders and rear vents to the MTV Video Music Awards” (6 February 2004).

Looking like a grown-up leads to acting like one, too, asserting one’s prerogative, determining one’s own name and function. In a culture where “controversial” videos tend to be the sort Nelly currently has in rotation, Jay-Z has taken up another sort of provocation. Because he (or rather, the character named Jay-Z) is shot to death at the end of his latest and reportedly last video, for “99 Problems,” the Mark Romanek-directed clip has MTV crying “controversial.” (Jay tells one interviewer he “feels like Madonna,” recalling the flap over her video for “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” directed by husband Guy Ritchie; also named “controversial” for its explicit violence, it aired just once on the channel that so loves Madonna and controversy.)

Asked to explain the gun violence and specifically, its potential effects on “kids,” Jay tells MTV’s Sway that he approached the role as such: “Just like Denzel in Training Day or any other actor, I was acting out a part.” He also insists that the performance is a rite of passage: “It’s symbolic to the whole retirement thing,” he says. “And putting the whole Jay-Z thing to rest.”

 The whole Jay-Z thing will never be put to rest, of course, but as Shawn Carter endeavors to move on, in a universe premised on faiths in free will and free markets, he identifies oneself as a member of a particular class and generation, asserting it as a choice. As he insists repeatedly, he has made choices typically unavailable to his childhood peers in Marcy Projects (to which he returns for the video shoot, naming it in MTV’s Making the Video, “My home right there. I’m from the bottom”), to purchase power and access.

Jay-Z has repeatedly made his home visible in lyrics and video imagery.

Hardknock Life” (“Take the baseline out”), for example, returns Jay to his old neighborhood as act and icon, a moment and place underscored by excess — the Broadway show tune, the crossover success of the track. The video shows “residents” ostensibly doing what they do: riding bikes, shooting craps, chatting on stoops, and sitting on Jigga-man’s extremely fine ride. The track’s famous use of the Annie anthem, with the video kids mouthing the lyrics, sets him amid a fantasy of poverty and resilience: following his entrance into the video by way of a walk through a neighborhood convenience store, he appears at the back of the frame, visually dominated by the intensely red wall. In later medium shots, he appears sanguine telling his life story (his most marketable asset), the way he “stretched the game out, put Jigga on top.”

His talent for such “stretching” is well known and much revered. In “Do It Again,” off the third volume of his autobiographical series, In My Lifetime

, Jay renegotiates hip-hop time, with a gappy drum machine; this shuffle-like beat controverted common industry wisdom of the moment, as most rappers were intent on spitting fast, deft rhymes in 4-4 time (Jay-Z’s “Nigga What, Nigga Who” and “Can I Get A…,” both from Volume 2, were among the speediest). The act proved the point: Jay-Z could do anything he put his mind to, and moreover, he could change the game, on his initiative.

Identities and biographies rarely coincide precisely, as performative and generic demands impose expectations on artists and consumers. Jay/Shawn Carter embodies the paradoxes that shape today’s hiphop industry, the ways that it creates and also extracts from such identity. There are numerous ways that identity is vexed in celebrity culture and in hiphop, not the least of which has to do with the naming process. It’s common practice for MCs to self-select names (or have names assigned by savvy marketers or childhood compatriots). Jay-Z’s several names — Jigga, Hova, Izzo — also connote evolution, from youthful specificity to increasing reach. They allude to contexts as well: commercial and local, underground and mainstream.

As Robin Kelley argues, rap expressed that economic restructuring — and the resulting massive unemployment — “created criminals out of black youth” (“Kickin reality, kickin ballistics,” Droppin Science, 1996). For all its emphasis on the accumulation of wealth that follows from successful commodification, hustler hiphop continues, in Jay’s version, to address project conditions, class disparities, and racism. Kelley calls this the “politics of ghettocentricity,” insisting on the ways that “the specific class, race, and gendered experiences in late-capitalist urban centers coalesce to create a new identity — ‘Nigga.'”

For Jigga, whose own name conflates the “nigga” with Jay (and so challenges the very idea that names, even racist labels, can be definitive, rather than contextual and relative), this identity is also a means to forge and acknowledge community. As he told Blaze in 1999, “I just want people to really see me as a regular nigga — ’cause I’m their voice. I’m the nigga that speaks to what they go through, the things they feel. When I say it, it’s like, ‘Oh, you said what I felt.’ Because I’m the same nigga” (Darrell Dawsey, “You Can Knock the Hustle”).

“The same nigga.” Even as Jay asserts an identity that’s stable over time, a self that he can recognize in the mirror morning after morning, he also wields it as a performance. He exploits its flexibility and reveals its artifice; in this expression of image “control,” he also refashions the terms of “authenticity,” so crucial in hiphop. And so, his professed sameness is only partly true, in a traditional sense. “The same nigga” is myriad, a trickster perpetually transforming and transformative, a function of location and affiliation.

Such change is not always a matter of will, of course. Control is never assured. It’s worth remembering that Jay-Z’s own career endured two different and unpredictable events: the release of The Blueprint on 9/11/01 (moved up a week because of bootlegs), and the release of Best of Both Worlds, his collaborative album with R. Kelly, as child abuse charges were made against the singer. These collisions of history and livelihood, morality and commercialism, illustrate the impossibility of control.

In the face of such difficulty, one can only hustle. Throughout his brief and prolific career (nine albums), Jay-Z has repeatedly showcased his self-understanding as a hustler, a dealer who moves product. He recognized early on the usefulness of the hustle in board rooms. As Kelefa Sanneh wrote in the New Yorker, Jay-Z is a premier “corporate rapper” (“Getting’ Paid” 2001; 60). He resonates not only in his “real” stories — rendered via intellectual lyrics and assured demeanor — but also, importantly, in his embrace of corporate structures and consumer culture.

As Jay performs his experiences, he reinterprets them, reshapes their meanings, so they become authentic in a fluid sense, celebratory and huge, abstract but recognizable. “Jay-Z,” the performed identity, is incongruously ghetto and large, transgressive and conformist. Using the stereotypes associated with his young black maleness as a threat and a challenge, he raps in “So Ghetto,” “I’m so gangsta, prissy chicks don’t wanna f**k with me / I’m so gutter, ghetto girls fall in love with me.”

Such lyrics recall a time when Jay wouldn’t change his attire to suit his new status: he staunchly stuck to his hood wear, large jewelry that he never could have afforded in his prior “real” life, accessorizing with emblems of his aspirations and achievements: “So I’m cruisin’ in the car with this boozy broad,” he asserted, in “So Ghetto.” “She said, ‘Jigga-Man, you rich, take the doo-rag off’ / Hit a U-turn; ma, I’m droppin you back off.” Now, of course, he’s got the button-down striped shirts and suit jackets. He’s accommodating a new sense of self, one that he’s renaming, nostalgically perhaps, Shawn Carter.

With the Black Album, he’s changed everything, again (in part, this is expressed in his decision to use a different producer for each track, so the album is all about seemingly ongoing transformation). In “Moment of Clarity,” produced by Eminem, he recognizes the tradeoff he’s made, without apologizing. Self-awareness and self-control: these are street lessons, useful in the corporate world as well. “Music business hate me cause the industry ain’t make me. / Hustlers and boosters embrace me and the music I be makin’,” he raps. “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars. / They criticized me for it yet they all yell “Holla!”

Success is a hustle. In the video for “Change Clothes,” featuring producer Pharrell Williams (as well as cameos by Russell Simmons and Naomi Campbell), Jay takes his act to a high fashion runway, a setting that makes literal his claim to modeling and marketing his identity. Now an “elder” statesman of sorts, he’s on his way out even as he’s “back.” “I been through that, been shot at, shoot back. / Gotta keep a peace like a Buddhist,” he raps. “I ain’t a New Jack, nobody gon’ Wesley Snipe me. / It’s less than likely, move back. / Let I breathe, Jedi Knight. / The more space I get, the better I write.”

Expanding as if to fill this space, Jay looks relaxed, even smiles, in the video. No longer big pimping, he’s observing and participating, an owner of his own fashion line. As hiphop is always a process of analysis and narration, “Change Clothes” (“…and go,” as the chorus exhorts), proposes new ways to consider inevitable progression. Rather than remain the same, or be “the same nigga,” Jay-Z — whom Kris Ex of XXL calls “the Stephen King of hiphop… able to make the most of having the most marketed-to audience in his genre’s history”,” has found his way to embrace change, to be other and same at once, comfortably (“Cheers,” December 2003). Is this maturity? Is it authority? Maybe it’s empathy, communication that interrogates at the same time that it asserts. “You know I stay, fresh to death, a boy from the projects, / And I’ma take you to the top of the globe.”

Jay’s use of hiphop is repeatedly cagey and profound. In bidding it farewell, he pushes it forward, as a manifestly politicized instrument, an enterprise perpetually self-deconstructing and -reconstructing by definition. Increasingly subsumed by the need to support itself, to sell product — which means, to make available what is familiar and readable — hiphop has turned, by Jay’s own account, less interesting, more “done that.”

And yet, hiphop’s seemingly inevitable and over-already commodification need not be a one-way ticket to banality and languor. As Jay-Z illustrates in “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” ingeniously produced by Timbaland, the commercial process itself can also raise questions about meaning and expectation, as well as respect. “Your homey Hov’ in position, in the kitchen with soda,” he raps. “I just whipped up a watch, tryin to get me a Rover, / Tryin to stretch out the coca, like a wrestler, yessir. / Keep the heckler close, you know them smokers’ll test ya.” Boastful, playful, and at ease. He knows who he is and how much he needs it. Or so it seems. “Even as he rhymes the male fantasy,” writes Kris Ex, “he touches on complex emotions.” Understanding the pose, cool and savvy, he delivers truth as performance, and vice versa. What makes him seem the same also renders him extraordinary: he connects.

The video illustrates connections among consumers and producers, hustlers and hustled. Cutting back and forth in time, it shows Jay literally “take over” a radio station, his words reaching out to everyone — kids stopped by the cops, girls in the beauty shop, a woman striding to her car — all “brush off” the dirt offered by others, to move forward, resilient (not destructive) in their self-knowledge. “I paid a grip for the jeans, plus the slippers is clean,” observes Jay. “No chrome on the wheels, I’m a grown-up for real.” He doesn’t have to explain or prove his identity in the way he once did; he knows who he is, and he’s increasingly (at least in public) less interested in knowing whether you do.

He also pledges to know his community, even if he’s no longer “from the hood.” Ever dissenting, ever testing, Jay’s last video circles back to Marcy, where he can reintroduce Shawn Carter. Imagining himself back to 1994, he and the track’s producer (and Def Jam co-founder) Rick Rubin are pulled over by the cops. “Son,” mouths the uni (Jay’s lyrics), “Do you know why I’m stoppin you for?” He slumps in his seat, peeps up from under his baseball cap: “Cause I’m young and I’m black, and my hat’s real low? / Or do I look like a mind-reader, sir? I don’t know.” No matter how rich you are, you’re black while you’re driving. It’s the gift and the curse, a perpetually antagonistic relationship with the state, embodied here by cops and prison guards, but extending as well to more abstract and grander displays of “authority.”

Shot in black and white, the video makes clear the interrelations among moments in time, forms of cultural expression and consumption, self-making and self-effacing: the record store gives way to street murals, an African tribal dancer to a fraternity step troupe, prison inmates to an addict to a corpse, neatly laid out in a coffin. Invested in “the real,” hiphop insists on its political and experiential projects. “And there I go, trapped in the Kit-Kat again,” he says. “Back through the system with the riff-raff again, / Fiends on the floor, scratchin again. Paparazzis with they cameras, snappin them. / D.A. try to give a nigga shaft again. / Half a mill’ for bail cause I’m African.”

As he notes here, his visible status as “African” makes him, again, the “same nigga.” And yet, he is not. Jay-Z’s subsequent “death,” violent, slow motion, and sensational, is once more reframed when he reappears after the shooting. Looking at the camera, he smiles, released and renamed. He looks at the camera, means of surveillance and performance, containment and independence, his vehicle to superstardom. And he hits it, sends the frame tumbling, as if the world within it is suddenly out of control.

At the same time, “99 Problems” represents Shawn Carter’s control as a means to redefine “authenticity.” Of the streets and from the mansion, he’s also entering another phase. While Jay-Z surely is a “corporate rapper,” Shawn Carter is now emerging as a kind of “corporate citizen.” Whether his work with the Brooklyn Nets leads elsewhere (George W. Bush was once a baseball team owner, after all), or whether it will “give back” to the community he so loves in ways that he’s asserted, remains to be seen. Back home again, he brings difference and his own “truth,” reflected and inflected in his performance of same.

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