In 2003, Jay-Z was preparing to retire from the rap business. But before he went, he wanted the people to know why he’d hung on so long. After all, he was only supposed to release one album, 1996’s Reasonable Doubt. To hear him tell it, rap was just a way to launder the wealth he’d acquired by illicit means throughout the ‘80s. He’d stuck it out for another seven albums – eight if you include The Dynasty – and along the way, had multiplied that wealth. He wanted to focus on the business dealings that had allowed him to do so, but it seems he felt he owed his loyal listeners an explanation.
So on “Moment Of Clarity” from his supposed swan song The Black Album, he rhymes, “We as rappers must decide what’s most important / And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them / So I got rich and gave back – to me, that’s the win, win.” Of course, the years after The Black Album’s release turned out to be more of an interlude than an ending; within the decade, he was right back at it, detailing his hustler mentality and defying both the odds stacked against him and the critics who found various ways to denounce his success.
That trend continued right on up to last week’s New Music Friday when Jay contributed a rare guest verse to DJ Khaled’s new album God Did. His rhymes on the title track are just as weighty, inspiring, insightful, and motivational as ever, prompting a week’s worth of praise and discussion that spanned Twitter, YouTube, and even MSNBC as Ari Melber broke down the verse in an analysis of the failed drug war that formed the foundation for Jay’s present success. But it also sparked controversy when Jay compared being called a “capitalist” to racist slurs during a Twitter Spaces discussion with journalist Rob Markman.
“Before it was the American Dream,” he mused of the ways in which the US’s socioeconomic and political systems stack the deck against the nation’s Black citizens. “‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. You can make it in America.’ All these lies that America told us our whole life and then when we start getting it, they try to lock us out of it. They start inventing words like ‘capitalist.’ We’ve been called ‘n****rs’ and ‘monkeys’ and sh*t. I don’t care what words y’all come up with. Y’all gotta come with stronger words.” Fans were flabbergasted at the comparison, which seemed to suggest that Jay equates “capitalist” to a dirty word – and that he also thinks it’s being leveled at him specifically for being a Black success story. But why?
First of all, let’s get one thing out of the way: Jay-Z is a capitalist. I shouldn’t need to give a dictionary definition here, but clearly, this is the level we’re working on, so here it is: A capitalist is “a wealthy person who uses the money to invest in trade and industry for profit in accordance with the principles of capitalism,” according to Oxford Dictionary. Jay-Z is a wealthy person. He invests in various industries to make a profit. He is a capitalist. Now that we’ve established that, let’s play junior armchair psychologist to figure out why being called one seems to hurt his feelings so much – or at least why he thinks it’s meant to.
It helps to look at his words from “Moment Of Clarity,” because they’re so instructive about what he thinks and why. Jay wants to get rich, in his own words, to “give back.” And from what we’ve seen from him in the last few years, it really does seem that way. He and Meek Mill founded the REFORM Alliance to use their shared wealth to pressure lawmakers to make sweeping changes to the criminal justice system, from ending cash bail to improving conditions in prisons to rewriting legislation – which he calls “draconian” in “God Did” – that is unfairly skewed against Black Americans. He’s also offered financial education classes to residents of Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects, where he grew up, and in general, seems really keen to teach and support other aspiring Black entrepreneurs how to overcome a system that’s weighted against them.
We know the laws punish us the most. We know the police target us. We know that the powers that be are shorting Black Americans’ opportunities in education and business. Jay looks at all that and has decided that the best way to defy a system that is set up for you to fail is to succeed within that system. This is his rebellion. If all your life you are told that you are destined only for an early grave, a life sentence in prison, or a dull life spent in blue-collar drudgery, then to him, the only way to win is to do the opposite, then to push others to do the same. It even makes sense, when you consider the context under which he evolved as an artist and a person.
Think about it: Jay’s a product, literally, of the Reagan eighties. His concepts are very much in line with the idea of “trickle down” economics, the idea that as the rich get richer, they will open up their coffers and share those opportunities with the lower class and less fortunate, providing a ladder to success. But the problem is, we know – as well as we know the truisms that I listed above – that there is no trickle-down effect. The rich get richer and pull that ladder up right along behind them to keep as much distance between them and the great unwashed masses as they possibly can. And I think this might well be the crux of Jay’s offense at being called a capitalist.
It’s guilt by association. In his heart, he’s doing what he’s doing out of a sense of universal altruism. His intentions are pure, so he doesn’t want to be painted with the same broad brush as his contemporaries. He isn’t pulling up the ladder. He isn’t denying opportunities, he’s giving them. He’s not like those other, nasty capitalists who are keeping folks downtrodden while counting their profits and swimming in gold bullion like Scrooge McDuck. He’s no miser. And the thing is, we’ve seen him wounded by critical rhetoric before, and he’s used the same defenses.
On the title track from Blueprint 2, Jay raps about critics condemning some of his misogynistic content on songs like “Big Pimpin’” and “Give It To Me.” “They call me this misogynist,” he complains, “But they don’t call me the dude to take his dollars to give gifts at the projects / These dudes are all politics, depositin’ checks they put in the pocket, all you get in return is a lot of lip.” He wants us to judge him by his positive deeds as much as by his negative ones, especially in comparison to other wealthy businessmen who say they want to help but don’t. Why can’t we just see that he’s different?
This clip continues to age like fine wine. pic.twitter.com/xIjIO5M6KF
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There’s the rub, though: He isn’t. As much money as he gives away, he still has more. While he pours some of his funds into prison reform, he also boasts that “new planes gettin’ broken in” – meaning he’s bought a private jet. We see Jay’s lavish lifestyle because he shows it to us, every bit as often as he tells us about his latest philanthropic endeavor. Yes, he offers an example to aspire to, but there can only be so much wealth to go around – and acquiring it often leaves others at an increased disadvantage.
This is the analogy I came up with listening to Jay speak on Twitter that night. Imagine you’re playing Monopoly but all of your opponents have advantages you don’t have, and you have been saddled with disadvantages none of the others face. Your bank is a tenth of that of your rival players, you can only collect $50 when you pass “Go” instead of $200, you only get to roll one die while everyone else can roll two, and your property cost is 25% above the price listed on each space, you make 25% less from each time an opposing player lands on a space you own, and you must avoid the “go to jail” card at all costs or you are out of the game entirely. And somehow, despite all that, you win the game. Yes, that is impressive, and yes, you absolutely deserve congratulations.
However, your win doesn’t materially change the conditions for the next person to play Monopoly. The skewed rules remain in place, with the exception that you can coach the next player on avoiding pitfalls you fell into or taking advantage of loopholes you discovered. The game of Monopoly still sucks. It’s still fundamentally unfair. And in the end, it’s still about a bitter, spiteful competition in which the only way to win is to make sure everyone else loses. (It also still takes FOREVER, making it an absolutely pointless party game.) Wouldn’t it be better to put Monopoly back in the box, throw that box out of the goddamn window so no one ever sees it again, and play a game where everybody has fun – or at least an equal chance of winning?
That’s what Jay has missed in the critiques of his strategy for overcoming oppression. He wants the praise, but none of the criticism – which isn’t so much about him being a good or bad person but more about how his success at the game of American Economic Monopoly does not, ultimately, help Black people as much as he thinks it does. He’s welcome to continue using his success to influence politics and law and education and industry to open doors that would ordinarily be closed to most of us, but in the end, he may learn that it could be more effective to change the game entirely.
That’s what Black revolutionaries like Fred Hampton and Malcolm X – who Jay loves to name-check in his songs – ultimately wanted, too. Even Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. “Content of their Character” himself, was a socialist. These men recognized that if the system is inherently unfair, there’s no amount of individual success that can offset the cost to the wider population. It took Jay a while, but he eventually expressed remorse for the misogynistic content that he once defended, and has actually seemingly changed his views in that respect. The hope is that one day, he’ll realize the same need to rethink his economic views as well.