A History of Conflict: Entry #5

by Dax-Devlon Ross

Nas, Jay-Z and the ties that bind them to African-American Intellectual History

Part II

Note: If you have not been following this series you may want to begin with Entry #1

If the Nas of It Was Written, like Tupac, reflects the moral confusion of a generation and the internal conflict of the artist being elevated to or mistaken for a messiah before he has reached his own maturity, then the Jay-Z of Reasonable Doubt, like BIG, represents the cold resolve of the completely amoral, mercenary who’s made his choices and must live with them. Nas might fluctuate between his materialism and his idealism, but Jay-Z has made his choice, or, in the alternative, had no choice but to become a ruthless pragmatist. He is a careerist, a conspicuous consumer, a calculating crime syndicate impresario, and a generation struggling with its own conscience embraced him for that. Nas might have his goons take care of his dirty work, but Jay did the dirty work himself. The repeated references to his highway runs up and down I-95 become the motif of choice whenever he needs to trade on his hustler credentials. His explicit message is that he will do whatever it necessary, however it is necessary, to become successful in America. It is that Malcolm X “By Any Means Necessary” ethic that we, not only as a generation relate to, but as Americans we relate to it as well. We believe in doing the right thing and we respect the hell out of people who live lives guided by their conscience, but we admire and celebrate those among us who’ve been able to set our emotions aside, set notions of justice and humanity aside, and go to the absolute extreme to achieve our goal. Ultimately, what matters in our society is where we end up, not how we get there. This is true particularly in light of the limitations blacks have faced when attempting to rise up. In this reading of the world Nat Turner and John Brown were justified. While Martin Luther King might’ve prayed to a God who turned the other cheek, Malcolm bowed to one who promised to bring down his wrath on the heads of “white devils” who had oppressed his people for three centuries. Tony Soprano is a sociopath, but he is intensely attractive to millions of viewers because he is committed to a worldview and does not waver from that even though, like all of us, he has his moral conflicts. In Michael Eric Dyson’s Tupac biography the critic Stanley Crouch argues that the brilliance that is Tony Soprano’s complex humanness is completely absent in hip-hop. Dyson, of course, regards Tupac as such a figure, but, again, I would go further. Yes, Tupac (and Nas) express their angst, but a better link to Tony and to a figure like Malcolm, who was committed to ideas his biographers have questioned whether he truly believed in, is Jay-Z (and BIG to a lesser extent). On more than one occasion on Reasonable Doubt he reveals chinks in his seemingly impenetrable armor, but he doesn’t revel in his frailties, doesn’t allow them to overwhelm or compromise his judgment. Ultimately, he has conquered his emotional ailments and has learned to live with them. On “Regrets” he says as much. Jay is the quintessential strong black male archetype complete with all of his virtues (vision, strength) and vices (emotional distance, sexism). If Nas saw the world as a place that could potentially “take him under,” (as did Tupac and BIG) – something we all relate to – then Jay-Z was already under. He hustled “out of a sense of necessity.” Going for broke was his only choice.

The same summer Nas was tying himself to the sacred lineage of Frederick Douglass and Nat Turner, a choice he made, mind you, Jay-Z was tying himself to Malcolm Little, the pimpin’, hustlin’ precursor to the man who would later be known as Malcolm X and later still as El Hajj Malik El Shabazz. The Jay-Z from Reasonable Doubt is a drug dealer who from the very first song, “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” renounces any and all allegiances to anyone or anything. “I’m leaning on any nigga intervening on the sound of my money-machine” is a quintessential Jay-Z line from that first album. Complex, clever, indirectly direct. It was a means of saying what he would say a thousand times in a thousand ways: “Don’t fuck with my money or I will kill you.” This wasn’t NWA’s literal retelling of a beat down they delivered. This was a poetically sound allusion to the same thing. This is how Shakespeare might’ve written it if he’d been black and from the projects, how Fred Douglass might’ve said it to a crowd of white abolitionists without them knowing, how Malcolm did say it when he responded to a reporter’s question about President Kennedy’s demise: “Being a farm boy myself chickens coming home to roost never did make me sad; they’ve always made me glad.” There is an element of gentlemanliness in saying without saying, in leaving something to the imagination.

“Can’t Knock the Hustle’s” hook, “I’m trying to get mine/ I don’t have the time to knock the hustle for real,” further emphasizes Jay-Z’s point. This isn’t anything personal or historical, not about what’s right and wrong. This is about gettin’ it. Ironically, by renouncing any responsibility to the race or to society – by saying fuck everyone but don’t take it personally – he is exploiting one of the oldest tropes of the black literary tradition. When Frederick Douglass – who would publish three different versions of his autobiography in his lifetime concluding with the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (recall The Life and Times of Sean Carter (2000)) – assaulted his overseer and broke from his bondage, he was in violation of the law of the land. He was a fugitive who had committed the most morally reprehensible, not to mention existentially dangerous, acts a black man could commit, aside from raping a white woman. Douglass’s appeal to his white audiences in the North was a moral one. He was justified in breaking the law because the southern, slave-holding society in which he lived imposed inhuman conditions on his people. On “Can’t Knock the Hustle” Jay-Z makes a similar appeal when he raps,


At my arraignment, screamin
all us blacks got is sports and entertainment, until we even
Thievin, as long as I’m breathin
Can’t knock the way a nigga eatin – fuck you even!


            Much of the power within Malcolm’s posthumously published autobiography lies in his conversion from a life of crime. In fact, given the uncertain place Malcolm occupied in the hearts and minds of black Americans at the time of his death, it is probably fair to say that his conversion experience to a man of deep moral conviction explains much of the book’s appeal, as well as Malcolm’s ultimate elevation to hero, icon, world historical figure, and why, even now, the book is considered one of the finest literary achievements of the twentieth century. The point: the genius of Jay-Z lies in his consistent exploitation of his own mythology as belonging to only himself when it is in fact part of the historical continuum within the black intellectual and literary tradition. What it hardest for most of us to accept, myself included, is the notion that the figures who have defined the various ages and stages of the black experience are mere men and that their elevation to ‘untouchable’ status has very much to do with the legacy they leave behind and its interpreters. In their times, they are men. In our times, they become “spirits of an age.” As important as he is, Frederick Douglass was a man who was very much concerned with his power and with maintaining it. As the Douglass scholar and historian Wilson J. Moses notes, he was a “showman” who made his living primarily by “cultivating the myth of Frederick Douglass.” It has also been noted by his close confidantes and students of his work that Malcolm X left out and altered some of the facts of his life in his autobiography – his trip to Egypt in 1960 for example – in order to present a more consistent and smooth trajectory from one stage of his life and thinking to another. Du Bois was another critical figure to this study who wrote his own flattering version of his life. In its time Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery was the most well-known gospel of American boosterism written by a black man. Its title trades heavily on his brief days as a slave in the same way rappers today trade on their time in the drug game. One has no way of knowing the degree to which Jay-Z was involved in a life of crime but it certainly wasn’t as long as he has been in the rap game now. And yet even with his latest album, Kingdom Come, he references his drug dealing past on “Do U Wanna Ride,” – Monster of the double entendre, Coke is still my sponsor/Heh, the Cola, yeah/ Hova still gettin it in with soda – as a way to remind his audiences, particularly hardcore tastemakers, that he is still the same cat doing essentially the same things, just with a different “sponsor.”

            Another point in regards to “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” Jay-Z’s first song on his first album, bears noting. In the third verse he rhymes, “Straight bananas; can a nigga, see me?/ Got the US Open, advantage Jigga/Serve like Sampras…” One of Michael Dyson’s startling revelations about Tupac was his collection of books. ‘Pac was quite familiar with the Western literary canon. His use of Machiavelli wasn’t a superficial gesture by any means. He’d actually read The Prince. Of Malcolm we know he was a voracious reader. Of Martin we know his liberal education had exposed him to the brightest and most philosophically dense thinkers of the previous century including Marx and Hegel. Alexander Crummel, who will be spoken more of at greater length in the pages to come, was denied admission to Yale because of his race but attended the University of Cambridge, where he studied classical and modern political theory. All of these figures were well-versed in European moral, political, economic, and cultural values. Black genius has always been shaped around and by a conflicted relationship to European and mainstream American values. Their ideas were not shaped in isolation, nor were those of the people – the masses – they affected and were affected by. Du Bois referred to it as the double consciousness, a two-ness. Wilson Moses writes that, in fact, “Douglass was no prophet of of Africanity, and did not see himself at war with anglo-American values. On the contrary he and his contemporaries (even black nationalists) emulated the military of Anglo-Saxon masculinity…and manifested their relish for standards of civilization as they understood them in American society.” (Wilson, 35). Jay-Z’s references to having the “U.S. open” (note the double entendre, a poetic device Jay-Z has perfected) and Pete Sampras, and even a knowledge of the game’s rules, as simple as it may seem to some, set Jay-Z apart from his peers in the rap industry. It reflects a broader conception of life than murder and drug dealing and the exploitation of women. It reflects not just an awareness of pop culture, but an assimilation, integration of you will, into pop culture. It is a subtle reminder of Du Boisean double consciousness that will ultimately make Jay-Z’s appeal broaden and mushroom into a global phenomenon a few years later. Unlike Nas, Jay-Z never commits himself to an unrealistic ideology of blackness, but to an ideology of pragmatic Americanness. While Nas chooses to carry the burden of a ‘prophet of blackness,’ Jay-Z, unwittingly perhaps maybe not, aligns himself with an iconoclastic tradition of taking everything at one’s disposal, mixing it together and producing something totally and uniquely American.

            And yet through all of his self-assured posturing the reality is that Jay-Z’s doesn’t have it all figured out. Despite the cold-blooded demeanor, he actually is morally conflicted. What makes him particularly interesting throughout Reasonable Doubt is his inability to stick to his own party line. As shrewd as he would like his listeners to believe he is, he isn’t entirely secure with himself or with his choices. His conditions have forced him to present an emotionless face to the world, but there is still the stain of humanity in him, and that, one believes, is what makes him someone worth rooting for despite his criminal lifestyle. His is a quintessential modern anti-hero. Tony Montaňa isn’t a potent symbol for hip-hop culture simply because he becomes a drug kingpin. It is his entire narrative that people relate to. He isn’t born a cold-blooded killer, he becomes one through a series of indignities. His rise to the top is his vengeance – that’s all – something even he realizes once he’s acquired everything and finds himself miserable. Tony is haunted by jealousy and rage and an inescapable inferiority complex. These humanizing qualities might make a mere man a classical hero, but of the anti-hero – the otherwise amoral hero – they make him human.

The Jay-Z of Reasonable Doubt brilliantly recasts the anti-hero narrative in the urban ghetto of the 1990s. It is a world where childhood friends are slowly transformed into foes once money and power enter the fray; a world where a woman is a liability, an Achilles Heal that can bring down an empire; a world where one is constantly on guard against “D’evils” of the street, but intensely addicted to the material rewards that only the street can promise or provide. And while in the verse of the “D’evils” Jay-Z says he “ain’t asking for forgiveness for my sins” by the final verse he is pleading “mama forgive me/ I can’t be held accountable, the evils beatin’ me down, boo.” How is one to reconcile these contradictory statements? How does one make sense of them? Does one say one statement is true and the other is not? No. The inconsistency, incomprehensibility and fragmentation of ghetto life can drive a person to harbor seemingly contradictory emotions in order survive. The truly dynamic individual is one whose views are always being refined as new information becomes available. The Jay-Z of Reasonable Doubt is driven by an insatiable thirst for material gain. He scorns the nine-to-five as a means of mere survival, believes “punchin’ a clock” is foolishness. He’d rather risk his life to make it big. The only way to do that, however, is by exploiting those around him-the people in his community. In order to stomach the gross task he has to blacken his heart, to cast aside childhood memories, to learn to live with his regrets-all to achieve his ambitions. But that in no way means he isn’t haunted by them nonetheless.

Toward the end of their lives W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X and even Martin Luther King began to seriously question whether the political economy (capitalism) wasn’t the real roadblock standing in the way of freedom for black people and oppressed people the world over. Du Bois joined the Communist Party. Malcolm’s last transformation prior to his assassination was to a man who began seriously denouncing capitalism as the real source of black America’s woe, not racism. He foresaw the end of capitalism once it ran out of weak nations and people to exploit. Malcolm was hopeful about the newly independent African nations and knowledgeable about European nations in which the masses had adequate health care, education and housing. King spent the final years of his life reinventing himself and his message after having been exposed to the rampant hopelessness and despair pervading the Northern ghetto. He was organizing a Poor People’s March on Washington and slowly groping toward and understanding of the systemic change that needed to take place in order to restore faith and hope in his people.

The conflict Jay-Z struggles with throughout Reasonable Doubt and particularly on songs like “D’evils” is that conflict Du Bois, X and King presaged but were never able to fully articulate and communicate en masse. Malcolm and Martin were gunned down and Du Bois became the victim of a more pernicious type of character assassination that caused him to quit America. They all saw that the problem facing black Americans ran deeper than any amount of integrating into the system could provide solutions for. The masses of black Americans, as Malcolm prophesied throughout his political life and King finally saw in Watts and Chicago, weren’t concerned with integrated public accommodations. Their spirits had been broken. Their horizons had been stunted. In these ghettos the strong lived off of the weak. The weak were used up and discarded. The ambitious appropriated Malcolm’s “By any means necessary” message and lived accordingly.  Capitalism being the economic system in place, the ambitious use whatever and whomever is at their disposal to fulfill their aspirations. Whereas the multinational exploits the cheap labor of weaker nations, the enterprising hustler exploits the broken spirit of his weaker neighbor under the auspices of “just trying to get mine,” a rhetorical ideology replicated throughout society. The difference is that the street hustler has to face the evils he contributes to while the multinational CEO is insulated from the suffering he or she delivers. Even Dr. King was stunned by what he saw once he moved his family into a Chicago tenement. He watched his own children wilt before his eyes. He listened to young blacks involved in the Black Power movement quote Franz Fanon’s classic treatise on the psychology of the oppressed. He became aware of the severity of the situation and his own views about nonviolence began to come into question. It is in the pit that one must decide to sink or swim and one whose back one is willing to climb in order to keep from drowning for a time. Once the decision is made, and in spite of any reservations, all that is left to do is push forward.

One further point about Reasonable Doubt and the early incarnation of Jay-Z that can not be ignored here is that the album announced the beginning of more than another rap career. It heralded the genesis of an independent black business. If Nas’s story is of the ‘chosen one’ a la Martin Luther King and Du Bois and even Alexander Crummel, then Jay-Z’s story belongs in a tradition of the ‘underdog’ that includes Malcolm, Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass. It is common knowledge now that Jay-Z was not able to get a record deal therefore he and two associates pooled their resources – presumably and reputedly “drug money” – to fund the album. Obviously Jay-Z was not the first rap artist who parlayed ‘dirty’ money into a legitimate business venture, but what nonetheless sets this instance apart is the ‘slangification’ of a dynastic Rockefeller name into Roc-a-fella, thereby linking his company with American aristocracy while manipulating the emotionally charged and historically dubious black self-help philosophy of independence from the mainstream (espoused by Alexander Crummel, Booker T. Washington and later Garvey and later still by black nationalist groups like the Nation of Islam), a cheap tactic used by politicians and entrepreneurs hoping to influence the masses through racial identification. In reality black self-help has typically meant little more than an appeal to people’s sense of degradation and longing to be linked with something positive, namely the dream of a day when black people come together and rise up and take their proper place at the table of humanity.