Shawn Carter’s new album has echoes of an experience around John Edgar Wideman’s 2008 novel "Fanon." Ham-fisted and a bit less than what many wanted, Wideman's prose at first seemed an exercise only in personal growth and in pushing himself more than representing his popularly-appreciated strengths and accomplishments as a writer. Upon further consideration, however, it was more; it was a particularly good piece of work that pushed the reader’s thinking. Super-long sentences, weird punctuation and winding, layered connections to the Martinique revolutionary Franz Fanon were commonplace, and they were all put together in a way that justified Wideman’s MacArthur "genius grant" and the other celebrations of his skill.
And Shawn Carter, with his just-released album, "The Blueprint 3," presents no small contribution to mass cultural thinking this week. He grows us up a bit within a public space that considers black men largely less-than and further solidifies himself as a relevant pop-culture icon. (...continue reading)
In "The Blueprint 3" there are unconventional leanings for a mainstream hip-hop record, and they lie largely in content. Classic bravado and hip-hop swagger are there, as is superior rhyming, but there is a push for more in the narratives: there is the explicit ask for the listener to grow. In mulling over the 15-song set there is, also, admittedly, a desire to dismiss certain efforts out-of-hand. There are labored sing-songy hooks, the adoption of a British accent on one cut – that really is only cool if you’re Slick Rick – and other weird punctuation and winding, layered connections to the Jay-Z we’ve come to appreciate from his 10 previous platinum showings.
But the album is largely secondary. It’ll go platinum on Jay’s track record (pun intended) alone, if not for the innovation of placing strengths front and center, beyond cool pose. The aspect of Jay-Z’s latest effort that both those panning and praising it miss is that we get to see a man. Not a perfect man, mind you, but an adult black man, being better than he was. And in that striving there are tangible and intangible successes that Jay highlights through his skills as an emcee. Of course, there are other black male good-doers in hip-hop and beyond (De La Soul, Van Jones, President Obama, Chris Rabb and many, many others), but Jay-Z’s reach is unique. He provides an example as he offers sensible insights on Real Time with Bill Maher, is even cooler having designed a charity-benefitting Arthur Ashe t-shirt for this year's U.S. Open, is to be lauded for this Friday's scheduled benefit concert for victims of 9/11, and is consistently authentic from album to album. And "The Blueprint 3" is no exception. His is a voice with a conscience that lives in our personal music devices. This integrity says more than Jay-Z’s best 16 bars and, coupled with his thoughtful civic action, spins a different wrinkle in our understanding of black men.
Shawn Carter is image writing – iconography to be sure.
David Wall Rice is assistant professor of psychology at Morehouse College and his text, "I Ain't No Joke: Identity Negotiation Through The Narratives Of Hip-Hop Lyricism" is scheduled to be released by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers next year.