[Web Special] Jay-Z Grows Us Up

Wednesday, September 09, 2009 - 07:16 AM

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.


More in:

Comments [16]

Donovan from Atlanta, GA

In my humble opinion, Jay is the greatest rapper alive. In terms of the history of rap, he is second only to Tupac in his ability to convey a changing and sometimes conflicted identity. I think Dr. Rice's observations are dead-on, in the sense that the latest album is more autobiographical than it is technically good. When so much of Hip Hop is about posturing and creating "mood music," Jay- Z has crafted an amazing career out of putting his life and lifestyle on wax. Because of his consistent honesty, we are able to see he (and Hip Hop) grow.

Mar. 23 2010 10:14 AM

Agreed. Jay-Z is the greatest because he does what he says and means what he does, point blank. We don't need a flashy artist, but a real one who is able to tell us something in a way that we have never heard it. Jay-Z does just that, they way he can craft a song is the stuff of prodigy. His albums are a lifetime of work that can show a young man how to survive in a dog eat dog world, from poor ghetto to philanthropist. Even those unfamiliar with the darker life style Jay-Z once lived can gain pieces of wisdom from his lyrics; this is why he is an icon.

Sep. 25 2009 12:35 AM
Justin Gamble

Growth is what we have come expect from HOV. He has gradually improved from album to album. He no longer talks about doing things associated with hip-hop culture, but has graduated to and icon that can use those past transgressions to create works with lyrical content. But, he has mentored many of the great and endorsed them on the “Blueprint 3.” The privilege that artist and producers received to perform on Jay-Z’s best work to date forced them to perform well, and they all did.

Sep. 23 2009 03:20 AM
Jameel R. Smith

I would like to believe that Jay-Z has truly captivated the eyes of many, not just the African American culture but the ability for him to adapt to the times and changes in society and media as well. His cognitive niche is one that has been able to help him move forward not only in the industry that he is in but, also in the societal arena. He has illustrated that the personality of a person is very adaptable according to situations that occur. With the release of Blueprint 3 we have been able to see a man that came from the streets and doing things that he now considers immoral but, at the same time he take responsibility. Now at the point he is in life he can reflect of the situations that happened and hold himself accountable at the same time not faulting himself for what he did but owning up to it. I believe that as time goes on he will be able to have a large impact not only on his race and culture but the world as a whole.

Sep. 17 2009 09:22 AM
Vallmer Jordan

(part 2)In the case of Jay-Z, we the public have had the privilege of watching him adapted from life as a young aspiring hip hop artist to that of a mature businessman. Although both his audience and his personal motivations may have experience changes over the years, the core characteristics and values that comprise the personality that has made Jay-Z who he is have remained relatively stable. He has remained socially conscience, intrinsically motivated, and creatively ingenious. Jay-Z’s personality will continue to shape his music, his message, and his legacy.

Sep. 15 2009 03:15 AM
Vallmer Jordan

(part 1)Many celebrities and pop culture icons have admitted too presenting a “staged” version of themselves to their fans. Some go so far as to stating that they have alter-egos created for the entertainment of the public. This concept exposes these figures for what they truly are in the public stage, entertainers. These entertainers display themselves to their expected audience in a way that comprises their character structure. Their individual motivations and aspirations play huge roles in the evolution of their individual character structure. The longer one is able to observe this evolution, the more insight they can gain into the genuine personality of the individual responsible for creating the alter-ego.

Sep. 15 2009 03:14 AM
Broderick McBride

From Vol. 3: Life and Times of S. Carter to The Blueprint 3 Jay-Z has lyrically grown and shown development as an artist. Jay-z's music has reflected his characteristic adaptations and development as a man from the inception of his entertainment career to present day. I first encountered Jay-z as an artist with the hit single Big Pimpin', where he explicitly glorifies the sex and buffoonery that comes along with the entertainment industry. In the Death of Auto-tune Jay-Z takes a direct stab at the current decrepitating state of hip-hop, with calling for the elimination of voice manipulation that is currently being used in the craft. From Dr. Rice's interview light is shed on the characteristic adaptations and developmental progression of Jay-Z as an artist which ultimately give us a chance to view Shawn Carter as an entertainer. Unlike most of his colleagues, Jay-Z is providing a more positive image for the urban black male.

Sep. 15 2009 12:21 AM
Ruben Burney, III

What stirkes me most about Dr. Rice's commentary is his acknowledgement of Jay-Z's growth as a man. Dr. Rice states, "we get to see a man. Not a perfect man, mind you, but an adult black man, being better than he was." Furthermore, Dr. Rice points out that this is an important aspect of critique that is often missed. I beleive that Jay-Z's music should be reflection of his personal growth and maturity as a man. There are no perfect men alive today. Howerver, Jay-Z, nor any other adult black male, should be the same person he was 13 years ealier. Manhood is an experience of continuos learning & increasing our conscious awareness of who we are. True men on the journey can't help but become better. If Jay-Z, as Dr. Rice states, "provides an example..&..spins a different wrinkle in our understanding of black men", then I challenge other Black male Hip-Hop artist to follow Jay-Z's lead & allow the world to see thier growth expressed in the lyrics of thier music.

Sep. 14 2009 09:26 PM
Travis Best

I don't have any of Jay's albums, but I have listened and vibed to most of Jay's radio hits throughout the years. I can really say that there has been a change in the emcee we now know today. I believe he has developed so much growth, a positive growth of course. We are now viewing Jay on a different level from any other rapper. He is definitley set apart from the rest. Years back when we heard Jay's lyrics it would be about his tough child hood, the hood in which he grew up, women and other aspects that weren't so pleasing. Now, Jay is so beyond all of that and is now making music that makes sense, that has meaningful context behind it and that is very relative to all people. From a Personality psychology stand point, Jay's context of discovery has grown and he's probably viewing life much differently than before, which is probably responsible for this level he is now on. I would definitley pick up his album now and will more than likely learn a few things.

Sep. 14 2009 05:59 PM
Kevin Reeevers

I appreciate the conceptual piece of the album of Jay-Z advancing his craft to the point in where he's trying to have his listeners advance themselves. He is no longer seeing himself as an artist from a rags to riches story but now as a godfather of the game, and trying to warn the masses of future plight.

Sep. 14 2009 11:35 AM
Json Jenkins

Jay-Z, like previously stated, is an obvious icon. I do have some biases as I grew up in New York area, but with that said his career as a hip-hop artist is unmatched, regardless of the era. Shawn Carter, with the help of various predecessors has risen the genre of Hip Hop to all new social climates giving voice to individuals who may have been ignored or silenced in the past. It is extremely hard for anyone, especially born after 1980, to ignore Jay's relevance. Rice's statement, "his is a voice with a conscience that lives in our personal music devices" is a true assessment of Jay. Being born in 1988 and Reasonable Doubt released in 1996, my entire recollection of music is shaped around Hova and his genius.

Sep. 14 2009 11:24 AM
Kenneth Jeffers

I was having this conversation with a few friends over the weekend and I had the exact same feelings. Jay-Z definately switched up his style since Reasonable Doubt, and I feel like theres nothing wrong with that. People change and grow over the years and if your a true fan you'll grow with the artist and see how they mature. I compared this Blueprint 3 cd to The Notorious B.I.G.'s LIfe After Death cd (not comparing on content). Biggie switched up his style and went from rapping about guns and street life, to taking care of his family and living the good life with Puff right before he was killed. I feel like Jay is doing somethign similiar, talking more about how he is living today rather than dweling on the past. He's mainstream but he's also real, and thats what makes him unique...

Sep. 14 2009 11:10 AM
Mychael Bond

I for one have never truly appreciated Jay-Z as a rapper. In the past I could seldom connect to his work. As an African-American I understood the plight he spoke about within his "raps" but as a customer who sought to be entertained I was often left unsatisfied, largely because of his content. As most rappers Jay-z is much older than the audience that listens to him, because of that I expect more "consciousness" within his lyrics. However after listening to Jay-Z's latest release I can say that he has greatly improved. I Hopefully one day I will be inspired to give him hire marks but I fear that by that time I will be too old to listen.

Sep. 14 2009 10:22 AM
Jason Powell

I personally think that Jay-z is probably the only super mainstream hip-hop artist trying to rap about something real. He is a true inspiration and definition of "rags to riches". Kids can look up to a person with a semi harsh background and be inspired by what "jigga" is today; one of the wealthiest and arguably the best rapper of today. There are very few rappers who will get to the level he is at lyrically or career wise. It's amazing to know that this black man is one who might pass Elvis with number one albums, only second to The Beatles who have a staggering 19 number one albums. I have will also have to cosign and agree with everyone else in saying that Jay-z is truly an iconic figure.

Sep. 14 2009 05:47 AM
Ali Banks

Jay-Z had definitely come a long way since his debut album, Reasonable Doubt. It is said that around the time he came out with "Ain't No N***a," he wouldn't count bars. He would just enter the studio and release what was on his mind. I would say Jay-Z has the longest running career as a hip hop artist. To come out in 1996 and still be relevant 13 years later is amazing. Not even a handful of rappers can do this.

Sep. 14 2009 12:30 AM
Krista DeSouza

Jay-Z has always been on top 5 dead or alive list of best rappers of all time. I agree that his lyrical content, especially in this particular album, is layered with much attention to the actual growth of consciousness of his audience.
What I am concerned about, however, is who is Jay really taking under his wing to continue the legacy. At some point, he REALLY is going to have to stop making albums for one reason or the other. I guess we can infer Kanye West is kind of an apprentice to Jay, but who else?
There needs to be a push for a stronger rap generation; obviously Jay has the power and influence to start the movement. Something like Lil' Wayne's "Yung Money' but with genuine talent (sorry about the shot).

Sep. 13 2009 02:41 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.