Jay-Z is to black male millennials what Oprah is to... everyone else.
Hip-hop is (or, was) often referred to as the “voice of the voiceless.” It’s a bit of a misnomer, of course, but this Bronx-born culture made the rest of the world finally pay attention to people who had been all but forgotten. It’s not just a way for America’s black youth communicate ideas with the wider world, it’s a tool to connect us to one another. We took the experiences of kids in New York, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, New Orleans, and celebrated their uniqueness while finding the universality. We created, through the lyrics of our favorite rappers, a language we could all understand and called it hip-hop.
There’s a Rakim lyric that goes, “I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard/flip it/now it’s a daily word.” You’d be hard pressed to find someone who quotes Rakim on a daily basis, but there is a code that mostly young black men have adopted to communicate with one another: Jay-phonics.
Get any group of black men under the age of 30 together and tell them they need more people, or that sensitive thugs need hugs, or that the Fat Boys broke up and now everyday you wake somebody has a problem, or that it’s so muthafuckin’ soulful and ask if they agree, there’s a good chance they’ll know exactly what you mean. I’d say 90 percent, to be on the safe side, but it’s probably closer to 95. Not everyone is fluent, but most are at least conversational.
Jay-Z is to black male millennials what Oprah is to... everyone else. He moves, we move. He endorses Cristal, we go broke buying it at the bar. He boycotts Cristal, we adjust our taste buds. He sports Rocawear, throwback jerseys, button-ups, or Che Guevara T-shirts, we’re in the store the next day searching for an affordable imitation. Jay hasn’t just given us music, he’s imparted an entire lifestyle.
Naturally, there are some holdouts. You could still be salty about that scuffle with Nas and genuinely think Jay lost (c’mon guys). Or you may be a staunch anti-capitalist who never glances the direction of platinum plaques. Maybe you’re a diehard Dipset fan still clutching memories of Cam’ron’s pink fur coat and nonsensical verses. But no matter where you stand, you’re aware of Jay-Z’s presence and somehow, some way, he’s had an impact on the way you consume hip-hop. Bet.
Jay-Z’s story isn’t the type we usually romanticize or turn into a Disney biopic. There is no come-to-Jesus moment. There isn’t a moment in his story where he realizes drug dealing is a deplorable profession and decides he needs to change his life around. He simply switches hustles. He never changes. He’s Jay everyday.
And that’s part of his appeal, particularly for young black men. What the detractors fail to understand when they ascribe Jay’s popularity to his materialism, gangsta posturing, and big pimpin’ persona is the emotional connection between artists and audience. It’s why his fans repeat that couplet from “Renegade” so often: “Do you fools listen to music/or do you just skim through it?” Jay wouldn’t have a 15-year career to look back on if he hadn’t tapped into something important. His music forges a bond among black men who have long been told that, politically and socially and economically, our very existence is illegitimate. Jay is legitimate. He wore our clothes, he spoke our language, he told our story, and now he’s worth half a billy.
For Jay-Z wealth is revolutionary, the manifestation of the black capitalist aspirations of Marcus Garvey and the Nation of Islam. “I do this for my culture/To let 'em know what a nigga look like...when a nigga in a Roadster,” he raps in the second verse of one of his biggest singles, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Pay us like you owe us for all the years that you hoe’d us/We can talk, but money talks so talk mo' bucks.” He’s representing for the seat where Rosa Parks sat by standing next to Warren Buffet on the cover of Forbes. He’s Che Guevara with bling on, but he’s not rocking the iced-out Jesus piece just to floss. It’s bigger than Jay. When we see him, we see us. We’re all sitting at Mayor Bloomberg’s table.
Jay inspired an entire generation of hustlers. I don’t mean hustlers as in drug dealers, as some would have you believe. Millions of black men born after the Civil Rights and Black Power movements were told the doors were open and it was up to them to walk through them, but ultimately found those doors accessible to a few, Jay laid out the blueprint for doing it yourself. He worked goddamn hard, and we took notes. Jay produced an album a year, tours just as often, started a clothing line, got a sneaker deal, sold vodka, bought a basketball team, and got his own nightclub. En masse, we followed. We stay on the proverbial grind, diversifying our streams of incomes and devoting as much energy to the mini hustles as the larger ones. Sun up to sun down and beyond. We don’t sleep, we rest one eye up and we keep it on our money.
This ethos has its drawbacks. With so many claiming to be hustlers and not rappers, the art has diminished. The perpetual paper chase leaves little time for community building and political work. And a lack of sleep just isn’t healthy. But we keep the faith. Jay wouldn’t steer us wrong.
Now, at 41, he’s become something like an uncle or older brother for most of us, passing down lessons from a world we have heard so much about and can’t wait to get our hands on. As we learn more on our own, we start to question his wisdom and find the cracks in his logic, but even when we disagree we find time to listen because we believe in the power of what Jay-Z has to share. We’re focused, man. We will not lose.