For Jay-Z's 50th Birthday, A New Biography Centers His Lyrical Legacy

Dec 2, 2019

"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," Jay-Z raps on "Moment of Clarity," which was released over 15 years ago. Jay-Z turns 50 this week and he enters his sixth decade of life as not only a rapper, but as a billionaire who has extended his brand into alcohol, clothing and internet firms, among other things.

In light of the rapper's ever-expanding legacy, Michael Eric Dyson, who has taught a class on Jay-Z at Georgetown University for the past 10 years, has released a new book, JAY-Z: Made in America. Dyson argues that Jay-Z's lyrics — prophetic and profane and hyperspecific to his life — reflect something larger about America.

"Jay was at least a decade ahead of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Walter McDougall who contends in his 2004 book Freedom Just Around the Corner that hustling is the central motif of American history, the dominant measure of the American character," Dyson writes.

NPR's Steve Inskeep speaks to Michael Eric Dyson about his definition of hustling, why Jay-Z's partnership with the NFL post-Kaepernick makes sense and how the rapper's lyrical cadence bears a striking resemblance to Robert Frost. Listen in the player above.

Reena Advani edited the broadcast version of this story.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAMONDS FROM SIERRA LEONE (REMIX)")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) I got it from here, 'Ye, damn. The chain remains. The gang is intact. The name is mine. I'll take blame for that.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Jay-Z turns 50 this week. It is hard to sum up his career in a sentence, but Jay-Z himself once tried. He described himself as a former drug dealer who transitioned to musician.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAMONDS FROM SIERRA LEONE (REMIX)")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) I sold kilos of coke. So? I'm guessing I can sell CDs. I'm not a businessman. I'm a business, man. Let me handle my business, damn.

INSKEEP: I'm a business, man, which is true. He is now a billionaire who has extended his brand into alcohol, clothing and Internet firms, among other things.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAMONDS FROM SIERRA LEONE (REMIX)")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) The dynasty, like my money, last three lifetimes.

INSKEEP: A new book argues Jay-Z's lyrics deserve serious study. Author Michael Eric Dyson should know.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I've been teaching a class on him for the last 10 years.

INSKEEP: A Georgetown University class where Dyson analyzes the words that Jay-Z raps.

Do you ever speak them out in class and you got students who'll say, no, you're inflection is all wrong? You should be...

DYSON: (Laughter) No, they're pretty amazing. An old man like me has studied so long to try to make myself cool to them, so they're laughing at me (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HARD KNOCK LIFE (GHETTO ANTHEM)")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) From standin' on the corners boppin' to drivin' some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen for droppin' some of the hottest verses rap has ever heard from the dope spot, with the smoke Glock, fleein' the murder scene.

INSKEEP: The book "Jay-Z: Made In America" says why Dyson cares. Jay-Z's lyrics, both prophetic and profane, as we will hear, reflect his life. His life reflects America. Dyson contends that Jay-Z made his career as a hustler. A historian once said hustling was the dominant measure of the American character. You hustle when you dive for a loose basketball on the court, though that is just one of the word's many meanings.

DYSON: The constant desire to be better, to be on the make, trying to do a new thing, find a new project, always with a new enterprise, also a new scheme, also somebody who's trying to be a - you know, to kind of take you, a scofflaw, somebody who's trying to rip you off.

INSKEEP: Dyson says Jay-Z's story demonstrates the different meanings of hustling. Growing up poor in Brooklyn, his first hustle was selling drugs. Later, he pursued his ambition to rap.

DYSON: But he was still hustling on the side because he couldn't make enough money rapping. He was making more money selling drugs. But as he memorably says on one song is that I came into the game 100,000 strong, 900 to be exact. And he got that money from hustling, from drug dealing, and he and his partners, Kareem Biggs and Damon Dash, formed a record company, Roc-A-Fella Records - you know, Rockefeller - Roc-A-Fella - R-O-C - rock - cocaine, rock - and built a business empire on that hustling.

INSKEEP: You quote some lyrics that I think speak to this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW SOME WAY")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Whether we dribble out this mother, rap metaphors and riddle out this mother, work second floors, hospital out this mother, somehow we gotta get up out this mother.

DYSON: Someday, the cops will kill a [expletive]. I don't always want to be this drug dealing [expletive]. Damn. Then he says, look, I'm going to dribble out of here - right? - play basketball. I'm going to rap metaphors and riddle, so you're going to be a comedian - riddle - or rap metaphors and be a rapper. So you got, you know, either a ballplayer, a rapper or a comedian. And then he doesn't forget, however, the ordinary people, the everyday people, work second floors, hospital out this place, so, you know, second floors of businesses and enterprises or, like, public spaces and hospitals. But we got to get out of here because someday the cop is going to kill a guy like me, and I don't always want to be this drug dealing person. So he's expressing remorse, regret, feeling a sense of tension, of pressure and feeling forced into, coerced into, doing some stuff he's got to do in order to survive. But he know there's no retirement plan for that kind of enterprise.

INSKEEP: You've got some lyrics on page 67 to 68 where he literally says what he's doing.

DYSON: I mean [expletive] perception. Go with what makes sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMENT OF CLARITY")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Since I know what I'm up against. 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.

DYSON: And so Jay-Z is saying, I figured it out. I can't help poor people if I'm poor like them.

INSKEEP: Does he help the poor?

DYSON: Oh, absolutely. Jay-Z has been on the front line of doing charitable and justice-oriented work.

INSKEEP: He gave money for criminal justice reform. He co-produced a documentary about a young black man held for years in a New York jail without receiving trial on seemingly minor charges. He spoke up for Colin Kaepernick, the pro football quarterback who was sidelined after he took a knee during the national anthem. Jay-Z then drew criticism by going into partnership with the NFL. Though, for Dyson, that's another example of hustling, critiquing pro football while also profiting from it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOMENT OF CLARITY")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) Music business hate me 'cause the industry ain't make me. Hustlers and boosters embrace me. And the music I be making I dumbed down...

INSKEEP: Let me turn back to Jay-Z's lyrics and something that you say about him as a writer or I suppose I should say as a speaker because, as you point out, he doesn't write it down. You say he is Robert Frost with a Brooklyn accent.

DYSON: Yeah.

INSKEEP: Now, I thought about that statement, and at first, I thought those two figures are so different and their writing is so different that Michael Eric Dyson must just be telling me he's a really good poet. But then I thought about it some more. Is there something essentially American about both of those figures that connects them?

DYSON: Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village, though. He will not see me stopping here to watch the woods fill up with snow. My little horse must think it queer to stop without a farmhouse near. Between the woods and a frozen lake, the darkest evening of the year.

God forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me. Imagine me allowing you to nitpick at me, portray me like a pickany (ph).

And all the teachers couldn't reach me, and my mama couldn't beat me hard enough to match the pain of my pop not seeing me. So with that disdain in my membrane, got on my pimp game, blank the world, my defense came.

Now, the first two stanzas, Robert Frost. And Jay-Z's, you know, lyrics are from his "Black Album." And if my memory serves me correctly, I'm saying that from memory, so you all forgive me if I didn't get it all right. I see tremendous parallels - pace, rhythm, cadence, simplistic imagery that contains deeper thoughts underneath the water, underneath the skin, subcutaneous even, things that are mixed up and jabbing and stabbing that arrest us because the writers say it with such calm and such dignity. That's the parallel I see.

INSKEEP: Michael Eric Dyson is the author of "Jay-Z: Made In America." Thanks so much.

DYSON: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IZZO (H.O.V.A.)")

JAY-Z: (Rapping) H to the izz-O, V to the izz-A, what else can I say about dude... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.