Novelist Zadie Smith interviewed Brooklyn’s own Jay-Z for T Magazine and the resulting article is fascinating not only for what it fails to reveal (namely almost anything new or actually revealing) but also for what happens sometimes when you have two incredibly fascinating and brilliant artistic minds come together—absolutely nothing. Well-written nothing, but nothing all the same.
Jay-Z has a lot going on these days. Just speaking to what pertains specifically to Brooklyn—because, really, that’s all we care about—Jay is about to play eight shows at the brand new Barclays Center, now home to the Nets, a team which, as you’ve probably heard, Jay holds a minority stake in. Despite only purportedly owning 1/15 of 1% of a share in the team, Jay-Z has already had a lot of influence on decisions ranging from the design of the new Nets logo to the music that will be played during the games (less Springsteen, more Santigold.) In addition to this, Jay-Z remains one of the most fascinating people in the world of hip-hop and is, as Smith notes, that rare creature “an artist as old as his art form.”
So why does this profile go down like cotton candy? Why is the most interesting detail that comes out of their lunch the fact that Jay-Z “likes to order for people”? I mean, that IS an interesting detail, because how presumptuous can someone be? I would HATE if someone thought that they knew me well enough after just meeting me to know what kind of food I want to put in my body. You don’t know me, Jay-Z, is what I’d be thinking, You don’t know me at all.
Anyway. The profile is ostensibly about Jay-Z’s transition from hustler in the Marcy Projects to “elder statesman” of hip hop. Assuming that there is an inherent contradiction here, Smith reminds us that Jay-Z observed in his best-selling book “Decoded” that “rap is built to handle contradictions.” Smith continues to highlight the contrasts that Jay-Z supposedly represents, namely that he was once poor and is now rich. This questioning of authenticity has been done a million times before and while sometimes it is appropriate, as in the case of Rick Ross’s prior work as a prison guard or, as Jay-Z mentions, Vanilla Ice’s career-killing lies about being stabbed, in situations like this, it is decidedly irrelevant.
Here’s the thing, as I see it, anyway. Jay-Z got where he is today due to his talent, intelligence, and ingenuity. The fact that he has flaunted that success through traditionally capitalist expressions like the overt consumption of material goods shouldn’t be even remotely surprising when you consider that he is a product of American society, where we are constantly being told that what we own defines who we are (see: Brooklyn creatives and their Apple products.) Why should he have to be any more politically conscious than the other once-poor-now-wealthy people who embrace their new opportunities and disassociate themselves from the burdens of their pasts? Jay-Z does do an impressive amount of charity work through the Shawn Carter Foundation, but he also—if this article is to be believed—has a very simplistic view of what people who are still struggling are actually fighting for.