From Corner Hustler To Social Activism, Jay Z- Might Be The Michael Corleone Of Hip Hop
Why the change of heart?
The Trayvon Martin docu-series, Rest In Power, premiered this week on the Paramount Network and BET. Jay Z and The Weinstein Company won the screen rights to Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It by Lisa Bloom and Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin by Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin. It is the second such project that Jay Z has released recently. He made a similar project about Kalief Browder. At 48, Jay Z has found himself in the world of social activism. He’s spoken out using film projects and, more importantly, his own words in well thought out New York Times pieces and in interviews. For some Jay Z fans, this new turn was unexpected. Jay Z has spoken and rapped about poverty and coming from the Marcy housing projects, but activism is a new cause.
Before he was performing at inaugural after parties and campaign rallies, he was a hustler. Jay Z has opened up before about his life as a crack dealer before rap. He was doing well back then but he wasn’t rich. In Vanity Fair back in 2013 Jay Z said "To be in a drug deal, you need to know what you can spend, what you need to re-up. Or if you want to start some sort of barbershop or car wash — those were the businesses back then. Things you can get in easily to get out of [that] life. At some point, you have to have an exit strategy, because your window is very small; you're going to get locked up or you're going to die.” A friend of his, Jaz O, signed a deal for around $270,000 in the late 80s. Jay Z had found his exit strategy.
Jay Z was featured on Jaz O’s first single, H.P Gets Busy. The two collaborated again in 1989, but Jay's rap career still didn’t take off. He was still on the block earning more than he was rapping. Rhymin’ took a backseat to pitchin’ and rightfully so. Dame Dash, was a hustler just like Jay Z. Through family connections, Dame learned about the music industry and took that knowledge back to the hood. Jay Z and Dame hunted for record deals similar to Jaz O’s but never found the opportunity so they created it. Dame and Jay Z had money but in order to run a label, they needed more. It all costs: studio time, cassettes, posters, merchandise, radio play. On top of that, they need to fund the lifestyle. Dame introduced Kareem “Biggs” Burke, an investor, to Jay Z. Dame had the knowledge, Jay had the talent, and Biggs had the capital. It was perfect. Dame. Biggs and Jay Z would eventually cut Def Jam in for 50% empowering Jay Z to become a superstar.
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I spent hours watching Jay Z interviews but I still don’t think I know Jay Z but he reminded me of someone. He reminded me of Michael Corleone. Michael Corleone is the youngest son of Don Corleone in the classic, Godfather. I watched a Don Corleone inspired Jay Z in a promo for the Best of Both Worlds album. They recreated the scene from the beginning of Godfather. His daughter’s wedding reception is outside but the Don is meeting with friends. On the day of his daughter’s wedding, the Don morphs into a genie, granting wishes to those who need him while neglecting the ceremony filled with his family. Business calls and the Don always answers. The Godfather’s influence is not only in Jay Z’s music videos and lyrics but, perhaps present in his real life as well.
Michael is smarter than the Don and in some ways more aware of “d’evils’. Michael grows cold and distant from his family in The Godfather 2. Fredo, Kay, Anthony didn’t recognize Michael as he was swallowed by the burden of being the Don. On Hov's latest album 4:44, he rapped about a similar idea. “I'll watch Godfather, I miss that whole sh*t. My consciousness was Michael's common sense. I missed the karma, that came as a consequence.” I heard the line when the album released but I never really explored what it meant.
In the peak of his career, Jay Z and Michael Corleone were one. He and Michael could never allow anyone to make them look weak. Jay Z is known for his cool demeanor but I’ve come to learn he also had a bit of a temper. In interviews, he’d shorten answers and become unbearably sarcastic if he felt an interviewer try to press him or embarrass him in any way. He bragged about his boxing skills and if you’ve seen the movie Backstage, you would have seen him bully less notable guys on the tour with those skills. You also might see in the film, Hov use his long reach in a way that should make you uncomfortable.
In 1999, Hov turned himself into authorities for stabbing Lance “Un” Rivera at the Kit Kat nightclub in Manhattan. Jay Z wrote about the incident in his book, Decoded. “(Rivera) got real loud with me right there in the middle of the club.” It wasn’t over. “It was strange. We separated and I went over to the bar . . . I was . . . in a state of shock . . . I headed back over to him, but this time I was blacking out with anger.” The New York Daily Post reported on the incident around the time that it happened saying,“Jay-Z walked up to Rivera and said, ‘Lance, you broke my heart,'” one witness told The Post.“Rivera said, ‘What?’” This reads just like the scene in Godfather 2 when Michael kisses Fredo on the cheek after Fredo betrayed him. What could have made Jay Z so mad that he would stab a man in the middle of a club? Some speculate that it was over Charli Baltimore but Jay claims it was about Un bootlegging Life and Times…Vol. 3. Un’s biggest mistake was embarrassing Jay Z in public.
A couple years later Jay Z was embroiled in one of the biggest beefs in hip-hop history. After dissing Nas with a light jab while performing The Takeover at Summer Jam, Nas dropped a freestyle entitled "Stillmatic". The freestyle was cool but there was a line about the Un Rivera case. Jay Z loaded up and replied with an extended version of "The Takeover" on his Blueprint album. Nas dropped "Ether" on Stillmatic. Ether is still the standard to which all diss songs are measured. On an Episode of Drink Champs, NORE and DJ EFN hosted Kareem “Biggs” Burke. On this episode a Roc-A-Fella associate, Fat Face Gary, discussed Jay Z feeling like wanting to kill Nas after he heard Ether. According to Fat Face Gary, the lines about Jay's lips pissed him off more than anything. Hov tried to respond with another freestyle, "Supa Ugly", but it didn’t measure up to Ether. Instead of measuring skill Jay Z rapped about sleeping with the mother of Nas’s child and leaving condoms in the baby-seat. Nas had gotten under Jay’s skin. Jay Z apologized for going to far but wasn’t ready to end the beef. He wanted to set up a battle between Nas and himself where the winner received a million dollars. If that was too much, Jay Z wanted to box a few rounds but there was no need. Ether ended it.
After the beef, Jay Z’s rap career continued to grow until his “retirement” album, The Black Album. During the documentary Fade to Black, Jay Z debating on these two bars on his album. He talks about how drug use in the hood used to be worse than it is now. He said, “it takes people speaking out.” A guy in the studio, seemingly his A&R, responds with,”But you’re not that type of rapper.” Jay concedes but he’s torn. He wants to speak about things that really matter but also feels like its not his place. At this point in his life he wasn’t prepared to take on the target that comes with speaking out. This is also the point of his career where he felt like he’s said all he can say as the drug dealer turned mogul.
In the mid 00’s the unthinkable happened, the rest of Roc-A-Fella was sold to Island Def Jam. Jay Z would be transitioning into his new position as president of Def Jam. There aren’t any consistent accounts of what happened so I’m going recklessly speculate. My theory is Dame Dash was starting to move around like Sonny Corleone. He was too loud for the way Biggs and Jay Z wanted to do business. Lyor Cohen and Jay talk about how Dame is going to be the reason it all ends. Jay Z gets offered the president position at Def Jam. Lyor probably explained that Jay Z has control of budgets, the roster, and everything like he has a Roc-A-Fella. Jay decides that he wants his publishing back and he wants Biggs taken care of. Lyor says fine. Jay tells all those close to him that soon it will be time to pick a side. Jay takes Freeway, Chris & Neef, Kanye, Beanie Siegel, and Peedi Crack. He calls Dame for a meeting. He tells Dame that he’s out and so is Biggs. They’re selling their shares to Def Jam leaving Dame in the minority. Jay lowballs Dame because if he doesn’t take the deal, Lyor will force him out for way less so he can either leave on his own and take this piece of change or be forced out. Dame took the deal and never spoke to Jay again.
Record sales within rap declined throughout the second half of the first decade of the new millennium. Jay Z is a hustler, he’s not putting records out that won’t sell. On Kingdom Come Hov showed us he can rap but the hits weren’t the same. Fans had found new blood and Hov was turning into the guy that was. For Blueprint 3, he promoted his album beautifully, performing "Empire State of Mind" at Yankee Stadium. He had features from the hottest young artists at the time; Drake, J. Cole, Rihanna, Kid Cudi. It sold well but it still wasn’t the Jay Z that we remembered wearing the durag and crazy diamond earrings. His fans were still buying his records but most of us were waiting for the next act. There was a new wave of music happening and Jay Z didn’t want to be a part of it. The man even tried to kill autotune. For a while he did.
Magna Carta Holy Grail had commercials sponsored by Samsung that aired during commercials. That album went on to achieve platinum on the day the physical album was released, despite it being one of his worst offerings to date. After the release of his album, Jay Z was met with strong criticisms from the civil rights legend Harry Belafonte. Belafonte was asked if he was happy with the images of minorities in Hollywood during an interview and this is how he answered. ”Not at all. They have not told the history of our people, nothing of who we are. We are still looking". ...And I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyonce, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you're talking. I really think he is black.” Jay Z, of course, didn't like that.
“I’m offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America is enough. Just being who he is. You’re the first black president. If he speaks on any issue or anything he should be left alone…I felt Belafonte he just went about it wrong. Like the way he did it in the media, and then he bigged up Bruce Springsteen or somebody. And it was like, “whoa,” you just sent the wrong message all the way around…Bruce Springsteen is a great guy. You’re this Civil Rights activist and you just bigged up the white guy against me in the white media. And I’m not saying that in a racial way. I’m just saying what it is. The fact of what it was. And that was just the wrong way to go about it.”
It sounds arrogant because it is, Hov. Jay Z was also confronted by Robert De Niro for ignoring his phone calls. Jay still had a lot of Michael Corleone still in him.
4:44 is the most vulnerable Jay Z has ever been on wax but seemed like the smart business move. Jay Z and Beyoncé were working on a joint album after her self-titled album released. I know because I heard some of the production. Suddenly the album is nixed and Beyoncé drops Lemonade. If he didn’t put out a response his rap career would’ve taken a worse hit than it did from "Ether". He had to switch it up to save his career, his marriage, and more importantly to Jay Z, his money. This new Hov is something no one could’ve predicted from a creative and social standpoint but Jay Z the hustler lives on. From selling a big chunk of Tidal to Sprint to selling projects to the Paramount Network, formerly known as Spike TV.
Jay Z has spoken out more against mass incarceration, unlawful treatment of blacks by police officers and other causes in a way that has become meaningful to mainstream fans. He’s more expressive about social causes now more than ever but why the change of heart? Maybe his wife, Beyoncé, influenced him. She was also once very silent about black causes but now she has one of the strongest voices. Maybe this is just a con and Jay the Hustler is using his social activism as a new way to profit. I don’t think Jay Z would ever let us close enough for us to find out who he really is. He should remember he taught us well. He gave us the damn Blueprint. “And you can't sell me bullsh*t, we know the prices” Word Hov, we know the prices.