Kelefa Sanneh reflects on the man and his new album, Kingdom Come.
Sanneh proceeds with delicacy. After all, Jay-Z is the world’s "most reliable" rapper and as the head of Def Jam records, the man who controls access to new generations of talent (including Nas and Young Jeezy). Can a music journalist afford to offend such a man? On the other hand, Jay-Z’s new album looks to be more risky than risk taking, and it’s not clear that Sanneh, seen so often in the company of the gray lady, wants to have spoken too well of what might prove to be a "post-credibility" album or artist.
But this doesn’t get at the real nature of the problem. And this is: Jay-Z is at the moment hard to write about. He is a work in transition. And on this the eve of his 9th album, he is driven by necessity of making good choices and the luxury of making bad ones. (An Icarus who has reached these heights might lose his wings and still never come to earth.) Writing this takes real delicacy and it is a pleasure to see Kanneh at work. (I could hear a little voice inside me say, "Screw the album. We have the review.")
Well, Jay-Z has never been easy to write about. This is the man who opened his career with a track that incorporated a Broadway show tune. There is a wonderful bit of footage somewhere of the master walking across Brooklyn Bridge marveling at the fact that he took this risk. A couple of years ago he retired on the grounds that he had never been in it for anything but the money, and now he had lots of that. He returned from retirement, the sheepish genius, surprised to have discovered how much he loved the form.
Part of the problem is that hip hop is now American culture, lock, stock and barrel. It remains at outsider of a kind, but it has been thoroughly taken up. This is not to say that it is toothless or jejune. But it is now a song America sings to itself, not about itself, and certainly not against itself. This has set in train lots of transformations in the community. As Sanneh points out, Nas got grumpier and Snoop Dogg more playful.
Indeed, as Josh Eells said recently, Snoop Dogg went from being a foulmouthed, porn spinning, ex-murder suspect to someone publicly associated with Wayne Newton, Lee Iacocca and Jay Leno. Against all odds, he is hip hop’s goodwill ambassador:
You get the feeling [Dogg] could parachute into the West Bank with some Seagram’s and a pound of L.A.’s stickiest icky–and the next thing you know, peace in the Middle Izzle. And hot tubs.
In Jay-Z’s case, the new status of hip hop makes everything possible. Hip hop can go anywhere. It can be anything. Can’t it? Well, no, maybe not. Ok, it can’t be this, that and the other thing. But… Maybe… So what if… Welcome to the world of Jay-Z, the man for whom all things, including spectacular failure, are now possible. The liberty, the necessity and the sheer difficulty of self creation in the new hip hop era, all of this creates in Jay-Z an interesting complexity, and in Sanneh the same.
In fact, reading Sanneh this morning made me think of Fitzgerald on Gatsby. (As a new American, I am working my way through the classics. You know: Faulkner, Cather, Steinbeck, Crane.) I started with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and, oh, how I was repelled by the tone of presumption. Anderson is the seeing eye in the Masonic lodge. He understands everything. His characters are poor thoughtless conduits through which history pours. They do as they’re told.
This is the tone one hears in the social sciences in general and anthropology in particular when it comes to writing about American culture. There is a kind of "all your base are belong to us" presumption, a sense that the social scientists knows better than any individual American ever will. It’s as if any idea is superior to any worldly practice, even when it isn’t very good at capturing that practice. (It’s also as if the final destination of class disdain proved to be the social scientists who claimed to be its enemy.)
The great thing about Fitzgerald is the way he thinks about Gatsby, a little in awe, tentative, remorseless, affectionate, skeptical. This is the way to think about Americans, the way Sanneh thinks about Jay-Z. Anthropologists take note: Americans are our Gatsby. We must be their Fitzgerald. Or, better, Americans are our Jay-Z. We must be their Sanneh.
But there is a larger lesson here, less about the problems of anthropology and more about the challenges of contemporary life. Jay-Z’s s problem is how to be Jay-Z, what to do with his embarrassment of riches. Kelefa Sanneh’s problem: how to write about a man who is anything he wants to be. And each of us, while not blessed with Jay-Z’s opportunities, or, happily, his difficulties, or, and this is really a shame, Sanneh’s prose, has to decide as well: shall we be x or y, shall we be x and y, shall we be x and y not?
The answer is in Fitzgerald. We want to treat ourselves, I think, the way Sanneh treats Jay-Z, the way Fitzgerald treats Gatsby, the way Jay-Z treats himself, as blessed creatures with an interesting transformational complexity and, ok, too often, melting wings.
Anderson, Sherwood. 1919/1995. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Doubleday.
Eells, Josh. 2006. Snoops…I did it again. Blender. December. p. 178.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. 1925/2004. The Great Gatsby. New York: Scribner.
Sanneh, Kelefa. 2006. Uneasy Lies the Head. New York Times. November 19, 2006. here.