Jay-Z is arguably the current King of Hip Hop music with a string of multiplatinum albums. I give much props to the brother for making it in that shark infested business called the entertainment industry. But this success leaves me a little uneasy.
It wasn’t that long ago when I listened to Public Enemy curse the Grammy’s for ignoring rap music as a genre. Underground artists would regularly dis mainstream artists like the Fresh Prince, Young MC, etc. who were seen as sellouts because they were perceived to have sacrificed artistic truth for commercial success. It was the Jedi against the Empire.
Then came gangsta rap.
It was “ignant,” violent, sometimes shocking, and sometimes hilarious. White kids ate it up. Suddenly hardcore artists started enjoying commercial success in a big way. For me as a young Jedi Knight, the name of the game then became consciousness in rap music. They usually enjoyed less success, because they often had a message that more often than not wasn’t very entertaining. Case in point: Mos Def’s “Mr. Nigga” will never be a Top Ten seller. I found myself favoring artists like this. They spoke to my purist ideals in rap music. They kept it real. The Light Side of the Force was with them.
With Jay-Z on the scene and enjoying unprecedented success, I’ve had a hard time fitting him into my rap universe. Clearly, the brother knows how to drop a phat beat and tight lyrics to boot. But he’s commercial. Even worse: speaking to the community on “conscious” issues is not in his track record.
This makes me somewhat upset because a person who clearly has a lot of social influence isn’t saying anything of much social value to the Black community. “Game” is just a word unless you know how to be a Player. Currently, being a player is dressing in RocaWear, owning as much diamond studded jewelry as possible (Bling! Bling!), and drinking Crystal. The average kid sees the results but none of the process. Few understand how one gets to success that J has attained. He is in a perfect position to do positive things for our community and he hasn’t as far as I can see. (I will admit that I haven’t done an exhaustive search.) And all this makes me very uncomfortable. We have a successful black man whose primary means of gaining profit is to flaunt that success, exacerbating those negative values that hurt our community. Yet, I don’t want to be a Player-Hater. It’s a waste of time trying to pull J down as it hurts everyone and helps no one.
So my question is this: how real is Jay-Z keeping it? Does “keeping it real” mean staying honest and true to your community? Has J done this? Has he gone over to the Dark Side?