"I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, mannnnnn."
Has any rap line in the history of rap lines epitomized its speaker more than that?
In just 12 to 20 syllables (depending on how long you hold the “nnnnnnn”) Sean Carter summarized his career, his life, his reason for existence. It’s remarkable. Think of everything he’s done. From albums to inaugurations, GOAT debates to streaming services, it’s all in there. Jay Z is no longer a person, he’s an image, a real life Wizard of Oz who keeps the curtain closely guarded. He’s a carefully orchestrated symphony, a well oiled, money making machine designed to squeeze each and every dollar out of each and every endeavor. Jay Z doesn’t act spontaneously, nothing’s an accident. Every move is calculated and part of a larger plan. Jay isn’t a businessman because he often doesn’t seem like a man. He seems like a business.
But who wants to root for a business? We hate businesses.
Not your mom-and-pop shop or that new burger spot on the corner, but the Wal-Marts of the world. The business that puts GMOs in your food, underpays employees and funds presidential elections. Those businesses are out of touch. They are too rich to know how we feel and if by some miracle they do know they are too rich to care. Jay may not be at the level of Wal-Mart, yet, but in the hip-hop world he is as close as anyone’s ever been, both in wealth and in public opinion.
When I first heard Jay Z he was a beloved legend. Now? He’s often one of hip-hop’s biggest punching bags. We make fun of Drake for his softness, Kanye for his craziness or Tyga for his Tyganess. With Jay it’s different. Nobody really hates Drake, he’s just an easy target, and nobody really hates Jay, but, we just don’t even consider him Jay anymore. We are taking shots at what he represents. The monetization and commodification of hip-hop; the face of facelessness. Its like his soul is gone, or at least hidden under Tom Ford suits and basquiat paintings. The same animosity I hear when people talk about big businesses like Apple, Google and Wal-Mart is strikingly similar to the way I hear people talk about Hov now. Out of touch, greedy. Does he see us as people, or customers? Humans or dollar signs? It started when he dropped the hyphen and had Samsung buy a bunch of albums like an overly proud, overly-rich mom, but with his subsequent venture into streaming, the TIDAL wave of hate has begun to drown him.
Or how about this:
That guy hates Jay Z more than I hate putting sheets on my bed. It seems like the more rational amongst us aren’t too far behind though. Literally both my bosses, both veterans in the music internet game, shared a similar, albeit more rational sentiment. Shit, I’m part of it too. When I reviewed TIDAL, I didn’t pull any punches. Like rabid dogs to a rotting carcas, we’ve all dug our teeth in to rip off a pound of flesh. We sent tweets, we wrote reviews, we made memes. Can you blame us? The way Jay went about this business was tone deaf? Does he think we are stupid? You can’t just wheel out a bunch of famous people and expect us to buy your product, no matter how much much more it costs and how much less it gives. Companies slapping green labels on their pink slime filled products to make us think it’s organic is oddly similar to Jay leading a battalion of the rich and famous and telling us it’s all about the music. It’s gotten to the point where even Jay knows it.
Like an evil villain, he sat in his chair, ominously stroking a kitten as he talked with his roundtable of PR people, analysts and Yes Men about how he could win us back. What smoke and mirrors could he break out to make us forget how monetized he’s become? Is there anything that could be done to save TIDAL? He got panned for shoving friends in our faces. He got panned for taking to Twitter to defend his new venture; it was seen as desperate. What could he do?
He could put on one hell of a show.
Jay traded Daft Punk, Beyonce and Coldplay for a live band. Instead of trying to convince us in 140 characters he played “Never Change.” (Ironic, no?). It worked. I’m not a TIDAL subscriber so I wasn’t there, I couldn’t watch it, but thanks to Twitter I didn’t need to be there to see the impact. My timeline was littered with praise. There were more tweets when he brought out Beanie Sigel than when Steph Curry hit a game winner. Oh shit! Did he really just play “22 Twos”?!! For an hour and fifty three minutes, Jay reminded us what he used to be and what he could still do.
We backed him into a corner and he came out swinging. When I finally got to watch the show, it was like watching Paul Pierce hit a game winning three. He may not be at his peak anymore, but the magic was still there. Jay has always been one of my favorite rappers, but I’ve never thought he was the best rapper. Don’t get me wrong, the way he strings together words and bars that otherwise would sound awkward and sloppy is immaculate, but what makes Jay unique is his showmanship; that x-factor. When he raps you are forced to listen. He has a presence. The bigger the spotlight, the better he is. Jay is a gamer. This may have been a B-side show, but Jay’s B-sides are bigger than most rappers A-material.
In all the hate, I forgot how I know all the words to “Encore,” I don’t even remember trying to learn them. I forgot that “U Don’t Know” gives me goosebumps every single time without fail. I forgot that that same larger-than-life, grand bordering on ostentatious showmanship I have panned him for is the exact same reason why Jay’s music is timeless. He dropped bombs for two hours and didn’t even begin to scratch the surface of his arsenal. This TIDAL B-Side show was a publicity stunt, we all knew it, and yet it worked. I was reminded how much I love Jay Z.
“Dark Knight feeling, die and be a hero / Or live long enough to see yourself become a villain.”
Hip-hop is an underdog story and Jay was so good at telling it he stopped being the underdog. Jay is remarkable, he’s shown how limitless hip-hop is, partly because of the trail he has blazed. Yet he’s also been done in by that same entrepreneurial spirit. Jay Z is a movement, and like any movement that started in the streets and blew up he’s gotten to the point where he’s more over-the-counter than counter-culture. Still, it shouldn't take away from his many accomplishments.
Jay buying and pushing TIDAL doesn’t take away from how every single track on The Black Album is a classic. It’s not fair to treat him like every other rapper because he isn’t every other rapper. There is no other Jay Z and there never will be. We don’t have to love the brand Jay Z, we don’t have to buy his shit because he tells us to, but we have to remember he got to this point for a reason, because he’s one of the greatest to ever grab the mic and no amount of streams, commercials or products can change that. He’s at this point for a reason, and we have to focus on the reason, not the point.
Can he live? Will we let him?
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth]