Twenty-three years have passed since O.J. Simpson faced murder charges for the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, but American cultural memory has kept the story alive into today. In 2016 alone, FX released the critically-acclaimed series American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson and Ezra Edelman’s documentary O.J.: Made in America won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
The Simpson trial has often been named the Trial of the Century and is even credited with being a major influence on the rise of reality television. It is also a talking point for the treatment of African American men in the justice system. Although O.J. Simpson was acquitted after a long trial, many Americans were divided by racial demographics on their beliefs of Simpson’s guilt or innocence, and controversies arose around the media treatment of the case, as in the instance of Time darkening Simpson’s face on their cover.
With these conversations resurfacing amidst an interrogation of the American legal system’s treatment of African Americans, both JAY-Z and Tyler, The Creator have released material centered around O.J. from their respective albums, 4:44 and Flower Boy. Their vastly divergent takes on Simpson led me to wonder about the presence of his name and its significance as it relates to their albums as a whole.
On “The Story of O.J.,” Jay uses an oft-cited quote from the former NFL star to launch into a reflection on race in America: “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” In one of the greatest one-word flexes on record, Jay lets the quote sit before responding: “Ooo-kay.” As the brilliant song and video relate, Hov is well aware that being a celebrity does not mean that one’s race will be forgotten—especially in a nation with a long and unending history of racism. No matter what level of fame and fortune a Black celebrity reaches, racial stereotypes persist: from Kendrick being slammed by Fox News for performing a song they felt “incites violence” to Barack Obama being accused by the current president of not being born in the United States (and therefore an illegitimate president).
Although O.J.’s name doesn’t come up again on the album, we are reminded throughout 4:44 of Black artists whose visions were compromised by the largely white-run music industry (Prince and Lauryn Hill), as well as the infamous Oscar moment when Moonlight’s win for Best Movie was overshadowed by a La La Land mix-up—which was further highlighted by Jay and Master of None co-creator Alan Yang using the song's music video to re-create Friends with an all-Black cast. Jay pushes the idea that Black excellence is treated as an exception in American culture, and that it is never a sure thing.
In stark contrast to Jay, Tyler and Frank Ocean employ O.J.’s name on a tonally and lyrically brighter song from Flower Boy. “Where This Flower Blooms” finds Tyler recounting his rise from sleeping on his grandma’s carpet to providing for his family. The song contains one of the most poignant statements on the album, challenging the stigma of Blackness as it encourages “tell[ing] these Black kids to be who they are.”
In the chorus to “Where This Flower Blooms,” Frank names O.J. as a divine-like figure showing favor to him: “I’m leaning out the window / O.J. shining on me / Simp-sun shining on me."
Genius annotations shed light on the play on words relating to sexuality that Ocean uses here, but it’s still a mystery as to why Frank specifically employs O.J. Simpson, and to what end.
Both symbols and geography matter on Flower Boy, and throughout the album Tyler professes his love for cars, for which both he and Frank famously share an affection. Tyler raps, “In toys I only dreamed I could afford / Now I roll through Okaga, California." A car is never just a material item for a rapper, but often signifies a level of financial freedom, and driving itself can hold symbolic weight for Black artists who break from the stereotype of “going nowhere” to moving anywhere at any speed.
In Frank’s hook, he is driving to California when he claims to have “Simp-sun” shining on him. This image is significant because it fits within Tyler’s overall symbolic use of cars, geography, and freedom. Before O.J. was arrested, he and former teammate Al Cowlings led police on an hours-long car chase through LA that finally ended with an arrest at his home. Although O.J. was eventually acquitted, his life would thereafter be defined largely by his relationship to the judicial system, and how many people continue to and have begun to believe he is guilty.
Of course, I am only speculating here, but it’s possible that Frank and Tyler do not actually see “The Story of O.J.” that differently than Jay. Although their song is considerably more upbeat in tone and lyrical content, their hook exists in that ominous moment before the unknown fate of O.J. might be the threat to all Black men in America. Thus, this lyric and my interpretation are in no way a justification or glorification of O.J. the person, but rather a question of whether true Black freedom is ever permanent or merely a long car ride with a looming ending.
In this country, to this day, it does not matter whether a Black man is truly guilty or innocent: his being Black convicts him under dehumanizing stereotypes and institutions. Video footage of police killings of Black men today is tragic and a near-constant reminder that even an innocent Black man is not safe in his vehicle. In the video for “Who Dat Boy,” Tyler’s escape from police is predicated on a surgery that gives him a white face as he and A$AP Rocky peel off in a McLaren.
In Frank and Tyler’s version of events, perhaps O.J. is still driving through LA, his last moments of freedom or at least some level of personal control. Whether guilty or innocent, O.J. was later subjected to racist stereotyping that no doubt affected public perception of him throughout and after his trial.
But before that, before his case became a foreshadowing of racial tension in 21st-century America, O.J. was speeding down an LA highway, evading it all. Many suggested that his infamous getaway was proof that O.J. was guilty, but others point to it as proof that he knew he would be convicted. JAY-Z isn't just questioning the validity of O.J.'s "I'm not Black" statement—he is questioning whether O.J. would even stand by that comment today in a nation that continues to incarcerate Black men at astronomical rates and convict them of “driving while Black” on-site.
Jay, Tyler and Frank are all icons of artistic freedom, and each of them has only further cemented their legacies over the past year. It’s past time for Black artists to take a ride in a car that isn’t tailed by police or foreboding a bad ending.