“My latest muse is my niece” —Kendrick Lamar ("YAH.")
They stood in my doorway with a stare filled with unspoken mischief. Their faces—both with pupils replaced by pearls and grins wide as football fields—foreshadowed a confession unlike Usher’s; this was a surprise to be celebrated, not hidden. An hour prior, when I dropped your father off at the hospital, he wore an expression of calm concern. Your mother, his fiancée (now wife), was rear-ended. The accident wasn’t serious, but a precautionary check-up is what led her to see a doctor.
To see them return together unbothered and giddy was like the episode of The Cosby Show when Denise and Theo were happy to relay how their car was hit by Stevie Wonder’s limousine driver.
Entering the hospital to be checked for whiplash and leaving with news of an invader in your womb is kind of poetic, isn’t it?
That’s how you entered our lives, a bump before the baby bump. If a passion for cars is in your future, that driver is to blame or thank, depending on how the stars align. I think of that day when I think of you. I think of that doorway and how it was the first time anyone ever placed the word “uncle” before my first name—the beginning of many firsts.
Over the last nine months, the empty third room we had for guests was turned into a sanctuary for your many things. The once-naked refrigerator with only an Atlanta Falcons schedule magnet is now covered with pictures of your ultrasounds. There was a revealing of your gender, a shower in your honor, and a marriage between your parents for which you were simultaneously present and absent. At least once a week, someone has asked if I’m ready for your arrival. I should say, I’m as ready for you as I was ready for Beyoncé’s eponymous album.
Knowing your mother, you’ll be in the hive as a bumblebee dedicated from birth to the queen. If your father has any say, you’ll be a student of Southern pimps and poets who were more outcast than idol. As their first granddaughter, my father will tell you of the late Tupac Shakur, and my mother will respond with gospel untouched by gangsta rap—both are fulfilling in ways that are spiritual. Everyone will pass down someone or something as a form of inheritance. As your oldest uncle, who I offer is JAY-Z.
To call him just a rapper would be like calling Jesus just a carpenter. The two are far more than their job titles reveal, but the man who also goes by Hov happens to be one of hip-hop’s greatest rappers. He has, at the time of this writing, 13 solo rap albums. To say each of them is spectacular is a stretch—bad games come with the game—but throughout his storied legacy, there are lessons relevant to survive this thing called life.
It's beyond my foresight to know when these lessons will be applicable. I would hope the scriptures from Reasonable Doubt won’t be needed during your time in the sandbox, but studies show kids have their first midlife crisis around the fifth grade. They grow up so fast.
Much like the uncle who I aspire to be, the best thing about JAY-Z's lyrics is that they're always there when you need them most. These are for you when that time comes.
Lesson 1: The Only Christopher We Acknowledge Is Wallace
Album: Magna Carta... Holy Grail
Christopher Columbus did not discover America. The teachers will tell you otherwise; it is what they told your father, and all the fathers before him. You’ll slowly learn how deceitful history will be when the pages are written in blood by the hunters and not the tears of the hunted. On “Oceans,” JAY-Z presented an alternative Christopher for us to champion. Wallace, unlike Columbus, is honored for what he shared with the world, not for what he stole. When you’re old enough I’ll share with you the music by the late, great Notorious B.I.G.
The lesson here is to pick your heroes, acknowledge the worthy, and to question what you are told to be true. You always have the right to choose your darlings.
Lesson 2: Don’t Believe Everything Your Earlobe Captures
Song: “Ignorant Shit”
Album: American Gangster
JAY-Z’s second verse on “Ignorant Shit” will be more important than any sonnet written by Shakespeare taught in your literature classes. If there was such thing as a new New Testament, the lyrics “Don't believe everything your earlobe captures” would be included. In another verse, on Lupe Fiasco’s remix of “Sittin' Sidewayz,” Jay rapped, “Before you act on a word, please consider the source.”
People lie. Lies have been told since the beginning of time. There’s no way to detect who is truthful and who isn’t, but never blindly believe anything said by anyone. Life is like journalism—question everything and fact-check your sources. Even if the source is me.
Lesson 3: Don’t Listen to Your Crew, Do What Works for You
Album: Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter
You’ll have friends. How many or how few are yet to be determined, but you will have them. Not just friends, but family and associates will be present in your life, and when problems arise, they’ll all suggest what they believe is best for you. When these moments happen, remember what Hov told his nephews on “Anything”: “Don't listen to your crew, do what works for you / Standing back from situations gives you the perfect view.”
Take advice. The wisdom of others isn’t tainted with poison, but it may not apply for you as an individual. Always consider who you are, your life, and what the best course of action is. No need to be rash; step back, reassess, and view situations from afar when the pressure gets too close. Also, when playing "Anything," ignore what Jay says about girls being nice or whores. He still had some growing up to do.
Lesson 4: You Give a Nigga a Foot, He'll Take You One Step Beyond
Song: “Streets Is Talking”
Album: The Dynasty: Roc La Familia
I think of you now, unborn and oblivious to the world. You’re naive, a beautiful innocence as pure as Heisenberg’s meth. Sadly, to be born is to enter a world where innocence is devoured by reality. You’ll eventually encounter circumstances where the situation is one of unbalanced convenience. Being taken advantage of is sickening, but to be a fool once takes away the ignorance of naivety. To be fooled again, by the same person, falls upon your judgment.
Always be aware of how much room you give anyone. All it takes is a few steps before you are being walked over, and you aren’t a welcome mat, my dear. As Jay said, “He'll try to play you twice, the third time is the charm.”
Lesson 5: Let No Amount of Money Ruin This Thing of Ours
Song: “Never Change”
Album: The Blueprint
Capitalism exists. One day you’ll understand the part it has played in the molding of this country, of your countryman, and the effect it will have on your life. It’s important for you to understand that money isn’t everything. You’ll hear the phrase repeated until the thought becomes cliché, but it’s a claim proven to be true. Money is necessary; you’ll need and desire to make more. But always remember there are things in this world without price tags that can’t be bought. People, good people, are never worth losing if the only gain is monetary.
Cherish your people, build something together, and share the wealth. Think Roc-A-Fella, but aim to never split if it can be helped. We all lose when the family feuds.
Lesson 6: I Will Not Lose
Song: “It’s Like That”
Album: Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life
Your father loves to tease me about our childhood, and how sore of a loser I used to be. Losing was a concept I equated to inadequacy, that each loss was an example of not being good enough. What I love about Jay is how he spent most of his career rebuking the idea of losing. He had ironclad confidence. Hov carried himself as if victory was his birthright.
One day you’ll learn of JAY-Z vs. Nas, “Takeover” vs. “Ether,” and how the clash of these two hip-hop titans is still one of pop culture’s most debated bouts not televised in a boxing ring. Who won the beef isn’t definitive like in a sporting event, but I’ll never forget when Jay rapped, “I will not lose, for even in defeat, there’s a valuable lesson learned, so it evens up for me,” during the second verse on “Blueprint 2.” He found a loophole in the possibility of losing, a way of maintaining his assurance of self while accepting that victory may not be in his favor. Saying you won’t lose doesn’t mean there won’t be a loss, but it’s the way loss is accepted.
Build an armor of confidence, never second-guess your worth, and don’t allow success to inflate your head or allow defeat to sink your heart. You will always be enough; that is your birthright.
Lesson 7: Play the Hand You’re Dealt
Song: “Justify My Thug”
Album: The Black Album
You didn’t ask to be born. Neither did I, or your parents, or anyone on this planet. We are here, though, and that often means adapting to the circumstances of life. I don’t know all the cards you’ll be dealt at birth, or the ones you’ll acquire over time, but find comfort in knowing that tomorrow provides another day to have a winning hand.
Eventually, you’ll learn of who JAY-Z was—beyond being the husband of Beyoncé and the father of Blue Ivy, Sir, and Rumi—and how the cards he was dealt weren’t the most promising. He didn’t have it easy, even once rapped, “I can't say I've never knelt before God and asked for better cards at times to no avail, but I never sat back feeling sorry for myself.” Praying is just a request, but action is how change occurs.
Play your hand, work with your cards, and one day you’ll look back and realize you always had everything you needed to get where you wanted to go.
Lesson 8: Rather Live Enormous Than Live Dormant
Song: “Can I Live”
Album: Reasonable Doubt
JAY-Z wasn’t the rapper of my childhood. I found him late; our relationship didn’t begin until sometime after my graduation from high school. I was maybe 20, possibly 21 when the lyrics “I'd rather die enormous than live dormant that's how we on it” initially reached my ears. Instantly, something resonated inside me.
Jay told me enormous was an option. He didn’t say rich, or famous, but a life that could only be defined as large. That largeness is whatever you decide it to be, but choose enormous. Don’t allow anyone to depict what life looks like for you. Dormant is quiet, complacent, and accepting of the odds. Don’t accept, defy. Always defy.
Lesson 9: Treat My First Like My Last and My Last Like My First
Song: “My 1st Song”
Album: The Black Album
Your father and grandparents will enroll you in some kind of sport before reaching your teenage years. Sports are good for developing a spirit that understands competition; they push you to strive for better and allows you to recognize the joy of progress. No matter what you pursue, whether it be art, academia, or athletics, get into the habit of viewing everything through the lens of first and last. Begin strong, end strong. Strive to make your first impression Reasonable Doubt and your grand goodbye The Black Album. That way you’ll always be satisfied with knowing you did your best from start to finish.
Lesson 10: You Can’t Heal What You Never Reveal
Song: “Kill Jay Z”
Your grandmother will be the first to tell you this family doesn’t keep secrets. Isn’t she the cutest? We all try to be open and honest, but every person living walks around with a chamber of secrets buried underneath their heartbeat. You won't be any different. Some secrets are fine; the best ones are able to remain silent without harming anyone, yourself included. But there’s an inverse, secrets that consume and decay from within.
Carry secrets the weight of feathers, but don’t attempt to carry anvils. All that will do is drag you down in a sea of sadness. Healing begins with revealing. It saved JAY-Z’s marriage, so imagine what it can do for you? I’m always here to lend an ear.
Lesson 11: Life Is for Living, Not Living Uptight
Song: “Forever Young”
Album: The Blueprint 3
People die. It’s a fact of life. What happens afterward, well, there’s a lot of speculation but no one is truly certain. Until proven otherwise, all we get is one life. Try to enjoy the process of living rather than seeking the purpose. Take safe risks, enjoy moments of bliss, cherish the good times, and never be too afraid to change for the better. Don’t believe in forever. Everything begins and ends, so don’t hold too tightly to anything, but appreciate all that happens in-between. Just live. It’s what you’re here to do.
Lesson 12: Living With Regret
Album: Reasonable Doubt
This is a tough one. Regret is a reminder that you aren’t perfect. You won’t always make the best decisions or choices, and the feeling that follows is one of the worst. Hopefully, you’ll have a chance to live with regret, process the feeling, and move beyond it to become a better person. As Jay states in “Regrets": “In order to survive, gotta learn to live with regrets.”
"Live with" means there’s no erasing, no rewinding, but accepting the consequences. Accept rather than be defined by the things that you can’t change. You’ll learn. Life will teach you.
Lesson 13: "Smile"
"Even when I'm gone and you remember me, smile / Good times never fade away, smile / Even if I'm not with you here today, smile."
By Yoh, aka Lo's Uncle, aka @Yoh31