Twenty years after Reasonable Doubt, Jay Z is still using his words to humanize hustlers. His latest recording wasn’t a song or music video, but an op-ed video for the New York Times co-written by his Decoded co-author dream hampton.
Chuck D called rap the “CNN of the ghetto,” which may be why Jay’s foray into journalism came off so effortlessly. At every turn of his career, he’s found new ways to leverage his talent for storytelling in order to reach a larger audience with his message. And Jay doesn’t just free his fellow dealers in the court of public opinion by giving context to their decisions, he also holds the corrupt system that mass-produced them accountable. His debut album was dedicated to exposing the hearts, minds and souls of the countless hustlers who struggled to balance their hunger for “Dead Presidents” with the “Regrets” that come with their line of work.
Despite his consistency, Jay’s been labeled a sell-out by fans, former friends, and collaborators at many points in his career. His bars usually blame the label on his restless ambition, which undoubtedly helped him survive the streets and thrive in the music industry. But despite the spoils he’s earned and bridges he’s burned, Jay’s influence has endured shiny suits and skinny jeans because he never forgot his “Why.”
Most artists do it all for the lifestyle: the fame, the freedom, the money. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But those who rise to greatness are fueled and steered by a higher purpose. While the trappings of the rap game obviously motivate Jay as much as the next MC, throughout his career he’s made it a point to keep his mission bigger than himself by striving to be a beacon of hope for anyone hustling a crooked system.
The self-proclaimed “mouthpiece for hustlers” believes, as he said on 2003’s “Moment Of Clarity,” “I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them.” And his controversial power moves––from leaving the drug game to be a struggle rapper, to becoming president of Def Jam, to helping launch the Barclays Center––make it clear he’s playing chess, not checkers to accomplish his goal of helping the countless young Shawn Carters trapped in private prisons, dead-end classrooms and deadly city blocks.
While conservative pundits Tomi Lahren and Bill O’Reilly squawk hatefully in his direction to stay relevant, Hov’s already thrown the critics’ words back at them on the record—with 2003’s “Threats,” in which he name checks O’Reilly, and this year’s “Drug Dealers Anonymous,” which sampled Lahren’s dismissal of Beyoncé‘s #BlackLivesMatter messaging because of her husband’s drug dealing past.
In both cases, Hov claimed his past and embraced it as part of the narrative of who he is today. This week, he went to one of the most respected news outlets in the world to ask America to do the same.
And while his peers and predecessors never hesitate to offer their two cents on his moves, Jay’s only focus is doubling down to secure the bricks needed to build a new infrastructure. From TIDAL to Roc Nation, to Made In America, Jay has given us the blueprint for flipping the script on oppressive power structures. His own recording career is the greatest example, as he’s ruthlessly exploited record labels and corporations “for what they did” to the Cold Crush Brothers and nearly every other Black musician, all while maintaining his cultural influence and ownership of his masters.
If we consider Barack Obama to be an extension of the hip-hop-to-pop-culture movement Jay has helped pioneer, Obama’s recent decision to free hundreds of non-violent drug offenders is yet another extension of Jay’s genius hustle. We’ve long known that art can be powerful tool for social justice. But Mr. Carter’s 20-year recording career proves the power we all possess when we stay true to our journeys while remaining humble enough to evolve with the times.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty, Twitter