The Story of Jay-Z

Decoding the historical context behind the emcee’s economic nationalism on his new album 4:44

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Until 4:44, Jay-Z’s albums could be understood as an indictment of the immorality of capitalism by a man luxuriating in its fruits. Jay-Z argued that there was something revolutionary in this, in a black man born in the projects proving himself a better entrepreneur than white men born into plenty, as if to suggest the infinite human potential destroyed by the circumstances he escaped. He was right.

Jay-Z used the terms of finance to describe the drug trade—referring to his crew as his “staff,” his organization as his “conglomerate,” smoothly transitioning from acknowledging the violence of the trade to comparing it to the stock market (“drug prices up and down like it’s Wall Street homes, but this is worse than the Dow Jones, your brains are now blown”), and connecting the inequality of the system that shaped his life with his determination to triumph over it.

He saw clearly that his pursuit of success visited countless cruelties and indignities upon himself and those around him, and that his triumph would come at unimaginable cost. Perhaps the one thing he didn’t expect was that it would have a happy ending, one with wealth and family, fame and fatherhood.

The contradiction of that transition is that while Shawn Corey Carter’s politics have simplified in disappointing ways, that’s come with an emotional maturity Jay-Z never had. On Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z’s ideal relationship was one in which fidelity was optional; on 4:44, Carter raps movingly about the devastating realization that someday, his children will learn of his transgressions. He imagines himself on the other end of the knife he used to stab the director Lance “Un” Rivera in 1999. He gives his mother space on the album to speak about the years she spent hiding her sexual orientation.

The tension between Jay-Z’s love of the game and his fear of losing his soul, his indulgence in worldly pleasures as the years ripped away friends and family through death or betrayal, formed the emotional core of every Jay-Z album from Reasonable Doubt to The Blueprint 3. Appropriately enough, 4:44 begins with the metaphorical assassination of the Jay-Z persona as Carter takes on the responsibilities of fatherhood, marriage, and wealth. He offers a new vision of capitalism as a tool for community uplift. Carter is not at the height of his lyrical prowess on 4:44, but the album is ambitious and emotionally vulnerable, and represents a profound shift from Jay-Z’s previous offerings, especially in its belief in the power of the market to improve black lives rather than destroy them.


Perhaps the most concise and perplexing statement of Carter’s new unambiguous love for capitalism comes in a couplet on the second track, “The Story of O.J.,” a song whose main theme is the indelible force of racism against black people regardless of class. On one jarring line, Carter states, “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit. You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it.”

Carter’s admonition is meant to encourage black people to imitate what he perceives to be a Jewish strength of ethnic solidarity and financial prowess. “‘The Story of O.J.’ is really a song about we as a culture, having a plan, how we’re gonna push this forward,” Carter said on iHeartRadio. But the line is nonetheless startling because it invokes the anti-Semitic canard that Jews maintain financial control of everything you see. It’s beneath Carter, a writer and artist of astonishing ability and sophistication who has every reason to know better. Responding to prior criticisms in his book Decoded, Jay-Z  wrote that “when I use lines like this, I count on people knowing who I am and my intentions, knowing that I’m not anti-Semitic or racist, even when I use stereotypes in my rhymes.”

There’s an old strain of black capitalism here that runs from Booker T. Washington through the Black Power movement to the Nation of Islam and beyond. Carter is also drawing on an old tradition of using American Jews as a model of a downtrodden people who found success in America. Frederick Douglass predicted that just as Jewish people had “risen” despite discrimination in Europe, “in like manner the Negro will rise in social scale.”

“The Jew, who was once in about the same position as the Negro is to-day, has now complete recognition, because he has entwined himself in America in a business or industrial sense,” Washington wrote in Industrial Training for the Negro in 1904. Washington also had a similar vision of community uplift through labor that never materialized, because the white South never truly adhered to its side of the bargain Washington offered—submission to Jim Crow in exchange for peace.

“The organization of the 3,000,000 Jews in America is little less than marvelous,” wrote W.E.B DuBois in the NAACP magazine The Crisis in 1915. “This is the great net work of organization which makes the Jewish people the tremendous force for good and for uplift which they are in this country. Let black men look at them with admiration and emulate them.”

These sorts of admonitions, drawn from Maurianne Adams’s anthology of essays on black-Jewish relations, echo through the high point of black-Jewish cooperation during the civil-rights movement, and its nadir beginning in the late 1960s, when both communities drifted toward nationalisms that would prove to be incompatible. Shirley Chisholm asserted that within Bed-Stuy, Barbadian Americans like her parents were referred to as “Black Jews” “because of their work ethic and obsession with their children’s education,” the historian Michael Woodsworth wrote in Battle for Bed-Stuy.

And of course, there were those who bristled at the comparison, such as James Baldwin. He wrote that “the Jew profits from his status in America, and he must expect Negroes to distrust him for it. The Jew does not realize that the credential he offers, the fact that he has been despised and slaughtered, does not increase the Negro’s understanding. It increases the Negro’s rage.”

The analogy has never worked, because even at its worst moments America has generally been a haven for its Jewish immigrants and their descendants, and a place of bondage for its black residents and theirs. We know the names Leo Frank, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner; the names of black people who were killed in the South under similar circumstances are too numerous to recall without aid.

“Jews had a choice, they could be white and American in all things secular, and Jewish in all things religious,” wrote Julius Lester, a former UMass-Amherst professor and African American convert to Judaism.* “This choice was not available to black people for obvious reasons.” American Jews simply have not, and likely never will, face the structural barriers that black Americans continue to face. To this day, black Americans are targeted by mainstream financial institutions with predatory loans and subprime mortgages with the potential to wipe out whatever financial success they’ve attained.

You rarely hear black people suggesting that they emulate Jewish success anymore, although as the only Jew in mostly black spaces growing up, and almost always the only black Jew, I sometimes heard it, often with the same ambivalent mix of admiration and hostility with which it comes across on 4:44. That advice isn’t given anymore because of the popular recognition that if American blacks had the same access to credit as American Jews, if thrift and moral rectitude were all that was necessary for economic success, the Bed-Stuy that created Shawn Carter would never have existed.


At first, the Brooklyn neighborhood was actually two different ones: Bedford and Stuyvesant Heights. But when black families began to move into the adjacent communities in the 1930s, they became one entity. By 1940, the New Deal-era Home Owners’ Loan Corporation graded the neighborhood as “hazardous” because of an “infiltration of negroes.” The HOLC noted that “Colored infiltration” was “a definitely adverse influence on neighborhood desirability although Negroes will buy properties at fair prices and usually rent rooms.” Racism made Bed-Stuy, and then the government drew a red line around it.

As Woodsworth wrote in Battle for Bed-Stuy, “subsequent assessments by private lenders reinforced the notion that Central Brooklyn, with its expanding black population, should be quarantined. As a result, few prospective homebuyers in the area, black or white, could access federally guaranteed mortgages; existing homeowners, foreseeing plummeting property values, sold out while they could.”

The HOLC’s designation ensured that banks would not extend their usual loans there—depriving black Americans of the credit lines and capital investment that other communities would use to build wealth, and then look down their noses at black people wondering why they had not done the same. Ten years after the HOLC’s assessment, the New York City Housing Authority opened a 27-building complex known as the Marcy Houses, built on nearly 30 acres of homes and businesses cleared to make room for the public housing project. It was built to house working-class Americans and veterans, and was the childhood home of Shawn Corey Carter.

That Bed-Stuy, like all of New York City and black neighborhoods all over America, was created through private racism and state discrimination, by the hands of presidents like Franklin Roosevelt and city bureaucrats like Robert Moses. “Until the last quarter of the twentieth century,” wrote Richard Rothstein in The Color of Law, “racially explicit policies of federal, state, and local governments defined where whites and African Americans should live.” Black Americans in Bed-Stuy (as elsewhere) organized to fight these policies, but as Woodsworth described, fighting segregation in the North could be as daunting as fighting it in the South: “The problem for New York activists was that segregation was illegal, even if it persisted on the ground. They could not hope to deal a fatal blow to the Jim Crow system, since the Jim Crow system did not officially exist.”

That historical context is lacking from the economic nationalism of 4:44. The strip-club line is a more risque expression of the Obamaesque notion that black people would have better credit if they spent less money on vice, that they would have money to invest in gentrifying Brooklyn real estate or fine art that appreciates in value. “What’s better than one billionaire? Two,” Carter raps on “Family Feud.” “Especially when they from the same hue as you.” Does Carter really believe a few more black members of the one-percent club is going to change circumstances for the black masses?

This is far afield from the Jay-Z on Reasonable Doubt who acknowledged, “nine to five is how you survive but I’m not trying to survive I’m trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot”; who recalled the fleeting and bittersweet triumph of drug money, allowing him to sit at the bar “laughin’ hard, happy to be escapin’ poverty, however brief.” It’s not the Jay-Z who reveled in the skills he learned in the same drug trade, while confessing that drugs killed his father and led him to carry the gun that he used to shoot his brother. Who bragged about being able to sell “ice in the winter, I’ll sell fire in hell, I am a hustler baby, I’ll sell water to a well,” a line that’s brilliant because it identifies the essence of hustling as selling people things they don’t need. The Jay-Z who confessed that “the pressure for success can put a good strain, on a friend you call best, and yes, it could bring out the worst in every person, even the good and sane.” The rapper who acknowledged that his experience, the “American dream,” was “a journey seldom seen.”

There are hints of the old Jay-Z on 4:44 (“I still ain’t trippin’, that’s life, winners and losers, drug dealers and abusers, America likes me ruthless”), but he is largely gone, replaced by Shawn Carter the mogul, who raps on “Legacy” about leaving his wealth to his children over a sample of Donny Hathaway singing “one day we’ll all be free.” In 1999, Jay-Z told Vibe that his most important goal was “to create a comfortable position for me and everybody around me ... blacks, when we come up, we don’t normally inherit business. That’s not a common thing for us to have old money, like three and four generations, inheriting our parents’ businesses. That’s what we workin on right now, a legacy.” Nearly two decades later, Jay-Z’s vision of legacy has evolved past his inner circle to the larger black community.

It’s a sunny optimism that stands out across the release of albums from black artists over the past two years from Solange Knowles to Kendrick Lamar that linger in the shadow of post-Obama melancholy, the sort of feeling Jay-Z might have been describing when he said in 2000, “niggas say it’s the dawn but I’m superstitious, shit is as dark as it’s been, nothing has moved as you predicted.” The point is not that 4:44’s message of community uplift is not inspiring—it is. But a lack of inspiration or motivation is not the reason that the black community suffers disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, crime, or incarceration.

And so the arc that began with Reasonable Doubt comes to an end of sorts: Jay-Z was willing to exploit the unjust system that condemned him to a life of poverty to escape it; Shawn Carter the mogul believes that system can set black people free, implying his improbable success and undeniable genius could or should be imitated. Jay-Z savaged the hypocrisy and cruelty of American capitalism while mastering it; on 4:44, Carter wonders if the system might work after all.

Jay-Z has always asked a lot of his audience, rewarding those who look for a deeper meaning behind his deceptively casual flow. Carter’s newfound positivity and calls to buy black—and therefore subscribe to his TIDAL streaming service and buy his  champagne and cognac—whether sincere or otherwise, help his bottom line.

It’s hard not to think back to The Black Album, Jay-Z’s temporary farewell to the industry in 2003, in which he explains why he doesn’t adopt the more overtly political and activist stances of rappers like Talib Kweli and Common, and wonder whether, like Batman hiding behind Bruce Wayne, Jay-Z  the hustler is as dead as you might presume from listening to 4:44’s first track.

“If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli, truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense, but I did 5 mill, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since,” Jay-Z raps. Later, he says, “so next time you see the homie and his rims spin, just know my mind is working just like them (the rims, that is).”

* This article originally identified Julius Lester as a former Amherst professor. We regret the error.