On the second verse of Jay-Z’s “Moment Of Clarity” track off his 2003 Black Album classic, he contended that: “I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars,” admitting that he scaled back his lyrical gifts in a bid for mass appeal and the financial rewards that come with it. That admission has always been regarded by rap purists as an acknowledgment of “selling out,” but per usual, the pragmatic lyricist was able to defend his thought process with rational perspective.
After noting, “truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense — but I did 5 mil’ — I ain’t been rhyming like Common since,” he rhymed the following:
“When your cents got that much in common
And you been hustling since your inception
F*ck perception! Go with what makes sense
Since I know what I’m up against
We as rappers must decide what’s most important
And I can’t help the poor if I’m one of them
So I got rich and gave back, to me that’s the win/win”
With an estimated net worth of $900 million, he’s gotten even richer since 2003, and embodying that “win/win” scenario has been his MO more than ever lately. The son of Brooklyn went from surmising that his “presence was a charity” on Magna Carta Holy Grail‘s “Nickels And Dimes” to being a silent benefactor for a range of needy people and organizations. He’s bailed out hoards of people on multiple occasions and has quietly donated to Black Lives Matter. He’s paid legal fees for Meek Mill as well as back taxes for Lil Wayne. He went from surmising, “less is more…it’s plenty of us (successful Black executives)” on Drake’s “Pound Cake” to being one of hip-hop’s biggest advocates of Black ownership and representation.
His Roc Nation entertainment company has not only made (most of) his pre-rap day ones rich, it’s become a refuge for ‘90s bred contemporaries like Fat Joe, The Lox, and Jim Jones, who he huddled together under the Paper Plane flag as the last bastions of a bygone era of hip-hop.
You can argue about whether Jay-Z is the best rapper all day, but he’s undoubtedly one of the most important. He said from the gate on 1996’s “Dead Presidents” that he was out for Presidents to represent him. Somewhere along the line, he realized that having money was not a trait in itself, but a tool and an opportunity to help his people. But the 49-year-old’s conundrum is that while he’s enacting virtuous gestures and promoting self-empowerment in his lyrics, he’s also vying to become a billionaire in a world where “billionaire” is becoming a slur to the everyday people he seeks to help. He’s always expressed disdain with the entertainment industry’s higher-ups on racial lines — but he’s still one of them. That’s why his “win/win” walk between capitalism and progressivism is a precarious one, and one of the most fascinating paradoxes in hip-hop history.
He’s given back in various manners, but is there such thing as a true “win/win” scenario while sustaining and ascending a system of capitalism predicated on winners and losers? How much can one movement uproot a historically racist institution like the entertainment industry while abiding by its tenets and partnering with its sovereign figures? Jay-Z’s timeline is ripe for examination as people explore those questions decades from now.
On 2001’s “H To The Izzo,” for instance, Jay-Z laid his game out with more lyrics that exemplified his laser-focused agenda:
“I do this for my culture, to let them know
What a n—a look like when a n—a in a roaster
Show them how to move in a room full of vultures
Industry is shady, it needs to be taken over
Label owners hate me, I’m raising the status quo up
I’m overcharging n—-s for what they did to the Cold Crush
Pay us like you owe us for all the years that you hoed us
We can talk, but money talks, so talk mo’ bucks”
He’s always been aware of the music industry’s exploitative practices, which reflects America’s inherent racial inequality, and sought to change the circumstance from the inside. His musical mentor Jaz-O experienced unfavorable contracts much like that of the Cold Crush Brothers he referred to on “H To The Izzo.” In the early ‘90s, Jay himself had to maneuver out of a “shady” situation at Payday Records. After not being able to find a new deal, he and his Roc-A-Fella Records brain trust of Dame Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke decided to release his debut Reasonable Doubt album independently through Priority Distribution. After Reasonable Doubt’s success, he made a lucrative move that’s defined his business model: He partnered with Def Jam and moved up the ranks.