Unraveling The Paradox Of Jay-Z’s Billionaire Social Consciousness

Getty Image

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.

A decade later, in 2006, his “Operation Corporate Takeover” freestyle revealed the plan for the next phase of his career: “Operation take over corporate, makeover offices / Then take over all of it.” At that juncture, he had elevated from Def Jam’s flagship artist to the President of the label. Overseeing Def Jam’s signing of successful acts like Rihanna, Neyo, Rick Ross, Young Jeezy, and others made him one of the music industry’s most in-demand figures. He gloated on the freestyle that “I’m getting courted by the bosses, the Edgars and Doug Morris’, Jimmy I’s and Lyor’s’,” referring to industry titans Edgar Bronfman, Doug Morris, Jimmy Iovine and Lyor Cohen, respectively.

As he’s continued to ascend the entertainment field with a lucrative portfolio of ventures such as his Tidal streaming service, Roc Nation Sports agency, and alcohol brands Dusse and Ace Of Spades, it’s clear that he doesn’t want to simply be courted to serve the agenda of those “bosses,” but wield his resources and influence to help his people in a way those predecessors would never care to.

On “Smile” from his 2017 4:44 album, he rhymed “respect Jimmy Iovine / But he gotta respect the Elohim as a whole new regime.” On “What’s Free” from Meek Mill’s Championships, he delivered one of his most impassioned rebukes of that old regime, including rhyming “they gon’ have to kill me, Grandmama, I’m not they slave.”

Those lyrics are paired with a social agency exemplified by donating over $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter and other social justice groups, as well as bailing out protestors during 2015’s Baltimore uprising. He’s also helped numerous rappers in their time of need. Meek Mill told The Breakfast Club in 2018 that Jay-Z helped pay multi-million dollar legal fees he might not have been able to cover himself as he fights an unjust probation sentence that he’s currently out on bail for.

Lil Wayne told concertgoers earlier this year that Jay-Z quietly paid off his back taxes. “He helped me when I was really, really, really down,” Wayne emphasized. While Wayne was embroiled in a legal dispute with Cash Money Records that held up the release of his Carter V album, it was Roc Nation who worked with him because, as Wayne says Jay-Z told him, “I just want to help you man. In any way I can.” And impressively, he offered all of that help without volunteering his good deeds. In fact, his friend and journalist dream hampton noted in 2015 that he prefers to keep his charitable actions quiet.

Jay-Z and Roc Nation hired a lawyer to help 21 Savage with any legal assistance he may need for his deportation hearings after being detained in Atlanta by ICE on Super Bowl weekend. It’s clear that he longs to help his peers and community “win,” and is offering some of his fortune to fulfill his “Nickels And Dimes” theory that “the greatest form of giving is anonymous to anonymous.” But perhaps an even greater form of giving is everyone having the means to share with each other. It’s questionable how much collective progress can be made for the whole when the richest 1 percent in the United States have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent.

On “What’s Free” he gloated, “I’m practically living tax-free,” a revelation that no one outside of his most ardent supporters could have been impressed with. Amazon made $11 billion in profit in 2018, and it’s likely that everyone reading this paid more than their $0 tax bill. President Trump has yet to release his personal tax returns to the public, but he likely benefited from the tax breaks that many of his wealthy friends enjoy. As President, he’s in position to widen the wealth gap with policies like his recent tax cuts. America’s middle class is losing out while the 1% are hoarding their wealth.

But the trouble with the 1% isn’t limited to tax breaks. In a 2017 New York Times op-ed, Jay-Z bemoaned that the criminal justice system “stalks” Black people like Meek Mill and others. He also produced a docuseries about the late Kalief Browder, who was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack and couldn’t afford his $3,000 bail to get off of New York’s Rikers Island. He later died by suicide, and many people around him speculate that the torment he faced at the jail contributed to his premature death. From a money-bail trap to jails charging fees for incarcerated people to call home to veritable slave labor, these exploitative practices are in place to help the rich stay rich.

So much human and environmental suffering can be traced back to capitalistic greed at the cost of humanity. That’s why even when billionaires give back or try to empower the general public with empowering rhetoric, it doesn’t exactly feel like a “win/win” scenario.

Jay-Z didn’t create the free market, but he’s certainly benefited from it and has made corporate bedfellows of questionable morals. He criticized gentrification on “What’s Free,” but he faced criticism within Brooklyn for being a figurehead of the then-New Jersey Nets’ move to Brooklyn in 2012. While many of his fans were excited at the prospect of him expanding his portfolio and helping bring basketball to Brooklyn, nearly 3,000 downtown Brooklyn residents were displaced. And while he rightfully stands with Colin Kaepernick and refused to perform at the Super Bowl, his Roc Nation Sports agency still has several NFL players as clients.

It’s impossible for anyone to completely divest from capitalism, but there’s a wide range of practical possibility between abstaining and becoming a billionaire. There’s no great profit without great cost for others, which is why it’s fascinating to see how Jay-Z grapples with his evident sense of social responsibility while also living by the tenet of maximum profit. At times, it must feel like pouring into an empty glass with a hole in the bottom.

Perhaps that’s why he rhymed the following on “Smile:” “Blood diamonds drippin’ with guilt, I still ain’t trippin / that’s life, winners and losers.” The line refers to the human toll of Africa’s violent diamond economy, and how he feels complicit in the circumstance by buying jewelry. Does he ever feel that way in a larger sense about how he amassed his fortune? As much as he theorized about Black capitalism on 4:44, the reality is that it’s difficult for most “losing” low-income Americans to reach middle-class status, much less generational wealth without a one-in-a-million gift.

While Jay can’t help the poor if he’s one of them, an overwhelming amount of the 1% only help themselves. It’s what stains them all as the primary culprit for late stage capitalism’s failure, regardless of the rare few with an intact moral compass. The best thing Jay could do to help the poor is using his immense influence to shift the mindset from harping on generational wealth as the key to uprooting Black people out of poverty to demanding more from the establishment to even the figurative playing field.

His “win/win” mindset is nobler than that of Floyd Mayweather, the exceedingly rich boxer who only seems to take a brave stand and extend his hand in the boxing ring, but it’s still flawed. When Jay rhymes, “What’s better than one billionaire?” on “Family Feud,” I often think to myself, “a thousand millionaires” instead of his summation of “two (billionaires).” We don’t need billionaires to help us win, we need that wealth distributed more fairly to be able to fund our own own victories. The reality is that no one should be a billionaire, even a virtuous one.

While we can applaud Jay-Z’s actions and root for him to continue to make strides in the industry, the buck has to stop at ogling his wealth, or aspiring to be similarly rich, because the pursuit of that “win/win” scenario will require direct or complicit involvement in a lot of loss for others.