Hold On, Be Strong: Jay-Z’s Hidden Vulnerability

There has been a lot of talk about vulnerability in music in recent years. And for good reason. It’s been a significant part of music that is often overlooked, but especially in Hip-Hop. It’s always been a genre that undergoes changes more often than people can keep up with. And because of its link to a larger cultural movement, the nuances of Hip-Hop can be lost (even to fans of the genre). So what does that leave you with? A lot more variation in people’s understanding. That can be at a few lines out of context and extend to their entire discography.

An older interview with the illustrious Jean Grae brought something important to the forefront. In a similar vein, Grae talked about vulnerability often being hidden but have always been out in the open. At the fault (or advantage) of how the song was presented determined if you were able to find that vulnerable moment. That moment can be shrouded by the production, word flow, language used (there’s more, but let’s stick to the rule of three), etc. She spoke about Big Pimpin’ as an example of this as a piece of phobia surrounding commitment.

“Me give my heart to a woman?
Not for nothin’, never happen; I’ll be forever mackin’
Heart cold as assassins, I got no passion
I got no patience and I hate waitin”

Reasonable Doubt

A large part of Jay-Z’s early identity and image was deeply tied to 90’s artists obsession with Italian mafia figures like John Gotti, Carlo Gambino, and Al Capone.

And why not? They were figures that literally embodied the fast life in every sense of the term. All of the public spoils, drugs, and pinstriped suits inspired a generation of artists (mostly confined to the 80s and 90s) to model their images and subject matter to bleed into the birth of Mafioso rap. It’s often deemed as the counterpart to the West’s G-Funk, but characterized by focus on organized crime, mobsters, and drug cartels. The genre was responsible for much of the common criticisms of Hip-Hop (that still carry out today): luxury, braggadocio and self-indulgence.

I never prayed to God, I prayed to Gotti.

When Jay dropped his debut, Reasonable Doubt, The mid-90s were filled with a lot of rappers trying to control their own narrative often at the risk of sharing anything about who’s spitting. Everyone wanted to be the hardest rapper out there.

Much to the support from Grae’s Theory of Vulnerability, despite any efforts to mask the closer details about himself, there exists vulnerability in this debut.

I’ll pick on the song Dead Presidents II for a couple of reasons. First off, this was a song that samples Nas’ The World Is Yours (which led to one of Hip-Hop’s infamous beefs between the two) was one that was essentially all about getting money through hustling. But the interesting thing is that there are two versions of the song. Dead Presidents was the first single released for the album, but only the sequel made it to the final cut.

“Involved with cream, you know exactly what this shit’s about
Fuck y’all mean? Handling since a teen, I dish out
Like the point guard off your favorite team, without doubt”

— Dead Presidents

Ski Beatz, the producer for the track, later explained that the second version was to “give people more of him”. The only thing both versions shared was the chorus. The first version gave you a 4-and a-half-minutes about Jay’s triumph from rags-to-riches through drug dealing past and his pursuit of the dollar. The album version, however, gave more insight into the paranoia, danger, and consequences that he’s dealt with through that path.

“Hospital dazed, reflectin’ when my man laid up
On the uptown high block he got his side sprayed up
I saw his life slippin’, this is a minor setback”

Dead Presidents II

Now this isn’t to say the single version is devoid of any personal narrative, but to highlight that the narrative is there whether it’s covered up through advertising or image control (or separate versions).

The Blueprint

H.O.V.A.

And then we have the Blueprint to it all..

Released in 1996 and pretty often crowned as Jay-Z’s best album, The Blueprint, carved out a space for Jay-Z to solidify himself as an icon in Hip-Hop. There weren’t any gimmicks. It wasn’t a movie soundtrack or mafioso-based. It was Jay-Z doing what he does best.

So when the David Ruffin sample closes out the track Never Change and bleeds into one of Bobby Glenn the tone changes to a completely vulnerable and open five minutes. And it works..it not only gave Jay-Z one of his most common quotables (seen below), but built the perspective that pride and pressures of masculinity only allow him to display so much emotion that he has to turn to music and his lyrics to convey that vulnerability.

“ I can’t see ’em comin’ down my eyes
So I got to make the song cry”

Song Cry

The song (and lyrics) itself are not so covertly hidden, but looking at the subject matter of the other songs on the album, the personal tone to this track can easily be as looked over as any lyrics in individual songs.

Hip-Hop Don’t Look The Same

A lot of the time is seen through a singular lens from the outside. I’ve seen a lot of opinion about what Hip-Hop is supposed to be and look like.

The D.A.I.S.Y Age

De La Soul, a New York Hip-Hop group unlike any other at their time, began to garner some traction in 1988 with their first few singles, they released their debut album, 3 Feet High And Rising, to an unexpected success. Like The Adventures of Slick Rick released the year prior, they introduced creativity in their story telling, combined it with humor and, created what would become a signature rap style. They weren’t the conventional sound that was coming out at the time. Their strength lied within their self-expression. They were goofy, nerdy, but most importantly they were themselves to the core. Unapologetic, proud, and catching criticism for it. It showed Hip-Hop had a sense of humour and lightness about it that could still hold the weight and thrive in that space.

Among Jay-Z’s peer group, the praise more often sided with the, bravado, and larger-than-life image. Mafioso and Gangsta rap talk about a lot of heavy topics that still carry out today. But the question is: how long can someone maintain a stoic image without any show of feelings or pain?

But Back To The Topic…

Expressing vulnerability in a genre that a lot of the time shrouds itself in bravado and toughness. What we got in 4:44 brought with it something that isn’t always associated with the genre. Vulnerability. And that can come in a variety of forms. A lot of the feedback for 4:44 has been critically positive and deemed the project as Jay-Z’s most personal effort. And at 47, it’s rare to get that kind of recognition, especially at a time when there is so much noise from aspiring rappers that something so personal can easily be overlooked or underappreciated. There’s as much detail as there is distance on the album. You get personality and distraction (often through instrumental samples) and it’s over before you realize.

So it leads me to my big conclusion: songs are complicated… Granted it’s not the most eloquent conclusion that’s gonna change your life, but it’s deeper than that. You can be a listener that hangs onto every word and try to figure out something deeper or connect the ideas presented, or be someone that’s only looking for a good beat and something to fill the silence. Either way, it makes Hip-Hop (and more broadly) music a much more complex art form than taking it at face value.

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