Michael Eric Dyson on Jay-Z, Nipsey Hussle, Prince and the Evolution of Genius
The first time I heard a Jay-Z song on New York’s infamous Hot 97, I asked my sister “who put their cousin’s demo on the radio?” It was not my idea of genius. When I heard “Hard Knock Life” the first time, I thought he lost his mind. The song grew on me, eventually, but I still struggled with why he was sampling showtunes. Not genius, in my book. Then I started paying attention to his business moves. Now, that began to resonate with me. That is the kind of genius Michael Eric Dyson writes about in his latest work, Jay-Z: Made in America and that was the subject of our discussion.
Dyson says the inspiration for his book was the genius it takes for Jay to use the words he does to convey meanings that relay his streams of political, social, and economic consciousness in a way that doesn’t sacrifice the cadence of the rhyme. This is not an easy feat to accomplish for many rappers for whom the dual task of storytelling and keeping the tempo can prove to be a challenge. For this Jay has perfected the blueprint. He’s so respected in his craft that few dare to challenge him. This has remained true for a little over a decade.
There will always be the question as to whether Jay-Z will ever step aside and exist as a living legend as have many before him in the music business. But there is a difference between building a legacy as opposed to just being a legend and I contemplated as to whether he could do both successfully the way an artist like Prince had. Dyson said when it comes to the two, “it was a matter of genius recognizing genius” and that “Prince had a lot of respect for Jay in terms of what he was doing with “ownership of one’s art” and master recordings, giving artists more than the industry standard of the royalty share they deserve for what they put into their craft. Essentially, Jay lived up to Prince’s mantra “Own your masters or the master will own you.”
The same “masters” don’t just control the boardrooms, they also control our communities and destabilize our neighborhoods which is why Jay saw a certain genius in Nipsey Hussle who Dyson says “understood the need for the hustle, but better understood the need for neighborhood empowerment and black and brown entrepreneurship. He saw the devastating effects gentrification was having on the neighborhoods.”
The idea, then was to gentrify a neighborhood from the inside out—revitalize it using the talent and people already living in the community to turn it around by providing opportunities, access, training and most importantly, investment capital. Jay and Nipsey both saw how community and identity are intrinsically linked to humanity and when communities of color come face to face with “bigotry and antiblack, anti-brown sentiment,” the people in those communities are treated as less than human. In Nipsey, Jay saw someone using their platform to restore black folks’ humanity as Prince saw the same in Jay — “genius recognizing genius.”
I explained to Michael Eric Dyson that I would be remiss if I did not ask about R. Kelly. He is the ultimate example of what happens when genius becomes corroded, corrupted and perverted. I was curious as to Dyson’s thoughts about Jay-Z’s relative silence about him, this year in particular since the documentary came out in January. I asked what to take from that because as a black woman who experienced my own trauma it is hard to understand the silence.
“He doesn’t have to keep reaffirming who he is, he already knows. He has evolved from the hustler to artist to husband and father. He stopped the tour with him, he cut off all contact and I wrote explicitly about this in detail in Mercy, Mercy Me. Would we rather have him just say that he denounces R. Kelly and his behavior or would we rather see him doing the renouncing?”
In hindsight, I have follow up questions. However, I make no judgment about this response as I figured out I am still processing it because it is a viewpoint I had not considered. It’s like saying it was a “perfect” call but still saying “can you do me a favor, though.” Something in the water does not compute. You say one thing, but your actions are to the contrary.
Dyson, to his credit, offers the 4:44 album as proof that his bond is in his deeds, not just in his words. How Jay-Z looks at women has evolved as well and we should look to his most significant relationship (with wife Beyonce) to see this evolution in progress.
And that is the message Dyson wants to leave you with — the inevitability of evolution. Genius always comes full circle. At the age of 50, as a newly-minted billionaire, husband, father, and man, Jay-Z’s genius is in just being unapologetically himself.
Jay-Z: Made In America (St. Martin’s Press) was released November 26 with foreword by Pharrell.