Is Jay-Z Falling Out of Love With the American Dream?

A couple of years back, Flavorwire ran a feature picking out ten of the 21st century’s most influential musicians. In retrospect, some of the selections were… adventurous, perhaps, but we stand by the choice of the man at the top of the list: Jay-Z. The key point about his influence on the music world is that it hasn’t always had a great deal to do with music — as I wrote at the time, “Jay-Z has defined the idea of the hip hop mogul, a man as much entrepreneur as musician.” With his new album Magna Carta Holy Grail out this week, it seems a good time to explore that idea further.

In the very first line of his excellent book on the history of hip hop and commerce, The Big Payback, Dan Charnas describes the genre as “an American success story.” It’s an astute observation, because it’s not just that in the space of a generation, hip hop has grown from the backblocks of the Bronx to be the single most commercially successful musical genre in the world — it’s that it’s done so in a manner that holds up a mirror to the American dream.

The idea of artist-as-businessman has always been central to hip hop culture. There’s never been the stigma around “selling out” in hip hop that there is in rock ‘n’ roll. Indeed, selling out, hustling to get paid, was kinda the point. It makes for an interesting contrast between two of the most successful popular music genres of the late 20th and early 21st century, because rock ‘n’ roll has always remained largely beholden to ’60s countercultural ideas: if rock wanted to stick it to the man, rappers were more interested in becoming the man. If rock revolved around a mythology of changing the game, hip hop has always been more about winning the game.

This isn’t a criticism of hip hop, necessarily. The whole idea of condemning artists for “selling out” can become juvenile and asinine, as demonstrated amply in Dave Eggers’ enduringly spectacular takedown of an interviewer for asking him, “Selling out… good? Bad?” It’s fundamentally bourgeois, too — if you’re hustling for every dime, and you don’t have a well-off family to bankroll your musical endeavors, then you don’t really have the luxury of emoting about whether your highfalutin artistic ideals will allow you to take cash from a certain record company or not.

And so, from its earliest days, being able to monetize your art, to get paid, is something that hip hop has celebrated. Listen to the title song of Eric B and Rakim’s classic Paid in Full, for instance, which involved the duo spending the first minute of the track analyzing their various business associates and management structure. No rock band ever did that.

The fundamental philosophy behind these ideas — the self-made man, the notion that you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps — is, of course, the American Dream by another name. For the classic American myth of Wild West you can substitute the ghetto; both are mythologized as proving grounds of merit, Hobbesian jungles of anarchy out of which the strong and meritorious emerge. As Mos Def once pointed out, this is the business where you either get paid or get shot.

In this vein, Charnas’ book starts by tracing the history of Harlem and Sugar Hill, the black neighborhoods that gave rise to the earliest flickerings of what would eventually evolve decades later into hip hop culture: “Harlem also gave rise to an aspirational class who held forth the Hamiltonian dream of an equal society where one’s position was decided on merit, not on lineage or the color of one’s skin; where ingenuity and hard work trumped race.”

That dream soured, obviously, but the idea that ingenuity and hard work are the keys to success endured, re-emerging in hip hop as the concept of the hustle, a trope that’s as important to rap culture as the flow. It’s perhaps because of this that generally, hip hop has never been particularly left wing or socially progressive, certainly not in comparison to other genres that have emerged as the ostensible voice of an underprivileged class — after all, hip hop’s business focus and mythologization of the self-made man are pure Republicanism. (Again, this isn’t necessarily a criticism; like the Republican Party itself, these ideals have become subverted and co-opted by demagogues to their own ends, but they’re not fundamentally bad.)

It makes perfect sense that a genre so innately tied to ideas of materialism and commerce would eventually give birth to someone like Jay-Z, a full-fledged hip hop entrepreneur. Revealingly, he once described his brands as “an extension of me,” and indeed, his roles as businessman and artist have been inextricable for at least a decade, maybe longer.

He wasn’t the first, of course — in the late ’90s there was Diddy (then known as Puff Daddy), and further back impresarios like Russell Simmons — but he was the man who elevated the idea to an entirely new, more public level. He was both rapper and mogul, when even Diddy was really only a glorified record company exec who delighted in rapping on his protegés’ tracks (something that his West Coast rivals, meanwhile, delighted in ridiculing.)

Jay-Z transcended all of that, emerging as a sort of post-millennial embodiment of the American Dream. Michael Bloomberg wrote about him for Time, for Chrissakes, calling him proof that “the American Dream is alive and well.” Others have followed — Pharrell, for instance, with his clothing lines and his jewelry and furniture and TV channel — but Jay-Z was the first and remains the most successful.

These days, he and Beyoncé are so widely respected that they’re practically coated in Teflon. Can you imagine how much any other artist would get ridiculed for selling a million copies of a new record to Samsung before it was released, or rewarding loyal fans with a minute-long snippet of a new song in the form of a fucking Pepsi commercial? But for these two, as EPMD might have said a generation ago, it’s strictly business.

But could Jay-Z be rethinking his romance with aspirationalism? Based on what we’ve heard of Magna Carta Holy Grail so far, it seems to chronicle a dissatisfaction with the result of all this American dreaming. “Holy Grail” complains about paparazzi and notes that “this fame hurt,” while “Heaven” swipes a line from Michael Stipe and suggests that Jay-Z is “losing [his] religion.”

Of course, the old ideals haven’t entirely disappeared — the recently released lyrics to “Picasso Baby” catalog the various painters whose work Jay-Z wants to own, and notes “Marble floors/ Gold ceilings/ Oh what a feeling/ Fuck it all, I want a billion!” Most tellingly, “Crown” notes that “Wasn’t for the bread, probably be dead… all knives be double-edged.”

In this respect, the record’s not unlike Kanye West’s Yeezus, which makes sense given the connection between the world’s two biggest hip-hop stars. As Lou Reed wrote yesterday about West in his Yeezus review, “He’s trying to have it both ways — he’s the upstart but he’s got it all, so he frowns on it.” It seems it’s the same for Jay-Z, the man who’s the logical conclusion of this particular iteration of America’s great cultural myth. Jay-Z’s gotten everything he ever wanted: the money, the fame, the girl. He’s won the game. But is it enough?