There’s an old adage that says that images matter much more than facts. It’s one that the 24-hour news cycle has exploited to no end, conflating entire political movements with visuals of a burning car or convincing the American public that Ohio Governor John Kasich — at any given time of day — is stuffing his face with a cheeseburger. The Internet, too, possesses this nefarious power. In one fell swoop, an iconic figure like Michael Jordan may find himself reduced to a teary-eyed meme, just as a tragically slain gorilla may become an overnight martyr. It’s a high-stakes game that mocks the entire field of Public Relations, effectively tying a figure’s reputation to a few unfortunate stills. In 2016, a subtler form of this defamation has plagued none other than Jay Z, a man once uniquely capable of balancing corporate ambitions with chart-topping dominance and an undeniably cool exterior.
This particular issue brings into play Lemonade, a cultural moment of an album that incidentally caused a meme storm inspired by Mr. Carter’s alleged infidelity to Beyoncé. Perhaps it was the Led Zeppelin-sampling aggression of “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, the lyrical considerations of violence on “Hold Up” or the accompanying visual of Queen Bey joyously smashing car windows that did it. Regardless, Twitter exploded into a flurry of sad-eyed Jay Z memes, paired with any number of cringe-worthy and offensive captions. Whether or not its infidelity narrative is based in truth, let us not forget that Lemonade is also a product designed to make a whole lot of money, and it’s hard to imagine that marketing experts like Jay (who supposedly helped develop the story arc for the album, and released it exclusively on his streaming service) and Beyoncé didn’t anticipate such a response. However, putting this amount of attention on a figure who has remained relatively quiet in recent years brings to mind the question: What do we expect from Jay Z in 2016?
The question of what artists “owe” us, as fans and consumers, is a recurring one, typically met with some brainy think-piece concluding that they don’t owe us a damn thing. Of course, Jay Z has never been just a rapper, and throughout the last twenty years has (amidst other ventures) founded a music label, fashion line, sports agency and streaming service, accruing a net worth nearing half a billion dollars. Few people in the world, and even fewer in the music industry, have shown anything resembling his level of business acumen. “I’d sell fire in hell / I am a hustler, baby, I’ll sell water to a well,” he rapped on 2001’s The Blueprint. Jay’s unparalleled success as a businessman — and a business, man — has alternately acted as the inspiration for and the downfall of his musical output. His best albums (Black Album then Blueprint, fight me) leveraged his success as a source of melodrama, blowing his life story up to the stuff of legend while employing his charisma to help you feel like you still know the guy.
Jay’s worst projects, in turn, feel coldly corporate — uninspired victory laps designed to sustain a brand rather than serve as artistic expression. His most recent album, 2013’s Magna Carta… Holy Grail, brought this recurring downfall to a new extreme. It featured a man who once convincingly referred to himself as “the black Che Guevara with bling on” rapping endlessly about the number of Rothkos in his home, effectively insulating himself in a bubble of mega-wealth. On 2011’s collaborative album Watch the Throne, partner-in-rhyme Kanye West tempered this tendency, and the result was some of Jay’s best and most personal music to date.
Throughout his career, Jay has faced an almost unmatched level of vitriol for his financial success in corporate ventures. This partially stems from the unbalanced expectations we hold of black celebrities, but also a perception of rap’s regionalism as an art form. A quick Google search reveals any number of writers ready to criticize Jay’s relationship to his hometown of Brooklyn. It’s a criticism he’s responded to a number of times over the years, perhaps most succinctly to Howard Stern in 2008: “You don’t have to be sitting on a bench in Marcy projects to represent the culture.”
So, what do we expect from Jay for the rest of 2016? A string of guest verses and a surprise single released over the summer — ranging from meh to great — suggest he’s dipping his toes back into the music game. Perhaps it’ll be a stellar career retrospective like Dr. Dre’s Compton, or maybe just another Holy Grail. Regardless, the critics will be ready.
Chris Stanton is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Extremely Terrible, and Such Small Portions appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.