A bona fide and even passive hip-hop fan may encounter a time (numerous times) when their opinions rattle their consciousness as they seek both entertainment and enlightenment. The tension of firming up your musical identity sways you partisan as you pick a side on not one but two fronts, intellectual and emotional fancies. My childhood bias for Nas has transitioned into adulthood and I have to negotiate emotions and facts. When we evaluate artists and their work, there is a shaky foundation of objectivity. Outside of record sales or syllable counts there are no statistics to assess, and your interpretations sprout from your unique experiences: you heard a song, you read a book, and maybe smelled a distinctive scent while simultaneously doing both. Recently I succumbed to a spell of hip-hop piety, deference to “Gnozir the Gawd” at the expense of ridiculing Jay-Z, as a result of reading Carter G. Woodson’s The Miseducation of the Negro. One excerpt from it compelled me to call on Jay-Z and Nas’ feud from 2001, with some insight from 68 years prior, and forced me to examine their contemporary presence. So, I threw this together with some help from Carter G.
“Play up before the Negro his crimes and shortcomings”
Rappers have emphasized crime, its effects, and their own involvement in everything from robbery, homicides, and drug peddling for quite some time. Though there are plenty of rappers who claim to have done the latter, Jay-Z almost seems to be praised for leveraging such a lifestyle to fund a self-made business, garnering artistic and economic success. Now, I’m not completely knocking him for this because surely there are plenty of other non-African-American businessmen who have done the same and to me it sure does beat a messy and perhaps inaccessible bank loan. But it almost seems like the public respects him (outside of artistry) that much much more because of a shady past turned starburst. Nas, or “Nas Escobar,” depending on which of his albums you’re listening to, is certainly not exempt from the drug talk. I just don’t think he has highlighted criminal activity from an autobiographical perspective in the way Jay-Z has. And the public perception of Nas seems far from even defaulting him as a criminal in the same way. Much less do we interpret his past life as using criminality, in part, to catapult himself into mainstream music (see Roc-A-Fella Records).
“Let him learn to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Latin and the Teuton”
I’m presupposing that Jay-Z thought naming his latest album after two random historical artifacts somehow puts it on par with their significance. What remote relationship do Jay-Z, the Magna Carta, and the Holy Grail even share? But I get it, “Magna Carta” and “Holy Grail” make the product seem more prominent and what in America could be more revered and accepted than Greco-Roman culture when you want to exude a legendary feel? He may as well have thrown in the Rosetta Stone for good measure. At least that would acknowledge ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and thereby some extent of “Africanness.”
Now ask yourself, where does your fidelity to art’s “sound” representation of history lie? Is Jay-Z miseducated? If he admits it, will we ever get an album cover that looks like this?
But then irony rears its head as we’re reminded of what can be construed as either profane and audacious for the purpose of publicity or social awareness advocacy. Both artists, due to art’s sheer subjectivity, can and will endure their share of condemnation. Yet it all seriousness, pitting two men against each other while criticizing one or both hardly results to anything constructive. The chasm is a playground for a long storied matchup that, in this context, is no more than mere banter.