There’s a lot of “new” happening in JAY-Z’s life these days. There’s the new stylization of his name (again); a new champagne; two new babies; a new confessional album that some are calling his best work; and a new website, Life + Times.
All this newness began in April, when Armand de Brignac, the centuries-old Champagne brand JAY-Z purchased in 2014, launched its Blanc de Noirs Assemblage Two, aka A2. Each of the 2,333 silver-coated bottles has a stunning hand-hammered pewter French ace of spades logo on the label, a hand-engraved disgorgement date and number, and a price tag of $850.
It seems a safe bet that JAY-Z opened a couple of bottles of the bubbly to celebrate the arrival of his new daughter and son, Rumi and Sir Carter, on June 13.
Almost two weeks later, on June 30, JAY-Z released his new album, 4:44, in response to Beyoncé’s hugely success 2016 tell-all album, Lemonade, and her raw and honest “Hold Up”video, where in a whisper filled with pain she asks if her husband is cheating on her.
The reason 4:44 is garnering such praise is that the tough and usually stoic JAY-Z has been replaced by an authentic, vulnerable and contrite JAY-Z, who bares his apologetic soul in two tracks — “Kill Jay Z,” and the cover song and video “4:44.”
In “4:44,” the word “apologize” appears seven times starting with “I’m letting you down every day / Why do I keep on running away? / Look, I apologize, often womanize / Took for my child to be born, see through a woman’s eyes.”
JAY-Z has a long list of regrets. He says he sucks at love, and he needs a do-over. He says he falls short of what he says he’s all about, that he would die of shame if his children didn’t look at him the same, and what good is a ménage à trois when you have a soulmate?
Those remorseful admissions remind me of the sensitive, open, unguarded JAY-Z I had the pleasure of meeting back in December 2007 when I spent an hour interviewing him in Las Vegas.
I remember being so nervous driving to the hotel, wondering how a middle-aged white woman with no rhythm, who hated rap, could possibly connect with the biggest hip-hop artist in the world. I wondered if Jay Z, as he spelled his name back then, would be open or guarded, friendly or merely tolerant.
I knew he was expecting me to ask him about his latest album, American Gangster and his sports bars, but I came for much more than that.
I wanted to crack open the door to his soul and get a sense of who Shawn Carter really was. We came from such different worlds. I couldn’t imagine growing up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn surrounded by drugs, guns and violence, anymore than I could imagine walking a mile in his Gucci shoes and being worth a billion dollars.
I wanted to know what business acumen he possessed that allowed him to go beyond hooded sweatshirts and baggy jeans to start an urban clothing brand that reportedly earned more than $700 million a year, then sell it for $204 million and retain a stake in the company.
I wanted to know how a boy from the streets developed such a stylish sophistication that GQ featured him on its cover more than once as one of its “Men of the Year.”
That’s what I was thinking as two men in dark suits, who looked like CIA agents, escorted me to the room where Jay Z was, and then stood guard outside the door.
He was sitting at a long table, and as I came close, I said a silent prayer that we would be able to transcend the generation gap, the gender gap, the race gap and the culture gap.
To my surprise, he was warm and easy to talk with. We quickly found common ground, and I knew neither of us would inflict narrow-minded labels concerning age, color or sex on each other.
When I asked him what three words best described him, he said, “laid-back, ambitious and fair,” and he said that beneath the stoic look he sported on his face was a really silly guy.
But, thankfully, he got serious and reflective when I asked who had influenced him the most. The first person he mentioned was his mom, whom he credited with giving him his work ethic.
In the song “Smile,” on his album 4:44, JAY-Z raps about the sexuality of his mom, Gloria Carter, for the first time saying, “Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian / Had to hide in the closet so she medicate / Society shame and the pain was too much to take / Cried tears of joy when you fell in love / Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her. / I just wanna see you smile through all the hate.”
Gloria Carter speaks at the end of the track saying, “Living in the shadow. Can you imagine what kind of life it is to live? In the shadows people see you as happy and free because that’s what you want them to see. Living two lives, happy, but not free. You live in the shadow for fear of someone hurting your family or the person you love.”
I can only imagine the courage it takes for a mature black woman, the mother of a mega celebrity, to come out of the closet. Especially considering the fact that sexual identity is such a hot button these days with President Donald Trump tweeting that he’s banning transgender personnel from serving in the military and reversing former President Barack Obama’s bathroom guidelines that protect transgender youth in schools.
The other person who influenced JAY-Z was his pops.
“My father and I had the greatest relationship until I was 12, and he and my mom separated. We lost touch, and I had all this anger toward him because I had looked up to him so much. … He was like Superman, and when that was broken, it changed who I was. I didn’t want to ever let people get that close to me again, so I put up a shell most of my life. … Six months before he died, we had a chance to speak. I saw him differently, and I was able to release all those things I wanted to say to him and clear the air. The conversation we had freed me.
It appears from this new album that the talk with his father didn’t free him completely, though. In the first track, “Kill Jay Z,” the pain is still evident when he says:
“Kill Jay Z, they’ll never love you / You’ll never be enough … / But you gotta do better, boy, you owe it to Blue / You had no father, you had the armor / But you got a daughter, gotta get softer … / Cry Jay Z, we know the pain is real / But you can’t heal what you never reveal … / You walkin’ around like you invincible / You dropped outta school, you lost your principles / I know people backstab you, I felt badd too / But this ‘fuck everybody’ attitude ain’t natural … / You almost went Eric Benét (referring to Halle Berry’s ex-husband who cheated on her) / Let the baddest girl in the world get away/I don’t even know what else to say / Nigga, never go Eric Benét! / I don’t even know what you woulda done/In the future other niggas playin football with your son …”
That is heavy stuff.
I remember during my interview with Jay Z, I brought up the subject of profanity, which always has been prominent in his lyrics.
Calmly and patiently, he explained the culture of rap and how it was born out of an expression of anger. He said kids tried turning the other check, and it got them nowhere, so they had to demand respect. It was that rebellious, spirited voice that came out of the neighborhoods.
“People give words power,” JAY-Z said. “In order to fix that, we have to fix that and change the racism taught at home. That’s the root of the problem, not the word. If you just remove the word and not the anger, or the sentiment, or the feeling, then you’ll just replace it with another word. If it’s not nigger, than it’s jigaboo or coon. After a while, you’re just removing words, but you’re not fixing the problem. … I talk to kids in language they know, so I can pull them close and teach them a lesson, like, this is where we’re from, but this is where we can go and what we can achieve.
People Give Words Power
I still didn’t like the vulgarity, but now I understood that each song was a novella that told a story of inequality, inhumanity, desperation and screwed-up values — a protest anthem that carried the cries of a tidal wave of people who weren’t being heard.
Not a Fan of Rap
After talking about myriad things, I asked JAY-Z one last question. What five people, dead or alive, would he invite to a dinner party? I had asked many celebrities that question, but no one ever answered it with such lightning speed.
“We’d need to have Gandhi and Martin Luther King there, so they could teach us about the purity of the soul. They were so pure, it is almost unattainable to be the type of people they were. I’ll never get anywhere close to that.
“We’d have to have Muhammad Ali, so he could teach us about fight, whether it be inside the ring or out; you now, him opposing the Vietnam War and being an outspoken black man at a time when it wasn’t cool.
“We’d have to invite Michael Jordan because he’s a fierce competitor who can teach us about fairness and not cheating because there’s a big difference between hating to lose and loving to win. … And we would absolutely need some female energy to teach us about the unspoken things that us guys are too thickheaded to figure out, so we’d need someone like Mother Teresa.”
People at a Dinner Party
JAY-Z touched me so deeply that day as we talked about the frailties and shortcomings of human beings. Before I left, I asked if I could give him a hug. I’d gone there expecting to meet someone I already had prejudged, and I left feeling like I’d had some kind of spiritual experience. I learned not to have preconceived notions about people and to recognize that the similarities we share are so much greater than the differences that separate us.
The world might have a better chance for peace if everyone could experience a moment like that.
You can read more of Marsala Rypka’s articles at celebrityscribe.com.