Jay-Z, the cautionary tale of America’s reigning rap plutocrat

Armin Rosen
Armin Rosen
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Guessing at the taste of future generations is usually a waste of time and emotion, but that’s never stopped anyone. Which artists will endure into eras we won’t be alive to see? Should we even care whether listeners in the year 2100 will have attention spans that can accommodate anything longer or more complex than TikTok? It’s a fun game, in part because everyone gets to be right—as far as they know—and also because it allows us to pretend we’re better and wiser than cretins who haven’t even been born yet.

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While the ever-haughty rock and jazz nostalgists are correct that most of today’s major hip-hop acts will rapidly melt into nothingness, poet-freaks like Ghostface Killah, folk heroes like Biggie Smalls, and Pulitzer winners like Kendrick Lamar are liable to become canonical figures with after-lives measured in decades or even centuries. Jay-Z, meanwhile, will be remembered as Beyoncé’s husband. That’s all. None of his music will survive.

Jay-Z is currently worth $1.3 billion and has achieved—or maybe mired himself in—the historically aberrant role of artist-tycoon. Unusually for a practitioner of an outsider art form, Jay has the approval of some of the most powerful people on earth. Barack Obama is a longtime Jay-Z fan, reciting his lyrics and even recording a video tribute for the rapper’s 2021 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. “I’ve turned to Jay-Z's words at different points in my life, whether I was brushing dirt off my shoulder on the campaign trail, or sampling his lyrics on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of the Selma march to Montgomery,” the former president said, calling Jay “an embodiment of the American dream.”

The roots of the coma-inducing respectability that Jay-Z has achieved were apparent in his path to wealth. Dr. Dre went into consumer electronics, Snoop Dogg became a cross-media living room staple beloved by normie America, and Rihanna is a cosmetics tycoon. Jay’s ascension to ruling-class legitimacy—which is arguably more real and more durable than that of any of the other three people I just mentioned—was instructively different.

The Jay-Z story goes something like this: In the mid-1990s, a Brooklyn drug dealer-turned rapper named Shawn Carter co-founded a record label to release his 1995 album Reasonable Doubt. Jay-Z’s debut perfectly straddled the line between gangsta rap and the more commercially palatable hip-hop of New York’s so-called Shiny Suit-era. As a result, Jay’s Rock-a-Fella records became one of the culture’s first truly home-grown media empires (or at least one of the first not to go down in a chaos of lawsuits or criminal charges). Increasingly invested in everything from movies to liquor to nightclubs and street fashion, Jay-Z also became the most reliable, the least personally self-destructive, and the most thematically balanced of the 90s rappers who became pop stars in the new century.

Jay-Z was among the first of a now-familiar type of star: a rapper who was soft and hard at the same time, and whose antisocial past somehow burnished his image as an acceptable, even slightly boring mainstream figure. It helped that his follow-up albums, The Blueprint and The Black Album, are two bonafide classics of mass-appeal 2000s hip-hop, and that Jay had the discipline, skills, and willpower to master the art of becoming an arena act at a time when rappers had a much less certain path to rock star status. It helped even more that he married Beyoncé Knowles in 2008.

The former Destiny’s Child frontwoman is the paradigmatic establishment pop-star of her time, someone whose art elegantly channels era-defining shifts in elite morals and sentiments. When Beyoncé appeared at the Super Bowl in militant attire in 2016, it signaled that the Black Panthers and black radicalism in general had gone from a morally ambiguous remnant of an inevitably self-destructive 1970s extremism to a banality, easily shoved into a new corporatized ethos of “social justice.”

Jay was never entirely comfortable with his role as male adjunct to Beyoncé, Inc: An alleged extra-marital dalliance of his inspired the 2017 album Lemonade, Beyoncé’s best solo record. Still, his wife’s stature, and her public willingness to stay married to him, freed Jay to make a series of poor decisions which cumulatively lessened his already-fading artistic legacy. He briefly became the corporate face of the hapless Brooklyn Nets; publicly courted the antisemitic Nation of Islam; boosted the rap career of the awful Jay Electronica; and contributed the worst verse of his entire life to a 2021 song with the mentally unstable Kanye West and alleged sex abuser Marilyn Manson.

Jay’s plutocratic horde of cash came at the price of submerging his own counter-cultural originality in a warm bath of momentary public acceptance. What remains from his career as a recording artist is a handful of hits that can still serve as an adrenal release for people of a certain age, specifically my age: The defiant “99 Problems,” the ecstatic “Crazy in Love.” But he is perhaps better known as a rapper who got really good at business—and as a business impresario, he’s better known for being worse at accumulating piles of money than his far more famous and important wife.

Jay-Z’s career is a cautionary tale about the temptation of the swollen pots of corporate gold at the end of the American rainbow: It is possible to create great art, and it is possible to rack up a fortune, but doing both at the same time is a feat that almost no one has been able to nail. A large-enough amount of money will make nearly anyone stupid or boring or evil, and it sucks away the incentive to take any real artistic risks. In the choice between artistic values and a perch near the very top of the American hierarchy, Jay-Z made a decision that has secured his unique position in the country’s permanent elite. But it’s one that all but ensures he’ll be a musical footnote in 50 years, and probably sooner.

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