Why That JAY-Z ‘New York Times’ Interview Was a Big Deal

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As a kid, I detested it when my behavior was compared to what my peers were doing. It was arguably the most maddening part of my upbringing, which consisted of me bouncing off walls trying to avoid the worst of my parents’ ire. There was this feeling of betrayal that came every time I was compared to another kid, the one that was sitting “quietly” like I should’ve been. If that kid hadn’t calmly walked through this Macy’s aisle just now, would my parents even be getting on me? It was almost as if they were waiting for something better to come along just to put me in my place. It felt elitist and wrong, and I can vividly remember the white-hot anger that used to spread through my body whenever it happened.

When I saw the fallout following the release of JAY-Z’s 4:44—primarily from people off-put by Jay, the wealthy, mega-successful guy that cheated on Beyoncé who now had the gall to lecture regular people on how to live their regular lives—I understood that frustration immediately. I understood that knee-jerk reaction to being called out on your shit. There’s a scene in Donald Glover’s Atlanta where his character Earn defends what appears to be counterintuitive behavior by saying, “Poor people are too busy being poor” to dedicate time, energy and mental capacity to certain things. Not that criticism of Jay came solely from those dealing with poverty, but that bit of nuanced logic—that dealing with the micro was too all-encompassing to consider the macro—was a sentiment I empathized with.

But that sentiment I felt so acutely when I was a kid was one I could merely acknowledge, yesterday, not really internalize, as I watched Jay sit down with New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet. Their interview spanned the expected topics—O.J. Simpson, racism, Kanye West—and a bevy of unexpected ones, like crying and childhood interactions with bullying. The footage is truly remarkable. At first, Baquet sits alone in the middle of a large, airy, comfortable office high above the streets. For a few intimate seconds, he looks to be intensely preparing himself for his conversation with Shawn Carter. Then, the camera cuts, and in walks the smiling artist/businessman/impresario, clad in a T-shirt, leather jacket and sneakers. Save for his black slacks, he could’ve just as easily been running to Rite Aid.

It was his haircut, though, that really got to me.

As a youngster, I was taught that appearance is paramount­­—sometimes, more so than anything else. That is what a scary percentage of America will judge you by,  I was warned, and rightfully so. I was not supposed to be seen by another human being until my hair was brushed. It was frustrating. I was under the impression that the people I interacted with, mostly friends and family members, could see me without looking at my hair.

And here was this guy, JAY-Z, preparing to give what had the makings of the interview of the year to the New York fucking Times, and he hadn’t seen his barber in weeks. And you could see in his smile and eyes that he didn’t care. Before either the interviewer or the interviewee had uttered a word, this feeling of intense empowerment was already coursing through me.

That Jay admitted to being unfaithful to Beyoncé, or that he revealed that he and Kanye West have spoken since the release of 4:44, was what people were talking about on Wednesday once the interview was published, but there was something extremely satisfying about this JAY-Z interview that had nothing to do with the fascinating pop culture tidbits of information—a Mr. and Mrs. Carter joint album (!)—he dropped. Though he’d removed layers of his armor in the past, like his stellar conversation on the Rap Radar podcast, I’d never seen an interview focus so diligently on JAY-Z the person. At one point, he broke down what he believed was the science of the inescapable “‘Chu looking at?” scuffles that characterize many upbringings with a revelation that he seemed to be making sense of in real-time. “‘Why you looking at me? You looking at me?’ And then you realize: ‘Oh, you think I see you.’ You’re in this space where you’re hurting, and you think. ‘I see you, so you don’t want me to look at you. And you don’t want me to see you.’”

There was also this comment, about whether his money changes his politics: “No, because I believe in people. I want what’s best for people. I love people. You know, so I don’t have that sort of thing, like, I want to vote Republican just to save more money… That’s not the endgame. It’s not about who got more money and who got more houses. Yes, you know, you’ve earned it, buy what you want. But don’t forget what’s important. Without people, being rich would be very boring.”

And this, about “Song Cry,” one of the most deeply personal pre-4:44 songs JAY-Z ever made, which stood out as the most important part of this interview: “Yeah. I did this song called, ‘Song Cry.’ And the idea of the hook, ‘Never seen it coming down my eyes, but I gotta make the song cry,’ it tells you right there what I was. I was hiding. The strongest thing a man can do is cry. To expose your feelings, to be vulnerable in front of the world. That’s real strength.”

Since I was a child, there’s been this monotonous resource that the majority of people with money and status in America—which translates to some shoddy form of power—seem to pull from when they make public appearances. A resource that allows them to talk to mortals, but not relate or communicate genuinely with them. They sure don’t speak how JAY-Z spoke in this interview. They sure as heck don’t belittle the one thing that defines them in the public eye—their tangible success—to convey a deeper, larger point that might not benefit them or their bottom line in this lifetime.

It was more than just refreshing, watching this conversation unfold. As 2017 continues to engulf itself in a confounding mess of entitlement, ignorance, oppression and a lack of compassion, it was encouraging and sustaining to see someone with “money and power, the mecca of marriages” (to quote Jay’s Album of the Year competitor Kendrick Lamar) carry the liberating air of contrition, unafraid of corrective action.

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