Shawn Carter is a recording artist from Brooklyn, NY. He’s known as Jay Z. He’s married to Beyonce Knowles. Their combined net worth was reportedly somewhere around “a billion” USD as far back as 2014. Amidst a rocky personal life made public (to say the least) Jay Z released a new album in July along with a few videos. This is a compositional analysis of one of those videos.
First, a preface:
I’m about to cover a pretty good distance here.
If you haven’t seen the video,
go ahead and check it out
before I get into the beans and cornbread.
It’s presented in the style of a cartoon
from the early days of cinema.
The video’s expressed themes and concepts
do not necessarily reflect my own views.
Next, the analysis:
Taking the audio and visual together as an inseparable unit, themes of perception and maturation stand out amidst an avant-garde presentation [because this is 2017]. At large, the elephant in the room here is culture. Though the stereotypical presentation of one subset of people has been chosen for this exploration, I propose that the material is not limited to one subset within America.
If at this point you’ve chosen to watch the video after you read this, I suggest that you click play and listen to the song while reading this analysis -for context.
The opening lines draw themes of separation in the sands of culture. The author gets away with these lines for several reasons, but I’ll push three- #1: He’s a black male. #2: He’s been globally regarded as a leading force in a genre tied to bravado for at least 15 years. #3: If you’re watching the video you have probably taken offense to [or have accepted the offensive nature of] something already by now -or if you’re listening to the album, you’ve already heard the rapper talk about what he perceives to be the problem with his own ego/genre/catalog in the album’s intro.
That brings me to the concept of perception. The song’s chorus centers around ‘meaningless differentiation’ while the verses tackle the task of providing an alternative perspective. I think this alternative perspective is meant to encourage maturation amongst the listener. The video serves as a point of reference.
perception -vs- maturation
It may be cliche to say that you have to know where you come from to know where you’re going, but I think we can collectively agree that there’s an argument to be made in support of that theory. The issue in America is that we all come from an estranged backstory that has been mangled over the years. In the case of African slaves, Hollywood has made the whole aesthetic very cinematic…
And, in the case of comedy, Hollywood has always thrived on cultural misappropriation. Some would argue that this has been disproportionately geared toward the sons and daughters of the slaves whose labor built this country’s economy. I’m not arguing either side of that ideal; I present the concept because this video assumes the ideal to hold true and then uses each conceivable stereotype about black culture in juxtaposition to the spoken subject matter.
Everything blends perfectly with the help of film dust.
The composition employs modern stereotypes presented in a classically stereotypical fashion to force the viewer to see financial literacy as a vehicle to advance culture at large beyond the stereotypes represented. The beauty of this mash-up rests firstly in the definition of appropriation and secondly in the afore mentioned battle of the genres inherent expectations against the writers ambition. Blatant self-criticism of the writer’s past spending habits seems to fly in the face of traditional rap bravado, purposefully. I find this to be similar to Picasso’s re-presentation of faces and angles. Picasso chose to present eyes and other facial features in such a way that you understand what is presented but do not immediately recognize it as what you have always known. This is summed up in the second verse of the song -both verbally and visually.
In a relatively short amount of time [as opposed to several centuries], the composition shows and exemplifies the very stereotypes that have lead to recent exchanges of violence shown in today’s news. Whether it’s a a turf war in a disenfranchised part town or a “justified homie-cide” for which no one serves time, the themes and their roots are presented in great detail when compared to other moments within the medium of music videos. The style and it’s nuances also enable a tongue-in-cheek presentation of more commonly seen moments within the genre of modern hip-hop. All of this comes with appropriate moments of comedy, seriousness, and thought-provoking commentary in proportions that make for a very entertaining political cartoon.
Because that’s what this is: a political cartoon.
By running toward this imagery rather than trying to create distance by visual disassociation while also reclaiming the negative connotations as trophies of overcome ideologies, Jay-Z becomes an antithesis for stereotypes and appropriation both as concepts and social constructs. I find that calling it any more (or less) offensive than any other political cartoon or any other moment of blackface [intentional or not] to be an extreme. It’s definitely not as intense as an episode of the Cleveland Show but it isn’t quite as innocent as a piece from Dr. Theo’s old exploits. Nevertheless, I think this piece is necessary to a genre that has been stripped of morality in recent years and a generation who doesn’t fully understand why Animaniacs was cancelled at 99 episodes.
Last but not least, the other elephant here deals with the idea that people are allowed to acknowledge the stereotypes of their own culture but expect others to be mindful of how they acknowledge the same ideas. This composition is an amazing example of taking things that were meant to degrade a subset of people and holding it as a medal of honor for social victories [and any wins that may be pending]. I wanted to close this with a reference to Maxine Waters latest one-liner -y’know, tying that to slavery and cultural mistreatment and misrepresentation. But I’ll just add the gif, and let you figure that out while looking for all the easter eggs in this video…