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Nashville Scene Over the Top

Jay-Z's dazzling, if disturbing, hip-hop is fraught with fear and paranoia

By Ron Wynn

MARCH 28, 2000:  Variations of the expression "getting over" have long been part of the African American vernacular. The phrase can convey spiritual (and political) liberation, as in the gospel (and Freedom Movement) standard "How I Got Over." It can have socioeconomic connotations, alluding to everything from prosperity ("moving on up," la The Jeffersons) to survival ("just getting by"). And it can refer to working a scam or exploiting something or someone, as in the case of the drug-dealing protagonist of Superfly.

In his book, From Behind the Veil A Study of Afro-American Narrative, literary critic Robert Stepto subsumes these meanings under the concept of "ascent," the impulse to transcend one's circumstances, to achieve freedom and a better life. Ascent hinges on learning the game, on knowing the rules, both written and unwritten, and on being resourceful enough--as Br'er Rabbit was with Tar Baby and the briar patch--to play them to one's advantage.

But "getting over" also has its pitfalls: In gaining the upper hand, players can just as easily lose their self-respect, sever ties to their communities, or sell their souls, as Robert Johnson is said to have done at the crossroads. It's an old story, of course, and it's hardly the province of black America. But from black folk tales to the real-life tragedies of rappers 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G., the precarious relationship between freedom and bondage inherent in the notion of getting over has occupied a central place in the consciousness of many African Americans.

Take, for example, Jay-Z's new album, Vol. 3...The Life and Times of S. Carter. The twentysomething rapper demonstrates awesome mastery as an MC and producer: His beats and rhymes can hold their own with any being made today. He rules at the cash register as well. Life and Times recently debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart; its predecessor, Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life has sold more than 5 million units.

But for all his success and command, Jay-Z (a.k.a. "Jigga" or "Jiggaman") portrays life at the top as a world fraught with fear, paranoia, and the constant threat of betrayal. Granted, he comes by this perspective honestly; he got over by clawing his way up from the mean streets of Brooklyn. And part of this posturing can be chalked up to the requisite burlesque of gangsta rap. But even factoring in the inevitable cartoon quotient, and the obvious allure of living large, Jay-Z depicts life as a rap kingpin as a trap from which there's no way out.

A "product of Reaganomics" is how the rapper, born Sean Carter, describes himself on his new album. This isn't idle chatter. With the profits from his last two discs, Jay took the Reagan-era mantra "money's all that matters" and built a multimillion-dollar empire that includes his own Roc-A-Fella record label and a line of clothing and sundry swag. And he's just getting started. "You about to witness a dynasty like no other," he boasts on the bumpin' infomercial "Pop 4 Roc," as his protégés Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, and Amil (all of whom have albums out or due out on Roc-A-Fella) take turns on the mic.

Jay's music is as dazzling as his meteoric rise to fame. Diamond-hard beats and indelible hooks abound, salted by turns with ballistic guitar riffs and symphonic flourishes that consist of everything from Middle Eastern reveries to horror-flick ready-mades. An occasional Southern bounce dirties the mix, such as the Timbaland-produced "Snoopy Track" featuring Juvenile. But mostly, Life and Times is pop-wise and unrelenting--as in-your-face (and misogynistic) as Eminem's Dr. Dre-produced debut. Ditto the Jiggaman's inexorable flow. "Used to rap to the raindrops off my window pane," he crows, exulting in his lexical prowess on "Hova Song." His verbal barrages on "So Ghetto" and "Do It Again" bear him out.

At the chilling heart of Life and Times is Jay-Z's megalomania, his all-consuming obsession with wealth and power. Make no mistake, music matters to him, especially when it comes to cutting other MCs. But rapping is just a means to an end. Ultimately, Jay appears to measure his life and worth in material terms--terms that he thought he dictated but now, by his own admission, control him. "My soul is possessed by d'evils in the form of diamonds and Lexuses," he confesses on "D'evils."

Such possession often betokens physical violence. Witness "Come and Get Me," on which he warns, "I made my way hustling, I don't owe niggas shit/I'm paranoid now, so I keep the gun gripped." Then, going on to inventory the Glocks he's got cocked and loaded, he adds, "I got shots to give/Come and get me, nigga." These aren't just verbal salvos: Chrome and fear figure in just about every track here. And as the above lines attest, Jay dreads his friends and fellow rappers as much as he does the powers and principalities that he believes are conspiring against him.

Of course, some of this is pro forma gangsta shit, and Jay plays the role of thug to the hilt. But on "Dope Man," the album's centerpiece, he blurs all lines between fantasy and reality, staging a courtroom drama that anticipates his own upcoming trial. (In December, he was charged with assault with intent to kill for stabbing a fellow MC in a Manhattan nightclub.) Here, however, he gets off--er, over--by taking the witness stand and selling himself as "a prisoner of circumstance"--that is, by talking his way out. "Your honor, I no longer kill my people/I raise mine/The soul of Mumia [Abu-Jamal]/In this modern-day time," he claims, his voice betraying no hint of dissonance.

Jay-Z often makes like a martyr-survivor, and this grandiose self-mythologizing may be the only card he has left to play; if convicted, he faces up to 25 years in prison. But even if he does walk, it would still seem that getting over has gotten the better of him. The rapper appears to be yet another example of how, as historian Peter Guralnick (by way of William Carlos Williams) observed of Elvis Presley, "the pure products of America go crazy."


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