Politics is defined as the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power. And we all know that politics have shown their way throughout the history of hip hop music. When Public Enemy said “Fight The Power”, you know that they were speaking about the government and white supremacy. NWA didn’t shout “Fuck The Police” on their chorus for fun; there was a claim to be made about terrorism by those that police our streets. Common wrote “A Song For Assata” to cheer for a black woman that dared for revolution. Within hip hop, going political meant going against the powers that be for a better existence.
The problem within hip hop is that much of the political artform isn’t celebrated as it used to be. Long gone are the days of collab tracks like “Self Destruction” and “We All In The Same Gang”. Groups like Public Enemy are more viable toward historical revisits on Unsung. And when was the last time a politically charged hip hop album went platinum? Most mainstream rappers shy away from these types of topics nowadays out of fear, loathing, and misunderstanding.
Enter Jay-Z’s album 4:44.
When 4:44 dropped, the world was ablaze about the music and the message. After a few weeks, a simple realization set in: people were shocked to see a grown up Jay-Z. Instead of talking about reckless riches, he was trying to educate the masses on how to spend their money. Instead of talking up his masculinity, he reflected on his mother’s lesbianism. Instead of shirking his husbandly duties, he admitted to his marital follies. In the end, Sean Carter decided to be a man’s man instead of a boy’s man.
Just because Jay-Z decided to grow up doesn’t mean that he put out a political album. And that is where Greg Tate got it wrong in his article The Politicization of Jay-Z in Village Voice.
To be fair, Greg Tate wrote a wonderful piece. He did well to mention Harold Cruse’s ideas about a dynamic synthesis of politics, culture, and economics being necessary for Black America. Also, he drew parallels between Jay-Z’s idea of cooperative economics and the principle of Ujamaa. He was even right to coin the album’s overall theme: Afro-hustle-ism. More than anything, his think piece was thoroughly thought out and researched.
However, to say “4:44 is the most provocatively pro–Black Nationalist rap album since Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet,” is as intellectual as it is ill-informed. What it is ill-informed about is the music that has been created since Public Enemy’s third album.
What must be understood is that there has been plenty of provocatively pro-black albums since 1990. How can 4:44 be the most provocatively pro-Black Nationalist rap album since “Fear of a Black Planet” when Public Enemy has put out 12 albums since then? Are we going to ignore the existence of “Death Certificate” by Ice Cube, “Black on Both Sides” by Mos Def, or anything Arrested Development ever made? So, Dead Prez never comes up into this conversation? Hell, even Kendrick Lamar’s seminal “To Pimp a Butterfly” reeks with pro-Black Nationalism. To mention 4:44 in this regard should be grounds for insubordination. Especially so since it wasn’t that long ago when the streets were saying that Jay-Z had sold his soul to the devil and that he was a member of the Illuminati.
I get it: Jay-Z made an incredible turn with 4:44. However, there is no way to say that it is what it isn’t. I would be remiss to ignore the impact that this album has made on the psyche of present day hip hop listeners. What I will not do is act like hip hop hasn’t had a strong pro-Black album since 1990. With all respect to Jigga, 4:44 is impressive on economics but it is not the pro-Black album that we have been missing for the past couple of decades.