The Anatomy of a Song: The Story of O.J.

4 months ago Ricardo Hylton 0

What were you doing in the summer of 1996? Perhaps you were watching Merlene Ottey and Michael Johnson burn up the tracks in the Atlanta Olympics. Or if you were lucky you were wearing out your thumbs on the latest game console, the

Nintendo 64. If you were a hip hop head, you were nodding to Mobb Deep’s Infamous, 2Pac’s All Eyez on Me, The Fugees The Score, Nas’ It Was Written or a new rapper called Jay-Z. His debut album Reasonable Doubt was inappropriately named because doubting his lyrical dexterity was far from reasonable.

Between 1996 and 2004, he swifly took the rap game in a chokehold, that he would refuse to relinquish (Nas’ caustic Ether aside).

Volumes 1 and 2 were majestic. The Blueprint and The Black Album were transcendent. He retired then returned for an unfortunate encore. Of course there were good albums released along the way (American Gangster, Watch The Throne) but the old magic was missing. In 2013, the absolute train wreck Magna Carta…Holy Grail seemed to knock the final nail into his rap casket. I was done with Jay-Z. Then this happened: 4:44. He breathes.

 

A Phoenix Rises

There’s a perennial battle between the ‘new rap’ and ‘old rap’ worlds. In 2015, Young Thug told GQ he would “never buy” a Jay Z CD, “just because of my age and because of his age.”

Before June 30, 2017, a universal poll would have convincingly shown rap fans had no desire for another JAY-Z album. The classics have been archived. His empire is incorruptible. The record will show that after three decades, he’s earned GOAT points in every statistical category — several times over — and even grew noticeably bored repaving his victory laps.

On its surface, album number 13 appears to be yet another money-first marketing ploy, given its Sprint and TIDAL exclusivity connotations. But starting immediately with the first track, the No ID project reveals itself to be a package of apologies, damaged goods and self-humility. It’s a 10-track manifesto that barely breaches 36 minutes; 36 minutes to create the historical artifact he’s wanted to make for years, a tell-all document to be hung in the halls of rap about infidelity and outgrowing friends, the way family shapes us and the way we carry those burdens into parenthood, and about evolving into more complete versions of ourselves.

 

B****h Be Humble

Jay-Z likes to bill himself as anything but human. In his eyes, he’s hip-hop’s holy prophet, a certified billionaire and an innovator. He’s compared his work to renaissance sculptures. No sitting down, no being humble. All these things considered, his 13th album ‘4:44’ feels like a revelation. It’s a record of humility, honesty and one gigantic apology.

Beyoncé’s jaw-dropping 2016 album ‘Lemonade’ put Jay-Z on the spot, accusing him of infidelity. One year later, ’4:44’ addresses the scandal face on.

Obsessed with his own legacy but unwilling to really examine what that legacy meant; politically inclined but rarely politically coherent; and growing further out of sync with a rapidly changing hip-hop market, Jay appeared to have exhausted his bag of tricks years ago.

So perhaps the biggest surprise to be found on “4:44” is that it seems Jay-Z had gotten just as tired of Jay-Z’s crap as anyone else. Abandoning his trend-hopping tendencies, delving into matters of race and politics with newfound clarity, and turning a pitiless eye on his own failures rather than simply rehashing his accomplishments, Jay’s 13th solo set is less a return to form than a striking reinvention, and perhaps the most mature album yet released by a member of hip-hop’s Mt. Rushmore (Nas, 2Pac, Biggie and Jay-Z by my reckoning). By puncturing his own jealously guarded myth, he’s finally found a way to move forward — he had to kill Jay-Z in order to save him.

 

Legacy

“Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” That’s the hook from the last song in Hamilton, but it could just as easily be a line from Jay-Z’s 4:44. This is an album concerned with legacy—about what we leave behind, about how we’re remembered. It’s about atoning for our shortcomings and shining a light for those who follow after us. It’s a reckoning with Jay’s own legacy but also as a prescription for black excellence, a rewriting of black America’s story.

Jay-Z made 4:44 with producer No I.D., whose beats luxuriate in burnished soul and jazz samples; combined with the relatively light feature roster and the short running time, this makes for the most focused Jay-Z album since The Blueprint. It’s not surprising that, with legacy on his mind, Jay-Z would return to the sound of one of his defining albums, but what is surprising is how much fight he’s got in him. It’s been at least a decade since he sounded this engaged, delivering punch lines with gusto, allowing his voice to creak during moments of confession, varying his flow like the old pro that he is.

Every angle he creates is informed by blackness (on “Legacy” he raps,

“We gon’ start a society within a society

That’s major, just like the Negro League

There was a time America wouldn’t let us ball

Those times are now back”,

 

as “The Story of O.J.” states outright in its hook and “Moonlight” insinuates more subtly. Inside these personal revelations, one of rap’s greatest thinkers rediscovers his sharpness.

Elsewhere on “Family Feud,” he argues for black unity at home and in the community and raps:

“What’s better than one billionaire? Two

Especially if it’s from the same hue as you.”

 

It’s not exactly a progressive call for economic justice, but it’s a far cry from “Niggas in Paris,” where he and Kanye raved at being the rare black faces in a sea of lily-white plutocrats, or when he bragged about velvet rope exclusivity on Drake’s “Pound Cake” (“Less is more, niggas, there’s plenty of us”).

 

Drinking That Lemonade

4:44 isn’t JAY-Z’s Lemonade, a response to Lemonade, or a Lemonade companion piece. The album is certainly built around a betrayal, but his duplicity, the corresponding apology, and his reassessment are vehicles for his own maturation. Before, he was unfadable, the supreme hustler without error. Fatherhood has eroded some of that cool, but 4:44 deconstructs an entire worldview. This is Hov’s gospel, a Shawn Carter retrospective measuring missteps and triumphs, wondering aloud if his.

 

About “The Story of O.J.”

Jay-Z and executive producer No. I.D. establish 4:44’s sonic foundations on its second track. This is the first of many beats that build around a straightforward, unfussy loop, nodding to the early part of Jay-Z’s career when his work was a bastion of boom-bap. On “The Story of O.J.,” a bass thunks out a few ripe notes, and a flighty piano tumbles after.

The song title refers to O.J. Simpson, the former NFL running back who was accused and acquitted of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. The trial was named the “Trial of the century” due to the massive amount of public attention and scandal related to the celebrity of the accused as well as the strained relationship between the black community of Los Angeles and the LAPD. The title is also a play on The Story of O, a famous French novel written in 1954 about dominance and submission.

The song features a sample of the song “Four Women” by Nina Simone, which tells the story of four black women with different skin tones and the struggles they faced. The allusion to Simone’s four women in the chorus suggests that regardless of whether one is wealthy or poor, light skinned or dark, one’s blackness is a more relevant marker in a racist society.

 

Hip Hop Quotable

[Intro: Nina Simone]

Skin is, skin, is

Skin black, my skin is black

My, black, my skin is yellow

 

[Chorus]

Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga

Rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga

Still nigga, still nigga

 

The sample isn’t just aesthetically beautiful but profound in context. They speak when Jay is silent, often saying what he can’t. On “The Story of O.J.,” which notes the inescapable shadow of colorism, Nina Simone, whose very melanin informed her politics, sings loudly, “My skin is black.”

Snippets of Nina Simone’s voice from “Four Women” rub against Jay-Z’s conversational raps. In that song, from 1966, Simone famously narrates the tales of four different black women, all of whom are battling the effects of entrenched racism in American society. Jay-Z uses a similar conceit for his jumping-off point: “Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga,” he raps. Jay-Z adds an assertion of unity across these factions – “still nigga.”

It reminds me so much of Samuel L. Jackson’s most despicable character in Django Unchained, ‘Stephen my boy.’ House Negroes doing arithmetic and completing ledgers thinking he/she is someway elevated above the common field Negro was severely mistaken then and is still severely mistaken today. Jay, with a little help from Miss Simone, captures this reality beautifully here.

 

Hip Hop Quotable

[Interlude]

O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” …okay

Here, he disputes O.J. Simpson’s famous statement about being able to escape the color of his skin. “O.J. like, ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J.,’ Jay-Z notes.

He responds with a noncommittal verbal shrug: “OK.” There’s a sarcastic pause where you can almost hear him rolling his eyes. This silence lands as crispy as mummy’s Sunday French fried chicken legs. “Okay,” he shrugs, and moves on.

Jay-Z is more feisty and playful here, considering the downfall of famous black men even as he counts his money and swears to do better by his family.

 

Hip Hop Quotable

I told him, “Please don’t die over the neighborhood

That your mama rentin’

Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood

That’s how you rinse it”

 

This is straight up repeat, head-nodding-in-approval music here. Whether Blood or Crips or other drug and political rivals in Kingston, Johannesburg, London or Paris, I’ve always wondered why are we fighting over turf we don’t own? We don’t own property there. In London, for example, there are postcode gangs going to war over land they don’t own. The remedy? Black entrepreneurship.

Hip Hop Quotable

Wish I could take it back to the beginnin’

I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo

For like 2 million

That same building today is worth 25 million

Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo

 

On “The Story of O.J.,” Jay speaks from experience and creates a priceless doctrine that outlines the differences between riches and wealth, and how race and upbringing play a huge factor in obtaining financial literacy. If we don’t invest in creative thought and wealth creating mechanisms, then we will stay poor.

Hip Hop Quotable

You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit

Realness [Self-Explanatory]

 

Hip Hop Quotable

Financial freedom my only hope

Fuck livin’ rich and dyin’ broke

I bought some artwork for 1 million

2 years later, that shit worth 2 million

Few years later, that shit worth 8 million

I can’t wait to give this shit to my children

Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine

But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99

 

And while he may be at his most unguarded here, Jay-Z’s interest in black capitalism, and the monetization of black celebrity excellence as a means to enhance personal wealth hasn’t dimmed. However, he now seems to acknowledge that self-help strategies are not a panacea for the world’s ills.

The move makes sense given that Jay’s defining principle has always been freedom through commerce. He does make the mistake of conflating his own business conquests with a scalable solution for economic inequality and white supremacy, which is both idealistic and naive. But his sustainable-wealth tutorials never come off as preachy and there are still lessons to be learned about prosperity and advancement, particularly when read as a self-help guide for rap stars.

 

Are We Being Played?

From a cynical point of view, it’s suspiciously convenient to see hip-hop’s most talked-about soap opera played out exclusively on a streaming platform that Jay Z himself owns. Every ‘OMG!’ talking point puts more money in his pocket. Are his fans being played? Possibly. But the fact remains: as a direct, firework-filled admission of past mistakes, ‘4:44’ couldn’t be more watertight.

His black capitalism manifesto “The Story of O.J.” isn’t necessarily packed with new ideas—the conspiracy theory of Jews owning all the property reappears as a sour note—but the off-beat asides and use of space gives JAY-Z’s thoughts some definition.

Of course, for all his exasperating bluster, Jay has always made room for moments of genuine introspection — the ghoulish self-reckoning of “D’Evils,” the bitter sarcasm of “You Must Love Me” — but never has he allowed himself to stand so nakedly unguarded.