A letter to Zack O’Malley Greenberg, author of ‘Empire State of Mind’

Here’s a letter I wrote to a friend, Zack O’Malley Greenberg, whose business-focussed biography of Jay-Z, ‘Empire State of Mind’ (http://jayzbook.com, Penguin, about $15) was released last month.

Zack, whom I met one night in summer 2009, when he came to pick up a some stuff we were selling on Craigslist in preparation for moving here to Glasgow, knew I had spent time in the hip hop journalism trenches and looked me up somewhat out of the blue. He basically asked me to proofread the book and flag anything which seemed like it might not check out. After gaining assurances he wouldn’t need me to do the fine-tooth fact-check, I went ahead and read it thru. The letter below is what I wrote back (slightly edited, and with a section on Beyonce added)

‘Empire’ is a great read, stuffed with characters you may have read about but never thought you’d  read an interview with (Jay’s early musical partner Jaz-O; Jay’s sommelier; and Jay’s mentor from his exhaustively-referenced pre-rap career) and the back-story to episodes you’re likely to have have only heard about in brief (a great investigation of how Cristal was jettisoned in favor of Armadale which leads Greenberg to an interview at a vineyard in southern France) if at all (the near-deal for a Jay-Z SUV in… Jay-Z blue (i.e. navy blue) a color he even went to the trouble of having trademarked)

I’ll outline the reasons for my profound dislike for Jay-Z in another post (in a nutshell; like the NY Yankees, whose cap Jay has made his signature, it’s hard to root for a perpetual overdog and a somewhat soul-less triumphalist to boot, shrewdly and unfalteringly proceeding from victory to victory. Plus he’s rap’s Bob Dylan–arguably in the best way, but definitely in the worst way. We have to hear about the man’s illustrious gifts and pioneering blah-blah-blah on a constant basis–much as anyone trying to write a song (or even listen to one) has to hear about Rock’s Great Laureate, the endlessly authentic, poetic, and protean Dylan. What must the shadow of Hova be like for young rappers today? Cold, I’d imagine, and stunting in the worst sense), but I’ll say this; I respected Hov a bit after reading ‘Empire’, and that’s saying something. Anyway, my thoughts:

“Hey Zack,

Great job, I enjoyed reading this. I am turning this in a bit ahead-of-sched but only b/c I read for almost 8 hours straight last night—the book was that engaging. I haven’t been a Jay-Z fan in the past, but this made me like him somewhat—which surprised me.

Even-handed and thorough, and I liked very much the investigative portions. With so much already out there about the man, was great to read something truly new and meet some characters in his story I didn’t know about before.

A few things circled in my mind while reading which I’m gonna throw out there, for what they’re worth, take’em or leave’em obviously.

I kept thinking about the ‘Best of Both Worlds’ tour with R. Kelly. I didn’t follow the ticket sales figures or anything like that, mostly watched the thing fall apart and then back together again via MTVNews.com (hardly an impartial source), but that near-debacle and swift recovery struck me as an impressive piece of showmanship, sharp business acumen, and steel nerves. In a nutshell, as you of course know, Jay and Kelly come up with their super-friends hip hop / R&B megatour and album. Both are at or near the top of their game (Kelly’s underage girls video scandal, astonishingly, notwithstanding).

The album drops, tour starts, then Kelly sort of freaks and starts cancelling appearances. Then the he-said / he-said thing. Then Kelly just leaves the tour.

But Jay keeps going, mustering his friends to appear on the remaining tour dates, turning it into a triumph. Whatever the real story (Kelly says people in Jay’s camp were threatening him, a gun was brandished at him from a concert crowd, etc), Jay controls the terms of the dispute, puts forward the (quite-plausible-sounding) story that Kelly couldn’t handle co-star status w/ Jay and so took his ball and went home.

And so–Jay’s not going out like that (so goes the rhetoric, borne out by his continuing on, and not canceling the tour), Jay doesn’t let his fans down, the party’s not over, Jay’s gonna keep it moving and let that weird prima dona guy mope back to Chicago.

To my mind, a deft display of PR judo, and in view of the emotional investment and loyalty that R&B singers enjoy from their audiences compared to rappers (look at the average singer’s career longevity vs. the average rapper’s right?), seems more remarkable that Jay won the day against a man (apparently) beyond any lasting condemnation by Black audiences. Talk about lemonade out of lemons—or champagne out of sour grapes, or something.

I also found myself thinking about Kanye West in relation to Jay. I wonder if there could be something about Jay-Z and visionary sidemen with loose-cannon tendencies? Damon Dash was clearly one, but Dash is a creative person by a method which contrasts to Jay’s; Dash is willing to take risks on truly risky stuff. I mean, The Woodsman is a sympathetic portrait of a child molester. He signed Samantha Ronson to Roc-a-Fella in 2003 (http://www.samantharonson.com/content/musician/bio.html), when she was just some club DJ, way before LiLo, etc. (the name on the promo CD, which I still have somewhere – Challah!). Paid in Full is, I think, an amazing film, and all Dame’s production as far as I know. Death of Dynasty, trying to make a reality show out of ODB’s return to civilian life after jail, trying to make Beanie a movie star, and hiring Cam’Ron to do anything at all were clearly missteps, but bold ones and not total failures (except for the ODB thing).

Kanye’s excesses are well-known, of course. But his visionary daring, while far surpassing Dash’s, is similar if only in contrast to Jay’s strategies. I wonder if figures like Dash and West serve as cautionary figures for him, but also ballast to the cautious nature which you illustrate he follows closely. Maybe there’s a kind of yin/yang thing there, I dunno. But Kanye, as a spectacularly gifted (I can admit; I’m an unapologetic Kanye fan), ambitious, and successful artist with a gimlet eye trained equally on how he is perceived as on how he will succeed, is by far Jay’s biggest and most interesting discovery (Rihannah is big but is she interesting?).


That Jay-Z’s greatest protegee would turn out to be a figure like West seems, to me, fascinatingly unlikely. (what could they possibly be like when they’re together? Kanye’s such an unfiltered, emotional wingnut and Jay apparently plays it so close to the vest, outwardly cocky, inwardly contemplative, watching all the angles. Are they the Mick n’ Keith of rap? And that Kanye song ‘Big Brother’? I’ll say it—there is no document in the history of hip hop anything like that song—utterly bizarre)

One other thing I think is interesting about Jay was that unlike many other celebrities and rich people generally, he seems to have become more race-conscious as he ascends into a social and economic strata in which race (only to a certain degree, but still a considerable one) matters less and less.

Jay’s being Black was always the tacit underlying fact which made his cold, canny financial success so remarkable to most Americans (unlike Eminem’s whiteness, which was obvious and “analyzed” endlessly). Even when Jay mentioned being Black he was really talking about himself exclusively, not Black folk collectively. When Jay says, “I’m the Black Sinatra,” it feels like it’s less interesting that he’s the BLACK Sinatra, but that he’s SINATRA you know? The drama and boldness come more from saying he, Jay-Z, is Sinatra—cause who would/ could make such a claim?

As he has gotten older, he’s addressed political issues and issues specific to Black America, as with the Cristal boycott, or his endorsement of Obama, sending money to aid Katrina survivors and to Haiti after the earthquake there, going to Africa and raising awareness about clean water, the Carol’s Daughter investment, and so forth. Could be my own obsession (OK, it’s totally my own obsession) but interesting that thru some (mostly charitable) projects he’s foregrounded race more than ever. Wasn’t Jay the first so -called “post-Black” rapper?

And there’s Beyoncé. The puzzle of that union seems to me not just how different she and Jay are—no surprise that opposites attract, I suppose—but the total difference between their creation myths as artists, and how they have used them.

Jay’s story is so classic it’s almost hackneyed; rags to riches, local boy made good, ashy to classy, the gangster who goes legit, etc etc—a gritty, somewhat cynical iteration of American Dream story. His success is surprising but not at all inevitable; as he once hinted, he was a rapper purely for ease of opportunity (and of course by virtue of the gift of rhyme). He could always do… something else. That oft-cited alternate option, which we all knew was a criminal one, has always buoyed his credibility by casting him almost as an accidental entertainer (and ‘real’ hip hop, as African-America’s most prominent post-Black Power art form, never deigns merely to entertain–realness extends from closeness to the source, not the performer’s distance from it).

Beyoncé’s success on the other hand was inevitable and therefore not at all surprising (not to forget, an early version of Destiny’s Child was called, amazingly, Cliché). As a friend of mine said last night, if Beyoncé hadn’t achieved success by now, she would have had to kill herself. What would have been the point of going on?

The only incident that you could say didn’t follow the Knowles family’s plan for their daughter to become a successful entertainer was when two original members of Destiny’s Child rebelled, forcing her to jettison them. But of course jettisoning every member of Destiny’s Child not named Beyoncé was always part of the long-range plan. Tina Knowles designed Destiny’s Child’s (amazingly gaudy) stage outfits and everything they wore for public appearances. Stardom was preordained; nothing was left to chance.

And yet Jay and Beyoncé’s disparate origins and backgrounds led them in opposed directions artistically. Jay has more or less been telling, and building off of, his life story for his entire career. Beyoncé on the other hand has been telling less plausible stories (‘Bills, Bills, Bills’ as she was a newly successful musician living at her middle-class home in Texas? ‘Crazy in Love’ as if one could imagine her acting anything but serenely focused, ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It),’ in which she disses an ex- and takes a new lover, a song which peaked on the charts just as she was getting married?).

And yet, as you make clear, together the two are dazzlingly, almost unfairly symbiotic in terms of brand synergy. Interesting that their art excels by such wildly differing methods. And they seem to function, to all appearances, as a union of equals; you don’t really get the sense that either is purely the other’s accessory.

Also the “God MC” thing Jay poses; how does that work? As you discuss, Beyoncé was brought up in a very observant Methodist family, which makes me wonder how her parents could possibly tolerate a potential son-in-law referring to himself, obliquely and via wordplay, as Jehovah. Baffling. Unless Tina and Mathew Knowles are as calculating as their son-in-law. But that’s probably too cynical to assume. Probably.

The book renders Jay’s somewhat bloodlessly competitive approach to life quite well. But I did wonder a little bit about his allegiance to Memphis Bleek. He’s like Timbaland’s perennial cameo-buddy Magoo—every time he turns up on an album people are asking what the hell this also-ran is doing on here you know? Bleek is such an unlikely prospect for an unsentimental gambler like Jay to (continue to) bet on. I wonder what’s up with that. Could he be the one exception to Jay’s learn’em-and-leave’em pattern? Probably reaching, but had to say it.

A thought about retiring, probably obvious; the “I couldn’t stay away / the game needs me” explanation is plausible but unlikely as the complete story. Sinatra of course, but also Prince, Bowie, and others have fake-retired when they sensed their relevance was about to expire, and it turned out to be good show business sense—and regular business sense—to close the narrative they’d built as artists, and then re-open it again at a more favorable moment.

Lastly, my theory about Jay’s first post-9/11 show; in my eyes, an odd, epic fail. Jay was one of maybe 5 people in hip hop and R&B who could have addressed that tragedy on behalf of urban music generally, and probably the only rapper at a time when hip hop seemed to be, for a while, pop’s most visible and successful genre. To fail to offer some kind of tribute or express a substantive reaction while performing in hip hop’s birthplace felt like a grave omission. Also, it opened the door for the likes of Toby Keith and multifarious forms of jingoistic schtick, probably a worse sin.

So that’s what I got. Sorry for this long-ass email, it’s a bad/good habit. Wishing you the best of luck with the book and the next phase—release parties, signings, readings, all kinds of cool stuff. Should be awesome. As Jay would say, Stay focused man!



About Mienda

Somerville, Brooklyn/Manhattan, Chicago, Glasgow, Cambridge, Philadelphia, here right now.
This entry was posted in Brilliant Discoveries, News and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to A letter to Zack O’Malley Greenberg, author of ‘Empire State of Mind’

  1. If your last post is almost a year old. Maybe it is time to post something new?

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