- - Saturday, February 8, 2020

“I’m not a businessman, I’m a business … man.” So true: Forbes Magazine put the proto-rapper on a 2010 cover alongside Warren Buffett.

Thanks to his songs, albums and investments, the rapper Jay-Z, born Shawn Corey Carter in Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects in 1969, has become very seriously rich. He ranks No. 1 in album sales, ahead of — are you ready for this? — Elvis.

As Forbes put it: “Buffett, then 80, walked away impressed with the artist 40 years his junior … Less than a decade later, It’s clear that Jay-Z has accumulated a fortune that conservatively totals $1 billion, making him one of only a handful of entertainers to become a billionaire, and the first hip-hop artist … Jay-Z’s steadily growing kingdom is expansive, encompassing liquor, art, real estate (homes in Los Angeles, the Hamptons, Tribeca) and stakes in companies like Uber.”

If that’s not enough praise, now comes a respected academician to state that the rapper has not been given his due as a “literary artist,” that he deserves rock star status as a poet

“It should be clear,“ writes Eric Michael Dyson, “that JAY-Z is America at its scrappy, irreverent, soulful, ingenious best. He is as transcendent a cultural icon as Frank Sinatra [and] … as gifted a poet as Walt Whitman … When we hear JAY-Z, we listen to the incomparable tongue of American democracy expressed by a people too long held underfoot.” 

High praise, but the author, also African-American, knows his stuff; he teaches sociology at Georgetown University and has taught courses on hip hop for 15 years. A Princeton graduate with seven non-fiction books to his credit, and an opinion writer for The New York Times and the New Republic, he covers everything from politics to religion.

Mr. Dyson is well-known to seemingly all other well-known African-Americans; the book is touted by way of blurbs by such luminaries as Spike Lee, who calls Mr. Dyson “my man,” Harvard professor and television show host Henry Louis Gates, Queen Latifah and Al Sharpton, like Mr. Dyson a minister. Plus, the foreword is by the singer Pharrell.

The author does a creditable job of supporting his bold thesis and is clearly qualified to give it. I, for one, found his reasoning persuasive, especially as laid out in Chapter Three.

As the artist’s “poetic gifts,” Mr. Dyson lists his use of “braggadocio and allusion, signifying and double entendre, metaphor and homophones, centronyms and metonyms. [I told you he was a professor]. This signal honor and his towering stature also invite us to weigh his impact on hip hop and to consider what his brotherhood [with other rap artists such as] immortal MC, The Notorious B.I.G., and his beef with rap legend Nas, and his complicated relationship with rap superstar Drake teach us about ourselves and about hip hop and its reach and limits.”  

There are points at which Mr. Dyson stretches his thesis, as when he writes, “Since this is JAY– Z’s America, it is important to trace his influence on younger figures like basketball icon LeBron James and fallen rapper Nipsey Hussle, each of whom reflects Jay’s vision of hustling. It is instructive how even a few words from Jay bid us to reinterpret leaders like Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King, Jr., and to scrutinize geniuses become scoundrels like the singer R. Kelly and comedian Bill Cosby.” 

In Chapter Three’s “Politics” section, the author does a convincing job of backing up his strong claim that Jay-Z has been “an eagle-eyed social critic.” Unfortunately, because the rapper frequently employs both the N- and S- words, it’s difficult to quote him in a mainline newspaper. 

Thus, one must listen to the songs and albums again (or for the first time) and decide for oneself, which is, of course, the best way. Still, give the artist Jay–Z credit for his efforts on behalf of both poetry and social justice. May his number increase. 

“Jay is teaching in a lot bigger classroom than I’ll ever teach in. For a young person growing up, he’s the guy to learn from.” This moment, which was originally captured in our 2010 Forbes 400 package, made it clear that Jay-Z already had a blueprint for his own 10-figure fortune. “Hip-hop from the beginning has always been aspirational,” he writes.

• John Greenya, a Washington writer and critic, is the author of “Gorsuch: The Judge Who Speaks For Himself” (Simon and Schuster, 2018).

• • •


By Eric Michael Dyson

St. Martin’s Press, $25.99, 226 pages

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