Anyone who's heard of Jay-Z knows he's a lyrical legend. He never writes down his lyrics, yet he's able to synthesize some of the most incisive social criticism with the most entertaining flows in a disarming and powerful way.
Though his newest releases haven't been enjoying much of the same respect, his older albums are aging brilliantly. The singles on The Black Album and Reasonable Doubt still sound as fresh as the day they dropped. Sadly, so do his social critiques. Here are eight lyrics that prove Jay-Z is one of the most brilliant social critics of our time.
1. "Say Hello"
"And if Al Sharpton is speaking for me,
Somebody get him the word and tell him I don't approve.
Tell him I'll remove the curses
If you tell me our schools gon' be perfect."
Al Sharpton is very vocal about his disapproval of rap music and its violent, curse-filled lyrical content. Jay-Z, it turns out, is also very vocal about rap music.
This is one of the most eloquent defenses of profanity in rap music. Swears are often most effective to describe the dismal realities of black people living in poverty-stricken areas. But more importantly, Jay-Z calls out Sharpton for scapegoating broader societal issues on rap.
2. "Shiny Suit Theory"
"The doc interrupted, he scribbled a prescription for some Prozac.
He said: "take that for your mustard, boy
You must be off your rocker
If you think you'll make it off the strip before they 'Pac ya"
This is a double-edged social critique. In four lines, Jay-Z invokes the abject poverty of the inner city and also calls out a culture of over-medicating. It's a dense verse, raising in rapid succession all the factors that make for a vicious cycle between poverty and mental illness.
3. "Made in America"
"I'm tryna lead a nation, to leave to my little mans
Or my daughter, so I'm boiling this water
The scales was lopsided, I'm just restoring order"
First, note that this is from before Jay-Z and Beyoncé had Blue Ivy.
Second, though, Jay-Z refuses to unthinkingly glorify his drug-dealing past like so many other rappers. Rather he justifies selling crack as a means of restoring order to the system that consistently keeps black men from achieving.
4. "Can't Knock the Hustle"
"At my arraignment screaming
All us blacks got is sports and entertainment, until we even
Thieving, as long as I'm breathing"
Two of the only industries where black men are visibly thriving are sports and entertainment. Black men as a demographic have one of the lowest representations in managerial and professional positions in the United States, and make far less in those positions than their white counterparts.
5. "99 Problems" (Verse 1)
"Rap critics that say he's Money, Cash, Hoes
I'm from the hood stupid, what type of facts are those
If you grew up with holes in your zapatos
You'd celebrate the minute you was having dough"
Rap is often used as a scapegoat for broader social problems that public figures don't want to address. Criticisms over hip-hop's "materialism" especially are popular. But Jay-Z's impassioned defense of his own materialism is pretty brilliant. There is a truly inspirational quality to luxury raps.
Raps about fabulous wealth give kids growing up in poverty something tangible to aspire to, and always — even at their most opulent — remind listeners of the rapper's impoverished origins.
6. "99 Problems" (Verse 2)
"Son do you know why I'm stopping you for
Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low
Do I look like a mind-reader sir, I don't know
Am I under arrest or should I guess some more?
Well you was doing fifty-five in a fifty-four
License and registration and step out of the car
Are you carrying a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are"
Rap music is often victim to a lot of truly terrible skits (see: Kanye West). Jay-Z's brief conversation with a police officer on "99 Problems," though, is a typically brilliant portrayal of racial profiling.
This same conflict has been driving the discussion over New York City's Stop and Frisk laws that disproportionately target blacks and Hispanics. Eighty-nine percent of contact based on the law involved non-whites. The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2005 that black drivers were more than twice as likely as white drivers to be arrested during a traffic stop and almost three times as likely to be searched by the police once stopped.
Jay-Z's verse is what it feels like to be on the wrong side of those numbers.
"The oil spill that BP ain't clean up
I'm anti-Santa Maria"
This one is pretty intense. Jay-Z equates the 2010 Deepwater Horizon BP oil spill to the blood spilled off the slave ships bringing slaves to America. Both are examples of the corporate greed that has built this country. Only Jay-Z would see the two as connected.
"Feds still lurking
They see I'm still putting work in
'Cause somewhere in America
Miley Cyrus is still twerkin'"
"People are like, 'Why's he saying "Miley Cyrus" in the song?' Don't you understand? It's hard to understand the intention behind it. Again, it uses wit and it's catchy, but the real story is about racism. The whole song is, somewhere in America, you can't teach racism when your child is connected to the culture."
So when Miley Cyrus appropriates an element of black culture, it's a sign to Jay-Z of racial integration that even a kid from a racist family will have to confront.
Perhaps that's the greatest proof of his critical brilliance. Even out of Miley Cyrus twerking, he can find a deeper meaning.