The Mythologizing of Jay Z, or Why the World Decided to Stop Worrying and Love the Rap God
We have, it seems, reached peak schadenfreude.
On Monday morning, the Internet lost its collective marbles when TMZ unleashed an audio-free 3.5-minute elevator cam video of Solange Knowles, the sartorially fresh sister of Beyoncé, giving the business to her brother-in-law, Jay Z. In the clip, the younger Knowles is seen slapping, kicking, and berating the man formerly known as Shawn Carter while Queen B looks on, barely batting an eyelash. The incident allegedly occurred at the Standard Hotel in downtown New York following a MET Gala after-party, and the trio is all, fittingly, dressed to the nines.
The obvious question it raised, aside from exactly why the public salivates over seeing the very celebrities they build up be knocked back down, is this: What did the 44-year-old icon do that set lil sis off to the point where she went H.A.M. on his white Givenchy Haute Couture tux in a hotel elevator?
Perhaps we’ll never know—nor should we?—the answer to that. But it also raises another question, one that the pop culture intelligentsia has been tormenting themselves over for years: Why have the powers that be (no, not the “Illuminati”) put Jay Z up on a pedestal?
Now, America loves a good redemption story. Heck, we let an ex-boozehound halfwit run the country for eight years. And Jay Z’s rags-to-riches tale would make Horatio Alger wet his trousers. A child born in the Marcy Houses—a sketchy housing project in BedStuy, Brooklyn— raised (along with his three siblings) by a single mother after their father jumped ship with a preternatural gift of gab who rises to become the world’s preeminent rap mogul. “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man,” he rapped.
But everyone’s favorite homophone-happy MC, who rides the subway with adorable old ladies, has a long, troubling history that’s been all but erased from our collective memory.
There are the early tales. According to an interview with The Guardian to promote his memoir, Decoded, when Jay Z was 12, the Brooklyn rapper shot his older, drug-addicted brother over a stolen ring. His brother, thankfully, survived and refused to press charges.
“I thought my life was over. I thought I'd go to jail forever,” Jay Z’s said of the shooting. In his teen years, he’s admitted to dealing drugs, recently telling Vanity Fair, “I mean, I know about budgets. I was a drug dealer.”
But let’s give Jay Z the benefit of the doubt and chalk these adolescent indiscretions up to his near-impossible surroundings. (Jay Z's representative did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
Jay Z made waves when, in 2012, he vowed to drop the word “bitch” from his rap vocabulary in the wake of the birth of his daughter, Blue Ivy, offering a vaccine for the hip-hop world’s rampant misogyny. The stance, however, lasted about as long as his pseudo-retirement. But the fact that one of his favorite words is “bitch” is nothing compared to another video that went viral this year. Around the time of the release of his second album, 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. I, Jay Z sat down for an interview with 2 Live Crew’s Luther Campbell. But this isn’t any normal interview. Next to Jay Z, a topless woman is seen performing oral sex on top of another topless woman, while the two giddy rappers laugh and look on. If that isn’t the height of female objectification, I don’t know what is.
Pretty bad, right? Well, that’s nothing compared to the time Jay Z stabbed someone.
In 1999, following a listening party for his album Vol. 3… Life and Times of S. Carter, Jay Z and his crew headed to the Kit Kat Club on West 43rd Street in Manhattan where, according to the New York Daily News, the rapper “made a beeline through the crowd” and stabbed Lance “Un” Rivera.
“Words were exchanged with Un,” Arnold West, an independent record producer, told the Daily News. “Then the thing just broke loose.” A member of Jay Z’s posse allegedly “hit Lance over the head with a bottle,” added West, “And then Jay-Z stabbed him with a knife, 8- or 9-inch knife, he stabbed him in the back.”
Two years later, Jay Z pleaded guilty to the stabbing in a New York criminal courtroom, and was sentenced to three years probation.
“No disrespect, because I’m a fan, but nobody brings up the fact that [Jay Z] stabbed somebody and sold drugs,” woman-beater Chris Brown later complained to JET magazine. “He gets a pass.”
In 2000, one year after the stabbing incident, Jay Z appeared in a concert film titled Backstage—a behind-the-scenes look at the rapper’s 1999 “Hard Knocks” tour with DMX, Method Man, Redman, and Ja Rule. A clip from the film shows Jay Z, flanked by his entourage, walking down a corridor when a petite woman wielding a camera confronts him. When she does, Jay Z appears to get upset before being shown slapping and shoving the woman in the face. “Chill! Come on, just chill!” a woman’s voice can be heard yelling in the background:
A spokesman for Jay Z later told the New York Daily News that the person in the video was “someone who [Jay Z] has worked with for years” and that “they were just horsing around.”
Then, in 2009, Jay Z “wrote a letter to a federal judge offering employment to a jailed cocaine trafficker for whom the star once reportedly worked as a street-level crack dealer,” according to court documents obtained by The Smoking Gun.
In the letter to Judge Benson Legg, the rapper laid out a post-prison plan for Emory Jones, who was sentenced in January 2000 to 16 years in prison for running “a large crack cocaine ring headquartered on Maryland’s Eastern Shore” along with DeHaven Irby, “a close boyhood friend” of Jay Z’s, according to TSG. The letter states that there’s a $50,000 job offer for Jones to fill the role of executive assistant at Roc Apparel Group, a clothing company owned by Jay Z, and was included as part of a sentence reduction motion filed by Jones. When Emory was released in 2010, a Maybach met him at the prison gates, according to NME.
There’s also the issue of his charitable donations—or lack thereof. In 2012, according to tax records for Jay Z’s Shawn Carter Scholarship Fund examined by The Daily, while Jay Z earned approximately $63 million that year, it was reported that he donated the minimal amount of $6,431. That same year, actor-turned-activist Harry Belafonte spoke out against Jay Z, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay Z and Beyoncé, for example.”
Jay Z’s response was… puzzling, to say the least.
“I’m offended by that because first of all, and this is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity,” the rapper told Rap Radar’s Elliott Wilson. “Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation, and outside of America, is enough.”