It’s been four months since Moonlight won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Though a celebratory moment for director Barry Jenkins, it was also marred by controversy, as the award for Best Picture was initially awarded to La La Land when the wrong card was read. The moment came at the conclusion of a heated awards season where the two films were pitted against one another: Moonlight represented a new direction Hollywood could take, honoring a queer film by a black filmmaker, while La La Land appeared to be a self-congratulatory celebration of Hollywood’s past. Those portrayals were painted rather broadly, with a slant toward Moonlight, but regardless, lines were drawn amongst critics and Oscar voters alike.
Thought it’s mostly been forgotten as awards season chatter is on hiatus, JAY-Z brought back all the memories of that night with the track “Moonlight” on his 13th studio album, 4:44. Over a sample of Teena Marie’s “Ooo La La La” (most famously used on The Fugees’ “Fu-Gee-La”), JAY-Z raps: “We stuck in La La Land, even when we win, we gon lose.” Lest you think the track’s name and the reference to La La Land were coincidental, the iconic MC explained his intent on iHeartRadio: “It’s like a subtle nod to La La Land winning the Oscar, and then having to give it to Moonlight. It’s really a commentary on the culture and where we’re going.”
So what’s the culture Jay is referencing? Is it Hollywood culture? Hip-hop culture? Or the state of American culture at large? A mix of all three, most likely. The “even when we gon win, we gon lose” explains the fact that Moonlight won the Oscar, sure, but whenever the film’s win is brought up there’s always going to be a joke about La La Land. It was a punchline for weeks after the Oscars, and it’ll no doubt be parodied at next year’s ceremony. Which is all well and good, but it’s a reminder that black accomplishments often come with caveats. It’s a reminder that in order to be properly venerated, Moonlight had to be pitted against a white film to entertain Hollywood’s lust for a cage match.
JAY-Z knows this more than anyone. He grew up in Bed-Stuy’s Marcy Projects under the Reagan administration and has somehow beaten the odds of his circumstances. This year, he placed second after Diddy on the Forbes’ list of the world’s wealthiest rappers, with a total net worth of $810 million. Yet he still faces pushback from thirsty, out-of-work conservatives like Tomi Lahren, who last year slammed JAY-Z and wife Beyoncé with: “Your husband was a drug dealer. For 14 years he sold crack cocaine.” Putting aside whether it’s worse to have once hustled drugs for survival versus hustling racist rhetoric that still contributes to black people getting killed in America, it serves as a stark reminder that JAY-Z will always be judged for his past, no matter how much he clings to the idea of capitalism as a measure of success in America.
As the owner of streaming service Tidal, JAY-Z has maneuvered several album releases (4:44, Lemonade, Anti, The Life of Pablo) that were Tidal exclusives, much to the chagrin of consumers who’d rather listen to the album for free. But it’s JAY-Z’s decision to push forward his businesses, inking deals with companies like Samsung and Sprint, that has kept him atop the Forbes’ list. It’s no different than Chance the Rapper’s modus operandi of operating sans label while still earning a hefty paycheck from Apple Music. JAY-Z is, at the end of the day, about his coins and he’s been slammed for this, deemed untrustworthy for his relentless pursuit of wealth at the expense of artistic creativity. Granted, the criticism was earned when he was releasing albums like Magna Carta Holy Grail where he rapped lackluster, emotionless lyrics about how many Basquiats he owned.
But on “Moonlight” and 4:44, JAY-Z seems to have reevaluated himself and his place in our culture. He’s still aggressively capitalistic (he did once feature on the track “Black Republican,” after all) while rapping about chilling with Beyoncé in Calabasas, but he’s also learned that the narrow-minded pursuit of money can leave you soulless. Perhaps it was through witnessing wife Beyoncé’s baring of her emotional scars on Lemonade. Or Kendrick Lamar’s self-reflection on DAMN. Or the Black Lives Matter movement.
There’s certainly no bolder way to do that than on a track named after the LGBTQ film Moonlight, taking a decidedly pro-LGBT stance in a hip-hop landscape where it’s still overlooked when one of our most successful rap groups uses anti-gay rhetoric. And to hammer the point home, JAY-Z allows his mother, Gloria Carter, to come out as a lesbian in a duet on another track, “Smile.” He’s now in a place where he realizes success is nothing without using that power to touch people emotionally, and affect change. Gone are the flashy days of “Big Pimpin’.” After decades, JAY-Z has finally managed to bare his soul while also turning a profit. And if that makes some people uncomfortable, well, forget it, Jake. It’s La La Land.