Jay-Z may have a reputation for his unapologetic support of the Democratic Party and his family’s cozy relationship with the former First Family. But what is particularly fascinating about Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter is that his success was built on the precepts of free market capitalism, without which he would have never risen above the circumstances he was born into.
Raised in government housing in the 1980s and surrounded by drugs during his most formative years, Shawn Carter might have seemed doomed to follow in the footsteps of so many before him. In his newest album, 4:44, the track “Marcy Me” depicts just how dire his situation really was when it describes his neighborhood as “Marcy houses, where the boys die by the thousands.”
From a young age, Carter had a flair for music, often annoying his siblings by banging on makeshift drums at the kitchen table in the middle of the night. His single mother did what she could to nurture this knack, buying the young Carter his first boombox and encouraging him to hone his talent. He quickly realized that he could create value by turning his hobby into a career and started freestyling, writing lyrics, and performing around his neighborhood, whose residents affectionately called him “Jazzy.”
But “Jazzy” couldn’t help his mother put food on the table with his music, or at least not yet. So he did the only thing he knew how to do: he dealt crack cocaine. And while I am not going to speak to the virtue or vice of selling crack cocaine, it was a systemic tragedy all too common in neighborhoods like Carter’s.
Government policies had trapped black communities in the “projects” and then looked the other way as these neighborhoods were destroyed by the crack cocaine epidemic. And then came the War on Drugs, in which these neighborhoods were further destroyed as the government went from willful ignorance to brutal enforcement, creating hundreds of single-family households as fathers were locked away for nonviolent drug crimes.
But even though Carter was taking a less reputable path towards earning a living, he certainly wasn’t frittering away the money he made. He used it to produce his own album, which he then sold out of his car. Eventually, he joined with other Brooklyn rappers in 1995 to form the independent label Roc-A-Fella Records.
Even as Carter began growing his reputation and his career, he was never financially reckless. On the contrary, he invested in other independent record labels, sports teams, and numerous business ventures. But of all his investments, there was one missed opportunity that bothered him, and which also inspired a few lines in 4:44.
“Financial Freedom, My Only Hope”
Jay-Z recently spoke to iHeart Radio about the track “The Story of OJ” on his new album, saying:
“We all make money, and then we all lose money, as artists especially. But how, when you have some type of success, to transform that into something bigger.”
The song is a biting critique of OJ Simpson’s lifestyle, squandering money in an effort to distance himself from his roots. But his flashy lifestyle didn’t matter –without sound investments, Simpson not only lost all his money but eventually went to prison after trying to commit fraud over his own memorabilia.
Carter drops profound wisdom on his listeners, telling them that this song, and the album itself, is his attempt “to give you a million dollars-worth of game for $9.99.”
Condemning his other colleagues who spent their newfound fortunes without investing, he says, “You want to know what’s more important than throwing away money at a strip club? Credit.” And while he also tells of the value he has earned by investing in art and commenting on how proud he is to be able to leave that to his children, he brings up another essential element of free market capitalism: failure.
Before gentrification of historically “rough areas” became a trend in the last several years, Carter saw no reason to invest in his own neighborhood, a choice he laments now that it has become one of the most sought-after areas of Brooklyn. “I could have bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like $2 million. That same building today is worth $25 million. And guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo.”
And even though he is condemning his own lack of foresight, he brings the point home poignantly when he advises his listeners:
“Please don’t die over the neighborhood that your mama rentin.’ Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood. That’s how you rinse it.”
Not only is his advice economically helpful, it brings up another valid point: capitalism used for social change is more effective than government intervention. The government’s “war on poverty” has proved itself to be nothing more than a war on the poor, despite the good intentions of politicians. But creating value, making money, and then making the decision to pour that money back into the community is an investment that can have lasting impacts on the well-being of its residents, and who better to invest in the community than those who know it best?
Jay-Z has been an open critic about the government’s interference in black communities and the harm it has done and continues to do. But the point he wants to get across in “The Story of OJ” is that “financial freedom” is the only way to escape the tyrannical system that has oppressed neighborhoods, like the one where Carter was raised, for far too long. But to really break the chains the state has shackled to our being, economic mobility is essential, a truth Carter is now living firsthand.
“We Know Who We Are but We Know Not Who We May Be”
The circumstances we are born into do not define who we will become and what we will contribute to the world, and Carter is a perfect personification of this point.
When Broadway prodigy Lin-Manuel Miranda was asked why he chose to utilize hip-hop in his groundbreaking musical Hamilton, he spoke of the parallels between Alexander Hamilton’s life and his ability to “write himself out” of his circumstances and that of rappers like Jay-Z and others who did the same thing:
“The second he writes a poem to get himself off the island, I was like, ‘Well, that’s very hip-hop. To literally write verse that gets you out of your circumstances that’s about how terrible your circumstances are, I mean, that’s everyone from Jay Z and Marcy to Lil Wayne… As I was reading the book, all these hip-hop analogies couldn’t help but pop up.”
Like Hamilton, Carter was born into a situation that had him pegged as a statistic from his first breath. But he used it to his advantage. He couldn’t change the past or alter his roots, so he decided to embrace it all. He would not hide his indiscretions; he would turn his experiences into money instead.
Carter has never shied away from speaking of his upbringing and his time as a drug dealer. In fact, his life has served as the subject for his lyrics, even admitting on an older album to shooting his own brother at just 12 years old for stealing from him.
Carter was able to take his bleak situation and turn it to his advantage, again creating value but also proving that capitalism is the great equalizer. It doesn’t matter who you are or what neighborhood you came from; if you can create something that provides value for others, you can literally become anyone you want to be.
However, like Alexander Hamilton, whose personal life was the subject for what has been dubbed as the first American sex scandal, Carter’s own family problems threatened to destroy everything he had built. But Carter and his powerhouse of a wife, Beyoncé, found a way to make even their most humiliating personal problems pay off.
Lemonade out of Lemons
Even those without any affection for Beyoncé found themselves bowing down to “Queen Bey” after the release of her 2016 visual album Lemonade. In 2014, the entire world watched Beyoncé’s sister beating Carter in an elevator at the Met Gala. Rumors surged that Carter had done something to scorn the queen herself, resulting in her sister Solange Knowles’s outburst that was quickly leaked to the press.
Almost two years later, Beyoncé gave the whole world what they had been waiting for: the entire story of what Carter had done to deserve the Knowles family’s ire.
In what was either one of the greatest publicity stunts in history, or the greatest display of raw, uncensored emotion after being publicly betrayed by your spouse, Lemonade used Carter’s infidelity as its premise and ultimately became the highest-selling album globally in 2016.
We may never know how Beyoncé felt about the viral footage of her sister beating her husband, but it no longer matters because Knowles and Carter worked together to take back the narrative in a way that left consumers wanting more. They took all that pain and embarrassment – a cocktail of emotions we have all felt from time to time – and tapped into the hearts of music consumers everywhere. Together, the dynamic Carter-Knowles duo took their marital problems straight to the bank and even drew out Lemonade’s popularity by incorporating Carter’s side of the story into his album 4:44, that was just released last week.
Both albums dropped exclusively with Carter’s own music streaming site, Tidal. If devoted fans or curious Hollywood gossip consumers wanted to hear the album before the general populace, they would have to sign up for a free trial of Tidal in order to do so. The real genius of this release is that many, myself included, would forget to cancel their membership to Tidal after the free trial period ended, bringing in further revenue for the couple. Additionally, for those who already used their free trial to listen to Lemonade, they would not be able to get another free trial to hear Carter’s 4:44. Even if the consumer had no interest in rap, the prospect of hearing Jay-Z’s side of the Lemonade drama made the Tidal subscription worth it for many.
Since the modern world has made music more accessible and downplayed the excitement of new album releases, the creativity of Carter and Knowles has been admirable and further proven how important consumer demand is. After Lemonade was released, an in-depth look at the money being made from the album was published, literally putting a price tag on value created by this marital drama… and this does not include the money that will be made from Carter’s new 4:44 album.
Write Your Way Out
The United States was intended to be the “land of opportunity” where the location and status of your birth were not meant to be indicators of what your future would hold. By allowing the market to operate with greater freedom than in the rest of the world, any individual was afforded the opportunity to take their own grit and talent to create value so as to ensure their own survival – both physically and economically.
The beauty of this system, or really the lack thereof, has been exquisitely displayed in the world of rap and hip-hop. This is specifically because these genres originated within the most vulnerable neighborhoods where government intervention has accomplished the antithesis of its original intent. Instead of liberating those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, these individuals have been kept trapped in their circumstances by government bureaucrats who want to prove that the state is the only means of redemption.
However, as Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter has shown, no one needs to wait on the state to save them from their circumstances. Create value, make money, and invest wisely, and success becomes unavoidable – at least until the government intervenes to demand a cut of your wealth.