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Jay-Z’s Got 99 Problems but Anti-Semitism Ain’t One

Why a curious lyric on Hova’s new album is not controversial

Armin Rosen
June 30, 2017
via Facebook
Jay-Z.via Facebook
via Facebook
Jay-Z.via Facebook

Jay-Z’s much-anticipated 4:44, his first record since 2013’s critically panned but awesomely titled Magna Carta Holy Grail, drops today. Fans are rightly scouring the release for any conceivable mention of Jay’s marital and familial drama—although Beyoncé, his wife, had the first and probably last word on the matter with Lemonade, her monumental “visual album” from last year. Listeners are also noticing a curious line in the song, “The Story of O.J.”

You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club? Credit.

You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America? This how they did it.

On the surface, it would seem as if Jay-Z is trading on classically anti-Semitic notions of Jewish ubiquity and control. But before this escalates into controversy, I implore you all: Try a little harder.

Very little of the verse, and very little of the song itself, seems calibrated toward creating a generous or positive image of the speaker, who boasts about his shrewd investments in Brooklyn’s awful DUMBO neighborhood, and muses about the day he can pass on an $8 million artwork—bought for the peasant sum of $1 million—to his kids. The crassness motions toward a higher truth about Jay-Z and his often-complicated attitudes towards money, social status, and the hip-hop vocation writ large; crucially, that truth is being evoked through a raw and less-than-ideal version of the artist himself.

Bombast has been used as a semi-ironic mode of self-criticism pretty much since the dawn of hip-hop, and Hova is making a valid and even familiar artistic choice in dialing up the unseemliness. We also shouldn’t immediately assume that it’s Jay-Z himself who’s even talking here, strictly speaking. Relative artistic merits aside, teasing out the relationship between speaker and artist is no less important to understanding a rap song than it is to understanding a Shakespearean sonnet.

Unfortunately, people are less and less inclined to tease out much of anything these days. Lyrical controversies pop up every now and then in rap music, and they often serve as the occasional bleak reminder that offense is easier and more emotionally satisfying than analysis. Of course Nicki Minaj wasn’t really a Republican voting for Mitt Romney. Perhaps Jadakiss really did think Bush knocked down the World Trade Center; it’s just as possible he was reaching for an especially provocative example of the sense of dread and paranoia that seemed to pervade everything back in 2004. In a rankling and much more recent incident, rapper Action Bronson had multiple performances canceled last year over concerns that his lyrics were misogynistic, transphobic, or “insensitive to sexual assault survivors”—as if all of his rhymes were suddenly meant to be understood as a literal reflection of what he really believes. Each outrage has a potential chilling effect, collapsing the essential distance between an artist and their work, and reducing their freedom to evoke or inhabit different and uglier versions of themselves.

In Jay’s case, it’s a stretch to think that the lyrics to “The Story of O.J.” have any real anti-Semitic intent behind them. In 2006, he appeared in a PSA about the dangers of anti-Semitism alongside the philo-Semitically-inclined hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons. A Twitter user named Almaqah also pointed me toward this jaw-dropping super-cut of hip-hop artists rapping about their Jewish lawyers. Like Jay’s Judaically-themed admonition to avoid the strip club, these lines are revealing, overwrought, and inevitably honest—even when the words don’t immediately sit right, we’re better off that they’re here in the first place.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.

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