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Critical perspectives on race and Black capitalism in Jay-Z's 4:44
Bachelor of Arts
Hip-hop, Rap, Black capitalism, American dream, Black masculinity, New York, Race, Urbanity, Black music, Black culture
James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) and Jay-Z’s 13th studio album 4:44 (2017) could not be more different in content and form. Yet, when listening to the album for the first time, I was reminded of the way Baldwin positions himself as an “Uncle” speaking to his younger nephew about the social world that he would come to encounter, and negotiate the terms of his identity in. What the two cultural products share is an authoritative black male voice, and a complex rendering of black male subjectivity, from the perspectives of cultural actors who can attest to having survived uniquely heinous conditions, to which many profound figures were lost. Baldwin reflects on the virulent race relations of the 1960s, conditions of the urban “ghetto,” and questions the fate of a nation that refuses to reconcile its history. Jay-Z, who came of age at the height of the crack epidemic and War on Drugs, depicts capitalism and economic exploitation as key to African American subjugation. Jay-Z’s early life is characterized by sociological conditions meant to relegate him to the ghetto for his life: emerging system of mass incarceration; fatal turf wars waged among drug-dealers; black social and political fragmentation; and dire poverty. Jay-Z’s 4:44 is striking because it offers a rare and poetic account of a black man who successfully escaped America’s undercaste, into extreme wealth and privilege. Thus, what is most striking about Jay-Z’s 4:44, is his ability to do “the impossible” by navigating the music industry with autonomy and prowess and he living to tell the story.
Furthermore, 4:44 represents a continuity in black cultural production that is resonant and identifiable. The album falls into the tradition of “race music,” musical expressions that articulate African American social experience. Throughout the album, Jay-Z examines race and capitalism in America today, drawing on African American history and theories of black political economy to articulate the ways in which the contagion of racism, and legacy of slavery, seeps into everyday black experience. He gestures to economic exploitation as a severe factor contributing to the plight of African Americans and draws upon the legacy of black political and nationalist figures like Marcus Garvey in his own version of racial uplift ideology through black capitalism.
This album demonstrates how hip-hop performances can both effectively resist or intensify black subjugation. To listen to 4:44 is to enter a world of black male complexity, shaped by the reorganizing effects of economic social class mobility for an African American man once confined to America’s inner cities. It articulates the experiences of an oppressed community and is comprised of various rhetorical tools that protest and name and resist the ongoing racial oppression and economic exploitation of African Americans today. Thus, this project leans into an interrogation of the various themes that emerge in the album, specifically focusing on Jay-Z’s critical perspectives on race, (black) capitalism, and masculinity. I draw on various parts of his discography and biography to unveil the fallacies rooted in some of his arguments, and the revelatory nature of his artistic renditions.
©2019 Aliya Bailey Access limited to the Smith College community and other researchers while on campus. Smith College community members also may access from off-campus using a Smith College log-in. Other off-campus researchers may request a copy through Interlibrary Loan for personal use.
Bailey, Aliya, "American dreamin' : critical perspectives on race and Black capitalism in Jay-Z's 4:44" (2019). Honors Project, Smith College, Northampton, MA.
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