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  • Introduction:The Evolution of JAY-Z
  • Stephanie Li (bio)

Two years ago, we asked in this journal, "Who is Beyoncé?" Since then JAY-Z has released 4:44 (2017), a direct response to his wife's much celebrated and beloved Lemonade (2016), and the couple jointly produced Everything Is Love (2018), a stunning collaboration and apparent testament to the strength of their marriage. These new additions to JAY-Z's oeuvre require that we now ask, "Who is JAY-Z?" The former drug dealer who began his musical career selling CDs out of his car evolved into the hypermasculine player of Reasonable Doubt (1996) and The Blueprint (2001). Yet now we have a JAY-Z who extols the virtues of therapy, regrets his philandering, and presents himself as a loving father, committed to providing a financial foundation for generations to come. While Beyoncé's popular image is saturated with contradictions explored at length in our earlier Close-Up, JAY-Z has traded in so many personas as to be a cipher as malleable as his wife.

The essays gathered here begin to explore a figure who despite his chart-topping success remains an understudied artist and musician in academic discourse. His 2011 memoir, Decoded, affirmed that JAY-Z is a profoundly thoughtful writer, especially attentive to the multiple valences of language and signification. The contributors to this Close-Up apply the same rigor that JAY-Z uses to craft his own lyrics, though with a far more diverse critical lens than evident in Decoded. As with the Beyoncé Close-Up,1 this collection of essays aims to validate the poetry of a global hip-hop star while also encouraging new work on this influential artist.

Terin Dickerson's elegant cover image emphasizes how the JAY-Z that emerges in 4:44 is essential to our understanding of the musician as a whole. The baroque style and somber color suggest a funeral, as if the JAY-Z we once knew has at last been laid to rest. This perspective is bolstered by the first track on 4:44, "Kill Jay Z," which finds the artist speaking to himself and bemoaning the mistakes he has made in his career and personal life: "Cry, Jay Z, we know the pain is real / But you can't heal what you never reveal." JAY-Z's recent shift in spelling his name in all capital letters suggests that the "Jay Z" of his song is a [End Page 304] figure of the past. Dickerson's small profile of a man towards the bottom of the cover image implies that JAY-Z is looking back and perhaps even mourning the person he once was. What awaits is the man he is to be, a figuration whose complexity and meaning is examined in the essays that follows.

Lauren McLeod Cramer's "For the Culture, for the Future: Keeping Black Time in JAY-Z's 4:44" begins with the premise that the rapper's most recent solo album is a "family affair." If Dickerson's image heralds in part the death of the misogynistic lyrics that characterized the first stage of JAY-Z's career, Cramer suggests that what has emerged in the wake is a collective entity deeply invested in the future of the black child. JAY-Z has traded in the exploits of an individual hustler for a more contemplative consideration of legacies of violence and hope that mark twenty-first-century African American life. Cramer is especially attuned to how JAY-Z represents time in the album, noting that it depends on multiple affective temporalities. By presenting the Knowles-Carters as a model for black families, JAY-Z rejects singularity in favor of a more dynamic collective. The hope of this vision is, however, troubled by a family of celebrities that is far removed from the daily realities of most African Americans.

Sam Dwinell's essay extends JAY-Z's meditation on time in his reading of 4:44 as signifying on John Cage's "silent piece" 4'33" (1952). In "JAY-Z's Borrowed Time," Dwinell argues that 4:44 urges listeners to an "extreme present" that mediates our access to the past...


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pp. 304-306
Launched on MUSE
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