When professor and author Michael Eric Dyson began teaching a class on Jay-Z at Georgetown University about a decade ago, not everyone was on board. Although the course, “Sociology of Hip-Hop: Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z,” was one of the most popular on campus, hip-hop was not seen as a field of legitimate scholarly inquiry. Some parents were upset. Many students weren’t thrilled, either. “We dissect the lyrics of ‘Big Pimpin’,’ but we don’t read Spenser or Sophocles closely,” one student complained in the college newspaper. 

In his new book, “JAY-Z: Made in America,” which has its origins in that now-long-running class, Dyson uses the rapper’s life story and lyrics as a lens through which to view America in the 21st century. He argues that Jay-Z is the living embodiment of American ideals, the ultimate hustler in a nation built by hustlers and strivers. “JAY-Z is America at its scrappy, brash, irreverent, soulful, ingenious best,” he writes. “He is as transcendent a cultural icon as Frank Sinatra, as adventurous a self-made billionaire as Mark Zuckerberg, as gifted a poet as Walt Whitman.”

Most hip-hop fans have never known a world without Jay-Z, who turned 50 on Wednesday and has been famous since the first Clinton administration. His origin story is as familiar as that of any superhero: Born Shawn Carter, he spent his childhood in Brooklyn’s Marcy housing projects, his early adulthood as a crack dealer, and the past two decades as hip-hop’s most iconic star and first billionaire.

Dyson writes with the affection of a fan but the rigor of an academic. (Pharrell, who wrote the introduction, has no such problem with overstatement; he compares Jay-Z to the Oracle at Delphi.) Using extensive passages from Jay-Z’s lyrics, “Made in America” examines the rapper’s role as a poet, an aesthete, an advocate for racial justice and a business, man, but devotes much of its energy to Hova the Hustler. Hustling is central to the American character, Dyson argues, and in Jay-Z’s transition from dealer to tycoon, “he has willed himself, by dint of his talent, to change from a man who sowed mayhem in his urban community to a man who gives nobler meaning to hustling.”

“Made in America” is never better than when dismantling what Dyson refers to as “the politics of black masculinity.” After Jay-Z’s alleged infidelity prompted his wife Beyoncé to administer the painful thumping that was “Lemonade” in 2016, the rapper responded with the title track to his album “4:44,” in which he admitted to finally understanding that women were actually people (“Took for my child to be born, see through a woman’s eyes”), a realization that arrived shamefully late in his life, although Dyson doesn’t say as much.

Jay-Z’s lyrical evolution from the emotionally walled-up player of his early hit “Big Pimpin’” to the apologetic husband of “4:44” suggests an “intentional turn away from poisonous patriarchy” that might be instructive to others, Dyson suggests.

It’s not the only time Jay-Z turned away from his worst impulses: “Made in America” offers the most professorial explanation of the early-2000s war between Jay-Z and Nas that has ever been committed to print. Rap’s most cherished beef probably started when Nas dissed Jay’s taste in luxury cars, although few outsiders know for sure. It continued through the release of Hova’s devastating diss track, “Super Ugly,” in which Jay-Z claims to have, Dyson relates delicately, “seduced Nas’s baby’s mother in their luxury car and left condoms on the infant seat.” Things went so far that Carter’s mother, fearing a repeat of the deadly Biggie-Tupac feud that had recently ended in bloodshed, had to tell her son to knock it off.

Jay-Z enters his sixth decade still close to the height of his lyrical powers, still pop culture’s most visible avatar of late capitalism. There may be minefields ahead: There aren’t many thriving hip-hop artists over 50; Jay-Z’s new alliance with the NFL leaves the rapper, once a vocal backer of Colin Kaepernick, open to charges of hypocrisy; and the public backlash against the super-rich is bound to eventually reach mainstream rap fans.

Dyson argues that Jay-Z’s rise from the projects to the upper echelons of the Forbes list will offer him cover. “Of course, there are those in black life who will contend that Jay’s success is little more than a black face on capitalism, the vicious consequences of which have often ruined black life,” he writes. “That is true. But it is also true that Jay’s ascent is a token of the irrepressible spirit of black folk in the face of impossible odds.”

Allison Stewart writes about pop culture, music and politics for The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. She is working on a book about the history of the space program.


By Michael Eric Dyson

St. Martin’s. 224 pp. $25.99