As obvious as that may seem today, as the rapper approaches his 50th birthday, when he is a ubiquitous artistic presence (“I’m everywhere, you’re never there,” he once boasted in a rap), it wasn’t always clear that Carter would become a cultural juggernaut celebrated around the globe. But just as much as this is Donald Trump’s America, or Meryl Streep’s America, or Michelle Obama’s or Oprah’s America, it is, too, Jay-Z’s America.
His hustle, once directed to the sale of crack cocaine and spurned as a symptom of black pathology, is now seen as a spur to greater expression in loftier, if no less cutthroat, realms of capital. The duration of his creativity is unprecedented in hip-hop. He has waded heavily in the waters of civil rights and criminal-justice reform. He has even been a target of cancel culture for inking a business partnership with the National Football League, after he’d blasted the league for its treatment of blackballed quarterback Colin Kaepernick. That alliance, while controversial, hardly rivals the most consequential and visible partnership of his life: his marriage to Beyoncé, arguably the greatest entertainer in the world.
A great deal of Jay-Z’s artistic cachet is driven by the obsessive focus on hustling that defines most of his 13 studio albums. Jay-Z’s passionate engagement with hustling blends effortlessly with the broader landscape of American pursuit. Historian Walter A. McDougall argues in “Freedom Just Around the Corner” that hustling is at the heart of the country’s history: The redemptive and sordid ambitions of a cantankerous gaggle of go-getters and con artists compose the national character and define the American soul. America is always on the make and on the brink; something new is always cooking, some scheme or dream is always about to be born, some new event or development is always about to jump off.
Black hustling is a particular species of that American phenomenon. It is born of the desperate effort to forge a path in a country that rewards pluck and aspiration except where it flashes in black skin. Jay-Z has narrated the hustler’s perils, satisfactions and seductions, his hurdles and regrets, in rich detail and novelistic color. He is conscious of using his artistic platform now to talk about his hustling life then — not to glorify the illicit but to illuminate its necessity and logic — and, ultimately, to represent those who might not otherwise gain a hearing among the socially fortunate.
As he put it, “I ain’t crossover, I brought the suburbs to the hood / Made ’em relate to your struggle, told ’em ’bout your hustle / Went on MTV with do-rags, I made them love you.” Of course, black hustling has been far more denigrated than its counterparts in mainstream culture, where the criminal routes to wealth have been obscured by racial self-mythology and ethnic pride.
“America started with a great crime,” says Michael Render, better known by his professional rap name of Killer Mike. “Every American you’ll meet will tell you a story of their uncle, or an ancestor of theirs, who was involved in criminality. I meet Italian people [and] they have a story about an uncle that [had] been a Mafia associate. [I meet an] Irish person, and they have a story about how their uncle was a bootlegger and somehow knew Joe Kennedy. You meet a Polish person, a Russian person, and they’re going to talk to you about the perils their family had to confront to legitimize themselves.”
Killer Mike argues that the gutting of resources for poor black folk in the 1980s that occurred under President Ronald Reagan, when crack cocaine flooded the streets while governmental officials looked the other way, prompted a young Jay-Z to pursue his vision of upward mobility by selling drugs. Though Jay-Z eventually transitioned from the drug game to the rap game, he didn’t forget the lessons he learned on the corner — lessons that not only made him an enormously wealthy rap superstar but eventually propelled him to the corporate corner office as chief executive of Def Jam Recordings.
“He took that [hustling] mind-set out of the street and took it into the business offices with him,” Killer Mike says. Jay-Z became “the greatest example of the black American success story in my lifetime,” and one of the best “capitalists that hip-hop has ever produced. He learned capitalism in the rawest way, and the rawest way is hustling. And to me he’s a manifestation of the truest American Dream.”