Photograph of Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Kim Kardashian at the 2012 BET Awards.
4:44 dropped while I was in Berlin—I was fumbling around in my hotel room, reading online reviews, and trying to figure out how to access the album without subscribing to TIDAL. My mind immediately wandered back to the summer before my junior year in college, to the moment when I became immersed in black politics at the national level. I spent that summer commuting between my dorm room at Howard University and my congressman’s office on Capitol Hill. During those humid months, I recall learning how to hand press my own suits and worming my way into the free dinners of lobbyists. That summer has stayed with me because it was my introduction into the realities of contemporary black politics, electoral or otherwise. Until then I was used to humming songs like “Hard Knock Life,” but that summer I began to see Jay-Z as an artist whose body of work is remarkable for its ideological clarity and consistency—when I listen to him, I hear the voices of the vast majority of black America’s politicians, business leaders, and professionals. Jay-Z’s rhymes are drenched in black capitalism and nationalism, and for decades this synthesis has been the hegemonic ideology of the black community.
Before I tackle the meaning of this synthesis, let me spend a few moments reminiscing about the summer of 2002. My roommate that summer was older than me and well-adjusted to D.C. Chris came from a family fully immersed in black politics—he daydreamed about one day having his own law firm, and he watched me struggle as an intern with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. I’ll never forget the day he gave me his personal copy of that old Negro classic Rich Dad, Poor Dad. I read it; and we spent the next few months talking about how to build wealth. Chris told me he wanted to buy a private jet; I talked to him about the intricacies of hedge funds. He invited me to my first Omega fraternity party, and we toured the city together, meeting at random with investment firms, even though neither of us had any real money to invest. Both of us enjoyed listening to Louis Farrakhan, and I remember how disappointed Chris was when I told him I wouldn’t be in town to hear the Honorable Minister speak. Chris and I became good friends. Looking back, then, I didn’t really have a sharp or well-defined sense of my own economic or political ideology. At the same time as I fantasized about hedge funds and Louis Farrakhan, I also spent part of that summer at a national convention of socialists in Chicago.
I don’t remember much about the convention, except for the time when some members from the New Black Panther Party asked if I preferred Martin or Malcolm. They laughed at me as I fumbled my way through a response, though I didn’t have the prescience at the time to know that there really wasn’t a choice, that neither answer would suffice. On the flight home, a member of the Fruit of Islam tapped me on my shoulder. I turned around and was face to face with Farrakhan himself, who told me to “Read Fanon.” I say all of this just to help set the scene. Among D.C.’s aspiring black politicians, this was a time when Booker T. Washington was “in,” Africa was an investment opportunity, and sleeping with white women was pejoratively referred to as “lying in the snow.”
The one substantive discussion my congressman and I had about policy resulted from my grumbling that he shouldn’t have supported the Bush tax cuts. After all, most of our constituents were poor, so how were the tax cuts supposed to help them? The next day my chief of staff, on behalf of our congressman, explained that we had to protect black millionaires, since it was so hard to become one. As Jay says, “What’s better than one billionaire? Two (two) / ‘Specially if they’re from the same hue as you.” What’s remarkable about Jay-Z is not just how baldly he makes his claims, but how he is able to transform ordinary, all-American, and pervasive beliefs in the black community into something seemingly subversive and new. I asked my H-Street barber about the album this morning, and the conversation quickly turned from a discussion of 4:44 to Warren Buffett’s favorite three-word maxim “Never Lose Money,” to my barber trying to sell me “no-risk” life insurance. To paraphrase the legendary Greg Tate, “Afro-hustle-ism” is real.
In a spot on piece of recent criticism, Tate cuts through the noise about Jay-Z’s infidelities and Beyoncé’s putative forgiveness. Instead, the critic foregrounds the morality of Jay-Z’s political economy: “Contrary to social-media punting, 4:44 isn’t defined by The Apology [...] the true focus of this terse and finely composed, fiercely quotable album lies more in politics than romance.” Though Tate doesn’t necessarily extend his argument to its logical conclusion—the romance of Jay-Z’s album is central to the artist’s understanding of racial capitalism. Despite most economists’ emphasis on the significance of the individual, Jay-Z knows that the family is the basic unit of capital accumulation.
By looking at the relationship between the structure of the family and capitalism, we can begin to understand some of the drama of 1990s gangster rap. Jay-Z’s 4:44 is drenched in black economic nationalism. Indeed, Tate is correct to situate Jay-Z within the wider historical tradition of figures such as Marcus Garvey, Elijah Muhammad, and Berry Gordy; and, at the same time, the critic acknowledges hip-hop as part of a global phenomenon—that is, one in which Jay-Z and David Bowie are partners in the same political economy.
In “Family Feud,” for example, Jay-Z reaches beyond the black tradition, seeing himself instead in the Sicilian image of Michael Corleone:
A man that don’t take care of his family can’t be rich / I’ll watch Godfather, I miss that whole shit / My consciousness was Michael’s common sense / I missed the karma that came as a consequence / Niggas bustin’ off through the curtains ‘cause she hurtin’ / Kay losin’ the babies ‘cause their future is uncertain / Nobody wins when the family feuds…
Jay-Z’s understanding of the relationship between the structure of the family and capitalism is universal; it transcends the politics of race. It would seem that the family is the key vessel for capital accumulation, but without capital it is neither possible to form a family or to hold it together. Jay—“I’m a Sufi to goofies, I could prolly speak Farsi / That’s poetry…”—the rapper intellectual here has set the classic insights of German political economy to rhyme: that wealth requires the generational stability of the family.
Thus we get one of the familiar tropes of 90s rap, in which single black mothers are respected for holding the family together, even as their sons struggle to define their own manhood. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube epitomize this coming-of-age story (see, for example, Straight Outta Compton). Jay knows this story. This is why Jay can’t be Jay without Beyoncé, Blue Ivy, Rumi, and Sir Carter. They are the keys to his goal of creating a legacy of generational wealth. But there are contradictions—sometimes the family for Jay extends beyond the nuclear family. On “Legacy,” Jay-Z raps:
I remember, like, listenin’ to Wu-Tang / And niggas like, ‘Your seed married his seed, married my seed’ / That’s how we keep Carter money all in the family…
In the lyrics above Jay-Z explains how the family shares the wealth, so to speak, growing to include close friends and business associates. In the world of Jay-Z, this growth will ultimately extend to include the entire black race in a virtuous cycle of capitalist empowerment.
On “Smile,” Jay-Z further illustrates the racial nature of his project by excluding Jimmy Iovine, Dr. Dre’s white business partner:
Respect Jimmy Iovine / But he gotta respect the Elohim as a whole new regime…
On “Kill Jay Z,” finally, this virtuous cycle is unsettled once again when Jay-Z casts Kanye into the wilderness:
But you got hurt because you did cool by ‘Ye / You gave him 20 million without blinkin’ / He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinkin’?
Again, wealth here requires the generational stability of the family; but every family has a Cain and Abel, a Jay and Kanye, a Beyoncé, a Solange, or a Kim Kardashian. Family drama—not “Your seed married his seed, married my seed,” but my seed against your seed, your seed against my seed.
Alden Young is an assistant professor of African History and the Director of Africana Studies at Drexel University; he received his Ph.D. in History from Princeton University in 2013. His first book, Transforming Sudan: Decolonisation, Economic Development and State-Formation, is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press.
 Greg Tate, “The Politicization of Jay-Z,” The Village Voice, July 11, 2017.