I love this song, “The Story of O.J.”, off Jay-Z’s new album.
Light n—r, dark n—r, faux n—r, real n—r
What an opening, right? Why use “the n-word” not just once, but over and over? By repeating a word that he can say but white people can’t, is he signaling to us that this is not a song for white people?
But I’m reminded of an interview I heard with Jay-Z on Fresh Air where he talks about this song: I got ninety-nine problems, but the bitch ain’t one. He tells Terry Gross that he intentionally uses a refrain to make you think you know what the song is about—another black man rapping in a derogatory slang about women—but then he turns it back on you. Because the song actually is about dogs used in racial profiling by police, the bait-and-switch reveals the listener’s underlying prejudices.
I hear Jay-Z doing something similar in “The Story of O.J.” When we hear a refrain of n—r this, n—r that, we think, “Oh, I know what this is: another black man throwing around this horrible word to show his power and defiance.”
But listen to Jay-Z’s tone. He lays the words down so smooth. This is no battle cry; what I hear is acceptance of a truth.
Light n—r, dark n—r, faux n—r, real n—r,
rich n—r, poor n—r, house n—r, field n—r.
Still n—r. Still n—r.
And isn’t he right? It’s been over a century since we had formalized slavery in this country. And yet, isn’t dark skin still the first (and often only) thing we see? Barack Obama can’t be president; he has to be our first black president. Michael Brown can’t be a man who was fatally shot by police; he has to be a black man who was fatally shot by police. You can’t understand Obama or Brown or what surrounded them without race. Still n—r.
The man Jay-Z points to is O.J. Simpson, who was again in the news the year this song came out: O.J. like, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” he summarizes. Then Jay-Z says, with a massive eye-roll, Okay.
I remember following the Simpson trial in 1994. Despite massive evidence against him, he was declared not guilty of the two murders by a majority-black jury. Regardless of what you believe about the verdict, it’s true that the defense team emphasized systemic racism in the L.A. police department in their arguments. Was this an example of “jury nullification”, a jury declaring black men they know to be guilty as innocent to help right the long history of wrongful convictions of blacks by white juries?
What Jay-Z is saying about Simpson is that it is absurd for Simpson (or for any black man) to think that he can be only his name, his individuality. What’s true is that he will always be black, too.
Where Jay-Z takes us next is a seemingly unrelated thread about money:
You wanna know what’s more important than throwing away money at a strip club?
You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?
This is how they did it
Financial freedom my only hope
Fuck living rich and dying broke
Wow. Since when do prominent black artists rap about credit scores and property investment?
What’s changed, Jay-Z?
I can’t wait to give this shit to my children
Oh. You’re 48 years old and a father now. You can be more settled in who you are, the showiness doesn’t matter so much.
But also what’s changed is #BlackLivesMatter.
Ten years ago, Jay-Z recorded “Empire State of Mind” with Alycia Keys. This is a song about being on Billboard, sipping Mai-Tais, and sitting court-side at NBA games:
There’s nothing you can’t do
now you’re in New York.
These streets will make you feel brand new,
big lights will inspire you
When this song came out, oh my gosh, I would turn it up so loud in my car. Jay-Z throwing down while Alycia Keys belts it out? Yes please.
But four years after this song was recorded, the white man who killed Trayvon Martin was acquitted and our country (re-)learned a hard lesson. Turns out, there are things you can’t do—like eat skittles after dark—if you’re black. There is no street that will make you brand new. Still n—r.
Bringing in a theme of financial investment complicates the refrain of Still n—r. If we accept Still n—r as a statement of truth, what are we to do with it? Jay-Z grew up in the projects and was a teen when crack came to Brooklyn. In the “Story of O.J.”, he gives some advice to his teenage self:
Please don’t die over the neighborhood that your momma renting;
take your drug money and buy the neighborhood
What I hear in this song is Jay-Z presenting an alternative vision of what it is to be black and successful. When we accept race for what it is, then we can start to think about making wise choices for ourselves, for our families, and for our communities.
Y’all think it’s bougie; I’m like, it’s fine.
Perhaps he's saying black people have allowed a prejudice that building credit or assets is too bourgeois (read: inauthentic, pretentious, and white) to prevent them from being wise with money. The result has been that, while Jewish people were buying property and strengthening their communities, black people were buying strippers and cars without revitalizing the neighborhoods they came from. Look at O.J.: Like Jay-Z, a black superstar. Unlike Jay-Z, getting out of prison in 2017 versus getting into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2017.
It’s fine, Jay-Z says. It’s time to let our counter-productive prejudices go. Use what you have, invest in what you can, and take ownership of creating your future.
Accepting reality is not the same as accepting that reality will never change. Rather, I think that the most radical change can happen when we start from a place of deep understanding of our reality—rather than a place of stereotyping or defensiveness or denial.
I don’t hear anything in this song to undermine what #BlackLivesMatter and other activists are working toward. But I do think Jay-Z is saying that we can no longer afford to use the gap between what our world is and the ideal vision of what our world could be as an excuse for poor decision-making.
Heard in this way, this can be a song for all of us.