4:44, Girl Disrupted, Okovi, and more.
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Many Black men have listened to Jay-z through 13 studio albums, a record label, a clothing line, a cognac brand, legendary verses, and immense fame. They refer to him as Hov, an exalted figure who is rich in experience and wealth. When he speaks, they listen. On 4:44, Hov utilizes that influence to ask the question: What does it mean for Black men to practice vulnerability? 4:44 offers a sonic foray into Jay-z’s innermost thoughts about Black wealth, selfawareness, and his marriage. On the album, he reintroduces himself as a transparent and intentional rapper who has mastered the game of life, or more specifically, the game of capitalism. In this competition, men test their wills to earn more dollars than the next man, but for Black men, this is a game of survival. In order to escape the streets and sit in boardrooms, Black men must harden themselves.
While growth and vulnerability are powerful, does it have to occur at the expense of those who love them? There is a stillness between Black men, a tension filled with topics avoided and words unspoken. When hanging up the phone with my best friend of 15 years, I still hesitate to say “I love you.” It took me four years to come out to him as gay, and another four years to come out to my college homies. As a Black gay man, I feel anxiety when addressing other Black men. I fear that my love for them will be seen as soft and anything I say or write in service of my brothers—specifically the heterosexual ones—may fall on hardened hearts.
When Black men express their feelings, they often are forced to confront the dangerous paradigm of hypermasculinity. Being perceived as soft or feminine is a gamble. Jay-z has embodied this mentality on some of his most memorable records, including “Big Pimpin’” and “Song Cry.” He has selectively shared his emotions while attempting to conquer or collect as many women as possible. The album’s title track, “4:44,” apologizes for that behavior.
“I apologize/ Often womanize/ Took for my child to be born to see through a woman’s eyes,” he raps. “Took for these natural twins to believe in miracles/ Took me too long for this song/ I don’t deserve you.” At the age of 47, Shawn Carter has awakened—wiser, more mature—and knows that his indiscretions have brought shame to his family.
As I listened to the album, I vividly remembered the men I have loved and how we fell out of love. I vividly remembered the men who raised me, felt their impressions in my bones. I reflected on the Black boys
I’ve taught and mentored over the years. All of these Black men have experienced similar journeys inward to understand themselves. The components of these experiences depend on the interchanging variables of love, dialogue, and, sadly, isolation.
I have experienced this isolation a few times on the journey to finding and understanding myself. First as a young boy with an estranged father, and then much later when I attempted to validate myself by performing the dominant, heteronormative standard in my teenage years. I would boast about having any girl I wanted. I would draw all of the attention on myself from girls, and eventually other boys, because I wanted to be affirmed. In reality, I was terrified that no one saw me fully. I experienced this isolation one final time when struggling to come out as gay.
I wanted to be open and proud. I wanted to maintain my dignity, my family, and my friends. I didn’t want to change the softness in my voice or suppress parts of myself labeled as deviant or damaging to my people. When Black men express themselves in a way that shatters the paradigm of Black masculinity, it often leads to tangible penalties against Black bodies, psyches, and spirits.
Black men often isolate themselves as protection, as a refuge to bury feelings, to sublimate their emotions in sacrifice of stereotypes that limit authentic connection. On “Family Feud,” Jay uses the title as a multifaceted analogy of his wife and children, the current climate of hip hop, and the Black community: “Nobody wins when the family feuds/ We all screwed ’cause we never had the tools/ I’m trying to fix you/ I’m trying to get these n*ggas with no stripes to be official.” He uses his influence to draw a connection between wealth and the importance of familial bonds. It’s not enough to possess material wealth because true abundance comes from a strong foundation.
Typically, Black men see themselves in direct competition to white men, often overlooking the impact that has on other Black people, specifically Black women and Black lgbtq people. In “Smile,” Jay-z’s mother, Gloria, recites a poem about living in the closet, assumably in service of her son’s public image:
You live in the shadows for fear of someone hurting your family or the person you love/ The world is changing and they say it’s time to be free/ But you live with the fear of just being me/ Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be/ No harm for them, no harm for me/ But life is short and it’s time to be free/ Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed/ Smile.
Jay-z draws a direct lineage from his mother’s growth and maturation to his own. “Smile” suggests that love and liberation isn’t
When Black men express themselves in a way that shatters the paradigm of Black masculinity, it often leads to tangible penalties against Black bodies, psyches, and spirits.
limited to Black men. Black queer people and Black women also need affirmation from their communities.
4:44 initiates a larger conversation among Black men. We can follow in his footsteps, or learn and prevent similar missteps by practicing transparency and vulnerability in all of our romantic and platonic relationships. Jay-z’s newfound vulnerability challenges preconceived notions of Black masculinity. But the next question is: Are Black men listening? RATING: