Not too often do I watch documentaries about artists that don't feature the artist to tell their own story, when they are still alive. So, before I start talking about this movie, let me say that the movie is definitely one sided at times. The filmmaker makes Jay Z look ruthless, cold and opportunistic at times. They follow this up by doing a decent job balancing negative perceptions of Jay Z with supportive ones. Some argue that he's brilliant, smart, a genius and amazing businessman; others say he's an opportunist, has no loyalty and is only out for himself.
Its probably better to get my opinion out there and out of the way. I liked Reasonable Doubt when it came out, but you could easily put it on a similar level as Liquid Swords for one particular reason. They both were good albums when they dropped, but while they had very different styles, Reasonable Doubt and Jay Z focused on materialistic pursuits of wealth, power and everything associated with it. Shallow representations of money, women, power, drugs, etc glorified by Jay Z usually make an artist blow up, but Reasonable Doubt didn't blow up in 1995. It was only considered a classic when Jay Z blew up years later. The fact that both projects didn't blow up is the only thing that I think makes them similar. In fact, Jay Z didn't blow up until later, after the Notorious B.I.G. was killed. Liquid Swords was a dark, lyrical assortment of amazing flows, ability, creativity, production and achieved much more than Reasonable Doubt creatively. The GZA never will receive the type of money Jay Z makes, but the one thing Liquid Swords achieves that Reasonable Doubt didn't is pushing the genre and culture further. Liquid Swords was ground breaking and Reasonable Doubt was a "safe" conceptual album made for people looking for materialistic, watered down subculture music (aka hip hop).
Believe it or not, some black people still polarize themselves to field and house "niggas". A house "nigga' is someone who is supposedly "true" to who they are by accepting their past as a slave and turns that representation on it's head by wearing it as a badge. This attitude also considers house "niggas" are black people that sell out, don't buy into the narrow perception of how black people have to behave and it's also way that black people are racist against themselves based on how dark they are. I don't use that word in my vocabulary, but using it metaphorically, Reasonable Doubt and the albums like it tell stories that field "niggas" want to hear by limiting the artist to see themselves as a slave and brag about who has the most expensive chains. I would never limit myself to this slave mentality. The one thing that the films does is make you see that Jay Z considered himself a businessman. A Genius Leaves the Hood hints toward Jay Z selling out for a more corporate direction at times. The main problem with that is that it is a double standard that is contradictory. First, for a person to go a corporate direction doesn't automatically make him a sell out. Also, moving beyond the people from your old neighborhood doesn't make you a sell out either. What would make Jay Z a sellout is if he preached something and then completely went against everything he said he stood for. In the end of the movie, one of the people interviewed mentioned that they think Jay Z is going to make his opinions known and try to do some things for the greater good and for his community. If he does that, he would be a sellout because he's always professed self preservation through dealing drugs and maximizing the money he makes by comparing music to crack and how he's basically playing the same game as he always has. For him to start talking about what is wrong with the industry, confronting controversy and addressing political issues would be to completely change the logic of his lyrics and career moves. Actually, the respect that I have for Jay Z would be lost if he did that because it shows a lack of conviction and it sends the message that you only help other people after you get your own.
I personally don't go back to listen to Reasonable Doubt often because I think artists need to be more creative and confident about how they present themselves. For the same reason, I think more African American children need to break out of this slave mentality that Azelia Banks has been spreading lately. They need to see themselves as being record executives as much as they see themselves as musicians. Being an executive doesn't mean that you are betraying your community. I'm an African American architect and if I limited myself to the narrow view of the world that Jay Z tells in Reasonable Doubt, I would probably be in jail after I stopped playing football in college. By contrast, Liquid Swords gives you a window into another world with cunning lyrics, storytelling by an artist that calls himself the Genius. Look at the Genius' flow, his stories, his content, imagery, vocabulary and how he presents himself. That's something I would want people to listen to when they are growing up. I think the film doesn't dive deep enough to really challenge whether Jay Z is a creative genius. Obviously, I don't think he is because he isn't creative with how he presents himself, the stories he tells, but he is creative with his vocabulary and use of flow. I don't use the word genius lightly, so when the film tries to call Jay Z a genius, I really question it and look at it from many different angles.
When it comes to business, I don't think you can call Jay Z a genius because of the Barclay Center quagmire. Regardless if you approach the Barclay Center (aka Atlantic Yards Development) where Jay Z thought it was a genuine opportunity to get the Nets to Brooklyn and do something good for Brooklyn or if he approached it as a marketing deal where he gets to attach himself to a large development and project himself as a businessman on a larger, more corporate scale, neither situations make him a genius in my opinion. A business genius doesn't walk into a large land development for his first venture, become a minority owner and unofficial face of the organization just to be bought out a year or two later. And if that was the plan, I think the negative, opportunistic portrayal of Jay Z would make a lot of sense. But I don't imagine it was the case with the Nets. When you look at how much Jay Z played a role in making the residents of Brooklyn feel comforted by what's going on with the Atlantic Yards development, it would make the whole thing sting. It makes more sense that Jay Z was excited to be part of a great project that showed a lot of potential for the residents of Brooklyn, but didn't fully understand the down side of projects like the Barclays Center could have on the borough he wears so proudly. When you compare it to Rocafella, it seems to be consistent with everyone having their own agenda and Jay Z decides to go in his own direction when it's people's true motives come out.
With all of that said, I don't question whether Jay Z deserves the money he has made within rap music. He obviously put himself in the right position to make his money and that's respectable achievement in itself. He's clearly talented with branding/marketing, taking advantage of an opportunity when it's available and creating those opportunities for himself. He's an above average rapper, but when I step back and compare him to other artists, I don't end up saying Jay Z is the best just because he is still around. I'ts respectable, but it doesn't make his abilities more than what they are musically and lyrically. He's reached a higher level because he associated himself with the right artists from the 90's and he has continued to push forward since his career took off. I respect him for what he achieved, but I'm not blinded by money.
If an artist values honor, morals, loyalty, integrity, hard work and/or creativity, it makes it's way into the music even if it's not the content of the work itself. If an "artist" limits themselves to tell their story through the lens of a drug dealer, turned rapper, actor, etc, then they are the only one that can be responsible for the image they portray. I think people need to distinguish what makes an artist and what makes a pop star. Being able to sing or rap doesn't make someone an artist. Jay Z is a pop star and people get to pop star status not because of creative abilities, playing fair and being a stand up guy. They achieve stardom because they've done something to make themselves popular and they are in the right place at the right time. So, I ask you, what do you think makes Jay Z popular? How much of what makes Jay Z popular has to do with his music? Who thinks Jay Z is the best rapper of all time?