Blueprints: Life as Art

A bunch of people once asked me to name a living author who wrote like Jack Kerouac, and they promptly concluded I was insane when I named the hiphop artist Jay-Z.

Well, I’d like to explain why I think this is true, and why I find Jay-Z’s work so exciting from a literary point of view. It’s not that I think Jay’s the best poet in the hiphop world. That title probably goes to the late Biggie Smalls, who could effortlessly toss out lines like “there’s gonna be a lot of slow-singing and flower-bringing if my burglar alarm starts ringing”, or “Poppa’s been smooth since the days of Underoos”. What I admire about Jay, on the other hand, is his single-minded dedication to a truth-telling mission. His entire body of work is a mirror gaze — he has never written about anything but himself.

This is a mission few writers are brave, honest or crazy enough to undertake. It’s well known that Jack Kerouac scribbled down (and usually published) everything that happened to him, and furthermore that he never wrote about anything that didn’t happen to him. Every car that shows up in a Kerouac novel, every left or right turn Dean Moriarty took, every tortilla or hot dog that Sal Paradise or Jack Duluoz or Ray Smith ate, every apartment the whole gang crashed in — they were all real. The sum total of Kerouac’s time on earth is encapsulated in ten paperback books.

Charles Bukowski followed the same template, from Ham on Rye to Factotum to Post Office to Women to Hollywood. And so does Jay-Z, who has so far told his story in eight CD’s: Reasonable Doubt, Life and Times Vol. 1, Life and Times Vol 2, Life and Times Vol 3, Roc La Familia, The Blueprint, The Blueprint 2 and The Black Album.

Listen to any of his songs and you’ll see what I mean. From the hit singles to the obscure album cuts, Jay never breaks character, and never stops advancing his plot. Even a catchy dance track like “H To The IZZO”, the overly played song that unfortunately introduced the phrase “foshizzle my nizzle” to everyone from your grandmother to Jay Leno, turns out to be a chronicle of Jay’s years as a drug runner in the university towns of Virginia and Maryland (“home of the terrapins, got it dirt cheap for them”).

His continuing tale is a classic rags-to-riches yarn, and like many gangsta rappers he brags about funding his music career by selling coke and crack. He relates stark stories of hard lessons learned first on the streets and then again in boardrooms: shady business partners, troubled relationships with women, recurring childhood traumas, betrayals by trusted friends. His gift for detail and colorful language keeps the tales vivid as he relates them over and over:

What’s up to my Miami and St. Thomas connects
I never mention your name, I promise respect
death before dishonor, correct?
yep, that’s what you promised me
since before the —
along with, if we stay strong
we can get paper longer than Pippen’s arms
plead the fifth when it comes to the fam
I’m like a dog, I never speak but I understand
where my dogs at? where my soldiers at war?
where you balls at? (whoa) had to pause that (whoa)
lost 92 bricks, had to fall back
knocked a nigga off his feet but I crawled back
had A-1 credit, got more crack
from the first to the fifth, paid it all back
if that ain’t a hustler, what you call that?
this is before rap, this is all fact

or, from Blueprint 2:

I seen the worst of the worst
I deserve every blessing I receive, I’m from the dirt
I planted my seed on unfertile land
Myrtle and Park, Marcy, Flushing and Nostrand
and still I knew, somehow I knew the sun would show through
Take a hold of my hand, look, fam, a tree grows in Brooklyn

Like Kerouac, he writes constantly about his family, always appreciating the love and blind trust they showed him when he needed it:

Momma loved me, Pop left me
Mickey fed me, Annie dressed me
Eric fought me, made me tougher
Love you for that my nigga no matter what bro
Marcy raised me; and whether right or wrong
Streets gave me all I write in the song
Hootie babysitted, changed my diapers
Gil introduced me to the game that changed my life up
East Trenton grew me, had me skippin school
Valencia’s boyfriend Vovo had me makin moves
Momma raised me, Pop I miss you
God help me forgive him, I got some issues

Writers who bare their souls tend to adopt specific methods of spontaneous composition. Kerouac typed on a long scroll and never backspaced. Bukowski scribbled in a bathtub. Jay-Z composes all his work directly at the mic, never reading from a page. It’s method writing, and the method works.

Jay-Z delivered an emphatic final chapter to the first stage of his career with 2003’s The Black Album, supposedly his retirement album even though he’s been all over the radio since then, and has recently become president of Def Jam Records. What does he sing about on the Black Album? Naturally, he starts at birth and gives us the same autobiography all over again, because in the world of Jay-Z there is no other story to tell:

I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Angus Reeves
who made love under the sycamore tree
which makes me a more sicker MC than my momma would claim
at ten pounds when I was born I didn’t give her no pain

Nobody believed Jay-Z would really retire after the Black Album, and luckily everybody was right. I’ll be going to a rare Jay-Z show in New Jersey tomorrow night, which is what prompted this revery today. I respect a guy who throws all of himself into his writing, who holds nothing back, who fuses his creative work so deeply into his real-life identity that there is no dead air between the two. There aren’t many wordsmiths in the world I admire more than this one.

8 Responses

  1. Mirror Gaze or Navel
    Mirror Gaze or Navel Gaze?

    Regardless of whether it’s a mirror gaze or a navel, the post is well written and has made me shelf my current project for a different one that’s been in the back of my head for way too long.

  2. There is a navel-gazing
    There is a navel-gazing element to it, I agree. “It’s not writing, it’s typing” (or rhyming). Anyway, thanks WW …

  3. Rhythm BeatYou expressed what
    Rhythm Beat

    You expressed what I have felt for some time now, that rap is a continuation of Beat. Writers like Kerouac spoke in the rhythm of jazz, while rap speaks on the beat of rhythm. Both are highly expressive and come from the heart.

  4. I agree completely, although
    I agree completely, although I’d argue that the greatest hiphop poet living or dead is not Biggie Smalls, but Tupac — that is, Tupac is the greatest simply in terms of poetics. If Jay-Z is the Kerouac of the hiphop world, Tupac was the Shakespeare. His rhyme schemes, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and meter were comparable to anything any classical “poet” has done; take for example:

    “Prayin to heaven three fifty seven/
    to the sky/
    and i hope i’m forgiven for thug livin/
    when i die”

    Not only did Pac craft his poetry with such care, he also managed to create the persona of a Dostoevskian soul lost in the projects — he inscribed himself in the existential literary tradition flawlessly, and made it new.

    “This aint the life for me/
    I wanna change/
    But aint no future right for me/
    Stuck in the game”

    He always manages to take a song about thugging and pimping and such and turn it, in the third verse, into a contemplative treatise on the (im)possibility of repentance.

    That’s my vote, anyway…

  5. Forgot to include the best
    Forgot to include the best (talk about existential vertigo and despair):

    I’ve been really wantin’ babies/
    So I could see a part of me
    That wasn’t always shady”

  6. Those Tupac verses are,
    Those Tupac verses are, indeed, great poetry, grushenka. And yeah, especially the last one.

  7. Hi Grushenka — it’s funny,
    Hi Grushenka — it’s funny, I’ve heard that reaction before when I mentioned Biggie as best poet. Must be an east coast/west coast thing.

  8. full reviewIt was a very,
    full review

    It was a very, very good show. I reviewed it over at Caryn’s MF Blues where I am a roving concert reporter.

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