Jay-Z is having a moment in 2017. That feels odd to say about a multi-millionaire who’s been in the rap game for over two decades, but calling it anything less would feel dishonest. The No I.D.-produced 4:44 is his best work in years, a piece that largely attempts to make amends for both his active and passive sleights against the women in his life, as if in direct response to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The additional through-line running through its music videos however, is an incisive look at blackness in modern America, connecting the dots between the African American experience and the subtle pervasiveness of white supremacy.
Both Mark Romanek’s The Story of O.J. and Alan Yang’s Moonlight speak of the commonalities that define American blackness, one historically and the other in modern entertainment. With these newly released video accompaniments (previously unavailable outside of TIDAL), Jay-Z expands his cultural reflection to the institutions of heteronormativity, prisons and law enforcement, in a trio of uniquely conceived works that help turn 4:44 into something of a visual odyssey.
Beginning with a sample of “Love’s in Need of Love Today” by Stevie Wonder, Smile is the most “traditional” of these new videos, chronicling fictionalized events adjacent to the song itself, but it’s music video traditionalism applied to the untraditional in the context of mainstream Hip-Hop. Conceived as Jay-Z’s tribute to his mother, an out and proud lesbian who spent decades in the closet to the point of substance abuse and self-detriment, the video stars Dominique Fishback (The Deuce) as a young Gloria Carter and is unflinching in its depiction of the rapper’s mother as a sexual and romantic being, “living in the shadows” with her secret lover.
The Miles Jay directed short feels like a relic of the ‘70s, shot on 35mm and with exterior night scenes that feel push-processed. It makes young Gloria’s public bus rides not only feel only cheap and grimy, but punctuates the physical shadows as she peers out at a white queer couple living authentically, a luxury she isn’t afforded by her immediate surroundings. The celluloid has just enough occasional scratches to make the film seem like it had been lying forgotten in some attic until it was rediscovered and restored, like a tale long suppressed that deserves to finally be told, ending with Gloria Carter herself reading the poem that inspired the piece.
Legacy is a swing in the opposite direction, a more abstract work akin to the Moonlight video (albeit still grounded in the trappings of real world narrative), holding off on the actual track as long as possible and instead placing a who’s who of familiar faces in an instantly recognizable setting. Only this setting, an American correctional facility, runs according to the whims of a mysterious Mr. Carter, 001444 (Ron Perlman, standing in for both Jay-Z and for the institution itself), keeping its black and even non-black inmates behind bars after their mole-hill crimes were tried as mountains.
This Carter figure is benevolent and privileged, handing treats down to the inmates on a whim and snatching them away just as easily, as if Jay-Z his holding himself accountable for becoming part of an economic system that thrives on the backs of prison labour. In the process, Mr. Carter, the self-aware oppressor who knows full well what these men’s future may hold, also provides an avenue for their liberation: systemic change occurring from within to combat America’s markedly high rate of repeat conviction.
“Legacy,” Carter repeats, as he chooses freedom for himself and for these men, thus placing them on an equal footing in the outside world as opposed to keeping them subservient to him within the walls of the system. It’s exactly this sort of wrestling-match with power, and how it’s either abused or directed towards liberation, within which legacies of both individuals and governments are defined for the ages.
Falling somewhere between the first two videos is Josh & Benny Safdie’s Marcy Me, returning the Good Time filmmakers to their New York home turf. It’s a stripped-down, bird’s eye view of American law enforcement’s demonization of every day blackness, shining a spotlight on the normal, the average, the mundane and even the joyful in ways that make them seem criminal
The spotlight follows friends, lovers and even a child, going so far as to cut in to the latter as we see him buying alcohol and cigarettes as an errand. To what degree, one wonders, would this technically illegal act be used to justify the NYPD potentially arresting him, maiming him, or worse?
The Safdies have a knack for kitchen-sink realism of the Metropolitan variety, capturing New York’s discarded and downtrodden like few have in recent years with films like Heaven Knows What. Here, their attention to naturalistic detail is transposed to African American communities, not to expose some intra-community trauma, but to contextualize a community’s collective trauma with the specter of abusive authority floating overhead, looking for any reason to remove benefit of doubt from the equation. It feels almost like relief that the chopper’s arrival at an open-air party doesn’t end in violence, but such is the nature of the “happy ending” in many of these scenarios, when closely monitored communities of colour can only survive and hope to be left alone.
It’s a bit of a downer note to end on, but collectively Jay-Z has managed to turn 4:44 into one of the more important examples of mainstream African American art this year, taking every possible opportunity to turn his previously decadent, escapist lens in the direction of both past and present realities. What’s more, it comes in the form of his own little shared universe of music videos, like vignettes making up a most prescient visual anthology on American culture.