By: Pranav Nair
Jay-Z’s single “The Story of O.J.,” is a piece on categorizing one’s self based on the expectations of race in society. Jay-Z’s most prominent song on his 13th studio album “4:44,” brings to light a toxic mentality in the black community. A spotlight is shined on the expectation, and therefore fulfillment of underachievement in the community, as Jay-Z calls for community members to strive for something greater than what they already possess.
Accompanied by an animated music video, Jay-Z speaks with hard and concise lyrics digging honestly into often ignored or misinterpreted societal injustices rarely covered in modern hip hop and pop-culture. Immediately as the song begins, Jay-Z talks about existing in racial categories, and how society erroneously separates the Black community by light skin and dark skin, and rich and poor. He addresses the problems and divisiveness that comes with this unconscious categorization of “good black people” and “bad black people.” Jay-Z shows how this distinction between good and bad holds back the community as a whole.
To further his concept, Jay-Z introduces the football star turned convict, O.J. Simpson. Simpson’s reputation is soon followed by Simpson’s iconic line “I’m not black, I’m O.J.!” from “The Trial of the Century” in 1994 regarding him and his crimes. Jay uses both the reputation of O.J. and the line to expand his point on the flawed concept of baseless categorization. “I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” personifies the fact that everyone is their own person—an exclusive. It’s an expert portrayal of how we are not the direct product of our environments.
Then, changing subject, the film swiftly cuts into the unsavory setting of a strip club. Even though the scene is crude and ill-mannered, Jay-Z is able to use this to his advantage. The area is crowded, and a number of men barbarically throw money over the stage lights to the dancers. Jay-Z, once again in his animated form, apathetic to what’s behind him, starts to speak. “You wanna know what’s more important than throwin’ away money at a strip club,” asks Jay-Z. Answering his own question Jay-Z says “Credit.” Jay-Z, being one of the most commercially successful artists of the generation, wants the same for his brothers and sisters—to make wise decisions when money is part of the equation. He would rather pass on his fortune on than be “living rich and then dying broke,” as he raps in the next line. Jay-Z urges people to invest in their wealth and not to hoard it to themselves.
Likewise Jay-Z continues with this topic when he crudely brings social media into the discussion. “Y’all on the ‘Gram holdin’ money to your ear. There’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here,” says Jay-Z. Here, Jay-Z quarrels with the fact that the youth of the community show off and brandish their wealth instead of doing anything worthwhile with it. Jay-Z shows, with anger in his tone, that posting pictures of new clothes and expensive watches shouldn’t be what teens are focusing on.
The underlying theme of these lines, however are not to change yourself, but to change your circumstances. Jay-Z demands that there is a right way and a wrong way to handle money. “I bought some artwork for one million. Two years later, that shit worth two million. Few years later, that shit worth eight million,” said Jay-Z. Here, Jay-Z isn’t talking about a painting, but really, he is skillfully alluding to the power of inheritance and the importance of leaving behind wealth for future generations.
Through the lyricism of his piece, Jay-Z paints a picture of what exactly the problem with modern culture is. It’s not the racism and the stereotyping, it’s the community that is unable overcome these expectations. Jay wants the people to realize that the future is in their own hands and no one else’s. We can’t use our circumstances as an excuse to avoid aiming for something greater. Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” from his 13th studio album “4:44” is not just O.J.’s story, it’s ours.