Monday, July 17th, 2017

Jay-Z – The Story of O.J.

Gather round, Jukeboxers; that’s if you’re still reading…


Austin Brown: Props to No I.D. and Jay for rendering Booker T. Washington in vivid sonics, but I’ve always been (aesthetically and politically) more of a Du Bois man myself.

Ryo Miyauchi: Unedited Jay-Z, but not entirely in the good way. It’s jarring to hear series of off-tangent flow and odd pauses from a rapper who put his words down to the beat with laser-sharp precision. But what’s more uncomfortable are his unchecked bickering about the youngin’s who don’t follow his business model. Those rhymes should’ve stayed saved as a draft in his mental notepad. 

Ashley John: The strength of this song is in the chorus where Jay-Z questions how a black man is perceived, realizing that no matter his achievements, he will still be boiled down only to his skin color. Outside of this, “The Story of O.J.” reads more like a lecture from my father, spoken at approximately the same pace. His comments about missed investment opportunities in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood and building his children’s art collection land more like whining than wisdom.

Andy Hutchins: The problem with being a black man — even a black business, man — in America is that you are always first and foremost a black man in America, near-billionaire Jay-Z would like you to know. (Unspooling a song-length version of little brother Kanye’s “Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe” on an album that is, by all accounts, the latest in Jay’s 15-year reckoning with adulthood and maturity on wax suggests that he’s maybe a bit late to this revelation.) “The Story of O.J.” sounds like a guy who watched O.J.: Made in America and talked about it for a whole brunch with Lyor Cohen somehow taking the tangent to a Clintonian prosperity gospel that is about mastering capitalism when you actually have capital. Predictably, it’s a mess: The bruising, stunning video harvests centuries of strange fruit, often in ways it doesn’t entirely earn; the “Still nigga” lament is undercut by the fascinating bemusement in the “Okay!” rejoinder in the first verse’s first bar; the bit about “Jewish people owning all the property in America” is just another draught of the crypto-racist poison that has been part of Jewish and black folks being left to fight for what WASP America has left behind, and risks overshadowing the whole piece; the shot at stacks being faux phones is equally wrong-headed, if clever. But this is Shawn Carter illuminating the difference between himself and Sean Bell, not begging the question — a rumination on wealth as a black man, over a masterpiece of production from No I.D. that flips a Nina Simone song maybe five other rappers have the clout to touch — and that is exactly the sort of art he is best suited to make while he waits for Rothkos and Basquiats to appreciate.

Alfred Soto: Even without a video, “The Story of O.J.” is explicit about rubbing black stereotypes in the faces of an audience that at the outset of Jay Z’s career had its ambivalences about his eager embrace of filthy lucre. His thin, high timbre parses syllables as carefully as any performance before 2001. When he answers questions no one asked about the practical way to spend lots of money, he switches to talking. To my ears the line about Jews owing businesses, juxtaposed against a sample of a Nina Simone ballad about self-love and the faint boredom in Jay’s voice, sounds like he’s himself repeating cultural assumptions and stereotypes, in the same way another 4:44 tune questions how a black man is conscripted into admiring Sharpton and Cosby.

Jonathan Bradley: Jay raps best when he has purpose: something to prove, a title to defend, a larger construct that can recontextualize our understanding of his corpus. (Kanye learned from the best how to make an ongoing narrative out of a career.) A full album with producer No I.D. is the same kind of artistic constraint that the film tie-in of American Gangster offered; the coherent aesthetic permits him on both occasions to move beyond the trap of having nothing to discuss beyond being an extraordinarily wealthy man who has accomplished all he could in his field. “The Story of O.J.” is ostensibly our introduction to a reflective, mature Shawn Carter, though his politics aren’t too removed from the “all us blacks got is sports and entertainment until we even” line back in “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” He still raps in the overly fussy syllables that have characterized his flow for a decade now — such a marked difference from the astonishing dexterity of his youth — and the he says the most on this track during a loquacious lacuna: “O.J.’s like, ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J.’ … Okay.” The beat, a dreamlike slippage of curtailed soul and jazz runs, says more: No I.D. barely permits “black” to escape Nina Simone’s lips before shuffling her askew.

Maxwell Cavaseno: Inspired by his appearance on DJ Khaled’s “I Got The Keys” and its subsequent video, I spent a good year warning of HOV: THE MOVIE. In my head, Jay-Z was inspired by his wife’s artistic strides and his protégé/producer/”buddy” modernizing and conceptualizing with ease, and would finally attempt to assert his place. Vague notions of him rhyming over trap productions doing a rally of black positivity in the wake of Trump’s America filled my goading dreams… Rather, I was eventually greeted with a shockingly traddish album of soul samples and a lackluster Jiggaman ponderously musing on his loved ones’ strife to give himself vague outlines of “character” while inanely spouting “You don’t see me in the club? I don’t see you at the BANK” style paeans of success (which awesomely spilled over into vague antisemitism right here!). All of that is on me to feel like I got my hopes up for nothing. Yet even on places where my expectations and Shawn Carter’s desires try to intersect, there’s disappointment.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Jay-Z’s a hustler baby, he’ll sell water to a well. He’ll partner up with phone companies to immediately claim platinum certification and convince the world he’s still relevant. He’ll make a serious album with soul samples that’ll have people shouting “the old Hov’s back!” despite the rapping not touching his glory days. He’ll talk about investing in DUMBO and million dollar paintings and confuse this namedropping for interesting lyricism. He’ll roll his eyes at the notorious O.J. quote but then shame young rappers and tout respectability politics. He’s a hustler baby, he’ll sell mediocre rap to rap fans.

Reader average: [3.66] (3 votes)

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3 Responses to “Jay-Z – The Story of O.J.”

  1. Alfred OTM; meant to blurb this, likely would’ve given it the same score.

  2. I love parts of this song a lot, but as a Jew (in case you couldn’t tell by my surname), I’m still not sure how to feel about that line – I probably would have given this a high-ish score if I reviewed it, and I love the interpretations here, but this was a strange one to think about for me.

  3. “To my ears the line about Jews owing businesses, juxtaposed against a sample of a Nina Simone ballad about self-love and the faint boredom in Jay’s voice, sounds like he’s himself repeating cultural assumptions and stereotypes”


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