Beyoncé and Jay-Z
Late to the Party: Inspired by Bourgeois Ecstasy
by Keralee Gueneviere
My boyfriend and I are folk and Americana-inspired musicians, but we can also be described as middle-aged and yes, white. We don't consider ourselves stodgy or set in our ways a'tall. Still, the last ten years of auto-tuned, hip-hop inspired, aggressively operatic and diva-driven pop music has somehow eluded us. So one Sunday morning we decided to take a peek behind the velvet, electronic curtain to see what the fuss is all about and catch up. We started with Beyoncé, who my niece tells me is called BAE, an affectionate acronym meaning "Before Anyone Else." But you already knew that, and so, dimly and involuntarily did we.
I had already been made aware of "Lemonade" and the video "Hold Up" (Beyoncés artistic response to infidelity) and the only quarrel I had with the video was Beyoncés smile as she wielded her avenging bat. Still, Bey is spectacularly iconic in her citron-dyed, artfully tattered, breast-displaying dress. As she flounces through the neighborhood, exacting her revenge on parked cars, we understand that she's gonna fuck-her-up some windshield, and that, if she could, she'd bust up the other woman, and maybe even Jay-Z-- even as she keens for, and in some respects fights for his return. These sentiments of love, betrayal and revenge are universal. But, the extraordinary visuals of the opening sequence are not.
The video begins with Beyoncé plunging underwater and reciting her agonizing, mystic poem of unknowing: "I tried to change, closed my mouth more, tried to be soft, prettier, less awake. Fasted for sixty days, wore white, abstained from mirrors.... But still inside me coiled deep was the need to know..." She emerges then, in a Biblical torrent of water, through the double doors of a Neo classic building, before proceeding to the neighborhood to wreck the cars. And this is the point: the Neo-Classic monument, the use of mysticism, the poetry, the underwater visuals-- all these dramatic archetypes take us to another place transcending race, class and culture-- to the dreamland of wish-fulfillment narrative as art. Then Beyoncé takes us to the neighborhood where the rest of the video goes down.
Though not the most complex narrative, "Hold Up" was still interesting, even moving because of its combined artistic elements. I was duly impressed. This was art, not just some pop confection, escapism or youthful trend that I somehow missed. This is one artist standing in for the universal themes for all of us and creating something new. And then I started to wonder: did Beyoncé write the poem or did someone else? Did Beyoncé pick the dress or did someone else? Who told Beyoncé to smile as she hit the windshields. Who selected and then edited the triumphant, bent-back ebullience of the young boy dancing in the sprinkler? Jonas Akerlund is credited as the director of the video but the way that Bey takes control of the rest of her career, you have to think that she very much had a hand in the video too.
In the end, the video, and all its attendant questions, points to the significance of Beyoncé, beyond her resonance with young girls and women of all ages and races. Because of her abundant artistic giftsas well as her resplendent beauty, Bey has become not only famous but truly iconic. Thus the culture has elevated and remunerated her accordingly. Which means now she has tremendous resources at her behest, so that not only is her voice heard, it is amplified by all the talent that surrounds her. She is what the kids would justly call a diva, and as such, also "an influencer."
Because of this as well as her willingness to be fully seen, her fans follow her through her very human processes as they are turned, by a coterie of arts professionals-- songwriters, filmmakers, editors, producers, musicians, back up dancers, tour managers, publicists etc. etc.-- into art. But hers is not the droll, understated, repressed anger of a scrawled New Yorker cartoon about the trials of marriage. Beyoncés anger, grief and confusion becomes the grandiose epic that is the video "Hold up!" And hurrah for all that. That's why we outliers are finally on board with Bey.
Some additional YouTube noodling around led to our next discovery when we clicked on "Apeshit," the hit single by "The Carters," a boastful entertainment power couple. The accompanying video is visually lavish, but initially musically underwhelming. Still, I watched transfixed as the story unfolded in the art-stuffed galleries of a just barely recognizable museum. There was the silent chorus of differently colored dancers, moving in unison on the gallery steps. There were the cut-aways of famous medieval artwork. There were the two main artists, man and woman, draped in clothes that mirrored the art. There was the mystifying modern sequence of a red shoed black man in a dimly lit, seemingly underground office filled with bankers boxes, and there was the silent embrace of a jet black couple cross-cut with the painted suffering of Christ. The images dipped and faded, massaging and then reweaving themselves to the persistent beat ("Hey hey hey"), pulling focus, fading in and out, repeating and re-introducing the visual themes: Art. Icon. Couple. Movement. Art. Icon. Couple. Movement. "Hey hey hey."
"Wait a minute, isn't that the Louvre?" I asked myself as the couple stood impassive before the Mona Lisa: a pastel-suited version of American Gothic. "And wait, wait a mothering flipping minute... Isn't that actually Beyoncé draped up like that? And isn't that Jay Z with that insanely large medallion, holding her hand in front of a sphinx?
Yes. Yes. and Yes.
And then I began listening to the words: "Give me my check. Give some respect. Sit on my dick. Can't believe we made it. This is what we thankful for.... Have you ever seen a crowd going apeshit?" The beat begins, dirge-like and stentorian. But as the video proceeds, it becomes infectious; punching and popping with the bourgeois triumphalism of the newly and spectacularly-arrived Carters. And this then is the point: the simple-sounding Carters are, in fact, the unimaginably famous and wildly successful couple that is Beyoncé and Jay Z.
Wildly and even fiercely successful, Bey and Jay both represent as well as transcend race, culture and class lines. Yet they are willing to model the possibilities for outlandish success within their own community. But, aside from all the money, Beyoncé and Jay Z in "Apeshit" are chortling that their true wealth is the ability to move thousands, on a nightly basis ("Have you ever heard a crowd going Apeshit?"). As the song says, they don't need the NFL or the Grammy's. They have arrived in the most meaningful manner of all. They can buy out the Louvre, the universal symbol of high art, because their art is accepted and more importantly, sold to the masses on a massive scale.
In the video "Apeshit," the unprepossessing Carters have put themselves on par with the greatest artists of all time and demand that we see them as such. And this is wonderful: a pun and an ipso facto truism. By today's standards of success (money, recognition and influence), The Carters are on a par with the greatest artists of the world; not only because they say so, but because we keep buying their records and paying attention. And we, (even though the boyfriend and I are yes, quite late to the party), will follow them anywhere as the two icons crash the party and crash into the world's most coveted institutions. But instead of tearing the Louvre down, or messing with the Mona Lisa-- like true iconoclasts--The Carters simply insert themselves into the pictures, demanding to be seen, heard and recognized and when all is said and done, demanding respect. Because for all their fame and wealth has gotten them, it is not quite enough. They want to be taken seriously.
The song is not great, the setting somewhat baffling, but the overall effect of "Apeshit" is a shrewd and somewhat-surprising celebration. Using the conceit of "The Carters," the outrageous location of the Louvre and the repetitive and insistent beat combined with the unrepentant braggadocio of the lyrics, The Carters make their point and then some. Once we submit to the back-handed charms of their triumphant and remorselessly material victory rap, we eventually become as happy for the Carters as they obviously are for themselves.
For not only have they arrived, The Carters now set their own standards for artistic accomplishment, all while questioning and some would say eradicating the distinction between high and low art.
Which leads me to another point, the Carters, (and other artists, notorious for lavish spending), are triumphing in completing the wealth cycle, (from poverty to victorious excess), in a culture that has systematically excluded them. Due to their meteoric rise, they were able to skip the middle "bourgeois" step of establishing a solid base, summiting into what we would describe as the upper echelon of prosperity-- or, the dreaded "one percent." Still, according to Jay Z, no matter how high they climb, there will always be the specter of exclusion.
They say it's bourgeois to talk about being bourgeois. Moreover, certain artists eschew identity politics, preferring to be embraced for their talents alone. But as a former businessman, (or drug dealer-- however you want to frame it), and present day mogul, Jay Z often directly addresses issues of race and class in his work.
His video "The Story of OJ" dropped in 2017, creating a furor of anti-semitic reactivity. Although my boyfriend and I are, of course a tad behind the times, in 2019, we still found the video brilliantly relevant: a true stand out and dimensional piece of of agitprop art.
The video opens with the refrain, "Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga. Still nigga, still nigga!" Jay Z goes on to describe himself as a "field nigga," hustling on the corner and admonishing the "house nigga" not to fuck with him. "Please don't die over the neighborhood your momma rent in. Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood. That's how you rinse it--"
As the song proceeds, Jay Z cautions his fellow rappers about showing off their advances on Instagram while the video shows pictures of enslaved black Africans on a ship-- equating financial obligation with the horror of slavery. The only way out, he posits, is to learn to how to play the game. Images of Nina Simone, Josephine Baker, O.J., Huey P. Newton and even Jesse Owen's victorious fist (the four time Olympic Gold medalist of 1936) contrast with anachronistic cartoons of black folk during the time of slavery, the civil war, the Harlem renaissance and the Ku Klux Klan era. Meanwhile the portentous refrain drone on ("Light nigga, dark nigga, faux nigga, real nigga rich nigga, poor nigga, house nigga, field nigga. Still nigga, still nigga!").
It's an effective and powerful survey of Black history past and present as well as an exhortation to rise above one's circumstances for the future. With the infectious refrain and the clever and unsparing visual narrative, "The Story of OJ" reminds us that the Black experience can never not encompass slavery, oppression, and social marginalization, in the same way perhaps that the Jewish Narrative can never not be about the Holocaust. And it demands that we acknowledge this, wherever we are coming from. But though the song contends that he is "still nigga," Jay Z also wants us to know that financial freedom is social freedom, plain and simple--though the perils of prejudice are far from absent.
As relative newcomers to the pleasures of Hip Hop, my boyfriend and I were challenged, delighted and schooled in equal measure by "The Story of O.J." Still, the video's title is both ironic and condemning. For according to Jay-Z, as a black man who disavows his blackness, OJ ("I'm not Black, I'm O.J."), is most emphatically "Stll Nigga": despite and/or maybe even because all of his eager efforts to assimilate — becoming a sports and then a movie and cultural star (and finally, a criminal). But Jay Z is no O.J. and he refuses to deny his own blackness. Further, he is simultaneously too street and too smart not to recognize the importance and meaning of his personal trajectory. Over and over, Jay Z references his past, claiming that he doesn't the need the guns anymore: he made it this far and now he has to learn the new turf of living large and living smart as a righteously wealthy black man. But even more powerfully, In "the Story of O.J.," Jay Z contextualizes his experience within the larger black narrative.
In the final cartoon frame of the video, we see Jay Z as Jaybo, (a reference to the treacherous Black Sambo character of old), throwing money out of a plane into the old neighborhood, then flying away while the world is engulfed in a wave. The message being that disaster will always ensue, but if you're lucky enough and prepared like Jay Z, you'll have your own way out.
Here's hoping that everyone gets the message...
As we looked deeper into the canon of Jay Z, clicking on the YouTube sidebar area after "The Story of OJ.," Jay Z's video "4:44" came up and we were both baffled and intrigued. This is a long form video, or rather, a short film that bares unpacking. In "4:44," Jay Z appears to be responding to "Hold Up," apologizing and explaining his inability to love. Here again, the video is contextualized within the black experience, using both found and created footage to amplify the song.
The film begins with a black child singing a beautiful version of Nina Simone's "Feeling Good." The video proceeds to Eartha Kitt speaking about the difficulty of love and relationships. More clips and interviews from the black community follow, interspersed with Jay Z's voiceover and the haunting chorus of keening back-up singers. Woven throughout these seemingly disparate images is an improvisational modern dance between a couple who doubtlessly represent Beyoncé and Jay Z-- as well as all black (and white?) couples.
Historical footage from a slave sale of a black child (who looks suspiciously like Jay Z) is contrasted with an underwater clip of Beyoncé from "Lemonade." A tattooed black man speaks of seeing too much to die. Then, images of a fight between two Black women, a car accident, a blue dancing Santa, and a man dancing at a party follow. All these highly charged images serve to mine the song for a deeper communal meaning: life it appears is hard, a tortured dance punctuated by celebration and disaster. Over this visual pageant, Jay Z mourns his own shortcomings while the Greek chorus of back up singers lament and keen. The effect is confusing and captivating. We know something significant is happening: we just don't know what.
What is happening is that Jay Z is baring his soul, then turning it over the filmmakers to complete his vision.
It is significant that Jay Z and the filmmakers (the TNEG team- Malik Sayeed, Elissa Blount-Moorhead and Arthur Jafa) name check the black community, using eminent black talent to deliver their message: Nina Simone, Eartha Kitt, Beyoncé, Basquiat and Al Green all represent, assisting Jay Z as he midwifes his sentiments through song and story. The effect is stunning, heartbreaking even. Jay Z's predicament as a man, unable to love is contextualized within the ragged and tumultuous arc of the Black experience; from slavery to gang banging, to community celebrations, arrests, artistic triumphs and the incessant dance between man and woman, it's all there for us to consider as Jay Z apologizes for his failures.
"Here it is" he seems to say, "Here is where I come from. This is why I'm having a hard time with myself and in this relationship. This is why I apologize." It's in the song, in the images and within Jay Z himself: the grit, the guts, the glory and the egregious indiscretions. But in the end, after all the jarring imagery and the incessant drama, it's the fierce, silent beauty of the courtship dance between Jay Z and Beyoncé on stage while Al Green sings his glorious love song "Judy" that offers both redemption and renewal.
The song "4:44" is a gorgeous, heartbreaking triumph. Buttressed as it is by this unconventional short film, it is both an apology and an embrace of one's personal and communal history, an anthem and a prayer for the Black Community and a poem of mourning and celebration for everyone else. "Help me be better!" Jay Z sings and, "God Help us all overcome this shit!" the filmmakers appear to be saying.
But, in addition to being about Jay Z and the black experience, this film resonates deeply as part of the human experience. Triumph and tragedy, love and loss, mourning and celebration are all something we endure at one time or another. And this, in the final analysis, is why the film and the song reverberate so powerfully. Yes, it is coming from Jay Z but it hits us all squarely in both the heart and the gut. In "4:44," we're able to appreciate Jay Z's vulnerability and subjectivity, all while relating to the universal human struggle.
We're just glad we stumbled onto this and got to see it for ourselves.
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