When Jay-Z last headlined the Budweiser Made in America festival in 2012, he was introduced by the president of the United States.
At that inaugural Labor Day weekend gathering on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the entertainment kingpin and festival curator’s set was preceded by a video message from Barack Obama, the guy the rapper was referring to on his 2011 Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne when boasting: “Tuxes next to the president, I’m present.”
In his intro, the then-POTUS argued that the music mahoff who grew up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses projects embodied the American dream. “He didn’t come from power or privilege,” Obama said. “He got ahead because he worked hard, learned from his mistakes, and just plain refused to quit. That’s what Made in America means.”
On Sunday, that Horatio Alger from the hood — the rapper born Shawn Carter — will again top the bill at the festival he cofounded and continues to curate. (He’s clearly not against nepotism; he’s hired his wife, Beyoncé, to headline twice.) With his strongest album in years out this summer, the sixth annual Made in America affirms his stature as the world’s most respected dad rapper and an industry mover and shaker who continues to endure long after his contemporaries have passed their sell-by dates.
In the last five years, much has changed for the now 47-year-old father of three. His son Sir and daughter Rumi, who were born in June, join big sister Blue Ivy, 5, who was still in diapers when Made in America was born.
Since 2015, Jay-Z has been the owner of Tidal, the music service that has struggled to compete with behemoths like Spotify and Apple Music, and which will be streaming Made in America sound and video live this weekend for free at Tidal.com/mia.
And while Jay-Z is still very much a revered figure in hip-hop and the entertainment world, he’s also made his share of mistakes — both personally and professionally — in recent years.
Has he learned from them? In business dealings, not always. In 2013, Magna Carta … Holy Grail, the largely forgotten album that featured a hit Justin Timberlake duet, was rolled out in conjunction with electronics giant Samsung in an ill-conceived deal that confused and alienated fans.
Then with his new album 4:44, released over July Fourth weekend, Jay-Z made similar missteps, again annoying those who simply wanted to hear his new music. Initially the album was available only to Sprint customers and existing (not new) Tidal subscribers. Arrgh!
But once fans heard 4:44, most if not all was forgiven. That’s partly because it’s a late-career highlight from a beloved artist with a stack of classic albums in his not-so-recent past, starting with 1996’s Reasonable Doubt. And 4:44 is also a rare beast in the hypermacho world of mainstream rap: It’s a superstar release that spends a good deal of its time asking for forgiveness, from both Jay-Z’s betrothed and, by extension, his audience.
On the 10-track album’s title track — which the rapper says came to him after waking up at precisely that time — he says “I apologize” no fewer than seven times.
And he has a lot to apologize for, as is detailed on Lemonade, his superdiva spouse’s 2016 visual album blockbuster that raked the rapper over the coals for apparent infidelities, turning him into a seemingly well-deserved target for hell-hath-no-fury rage in songs like “Hold Up,” in which Beyoncé strutted down the street smashing windows with a baseball bat.
It also made Jay-Z seem like something of a numskull, the guy who, on “Public Service Announcement” from 2003’s The Black Album, had rapped “got the hottest chick the game wearin’ my chain,” yet came close to, as he puts it in 4:44’s “Kill Jay Z,” letting “the baddest girl in the world get away.”
4:44 is not a point by point response to Lemonade, but it doesn’t shy away from the domestic situation, which some conspiracy theorists have gone so far as to suggest is a fictional narrative designed to fuel both of their careers. (Not likely, but interesting to cynically contemplate.)
And perhaps more importantly, it points the album toward a tone of contemplation and contrition, really the only stance that he could reasonably take as a middle-aged rapper whose skills are impressively intact but who has aged out of nonstop braggadocio.
Hip-hop has traditionally been a young man’s game, and artists that sustain careers over decades usually do it working some sort of side hustle. LL Cool J, the first rapper to be named as a Kennedy Center honoree, is known first to many as a star of NCIS: Los Angeles. The Roots escaped the grind of nonstop touring with a late-night talk-show gig, and Sean “Diddy” Combs topped Forbes’ 2017 list of celebrity earners by selling a stake in his Sean John fashion line.
Jay-Z is unique in that, as he approaches 50, he maintains credibility with a mass audience as an artist. That not just because of the music he’s making now, of course. He’s a must-see performer for a generation-spanning range of fans because of a massive catalog of hits that make up an essential part of the hip-hop canon — “Big Pimpin’,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “On To The Next One” — you’ll likely hear them all Sunday night.
He’s also half of the most impressive power couple, and in a genre in which the acquisition of transformative wealth is a perennial subject, his only rivals as earners are Diddy and producer and Beats electronics Apple Music billionaire Dr. Dre.
Jay-Z’s restrained confidence is the essence of cool; he never seems the least bit desperate. But if you don’t come up with fresh hits — or at least newly relevant songs — you eventually become an oldies act.
That’s where the new album comes in. Working exclusively with producer Ernest Dion “No I.D.” Wilson, 4:44‘s pared-down approach pushes the rapper into reflective, self-analytical territory. He emphasizes his words carefully, and toots his own horn with subtlety (“I mastered my aesthetics / I know you often heard me wax poetic”). He navigates delicate territory with aplomb, giving his mother Gloria Carter a vehicle to come out as gay on “Smile” and addressing his late father on “Adnis.”
In an interview with the Rap Radar podcast that’s exclusive to Tidal, Jay-Z talked about aging with the music. “Rap is just growing up,” he said. “It’s still one of the youngest genres of music. So nobody knows what it’s going to be yet. We haven’t seen where a guy 47 years old puts out this sort of album.”
4:44 isn’t afraid to look back on the past.“Marcy Me” reminisces about a time “When Lisa Bonet was the Beyoncé of her day,” and paraphrases Hamlet: “Lord we know who we are, yet we know not who we may be.”
The idea that self-creation is possible fits right into the Made in America branding, even if MiA on the ground often seems a place where the prevailing ambition is to drink copious amounts of red, white, and blue Budweiser and patriotically sleep it off on the Ben Franklin Parkway blacktop.
In keeping with the themes voiced by Obama in 2012, Jay-Z’s performance will again be introduced by a prerecorded video on Sunday night. This time, though, it won’t be a current resident of the Oval Office talking.
Instead, the rapper’s own voice will be heard, reading a self-penned poem called “Dream. On.” The clip aims to inspire — “All I had was hella hope” he recalls — while expressing an unwavering belief in an individual’s ability to “turn any situation around.” Considering the heights Jay-Z has risen to in his career, and the hot water he’s gotten himself out of with 4:44, you’d have to say that confidence is well-placed.