song review

Jay-Z and Pharrell Are Making History, But Both Could Stand to Learn From It

“Entrepreneur” is bootstraps logic, a capitalist fairy tale. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

The deification of Jay-Z over the past decade has been tiresome — and not just because people bought into the God MC self-mythologizing to the extent that some people even seem to think having dinner with the man is a better investment for the future than $50,000 cash. Jay-Z is a fascinating character — not because he never misses but because he does miss. But he always learns from his mistakes. 1998’s Streets Is Watching, the Brooklyn tycoon’s first film foray, is a choppy visual album carrying a soundtrack whose main directive seemed to be spotlighting the Roc-A-Fella Records roster and previewing the album Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life. The next few Roc-A-Fella film endeavors — like the memorable rap documentaries Backstage and Fade to Black or the hood classics Paid in Full and State Property — are more fondly remembered. As co-owner of the Nets, Jay famously brought the New Jersey NBA team to Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in 2013, facing loud criticism from locals who viewed the overarching Atlantic Yards project as a noisy land grab (facilitated in part by Michael Bloomberg, the New York mayor whose overly ambitious courtship of big business is coming home to roost as pet projects like the Hudson Yards mall flounder in the current financial crisis). Roc Nation Sports leads with a more delicate touch. Jay makes big moves, but keeping him afloat is a willingness to change course when he’s wrong, to change up when a plan isn’t working.

It’s high time Jay turned a corner again. His insistence amid this past fall’s widely criticized NFL collaboration that harnessing the power of brands and businesses was the path forward for the social-justice imperative that sprung up around Colin Kaepernick has been proven wrong all summer; protesters screaming in the streets have been more effective in getting the message out about Black Lives Matter than any conciliatory corporate gesture. Jay still seems miffed about this in his verse on Pharrell’s new single “Entrepreneur” as he rebukes Black Twitter for elevating a platform that doesn’t compensate users and restates the 4:44–era case that says change is best achieved through securing a seat at the corporate table: “Sitting around waiting for folks to throw you a bone / If you can’t buy the building, at least stock the shelf / Then keep on stacking ‘til you stocking for yourself.”

It’s bootstraps logic, a capitalist fairy tale. History tells another story. In 1857, Seneca Village, a middle class community of free Black Americans situated in the middle of the island of Manhattan, was razed in a campaign of lies and ruthless political practices so the city could build what would become Central Park. In 1919, Jesse Binga, founder of Chicago’s first Black-owned bank, had his home and business bombed eight times. In 1921, Tulsa’s affluent Black Wall Street was burned to a crisp. In 2014, Eric Garner was strangled to death while selling loose cigarettes. In 2019, Nipsey Hussle was murdered outside his own store. Drive doesn’t necessarily pan out in riches. Wealth isn’t necessarily insulating. The achievements of Black billionaires don’t necessarily trickle down and set us all free.

To be fair, Pharrell seems to get this. Outside of the guest verse (which, like the economic advice put out on 4:44, is most useful to people already halfway up the ladder of success), “Entrepreneur” is a celebration of Black business acumen at every level. In the beautiful music video, directed by L.A. filmmaker Calmatic, bike-shop owners and flea-market stall-keepers are lifted up alongside famous faces like Issa Rae and Tyler, the Creator. It’s vital and encouraging — a microcosm of the Vantablack spirit world where Beyoncé’s Black Is King takes place, or else a reminder that an embryonic version of it already exists on Earth and is in need of cultivation.

The issue of Time that the new song heralds, titled “The New Revolution,” presents the latter case in a collection of essays and dialogues involving prominent Black creators and thinkers. Atlanta rapper 21 Savage continues to prove he’s smarter than he ever gets credit for in a short essay about the importance of financial literacy. Tyler, the Creator has a chat with Black-ish and #BlackAF creator Kenya Barris about the shifting iconography in Black television. Black-ish and Grown-ish’s Yara Shahidi has an illuminating conversation with activist Angela Davis about how the internet is accelerating learning and coalition-building. Pharrell uses the keynote to point out how our history of chattel slavery complicates the notion of a cross-cultural “American dream” and wonder how a people once treated as property can escape the shadow of second-class citizenship without ground-level change. Jay-Z sticks out in this company. His solutions seem unique to his experience. He’ll come around eventually. He always does.

Jay-Z and Pharrell Are Still Selling a Fairytale