Sometimes we collectively create the man, only to watch him become the thing he once rallied against. Hip-hop is funny that way. Artists use the story of their lives as the vehicle to drive a wedge between the man they have become and the person they once were.
In street terms: Once the money gets fluffy, they leave the hood.
In Disney terms: The pauper is now the prince.
Shawn Carter used to be a pauper. He used to live in the notoriously tough Marcy Houses of Brooklyn, N.Y., selling drugs to make money to survive, hoping for a way out. These days Jay Z is a prince: He attends fetes with the Obamas, boasts about the stamps in his passport and, amid all kinds of racial disharmony, has launched his “New York Holiday” Barneys New York collaboration this week, featuring $675 sunglasses, $2,500 leather shorts and a $875 baseball cap.
While the country struggles to right itself financially, millions of Americans scramble for health care and unemployment rates for African Americans still stun, the question remains: Who are these clothes for? While 100 percent of the profit made on the sales is being donated to the Shawn Carter Foundation, 100 percent of zero isn’t much.
There is a definite disconnect here between the rapper and his fan base. A separation of sorts that isn’t an issue of growth, since intelligence and evolution are a part of the maturation process. I don’t expect Jay Z to stagnate as an artist or a performer. His circle must expand as he ages, but this Moncler Leather Sleeve Puffer Varsity Jacket for $2,295 is for the 1 percent. I don’t know anyone else who can spend $12,000 for a Hoorsenbuhs Gold two-finger ring or a $17,900 Hublot watch.
To put it in Jay Z terms: The rest of us 99 percent ain’t 1.
Let’s just think about this for a second. If there is even a hint of truth to the Barneys “shopping while black” allegations, then the young man known as Shawn Carter couldn’t have saved for two months to walk into the store and use his debit card to buy the Jay Z-curated Balmain Emblem-Print Epaulette Tee Shirt for $750 without being hassled by security.
But that Shawn kid is quite a few albums ago, light years behind Jay Z. The Marcy projects are an imaginary homeland now, just an anecdote in a bigger story of success and triumph.
So the man who once rapped this—"Where we call the cops the A-Team/cause they hop out of vans and spray things/And life expectancy so low we making out wills at eight-teen”—is now all about this: “Riccardo Tisci Givenchy clothes/See me throning at the Met/Vogueing on these niggas, champagne on my breath/House like the Louvre or the Tate Modern/Cause I be going ape at the auction.”
In the end, Jay Z is not exclusive in his abandonment of his past. He is mirroring the same dreams that had onetime slaves becoming slave owners—the same dreams that had pimps buying Cadillacs because that’s what white businessman drove. It is in the convoluted tales of a black collective past that a narrative is woven and spun and told just so over a beat.
There has always been an attraction to opulence embedded in hip-hop culture. Jay Z isn’t the first to spit about how fresh he can get, but he is the first to ink a deal with Barneys and sell clothes that most of his fans couldn’t begin to afford.
Stephen A. Crockett Jr. is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.