As we read MSNBC’s report about yet another sad study on the decline of marriage for successful black women, the very single Hill Harper releases The Conversation: How Black Men and Women Can Build Loving, Trusting Relationships, and Steve Harvey’s book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like A Man still gets quoted, I find myself growing more and more irritated with the packaging of the message of black love. Sure it’s an important one, but if the message has any hope of being applied to everyday people, it not only needs to be delivered by fresh voices, it must also be directed toward a younger, less jaded demographic, which poses the question:
When are we going to hear one of these married or crazy-in-love rappers like Jay-Z rap about holy matrimony?
With one song, Jay-Z can do what Hill Harper, Steve Harvey and arguably the Obamas have not been able to do. He can make marriage cool. Jay-Z’s influence over young black men is palpable. As someone who grew up listening to Jay-Z, I say with no shame I have quoted Jay-Z lyrics as though they were the second coming of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream" speech. In my Harlem neighborhood, young black men listen to Jay-Z like young black women watch and listen to Oprah Winfrey, and therein lies the biggest problem in the black relationship lecturing/literature game.
Jay-Z is clever, creative—and cagey—enough to rap about marriage without rapping about his own. As Jay recently said in his interview on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, “Song Cry”—one of his most well-known songs about a break-up with a woman—wasn’t just about his own relationship, but two others as well. And when his songs aren’t about real-life experiences, he still has the ability to write the kind of rhymes young people follow as though they are gospel. On his 2004 album, The Black Album, Jay-Z rapped, "I don't wear jerseys/I’m 30-plus/give me a crisp pair of jeans/[expletive] button up," and every guy ditched their throwback basketball jerseys in favor of button-up dress shirts.
When it comes to the marriage discussion, black men need to get involved. Black women are already on board. This week one of them will probably buy one of the two books written by Harvey or Hill or read another article in Essence about what they need to do to make a man happy. Meanwhile, by this time next week Jay-Z will probably have the No. 1 album in the country and a big reason will be because young black men everywhere listen to what he has to say and live vicariously through his lyrics.
On Jay-Z's latest album, The Blueprint 3, one song title grabbed my attention: "Venus VS Mars." Finally, I thought. Jay-Z is going to do a song about being a married man. After I listened, though, I was disappointed to discover the song wasn’t about marriage at all, but a fictional tale of a man (presumably Jay himself in his younger years) and his ups and downs with an unspecified woman who is his polar opposite. As for the rest of The Blueprint 3, which was officially released Tuesday, there are tons of references to Jay-Z’s coming of age and his evolution as a rapper pushing 40, but none of them involve speaking on his marriage to R&B superstar, Beyoncé.
And speaking of Bey, Jay-Z is married to perhaps one of the few artists who can sell more albums than him, yet he’s the first guy to spit a verse on one of his wife’s songs. He knows she’s just as famous—if not more than—he is, and yet he never asks her to play the background. As a pop/R&B singer, Beyoncé can always sing a song about love and marriage (even though she, too, remains mostly mum on being a wife both in songs and in interviews). But it’s not enough to lead by example. They go to great length to keep private their life as husband and wife, which is understandable, but also unfortunate. Jay-Z prides himself on keeping it real, and what’s more real than being married?
To be clear, hip-hop doesn’t have a vulnerability problem. There are plenty of rap songs about the ups and downs of being in a relationship, but marriage? In rap, it might as well be called the M-word because almost no rapper wants to say it in a song, let alone write three verses and a hook about it.
To Jay-Z’s credit, The Blueprint 3’s message is about growing up, something he hints toward on the album’s first song, “What We Talkin’ About.” He rhymes, “Come with me to the White House/ Get your suit up/ You stuck on being hard-core/ I chuck the deuce up.” It’s a noble, if subliminal, message coming from the man who wrote a song entitled “Girls, Girls, Girls” on his 2001 The Blueprint. And though Jay-Z has no such songs on his new Blueprint, there are also no songs about being with that one special woman—his wife.
Jozen Cummings is a former editor at VIBE and lives in Harlem. His new blog is Untiligetmarried.
Jozen Cummings is the author and creator of the popular relationship blog Until I Get Married, which is currently in development for a television series with Warner Bros. He also hosts a weekly podcast with WNYC about Empire called Empire Afterparty, is a contributor at VerySmartBrothas.com and works at Twitter as an editorial curator. Follow him on Twitter.