Friday, April 20, 2012

Jay-Z -- "D'Evils" (1996)

It gets dangerous 
Money and power is changing us 
And now we're lethal, 
Infected with d'evils

Class, may I have your attention.  It's time to get started -- cell phones off, please.  (Linda and Margaret, that means you.)

Today's "Hip Hop 101" begins with a visit to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: the Colossus at Rhodes, the 107-foot high bronze statue of the Greek sun-god, Helios, that was erected in the city of Rhodes on the Greek island of the same name to celebrate the defeat of an invading army in 305 B.C.  It stood for 56 years until it was toppled by an earthquake.  

The statue may have looked something like this:  

But it almost undoubtedly did not look anything like this:

Or like this:

The image of a harbor-straddling giant captured the imagination of many, including Shakespeare, who wrote these lines comparing Julius Caesar to the Colossus at Rhodes:

[H]e doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his legs and peep about

Jay-Z (born Shawn Corey Carter on December 4, 1969) is without a doubt the Colossus of Rhodes of rap music, towering over the world of hip-hop like the ancient bronze statue.  

Beyoncé and Jay-Z
If you don't believe me, maybe you'll believe 11 number one albums (more than Elvis or any other solo artist ever had), worldwide sales of about 50 million albums, and a net worth of $450 million . . . not to mention his marriage to R&B superstar Beyoncé Knowles, who is a suitable queen for the king of the hip-hop world.  

He not only co-founded a record label (Roc-A-Fella Records) but also was behind the creation of the Rocawear apparel brand and co-owns the three 40/40 Clubs and the NBA New Jersey Nets franchise.  As he has famously said, "I'm not a businessman -- I'm a business, man."

We will discuss several Jay-Z songs in upcoming "Hip-Hop 101" lectures -- there are dozens of worthy candidates, so it will be a challenge to decide which ones make the final cut.  Let's begin at the beginning with a track from Jay-Z's very first album, Reasonable Doubt, which was released in 1996.

The early life of this modern-day Colossus -- perhaps we should call him the "Colossus from Marcy Houses," the dangerous Bedford-Stuyvesant housing project he called home -- has elements of Greek tragedy.  

Jay-Z was the youngest of four siblings.  His father abandoned the family when Jay-Z was 11, and he became one of the many crack dealers operating in the Marcy projects.  When he was 12, he shot and wounded his older brother for stealing some of his jewelry.  

A lot of Jay-Z's songs talk about his mother, Gloria Carter.  She indirectly helped get his musical career off the ground by buying him a boom box for his birthday.  He began freestyling for his Marcy friends, and was given the nickname "Jazzy," which eventually evolved into "Jay-Z."  (Jay-Z has many nicknames, including "Jigga" and "HOVA," which stands for "Hustler of Virginia" -- he says he used to run drugs from New York City to Virginia.)

A very young Jay-Z
Jay-Z appeared on the records of a number of other rappers in the early 1990's, and his association with Big Daddy Kane helped bring him to the attention of a larger audience.  But when no existing record company would sign him to a contract, Jay-Z and a couple of his associates started their own record company. 

His debut album, Reasonable Doubt, sold reasonably well and was reviewed favorably.  It is now considered a classic by most critics and hip-hop aficionados -- some would say it was his best album ever.  

Reasonable Doubt is usually characterized as "Mafioso rap," an East Coast gangsta rap variant that is characterized by references to organized crime, drugs, money, expensive cars and expensive champagne, and so on.  The album presents Jay-Z as cocky and unapologetic, but also reflective and self-aware when it comes to the downsides of being a gangsta.  Critics correctly praised the album for its "gritty realism" and  "disarming honesty."

One of the many interesting tracks on Reasonable Doubt is "D'Evils."  The capitalization of the "E" and the way the words is rhymed makes it clear that "d'evils" is a phonetic rendition of "the evils."  But it's impossible to miss the implicit reference to "devils."

John Gotti
The singer of this song is no strutting, boasting gangsta, but a tortured and conflicted soul who admits "I never prayed to God, I prayed to Gotti" -- a reference to the notorious Mafia boss, John Gotti, who had been convicted of five murders in 1992.

But he changes his tune in the course of the song, praying "Dear God, I wonder can you save me?" from the temptation of the easy money available to drug dealers.

The second of the song's three verses is a chilling tale of betrayal -- you can't help but think the guilt of shooting his only brother still weighed on Jay-Z's mind when he rapped about his no-holds-barred pursuit of a former childhood friend who has become a dangerous rival:

We used to fight for building blocks 
Now we fight for blocks with buildings that make a killing 
The closest of friends when we first started 
But grew apart as the money grew, and soon grew black-hearted 
The first two lines of this verse are brilliant.  Jay-Z and his friend once squabbled over who could play with their building blocks when they were small boys.  Now that they are adults, they battle over turf -- over which of them will control drug sales in the project apartment buildings with the largest populations of crackheads and other potential customers.
Thinking back when we first learned to use rubbers 
He never learned so in turn I'm kidnapping his baby's mother 
My hand around her collar, feeding her cheese 
She said the taste of dollars was shitty so I fed her fifties 
About his whereabouts I wasn't convinced 
So I kept feeding her money 'til her shit started to make sense 
She liked this cheese
In his determination to track down and eliminate his rival, Jay-Z has kidnapped his baby's mother.  With an intimidating hand on her throat, he's "feeding her cheese" -- offering her money to betray her baby's father.  She is no innocent -- she's not tempted by one-dollar bills, but finds a fistful of fifties more to her liking: once he upped the ante, she started telling him the truth ("her shit started to make sense") about where his enemy is hiding out.

In the last verse, Jay-Z admits he is powerless to resist the temptations -- the evils (or "d'evils") -- that have been thrown at him: 

My soul is possessed
By d'evils in the form of diamonds and Lexuses . . .
I can't be held accountable
D'evils beatin' me down, boo

In other word, the devil -- or "d'evils" -- made him do it.

The last lines of "D'Evils" indicate that nothing is going to change:

For the love of money, son
I'm giving lead showers

The singer isn't just killing his enemies, he is showering them with bullets.

And even if Jehovah witness,
Bet he'll never testify

Is Jay-Z suggesting that even if God witnesses his crimes, Jay-Z is so intimidating that he'll be afraid to testify at his trial?  Or is the last mention of "d'evils" intended to say that there will no be witness against Jay-Z because the evils (or the devil) is stronger than the forces of good?

But there's even more going on here.  First, there's a pun based on the fact that Jehovah's Witnesses refuse to swear to tell the truth in court because they don't believe in taking oaths to anyone but God.  (That doesn't mean they don't testify, of course -- they just affirm that they will tell the truth rather than swearing an oath to do so.)  Second, if you combine the "Jay" from "Jay-Z" with one of his other nicknames -- "HOVA" -- you have "Jehovah."  So another meaning here is that Jay-Z will never snitch anyone out in court.  

You may find the subject matter of this song repellent and disturbing, but I don't think you can deny the art and skill that its author brings to bear.  I'm not sure it's fair to put him in the same league with Eliot or Joyce, but I don't think such a comparison is that much of a stretch.

We'll learn more about Jay-Z in future "Hip Hop 101" classes, and we'll also learn about his chief rival for the throne.  If you want to know who he is, here's another clue for you all: he is supposedly dating this woman:

(Given that this post began with a reference to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, perhaps it's only fitting that we close with a reference to one of the seven wonders of the modern world . . . )

Here's "D'Evils":

You can use this link to buy "D'Evils " from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. I guess you have to be a street dude to truly understand this track...