Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Jay-Z -- "December 4th" (2003)

Shawn Carter was born December 4th
Weighing in at ten pounds, eight ounces
He was the last of my four children
The only one who didn't give me any pain 
When I gave birth to him
And that's how I knew 
That he was a special child

These rather remarkable lines are spoken by rap superstar Jay-Z's mother, Gloria Carter, at the beginning of "December 4," the opening track on Jay-Z's The Black Album, which was released in 2003.

If you're one of the "Hip Hop 101" students who has read all the required readings and who pays attention in class instead of sitting in the back row and listening to rap on your iPod, you know that Jay-Z's real name is Shawn Carter.

Today -- December 4, 2012 -- is Jay-Z's 43rd birthday.  So it was 43 years ago today that the second greatest miracle involving a child's birth in the history of the world took place:  Shawn's mother, Gloria Carter, felt no pain while giving birth to him despite the fact that he weighed ten pounds, eight ounces.

Jay-Z with his mom, Gloria Carter
What do you mothers out there have to say about that?  Maybe something like "When pigs fly!"  Some of you moms might use saltier language to express the viewpoint that there is no flippin' way that any woman could give birth to a big lug like Jay-Z and not suffer excruciating pain, but this is a family blog.

By the way, people around the world have some very imaginative ways of expressing doubt that some unlikely event will ever take place.  For example, Mexicans say "When the rooster lays an egg!" to make the point that something is impossible and will never happen.  In China and India, they say "When the sun rises from the west!"  And in the UK, the people say "Not in a month of Sundays!"

The Venezuelans supposedly say "When frogs dance the flamenco!"  And the Turks supposedly say "When the fish climbs the poplar tree!"  I have my doubts about those two, but maybe they're genuine.

My favorite is the saying attributed to Brazilians: "On St. Never's Day!"

Whether little Shawn Carter did or did not cause his mother any pain during childbirth, he certainly was a special child as far as his mother was concerned.  And he grew up to be a very special man.  If you don't think so, just ask Jay-Z -- he'll gladly point out that you are sadly mistaken.

It was said that The Black Album would be Jay-Z's final album -- that he was going to turn his attention to running Roc-A-Fella records and his other businesses.  No one bought that, and they were right.  Jay-Z released a solo album three years later, and followed that up with two more solo albums and Watch the Throne, a collaborative album with Kanye West.

The Black Album debuted at #1 on the Billboard album chart, selling almost half a million copies the first week it was released.  Most critics reviewed it very positively, and it was nominated for the Grammy award for best rap album.

The Black Album is breathtakingly narcissistic.  Jay-Z has earned legendary status in the rap world, but he is a much bigger legend in his own mind than anywhere else.

In "December 4" we learn more about Jay-Z's childhood from both Jay-Z and his mother.  For example, she tells us that young Shawn was a very shy child, was a big sports fan, and learned to ride a bike when he was four.  He became obsessed with music at an early age, and used to practice his rhymes and tap out beats on the kitchen table until the wee hours.  So his mother bought him a boom box to use to create songs.

A very young Jay-Z
Jay-Z points out some of the darker aspects of his childhood.  He "was a kid torn apart once his pop disappeared" -- his father left his mother and their four children when Jay-Z was 12.  "I went to school, got good grades, could behave when I wanted/But I had demons deep inside," Jay-Z admits.

Pretty soon he was dealing drugs on the street, and living large as a result:

I'm a hustler now
My gear is in, and I'm in the in crowd
And all the wavy light-skinned girls is lovin' me now
My self-esteem went through the roof, man
I got my swag

Selling drugs not only paid for Jay-Z's swag -- the clothes, the cars, the jewelry, the expensive food and drink -- but also gave him his swagger.

The once and future king of hip-hop
In 1996, Jay-Z said good-bye to "the game, all the spoils, the adrenaline rush" and decided "[t]o try this rap sh*t for a living."  It worked out pretty well for our boy -- he's sold 50 million albums worldwide, is worth an estimated $500 million, and is married to BeyoncĂ© Knowles.  

But Jay-Z still schleps around a lot of guilt and angst:

I pray I'm forgiven
For every bad decision I made
Every sister I played
Cause I'm still paranoid to this day
And it's nobody fault I made the decisions I made
This is the life I chose, or rather the life that chose me

Whoa, whoa, whoa -- what does that last line mean?  Is Jay-Z accepting responsibility for the mistakes he made when he was younger?  Or is he blaming racism, poverty, and other social ills for his criminal behavior?

"December 4" then closes with a challenge -- which Jay-Z repeats four times:

If you can't respect that 
Your whole perspective is wack
Maybe you'll love me when I fade to black

"Fade to black" is a movie term, referring to a technique used to end a scene or a movie:  the light that illuminates the screen is gradually reduced until the images fade away and the screen is dark.

Jay-Z and Mrs. Jay-Z (Beyoncé Knowles)
"Maybe you'll love me when I fade to black" has several possible meanings.  "Maybe the public will appreciate The Black Album once they've heard it -- when the final track  has faded out and the music is over" is one.  "Maybe you'll appreciate my music after I stop making albums" is another.  (Remember, The Black Album was supposed to be Jay-Z's last.)  

Or maybe he is saying "Maybe you'll finally appreciate me after I'm dead" -- after his life has faded to black.    

Here's "December 4":

Here's a link you can use to order "December 4" from Amazon:

No comments:

Post a Comment