In April 2010, the Wall Street Journal published an article accusing the Black Eyed Peas of being “The Most Corporate Band” in America. Reporter John Jurgensen describes ringleader will.i.am’s reductive, obvious attempts to court corporate sponsors. It’s clear how mainstream this idea of hip-hop artists as corporate shills has become. But at the same time, it didn’t used to be like this. The Black Eyed Peas were once famed for their bohemian values and their membership in a socially conscious crew. And the rap game used to be about hustling on street corners, not product placement. How did things change?
If we follow the argument of “Empire State of Mind: How Jay-Z Went from Street Corner to Corner Office,” a new biography/business rag by former News Magazine editor Zack O’Malley Greenburg ’05, we might be inclined to think that Jay-Z is responsible. And while that might be an exaggeration, one can’t deny that Jay-Z rode the forefront of the rap-as-institutional-money wave. But what’s great about Jay-Z, and is well-documented in the book, is his individuality and his brash self-determination in forcing dollar bills into his bank account.
The 200-page book is a biography that details how Jay-Z acquired his can-do spirit, but at times it seemed like it was written for the audience of “Who Moved My Cheese?” or any other of a number of business/self-help hybrids.
There’s one passage where Greenburg finds it necessary to define crack cocaine as something “dreamed up somewhere in Colombia during the mid-1980s,” before adding that “the process of creating crack could be completed by anyone with a coffeemaker, a hot plate, some cocaine powder and a few common grocery items.” At this point, I realized the book was probably intended for people who know nothing about “the streets” and stopped keeping up with American culture sometime in 1981.
It gets worse when a few pages later, Greenburg states, “There are a lot of people to pay when recording a hip-hop song,” before going on to define terms like “‘hook,’” “‘beat’” and “‘track’” (those scare quotes are his). I don’t really know for what kind of reader that condescension was intended.
Because of these moments, the book is best when it focuses on its strong suit, extensive reporting and considered insights, and avoids functioning as some sort of narrative or lesson about the general business of hip-hop.
At times, Greenburg is far more adept at writing about music than the argument of the book might suggest. When discussing the voice of Jay-Z’s collaborator and hip-hop legend Notorious B.I.G., he writes that Biggie “delivered rhymes with a melodic huskiness; you could almost hear the cholesterol in his voice.” That’s an evocative image; it could only come from the pen of an adept writer. Unfortunately, his skill is dragged down by some of the book’s inanity.
“Empire State of Mind” must represent some high point in hip-hop journalism, though. The book is filled with wisdom culled from Jay-Z’s flows, quotes from magazine articles spanning decades, and vignettes about Greenburg’s encounters with the strange cast of characters that he contacted to gain insight into the workings of Jay-Z’s mind. Unfortunately, these drastic methods were undertaken because Jay-Z refused to be interviewed for the book. His absence can be felt, but the book might be better for it. Greenburg doesn’t seem indebted to the rapper, and thus does not hold back criticism for the Jay-Z’s shadier dealings, like his maltreatment of ex-partner Damon Dash or his dishonest sponsorship of subpar champagne.
If the ubiquity of the Black Eyed Peas is any indication, then one way to get extremely rich by bringing your hip-hop to mainstream is prevalent. The Black Eyed Peas route includes selling your soul, making music so bland that it can barely be called music, and auctioning off your integrity with the aid of slick PowerPoints.
But you can take what Greenburg portrays as Jay-Z’s route: Appeal to a pop audience but retain your street roots, paint yourself as a god, and make everyone want to buy things with your name on it. Jay-Z got rich and famous for being shrewd, business-minded and tough, but as this book makes clear, Jay-Z got rich and famous for being inimitable and larger-than-life as well. “Empire State of Mind” is written in the style of a motivational book with the content of a hip-hopography. Even though the book is an entertaining read, it’s pulled too far between these two poles and two assessments of Jay-Z’s success — unique game-changer vs. replicable business model — to be a lasting document.