I’ll be honest: when I heard that Jay Z was possibly putting out an album a month ago, I didn’t care. When I heard that Jay Z was definitely putting out an album a few weeks ago, I didn’t care. When the minutes trickled after learning that the album had actually gone live, I still didn’t care. It’s just how I felt. Kingdom Come jaded me, Blueprint 3 hurt me and Magna Carta tarnished my ability to ever trust again.

Yet, we live in an age where opinions fly as fast as the wireless connectivity that transmit them, and as many with connection to the human race quickly heard, the word had come in: J-Hova was back.

So I listened. And listened. And listened more. This process reoccurred not continually through the whole album, but through every single song. It was like watching a movie and re-watching it just to realize how much shit you missed, and there was plenty. The wisdom, the wordplay, the ripe vulnerability and the punchlines to match — they were peak Jay, albeit in an entirely new form. The legend was not just back, but powerful enough to make you forget that JT is probably still out there somewhere adorned in his Barney’s suit and tie.

So, to commemorate this grand moment in rap music, I can only do one of the things rap fans loved to do the most before RapGenius made it all too simple: decode the fuck out of fire ass bars. And so we begin.

– – –

“Y’all on the ‘Gram, holdin’ money to your ear.
There’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here.”
– “The Story of O.J.”


Let’s begin with what is arguably one of the most iconic bars rapped since SahBabii famously pondered the health-conscious, “How you suck dick, but don’t eat string beans?” At first glance, the lyric seems simple enough. Compared to Jay Z’s wealth, your Instagram photo of you purposefully gazing at the floor like a thot with a stacked bundle to your ear is pitiful. Not only does Jay not admire it, he also refuses to call your wrinkled paper money. He’s rich, you’re on Instagram. Point taken.
Now, let’s look into the actual pose described itself. Why is the unnamed flexer holding the cash stack to his ear? Well, because as the age old proverb goes, you got to pick up when the money is calling. Maybe for fear the money’s service will be busy later? Who knows. Nonetheless, herein is where Jay Z makes his message clear, primarily by going full “hold up, I’m about to enter a tunnel, my reception is really bad” levels of I can’t hear you. There’s a disconnect, both financially and in terms of hypothetical cell phone reception. At this point, Jay is so far into the tunnel of real wealth, he is now unavailable to literally call that money. Let it be known that vain cash bundles hold no place in Jay Z’s metaphorical contact list.

“Drug dealers and abusers, America likes me ruthless.
My therapist said I relapsed,
I said, “Prehaps I Freudian slipped in European whips.”
God sent me to break the chain.”
– “Smile”

With all honesty, these might be my favorite lines of the whole album. There’s so much to unravel here yet the message is so clear, which is Hov’s M.O. to a T. In these lines, Jay counters his portrayal in the white media as a criminal by reaffirming the reality that he’s earned his overwhelming success through music and a tight business acumen, and all with instinctive ease, or as he refers to it, “Freudian slips,” a term coined by famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud describing moments or words spoken by accident that reflect ones subconscious desire. Creating classic albums, founding and running a major label, landing Beyonce, developing an entertainment conglomerate, creating an artist-friendly streaming service, landing Beyonce — all these came to Jay intuitively from his desire to succeed, along with his desire to break apart the chains of structural racism (as represented by European whips) and the obstacles he endured. And he made it all look easy. You see that? That’s god-level poetry.

“Slappin’ out of the toy, the separation is clear.
In my rear-view mirror, objects is further than they appear.
Oh yeah, I was born with a pair,
Playin’ for high stakes.
Norman caked, he looked up and out of the Lear.”
– “Smile”

There’s two very important innuendos to break down here.
To begin, we have to call back to Drake’s 2016 dud Views and pick apart a small shot tucked in “Weston Road Flows,” a couplet that reaches with the sentiment: “You number one and I’m Eddie Murphy, we tradin’ places / Look in the mirror, I’m closer than I really appear.” With a track-record for subliminally calling out Jay (debatably the greatest of all time), there’s no confusion as to who that line was for. So, Jay being Jay, clears up the misinformation with two simple retorts: 1) the separation is VERY clear and 2) you’re still far as shit. In this way, not only does Hov want Drake to know he’s in fact not Eddie Murphy, but he wants him to know he’s probably also not Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock or even Kevin Hart. He’s Katt Williams or something, you know, somewhere in a separate caliber kickboxing children.
As for the second part, well this deserves recognition for being just about the most middle aged reference I’ve ever heard in a rap song, sans all the corny dad jokes Kanye’s been dropping since “so many Aunties, we should have an Aunty team.” In this impeccable confection of words, Hov lets you know he has balls, and as such, plays for high stakes. The reward? Well, he (referring to himself as ‘Norman’) made a shitload of money and is now looking out of a Lear jet — a play on the name of iconic television producer, Norman Lear, the man responsible for shows like Sanford and Son, All in the Family and practically every other ’70s sitcom you watched on Nick At Nite when you stayed up too late. It’s a punchline so deeply representative of Jay almost being 50 and old as hell, yet he flaunts it while simultaneously letting you know he’s still rich and talented. Genius.

“Marcy me, streets is my artery,
The vein of my existence,
I’m the Gotham City heartbeat”
– “Marcy Me”

It’s no secret that Jay Z will go to any length to put on Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects. He shouts the project building out in every record, and even goes out of his way to distribute toys throughout the houses every Christmas. To Jay, the Marcy projects are what Gotham City is to Batman. In his eyes, it his duty to protect the name and legacy of the place he called home. It’s sacred to him (hence the ‘Mercy Me’ flip).

Yet, at the same time, this acknowledgement works both as a statement of intrinsic love for his old tenements and also as recognition that the Marcy houses very much so represent his darkest days. No matter if the streets flow through him like veins and arteries, as they are what gave him life, the play on vein/bane/Bane is left purposefully enough to fuel the Batman analogy. Those same buildings he knows and love were the same that gave him his first job peddling crack and acted as a backdrop for the reoccurring violence he faced growing up. Like Bane to Batman, the houses could’ve very much presented him with untimely death, as they did with timely strength.

Make no mistake, Jay Z is a real life superhero.

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