By Malcolm Kohler and Cameron Turley
On June 30, 2017, Jay-Z released his song “Legacy” as a part of his highly anticipated album “4:44.” Being Jay-Z’s most political album to date, it attracted many new listeners who sought to hear Jay-Z’s take on our country’s issues. The album received praise from critics due to the personal and emotional content within the album, leading to “4:44” receiving a Grammy nomination for album of the year. Legacy’s music video was released in December, months after the rest of the album and takes a unique approach to the traditional music video. Instead of accompanying a song with visuals that reflect the words of the song, Jay-Z begins his video with a short film providing context to the song’s lyrics, which plays after the ten-minute video concludes. The video focuses on the discussion between fictional inmates in a prison cafeteria, which represent the incarcerated African American population today, whereas his song focuses on his personal experiences as a Black American and what it means for his family. Jay-Z uses this dual format to appeal to the audience with visual, oral, and nonverbal communication approaches, as well as discussing a variety of themes he feels are relevant to our society today.
Historical and Cultural Context
During a time where race relations continue to be one of the largest challenges facing our nation, Jay-Z released a political album that focused on the unfair treatment of African Americans, while also taking time to praise them for their perseverance. In the music video for “Legacy,” Jay-Z shows the viewer how corrupt our Prison-Industrial Complex seems, while also revealing some of his life motives through the lyrics. Jay-Z’s inspiration for the production of Legacy’s music video derives from the fact that the U.S has the highest incarceration rate in the world. As of 2017, “The U.S justice system controls almost seven million people” and of the seven million, forty percent are black, only one percent more than whites (Wagner). However, the U.S.’s population is sixty-four percent populated by whites, while African Americans only
make up thirteen percent. Along with our country having a higher incarceration rate than any other country in the world, two privately owned companies, The Corrections Corporations of America and the GEO group, spearhead the prison industrial complex and make profit off their inmates. Since the entire industry is essentially run by private organizations, one could conclude that profit is a main priority in the industry, not prisoner rehabilitation. Being aware of this corruptness, Jay-Z seeks to expose these issues by setting his music video in a corrupt prison and allowing the viewer the recognize how our prisons are “morally bankrupt” (Arrigo).
In the lyrics panning across the screen after the music video concludes, “generational wealth” is mentioned in the first verse. In a 1999 interview with Flipside magazine’s Dan Gennoe, Jay-Z says “You know black people don’t really inherit businesses that our fathers left for us” (Jay-Z). This idea and motive could have possibly been what has driven Jay-Z all these years so that he could build a company and leave it behind for his future generations, an opportunity not given to most black children today. Jay-Z also strives to be a presence in the community and spread his wealth to others, specifically underprivileged black children. In “Legacy,” Jay-Z mentions that something he would like to do with his wealth is to “put poor kids through school,” which has been the goal of his foundation since 2003 (Washington Post). Jay-Z’s Shawn Carter Foundation is a charity “dedicated to helping low income students further their education at institutions of higher learning” that has handed out scholarships to over 750 students over the course of its existence. Today, many other celebrities, such as Lebron James, Derek Jeter, and Janet Jackson give scholarships on behalf of their foundation to students.
Themes and Style
Jay-Z employs unique style choices throughout this piece. He seeks to bring the audience on a journey through his lyrics and video scenes to explore themes he finds relevant and important to our society. Many visual, verbal and nonverbal subtleties can be found, allowing one to view the video over and over again and glean something new and worthwhile each time. His video contains far more meaning than simply narrating a dialogue between prisoners and their meeting with Carter to plan a prison escape. One hears the inmate’s stories of how they ended up there, and how the prison system has wronged them. We see the differing viewpoints of the prison warden who claims that “no one is innocent,” and Carter who believes that each and every one of them is (Jay-Z). The video shows Carter’s believe that they aren’t separated by the color of their skin but united through “Legacy.” Even the chronological sequence of the video puts the themes into perspective by beginning with the warden interrogating an inmate, going back to the initial plans of escape, then returning to the warden and ending with Carter walking out of the cafeteria with prison sirens blaring and a smirk on his face, as if to say the escape was successful before it even occurs.
The short film section of the video primarily highlights cyclical incarceration of Black Americans, driven Prison-Industrial Complex which allows private companies to make money as more and more Americans are imprisoned. Since many prison services are privately owned and contracted by the government, they are far less inclined to focus on prisoner rehabilitation and are instead driven by money. This leads to injustice in the prison system and lack of care for the prisoners which the system is supposed to help.This issue is directly called out by one inmate who claims “The prison system ain’t shit but slavery remixed, they can call it whatever the fuck they want to, always has the same three ingredients: US in CAPTIVITY for MONEY”(Jay-Z). Even though this issue which disproportionately affects Black Americans due to high incarceration rates, has been a fairly well known topic of discussion, even today many prison services are privately owned and contracted by the government.
During the song at the end of the video, he conveys some themes by directly stating them such as when he sings “generational wealth, that’s the key,” which clearly describes how generational wealth has been difficult for African American families to obtain which has put them in an economic disadvantage. It is difficult for such families to obtain and retain wealth across generations, especially since Black Americans have only gained full political rights quite recently in our nation’s history. Many of the social issues facing the black communities are rooted in economic disparities. This wealth inequality leads to areas where lower incomes cause increases in crime, run down housing, and less public services. This problem affects African American youth the worst, and up to eighty percent of young Black Americans in certain inner cities have criminal records (Walton 658). Unfortunately the issue of generational wealth will take time to resolve as African American families begin to amass wealth and pass it down to their children.
Jay-Z also conveys some other themes more subtly, seen in the lyric “That’s called the Red Queen’s Race,” where he alludes to the novel Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. He discusses a specific section where Alice is running with the Red Queen but stays in the same spot as the Queen explains that “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place” (Carrol 11). This describes the struggles of Black Americans to obtain equality and the way of life they want, and how things don’t seems to change no matter how hard one tries. This themes goes beyond just generational wealth and recognizes social disadvantages of African Americans in today’s society which Jay-Z hopes to bring to light. Additional issues are explored by Jay-Z throughout this video, a common motif in his works where he brings light to many issues within a single song. However these are echoed throughout the work and are the most relevant to society as a whole today.
Reactions to “Legacy” as well as “4:44” in general have been overwhelmingly positive. While critics don’t find issue with the validity of themes Jay-Z presents, some feel he has misinterpreted them or has a slightly skewed focus. One such critic is Daniel Scott, a law attorney who works for high net-worth individuals like Jay-Z. He claims that “with all do respect, Jay-Z is wrong: generational wealth is not the key. What is more important is generational opportunity” (Scott 1). Scott proposes that the wealth of rags-to-riches individuals like Jay-Z are gone within two or three generations because a plan isn’t put into place for “future generations to identify and achieve their purpose” (Scott 1). He explains that Jay-Z certainly has a plan in place to ensure his wealth and legacy are passed down to his children, but it is the implementation that proves to be the true challenge.
Scott’s review is one of the most critical, with others such as Alex Ross who believes Jay-Z’s “new album 4:44 has inspired to some of the most thoughtful and forward-thinking music videos in recent history” (Ross 1). Ross is an editor and critic for Noisey, a website with articles about music and artists. He praises “Legacy” for being the most ambitious selection in the album for it’s unique take on the music video as “Legacy” begins as a short film chronicling a prison escape and ending with the song to accompany the end credits. Other’s praise Jay-Z for not only artistic style, but the purpose of his album. Sheldon Pearce from Pitchfork magazine believes “above all else, 4:44 is about legacy: how Jay will be remembered, what he’s leaving to his children, what he’s done for the culture, and what he’s trying to do for society” (Pearce 1). Similarly Mitch Findlay from the website Hot New Hip Hop describes “Legacy” as a “tense, well-acted clip, which tackles themes of mass incarceration, slavery, and the criminal justice system” (Findlay 1). These responses attest to the quality of “Legacy” as a piece of art, backed by strong style and purpose.
It’s difficult to be unappreciative of the way Jay-Z places negative aspects of our society which we usually avoid right in front of us and forces one to reflect if they can simply sit idly by as these injustices occur. This praise reflects the general views of the public as we are living in the most socially progressive time in our nation’s history. Artists such as Jay-Z can use this fact along with the widespread consumption of popular culture and music in specific to drive positive social change in our nation, in an art form which is readily available and accepted by most of society. “Legacy” attests to the incredible ability for deep messages to be conveyed through music which allows the listener to not only enjoy the piece, but to spur them to take a critical look at the society they live and help to change the world for the better.
Arrigo, Bruce A. “Prison Industrial Complex.” Encyclopedia of Criminal Justice Ethics, SAGE Publications Inc, 2014, pp. 709–712.
Babbington, Danielle, and Alisa Finkelstein. “JAY-Z | 4:44 ALBUM AND VISUAL.” Multivu, Sprint, 30 June 2017, www.multivu.com/players/English/8123751-tidal-sprint-jay-z-444/.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland ; Through the Looking Glass. Barnes & Noble, Inc., 2015, www.gutenberg.org/files/12/12-h/12-h.htm.
DiverseStvV. “JAY-Z – Legacy (Feat. Blue Ivy Carter) (Lyrics).” YouTube, YouTube, 29 June 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mB0DHmQHUDI.
Findlay, Mitch. “Jay-Z Tackles Incarceration In Excellent ‘Legacy’ Video.” HotNewHipHop, Urbanlinx Media, 24 Nov. 2017, http://www.hotnewhiphop.com/jay-z-tackles-incarceration-in-excellent-legacy-video-new-video.42894.html.
“Jay Z’s Charity: A Closer Look at the Shawn Carter Foundation.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Nov. 2013, www.washingtonpost.com/news/reliable-source/wp/2013/11/19/jay-zs-charity-a-closer-look-at-the-shawn-carter-foundation/?utm_term=.7ff12f7dd4cf.
“Jay-Z – Legacy Lyrics.” Genius, Genius Media Group Inc, 30 June 2017, https://www.genius.com/12258768.
Legacy Music Video. Carter, Shawn Corey, director. Jay-Z – Legacy. YouTube, Google, 21 Dec. 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dHOTgIEmixc.
Lyrics On Demand. “JAY-Z – Legacy Lyrics (Lyrics Video).” YouTube, YouTube, 19 July 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=2LQUJG2b4JQ.
Pearce, Sheldon. “JAY-Z: 4:44.” Pitchfork.com, Pitchfork, 5 July 2017, pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/jay-z-444/.
Ross, Alex Robert. “JAY-Z Releases Staggering New Videos for ‘Legacy,” ‘Smile,” and ‘Marcy Me.’” Noisey, Vice, 25 Nov. 2017, noisey.vice.com/en_us/article/ne3aqb/jay-z-releases-staggering-new-videos-for-legacy-smile-and-marcy-me.
Scott, Daniel. “Why Jay-Z Is Wrong About Legacy.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 16 Jan. 2018, www.forbes.com/sites/danielscott1/2018/01/16/why-jay-z-is-wrong-about-legacy/#3b2432236c47.
Turley, Cameron. “Animated GIF Maker.” GIF Maker – Imgflip, 11 Apr. 2018, imgflip.com/gif-maker.
Walton, Hanes, Jr., et al. “African American Felons and Ex-Felons During Mass Incarcerations.” The African American Electorate : A Statistical History, SAGE Publications, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, pp. 656–666.https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.prx.library.gatech.edu/lib/gatech/detail.action?docID=2046427.
Wagner, Peter, and Bernadette Rabuy. “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017.” Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2017 | Prison Policy Initiative, Prison Policy Initiative, 14 Mar. 2017, www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2017.html.
Washington, Ahmad Rashad. “Integrating Hip-Hop Culture and Rap Music into Social Justice Counseling with Black Males.” Journal of Counseling & Development, vol. 96, no. 1, Jan. 2018, pp. 97-105.
“An Open Letter to Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter.” New York Amsterdam News, vol. 103, no. 37, 13 Sept. 2012, p. 12.
Britannica, Educational Publishing. Alternative, Country, Hip-Hop, Rap, and More : Music from the 1980s to Today, edited by Michael Ray, Britannica Educational Publishing, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.prx.library.gatech.edu/lib/gatech/detail.action?docID=1069120.
Kelly, Patricia J. “Mass Incarceration.” Public Health Nursing, vol. 32, no. 1, 2015, pp. 1–2.
Leight, Elias, et al. “Jay-Z’s ‘4:44’: A Track-by-Track Guide.” Rolling Stone, 30 June 2017, www.rollingstone.com/music/lists/jay-zs-444-a-track-by-track-guide-w490408.
Afterlives of Slavery