Guns, but No Roses
Cook, Richard, New Statesman (1996)
Hip-hop rappers are living on borrowed time.
"Yeeeah," says Shawn Carter, "I know you just ripped the packaging off your CD. If you're like me, you're reading the credits right now..." These are the opening seconds of Jay-Z Vol 3: Life And Times Of S. Carter (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam). At the close of the track, following a muttered meditation on the parlous state of the world that he and we know, he says: "Five, ten years from now, you're gonna miss Jay-Z." It is a chilling remark, in the light of what has happened to more than one hip-hop star, and Jay-Z's own unfortunate brushes with the law. Like most of the leaders of the genre, Jay-Z's is a violent persona. Whatever Shawn Carter is like in his real life, when he is Jay-Z, he is a hard, cruel man. His album is full of boasts of what will happen to whomsoever dares cross his path. What he wants he takes, by whatever means necessary. But he acknowledges, with icy insight, that there must be a bullet out there with his name on it. His fatalism is like an exhausted shrug of resignation, for all the feral energy of his delivery. This new record is a follow-up to an album which shipped more than 500,000 copies in four days and went on to sell more than four million in the US alone. As with all the giants of hip-hop, the sales figures are mind-boggling. Yet all the record sales in the world do little to assuage Jay-Z's rage. Carter might live to be 90, but Jay-Z is on borrowed time.
Hip-hop has fetishised violence because it cannot be happy. Disco was happy music; soul was righteous; gospel was uplifting. The rappers who populate hip-hop have no choice: they live in a world where the script says they are ruled by guns and fraternal alliances. The new single off this album, "Anything" (which uses a sample from the soundtrack to Oliver!), is not a declaration of fidelity to a friend or a lover (much less to a fan) but an unsmiling expression of solidarity with "my niggers", the posse of players who are on Jay-Z's side. …