In my senior year of high school, I joined the student council. I knew that it might look fishy — adding on another extracurricular so late in the game — but I figured making the effort could also work in my favor. I imagined eagle-eyed college admissions officers poring over my file, spotting any latent passions discovered in the heat of application season. Half amused, they would scribble their verdict in the margins: “Shameless but hungry.”
By that time, the fall of 2003, I had already plotted the next 10 years of my life — the graduate school, the job, the house, the car. My family lived in the suburbs of Houston. My parents, born in agrarian villages in colonized Nigeria, had settled there in the mid-1990s as middle-class academics. Like my older sister, who was then two years into a finance degree and on a gravity-defying trajectory of her own, I had spent most of high school on a mission to make something respectable of myself.
I joined the National Honor Society, Peer Assistance Leadership and Service and the French club. I took dual-credit courses at the local community college and drove downtown for SAT prep. I played basketball and trained for the 200-meter relay. In the hallways after one activity or another, I would see other Black and brown kids on similar tracks and nod. I remember when one quit varsity football to better focus on his A.P. courses. His teammates and even some teachers were stunned. But I understood. The mission always came first.
While I was doing all that plotting, there was one artist who seemed the very embodiment of defied gravity, the patron saint of the mission. In 2003, at 33 years old, Jay-Z retired from hip-hop at the peak of his powers. “The Black Album,” his putative swan song (the “retirement” lasted about three years), was released in November and became my soundtrack.
I must have looked preposterous, driving to volunteer jobs in my ’98 Nissan, shouting about being in the back of a Maybach, or, no more plausibly, “in the kitchen with soda.” But, between the lines, I saw the ultimate chess player in Jay. Here was someone who’d studied the rules of the great game in America — where Black men consistently earn less than white men, even those who grew up in the same neighborhood and have similar education and family backgrounds — and bested it by virtue of genius and enterprise. It was exactly what my friends and I hoped to do.
“The Black Album” represented Jay’s biggest gambit yet. He didn’t only want to retire (itself a stunt in a genre that tends to leave you before you can leave it), he wanted to retire as the Greatest of All Time, hip-hop’s holy grail. It was an all but impossible goal. 50 Cent, riding on the shoulders of Eminem and Dr. Dre, was at the time the most popular rap artist on the planet. And the apotheosis of Biggie and Tupac — only six and seven years dead — left virtually all remaining aspirants vying for third place.
To seize the top spot, Jay assembled a dream team that included many of hip-hop’s greatest producers: the Neptunes, Kanye West, Timbaland, Just Blaze and Rick Rubin. On “The Black Album,” he uses their finest offerings — grand canvases built from reupholstered soul, rock and gospel — to corroborate what is effectively a series of arguments, in which Jay, like a defendant representing himself in court, presents his case for rap supremacy. The songs range from astute autobiography (“December 4th,” “Moment of Clarity”) to hair-raising pyrotechnics (“What More Can I Say” “Public Service Announcement (Interlude)”), with several performing both functions at once (“99 Problems,” “Encore”). By the time the last of them fades, you feel pity for the prosecution.
For a full year after the album came out, my Black, male friends and I cheered as Jay scored seemingly one triumph after another. He was our champion in laurels (the “Gladiator” sample at the beginning of “What More Can I Say” — Are you not entertained? — was no mere flourish), performing death-defying feats in an arena rigged against us.
There was the sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, the theatrically released documentary film, “Fade to Black,” the glamorous appointment as the head of the record label Def Jam and a reported relationship with Beyoncé. The athlete Jay most often compared himself to was Michael Jordan. But the overtly racial and political valence of his accomplishments more naturally placed him in a league with Jack Johnson — a competitor too fierce for any Great White Hope to contain.
My mission in high school was ultimately successful, if not exactly in the way that I’d imagined. I was lucky to get scholarships to the schools of my choice, and to find my way into a career that suited me. (The house and car, as my parents sometimes remind me, are still works in progress.)
Somewhere along the way, though, my thoughts on the meaning of the mission changed. In my rush to beat the odds as a teenager, I never really examined how my family — and the other Black and brown families I knew — had come under such extreme pressure in the first place. In all my efforts to master the rules of the game, I never dreamed it would be possible to change them.
Last summer, as a global Black Lives Matter movement flowered in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I saw millions of people taking to the streets to demand changes to the rules. They were working collectively to reimagine a system that, for too many, dispenses prosperity by the thimble and punishment by the jug.
Jay-Z, who often encourages Black Americans to lift themselves up by their bootstraps — even as he has grown more active in the fight against institutional racism in recent years — taught my friends and I to want to be him. But the re-energized movement for racial justice envisions a world in which young men and women of color don’t have to be exceptional to survive and to thrive, a world in which Jay-Zs are no longer necessary.
I live in New York now, but, recently, after we’d all received our Covid-19 vaccines, my wife and I went to Houston to visit my parents. In their garage, I dug up my old Case Logic CD binder and smiled when I saw “The Black Album” inside. I went alone for a drive in my dad’s car (it still has a CD player) and turned up the volume. The lyrics rushed through me in a wave. When I returned to the house, I put the CD back in its sleeve, zipped up the binder and left it right where I’d found it.