#252: Jay Z, "The Blueprint" (2001)

When I think of Jay Z, I think of his mother. Maybe that's because of the way he's depicted her, featured her, paid tribute to her, used her in his work over the years. I've heard her voice and listened to her tell stories—her son riding a two-wheeler, banging on the kitchen table just to make some noise. She has a voice like Maya Angelou or something, Jay Z said.

Or maybe it's because when I think of anyone famous I always think first of the peripheral people who have been gifted or cursed, touched or sucked in by whatever their loved one has managed to become to the world. My imagination is endlessly drawn to the impossibility of reconciling the child and the icon, the parent or brother and the tabloid headline. How could you be Scott Swift, Malia Obama, Gloria Carter? How could you be those people and carry on as though your life still made sense?

When I think of fame I think of a would-you-rather at a Mexican restaurant. Would you rather be famous or not? So loaded a question all on its own, I guess, that it doesn't require an elaborate premise. Four of us said no, three said yes, and I waited for the others to reconsider. In the end it was unanimous. Could you choose to be recognized or honored for your work without being famous? No, that wasn't the bargain. We sipped margaritas and chose to stay right there, where everybody else on the restaurant patio was a humming blur clinking their forks at a different table who saw the same when they glanced our way. We chose to sit there and eat our guacamole, feeling important to each other, but contentedly meaning not all that much to the world at large.

How many of us long for it, dream of it, strive toward it, sob because we will remain relatively anonymous? And how many of us would be depressed or destroyed if we got it? In Frederick Exley's “fictional memoir” A Fan's Notes it's the depressed alcoholic author's endless tragic struggle: attempting to come to grips with “life's hard fact of famelessness.” It's also one of Jay Z's career-spanning projects: detailing the double-edged sword of how much his unimaginable success has given and taken from him—how much people have demanded of him and stolen from him and coveted him, and how hatred of him has grown in parallel with the adoration.

One of my obsessions as a writer seems to be about how unexpected a life can be. I want to read and write about criminals and pop stars. I want to try to imagine what it would be like to viciously murder someone or play the Super Bowl halftime show, and yet to be someone who was not decidedly insane. These are people who knew from birth what they'd ascend/descend to or people who could never have predicted such an outcome for themselves. In the story “Escape From Spiderhead” the ghost or soul of George Saunders’s narrator has an epiphany after ending his life to save someone else's. He looks down at a facility full of murderers and thinks:

“....killers all, all bad, I guess, although in that instant I saw it differently. At birth, they'd been charged by God with the responsibility of growing into total fuckups. Had they chosen this? Was it their fault, as they tumbled out of the womb? Had they aspired, covered in placental blood, to grow into harmers, dark forces, life-enders?....No; and yet their crooked destinies had lain dormant within them, seeds awaiting water and light….”

Rightly or wrongly, I always see this as one side of the coin, and Beyoncé as the other—opposite, but equally as predestined in some ways, equally as unimaginable a thing for a baby to grow into.

I remember my childhood like I remember my dreams: often not at all, or obscurely, but sometimes in a concussive and unlikely moment of clarity that has me sitting up sharply in bed. There was a snake ten miles long and an abandoned schoolyard. When I pressed the elevator button it pricked my thumb. We rode a fire engine through a jungle, siren screaming, and the girl I thought I loved was there (but she wasn't her, not exactly, of course). Something was urgent. Something seemed life or death though who, anymore, could say what it was?

At a Minnesota Timberwolves game as a child, I couldn't think of anything better than to come down from the upper rows of Target Center and put my body in proximity to the people whose names lit up the jumbotron. I imagined meeting them, loving them, being them, brushing against them in line for the bathroom as if we were similar and both belonged in that same inglorious space. And after one game my dad and I stumbled through a tunnel in the bowels of the arena just trying to get home when the players walked by. I shouted and shouted for Christian Laettner. He heard me but didn't look my way. He strode by, cold, and broke my heart, and then here came a middle-aged woman trundling behind. He just didn't hear you, honey, she said. Her name was Bonnie, the internet tells me now. She touched my shoulder and asked for my name and address and a few weeks later her son's autograph on a basketball card arrived in the mail with a handwritten note from a star whose mother had dragged him back to earth and laid down the law.

When I wonder about humans I wonder about what is contained within each of us. I imagine how some doctor held each of us up by the leg, almost dropped us, didn't, blessed his non-mistake. That doctor knew the story was both written and unwritten, that the blueprint was rolled up inside us already, but at the same time nothing was set in stone, that we were capable of almost every single thing: of penning a love poem, succumbing to drink, building a temple, firing a handgun into the crowd at a festival.

When I think of this album I think of the Jackson 5 and Natalie Cole and Kanye West and September 11th and the Marcy Projects Jay Z came from and the rhythm and punch of the lyrical delivery, yes. But I mostly think of the title track. It seems to me like the first time that Jay Z chose to tell his whole story so succinctly and completely. It's not the first hook I hear, but it's what blew the doors off on my initial listen. It's where Jay Z says that where you came from is more than an origin, that backstory matters, maybe more than anything. It's his autobiography, which he'll keep telling on every album for the rest of his life, which begins with the line momma loved me and ends with the line my momma loves me. It had never occurred to me that that might be how even a star, even he, would choose to frame the story.

When I think of our president I wonder how many people love him. Not how many voted for him, or attended his inauguration, or support his policies, or hope he succeeds, or have been married to him, or begrudgingly wish him the best, or secretly hope he will save us, or saw his TV show. But how many people in the world would say they love him? Is that even something we ask anymore, and wouldn't that—couldn't we let it?—be the simplest measurement of some things?

When I think of Gloria Carter I think of her in the kitchen of her Jersey soul food restaurant, peeling potatoes and nicking her ring finger. I think of her son tricking her into coming to his studio and telling stories (not revealing he intended to get her on his new record). I think of the odd phrase she uses, which Jay Z would later sample on “December 4th,” for a different album: and a funny story is—setting us up and crafting the backstory that would humanize him for us, or even re-humanize him for herself. I think of her calling her son out for a diss track that went too far for her tastes. He apologized for it on a radio show. I think of the way she turns up from time to time, like the friends and family of the famous do, on red carpets or in online articles. US Weekly says she says Jay Z melts when Blue Ivy says Papa. Her restaurant is called Diamondz N Da Ruff because, she says, A diamond comes from coal.

And when she's there in the limelight on her own for a moment, at the opening of her little dream, the reporter doesn't seem to want to know about the grits or the fried chicken. Will they be coming out to Newark for a meal anytime soon? Or is it true? he wants to know. It couldn't happen to them, could it? Who could be better suited for either one of them than the glorious, untouchable other? A divorce between superstars?

The oil is bubbling in the kitchen. She's been up since dawn reprinting menus and trying to think ahead, trying to imagine and prepare for every last little thing.

But aren't they protected? is the unspoken question. The black eye of the reporter’s camera winks at her. Aren't they, unlike us, charmed?

That's not what this conversation is about. That's what she decides to say. That's what Gloria tells him.

—Eric Thompson