How Losing His Father Helped JAY-Z Escape A Hard Knock Life (Video)

“Momma loved me. Pop left me.”

JAY-Z’s life is as interesting as his art. The Brooklyn, New Yorker walked a line between hustling his way out of the ‘hood and pursuing a talent that he has called “God-given.” By the mid-1990s, those worlds would masterfully intersect on Reasonable Doubt, giving the MC a persona, style, and narrative unlike any of his peers. He never looked back.

From the tiny bit Heads have heard from JAY-Z’s upcoming 4:44 album (June 30), Hov appears to be on the verge of releasing some of his most deeply personal material. Even just a handful of bars from “Adnis” show an artist going past his comfort zone, historically speaking. The father of three looks at his own absentee dad (from the age of nine), and speaks from the heart.

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Jay’s decision to stop hustling in favor of chasing Rap dreams was pivotal, and this week’s TBD episode, hosted by Justin “The Company Man” Hunte, examines another critical turning point in Shawn Carter’s life and times. “In 1999, JAY-Z was hit with weapons and assault charges after allegedly stabbing Lance “Un” Rivera during Q-Tip’s album release party for Amplified,” recounts Hunte.

“Hov thought Un was responsible for leaking Vol 3… The Life and Times of S. Carter weeks before it was supposed to be released…At that time there were two other major court cases taking place in New York City: Diddy and Shyne’s murder rap, and the trial of the accused plotters of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. As Jay tells it in Decoded, the Hip-Hop Police were in full effect and the media covered the Puffy/Shyne trial as if it were on par with the case against the terrorists. To avoid a more aggressive attack from the D.A. in the aftermath of Diddy’s eventual acquittal – and by default becoming ‘a sideshow for the state’ – Carter settled and took probation like a Don is supposed to.”

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Hunte points to Jay’s own account of that time in his career: “But more than that, I realized I had a choice in life. There was no reason to put my life on the line, and the lives of everyone who depends on me, because of a momentary loss of control. It sometimes feels like complete disaster is always around the corner, waiting to trap us, so we have to live for the moment and fuck the rest. That kind of fatalism – this game I play ain’t no way to fix it, it’s inevitable – feels like realism, but the truth is that you can step back and not play someone else’s game. I vowed to never allow myself to be in a situation like that again.

At this moment, as the millennium was changing, so was JAY-Z. The outcome of that legal battle may have been what separated Shawn Carter, a contender at the top, from a fate reserved for DMX, Lil’ Kim, and even the aforementioned Shyne.

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Shortly after he was acquitted, and likely not unrelated to his brush with prison, Jay began speaking about the pain his bygone dad had caused him. An artist reputed to be chilly, impenetrable, and surface level explored new depths in his music. In turn, he made some of the songs and albums that cemented his place as a legendary MC, as well as a mogul.

Hunte looks at lines of verse like like this “Where Have You Been” excerpt: “Wanted to drink Miller nips and smoke Newports just like you, But you left me, now I’m going to court just like you / I would say my daddy loves me and he’ll never go away / Bullshit do you even remember December’s my birthday” and says it’s not by chance that they’re all post-1999.

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For the albums that followed, Jay went to a place that seemed harder to reach on his first three releases and 1990s catalog. One can speculate (and Hunte asks) if the lack of Adnis Reeves inspired Jay’s recent pursuits, such as a Kalief Browder documentary, or the bailing out of other dads during Father’s Day weekend.

Had the scales of justice not tipped in Jay’s favor in 1999, he may have been incarcerated today. In that circumstance, he certainly would not be in a position to help others, and have United States Presidents ushering him into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And, perhaps he would not have gotten there either without revealing some of the pain and wisdom of dealing with the absence of a parent, to which so many could relate.