JAY-Z’s Video Is A Powder Keg Designed To Blow Up Ugly Stereotypes & Impart Wisdom
In conjunction with JAY-Z’s release of 4:44 comes a video to one of its most evocative songs. “The Story of O.J.” examines race and the distribution of wealth and power in America.
The video recreates the 1930s “Sambo” character from the films and cartoons of the same name. Hov’ is “Jaybo,” and the retro animation puts him in old New York. Nina Simone, who No I.D. sampled for the record, is playing at a supper club. Jay’s character inter-cuts with a portrayal of O.J. Simpson, who was once embraced by the mainstream. Long before he was accused of murder, Simpson’s race inescapably became a subject in his life. In the series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which aired while Jay recorded 4:44, the title character (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) says, “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.” Jay snaps back, “Well, okay,” seemingly decrying the notion that an African-American could ever not be seen as Black in the eyes of the masses.
Jay’s character evolves (ages, looks, and actions) through the song lyrics, with a lot of caricatures on display. These are not unlike the films and art of the era that inspires the video. Jay flashes brilliance in the lyrics. “I told him, ‘Please don’t die over the neighborhood / That your mama rentin’ / Take your drug money and buy the neighborhood / That’s how you rinse it’ / I bought every V12 engine / Wish I could take it back to the beginnin’ / I coulda bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo / For like 2 million / That same building today is worth 25 million / Guess how I’m feelin’? Dumbo,” he raps. Instead of the Mercedes Benzes, Jaguars, and other exotic vehicles Jay flashed early in his career, he believes real estate would have been a more worthwhile investment. The MC watched his own Brooklyn change hands throughout his career, appreciating and gentrifying at rapid rates. As the verse finishes, he transforms into Dumbo, another World War II-era cultural figure.
Other places in the video, former Black Panther Party leader Huey P. Newton, Samuel L. Jackson’s “Stephen” character from Django Unchained, and Jesse Owens are visually referenced.
The same MC who made Heads put on throwbacks, switch to button-downs, buy cars above leasing, kicks more influence in verse 2: “Financial freedom my only hope / F*ck livin’ rich and dyin’ broke / I bought some artwork for 1 million / Two years later, that sh*t worth 2 million / Few years later, that sh*t worth 8 million / I can’t wait to give this sh*t to my children / Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine / But I’m tryin’ to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.” One of the master self-promoters in pop culture history defends his Tidal exclusive in the slickest way possible.
As the Ku Klux Klan is also referenced in the video (on assembly lines of hate, burning crosses), “Jaybo” is hanged at the conclusion. For a video that is playful in its creation but gravely serious in its intent and context, it pulls zero punches. As Jay previously made videos of all kinds to make his many points, this one is unforgettable.
There has been some research on whether real-life Simpson ever uttered the quoted phrase.