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By Regina N. Bradley

Wednesday, September 22, 2010.

I was in the presence of a monster recently. Jay-Z’s Blue Print 3 (BP3) album is a must hear and his concert is a must see. While vibin’ to old and new Jigga, my attention was constantly drawn to the visual images projected on the back screen. Often colored black and white with flashes of red, the backdrop screamed “LOOK AT ME!” Images of cemeteries, skulls and crossbones, and a red hypnosis spiral were in constant rotation as Jay seamlessly flowed from one song to the next.

What initially could be viewed as a morbid visual complement to Jigga’s performance, these images and their parallels suggest death as progression of thought. This idea of growth – the “on to the next one” movement – is continuously reaffirmed in Jay-Z’s live performance. The observation that he is moving beyond our expectations and understanding of Hip Hop is frightening enough to the point that loud whispers and fears of cult-like activity and even the illuminati are rising as means to possibly comprehend the direction Jay-Z is moving towards.

Death as a trope is nothing new to literary and cultural studies, especially black literature. It symbolizes a medium that calls for a final or embedded truth that forces the dying (and at times their attendants) to confront it. I’m thinking in particular here of (Ralph) Ellison’s opening scene in Invisible Man (1952) where Invisible Man’s grandfather is lying on his death bed. With his dying breath, he fiercely whispers his sadness in betraying the black community and that his progeny must “live with their heads in the lion’s mouth” and kill whites with yeses and be overly subordinate. The grandfather’s truth lied in the fact that his performed manhood was detrimental to his humanhood (yeah, that’s an RNB original). It took his death to force him to openly confront this reality. Other novels, like Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying (1993) follow a similar suite.

In contemporary black culture, death is as American as apple pie (yeah, I remixed H. Rap Brown’s quote.) The gangsta rap era and its visual exponent the hood film presented a more explicit and graphic portrayal of violent death. An added component, however, is the nihilistic mentality of its young black male victims. Instead of being forced to confront a painful truth, death in this sense is presented as the only option, a coping mechanism for the oppressive state of being young, black, male, and in America.

Paul Beatty’s White Boy Shuffle (1996) approaches death from a darker, more intriguing angle of death – suicide. Beatty’s protagonist Gunnar – unenthused and nonchalant about his life, threatens to commit suicide throughout the course of the novel. His best friend Nick, however, succumbs to the pressures of his own lived experience (and blackness) and commits suicide while in college. Although Nick’s actions were voluntarily, there are still inadvertent implications of social oppression on Nick’s behavior. Nick’s death is physical. Gunnar’s characters and those from the hood film era exhibit a social and psychological death that makes them numb to any possibility of progress.

Let’s go back to the possibility of looking at death as a form of transcendence. In typical Jigga fashion, Jay-Z pushes to limits and attempts to invert our understanding of not only his lyricism but his ambitions as a rapper. He often tells his listeners to buy old albums if they want old material and an old Jay-Z. “On to the Next One” is not the first reference of death in Jay’s songs. There is a reference and still shot to a funeral home and open casket in the beautifully shot “99 Problems” video. “On to the Next One’s” peculiar and striking images have given critics a lot of ammunition to decipher the video’s intentions. The video, however, marks progress in the sense that it is not a standard video – no video vixens or big pimpin’ here, folks – and images of death are not representative of mourning. Instead, the use of black and white suggests a type of sophistication that forces people remove themselves from their comfort zones and engage with Jay-Z’s thought process.

Why is there a need to transcend, to progress? It is often clichéd that growth is a painful process that begins with confrontation. Jay-Z uses the death trope in a similar fashion as Ellison and Gaines in the sense that he is promoting a discomforting idea while challenging his audience to evolve their thinking. Keep it Movin’…I mean, on to the next one.

Regina N. Bradley is a doctoral student in African American Literature and Culture at Florida State University. She earned her MA in African American Studies from Indiana University Bloomington. Currently, her research interests include performance and gender identity, popular black culture, late 20th and 21st century black literature, and Hip Hop.

Ms Bradley blogs at Red Clay Scholar.

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