Song 159: Jay-Z, “December 4th” (2003)

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Every superhero has an origin story. Shawn Carter’s is pretty well-known: he grew up in the Marcy Projects, got into the drug game and hustled until his music career took off. What’s clear in his book Decoded is how much of the hustling was posturing, and how music is what saved him in the end. The book is remarkably honest and self-aware, and endlessly interesting. Jay-Z not only knows his hip-hop, but he also seems to know himself very well.

I love “December 4th” for many reasons: it’s an interesting origin story, it features his mom doing adorable spoken word interludes, and Jay-Z’s flow is fantastic. When it comes to rapping, I tend to be a fan of the rhythmically strict variety, and not so much the laid-back, behind-the-beat style. Jay-Z tends to do a lot of the latter. On “December 4th,” however, he’s decidedly in the pocket, weaving in and out of rhythms like he’s running an obstacle course. Lines like “I made up for birth when I got here” and “All the teachers couldn’t teach me/and my momma couldn’t beat me/hard enough to match the pain of my pop not seeing me” come out with an astounding ease. (And it all comes out with the help of Just Blaze’s peerless production, including the Chi-Lites sample that makes the whole thing go down easy.)

As Carter points out in Decoded, the pivotal line in “December 4th” is near the end: “And it’s nobody’s fault I made the decisions I made/This is the life I chose or rather the life that chose me.” As he says, “I wasn’t blind to the damage that I was causing myself and other people in the game … Ultimately, the point of this song is that I don’t blame anyone, I’m just trying to explain myself, tell you why I’m this way. It’s my story, and I’m willing to own it.”

Carter also mentions another thing I love about this song: how much it’s about family. The parts his mom mentions–how his birth didn’t cause her any pain, how she bought him a boombox because he loved to rap–are “the sort of minor mythologies that every family has, the kind of stories that every family has … I played that near-universal mother-love against the content of the verses, which was the story about how I went from a kid whose world was torn apart by his father’s leaving to a young hustler in the streets who excelled but was scarred by the Life and eventually decided to try this rap shit for a living.”

The emphasis in those last words are Carter’s, italicized because he can’t believe this actually happened to him. That’s what I love about Jay-Z: he knows he’s good at what he does, and he loves being famous, but he’s so pleasantly surprised that he gets to entertain everybody. And, to our great benefit, he doesn’t take that for granted. With great power comes great responsibility.

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