In 1998, SPIN writer Charles Aaron published “What the White Boy Means When He Says Yo,” an essay that investigates how white people came to love hip-hop. Rap shows were once underground, mostly attended by Blacks and Latinos. Any white kids present were anomalies, who risked the scorn of fellow whites by crossing racial lines. Now, says Aaron, “the racial lines are crossing us.” The country’s becoming more diverse, and everyone listens to hip-hop. Its “pervasive slanguage” is no longer a “racist punchline,” but “simply how kids communicate.”
Twenty years later, hip-hop is America’s most popular genre, and Google’s research on “what kids think is cool” was recently titled, “It’s Lit.” On Twitter, hip-hop slang and memes are consumed in real-time by hungry white vernaculars. Still, as El-P argued in Aaron’s essay, many white hip-hop fans are kidding themselves. Listening to Black music, they start to think they can “identify with the experience of the [B]lack man or woman in America… and you can’t go there. Otherwise, you’re sabotaging and belittling the experiences of the people you claim to love.”
Aaron predicts that white people’s embrace of hip-hop could spark a national awakening on race. Yet the economic gulf between Blacks and whites is worse today than it was in ’98, and the state’s war on Black lives continues. Surely some white people have been changed by hip-hop, but for many, it remains just aesthetic, the shit you bump when you’re “tryna turn up.” A portion of today’s wardens and cops must have grown up liking N.W.A.
It is against this backdrop that Beyoncé and Jay-Z were set to ascend the throne of pop music at-large. Their recent joint album, Everything Is Love, blares with the triumph of reconciliation, capping a trilogy which led us through heartbreak (Lemonade) and atonement (4:44). This drama was heightened by the pair’s combined wealth: “of course sometimes shit goes down when it’s a billion dollars on the elevator,” sang Beyoncé in 2014, alluding to an incident that foreshadowed Jay’s infidelity. As of late, the pair has been descending to stages in sold-out stadiums using an elevator, as part of the intro to their On The Run II Tour.
The lyrical heart of Everything Is Love is the hook on “NICE,” when Pharrell chants, “I can do anything.” Like many other Beyoncé or Jay-Z lyrics, these words offer secondhand empowerment. “I can do anything,” you start to think, as you bounce to the breezy, affirmative beat. But it’s not literally true. There are many things you can’t do — like shoot a music video in the Louvre, or keep pace with Beyoncé’s flow when she takes off like a jet on the third verse of “APESHIT,” over a beat that sounds like what it feels like to be richer than god. “And we still got love for the streets,” as Bey shrieks on “713,” a reminder perhaps needed amidst the copious references to designer bags and gold-coated faucets. “Who’s gon’ stop us?” Jay shouts in turn, quoting “little baby Blue,” whose voice the Carters sample the way most parents mark their kid’s height on a wall. Their exceptionalism is loud: you can sing along, until you can’t. The Carters are on a different level.
Beyoncé grew up in Houston, in a “very nice house,” surrounded by her mother’s art collection. Jay-Z comes from the Brooklyn projects, and spent his teen years selling crack. On “SUMMER,” he describes the bullet rounds that punctuated his childhood. “It’s not lost on me,” he sings with gravity, checking the privilege he’s secured over time. “Music has my kids fast asleep.” He sounds like an anomaly, the exception that proves the rule. The Carters have made it, but the projects are still a nightmare. Jay loves to ask, “what’s better than one billionaire?”, and socialist Twitter loves responding, “none.” Poet Saul Williams says “the moon,” then adds, “becoming the system ain’t the same as beating it.”
With awareness of their rare situation, the Carters strive to herald a collective ascent. On “FRIENDS,” Jay raps, “when I say ‘free the dogs,’ I free ‘em,” and mentions winning Meek Mill’s early release from prison. This was just one episode in Jay’s ongoing fight against mass incarceration. Later in the album, he shouts out the docuseries he’s bankrolled on Kalief Browder and Trayvon Martin, two young Black lives taken by the state. Beyoncé’s seminal Coachella performance, a tribute to HBCU’s, was followed by an expansion of her scholarship fund. The Carters bailed out protestors in Ferguson and Baltimore, and tend to put their money where their mouths are.
On “BLACK EFFECT,” Jamaican choreographer L’Antoinette Stines gives name to the many shapes of love. There’s love “of self,” “of God,” “of a partner,” and “the love that is right now needed most, love of humanity.” It is this bold, transformational love that the Carters are striving to live. “Generational wealth, that’s the key,” said Jay on 4:44, alluding to groups, like the Jews, who won liberation by accumulating dough. In the context of the Carters’ philanthropy, and their palpable concern for the communities they represent, the watches and diamonds on Everything Is Love feel less like the album’s point and more like decorations on a deeper message. The worry is less that they’ve become “the system” and more that people who actually are the system — those who benefit from racist policing and prisons — might totally miss the point. White kids are out there trap-arming to “APESHIT,” as if it describes not an improbable come-up, but their lifestyles built on centuries of stolen wealth.
Aaron speculates that the real thrill whites get from hip-hop is “the cheap buzz of spitting ‘bitch’ or ‘ho’ or ‘motherfucker’ into the pot-hazy night.” These words are scarce on the Carters’ latest effort; instead we hear “Lambo,” “Benzes,” and “bands.” Words like these mean one thing to Black kids in Brooklyn, who might triumph vicariously by picturing themselves on G8 jets. They mean something else in the mouth of a white boy puffing on blunts in a Benz his father bought him.
Perhaps privileged white kids don’t hear much that speaks as truthfully as Everything Is Love. This was Beyoncé’s first album to not debut at number one. At the moment they could have crowned themselves king and queen of pop, the Carters instead turned back to their roots, investing in the discontent at the traditional heart of hip-hop. Solange once crooned to white people, “Don’t feel bad if you can’t sing along/Just be glad you got the whole wide world.” White privilege can take us seemingly anywhere — and yet, there are things we just can’t touch.
Delilah Friedler is a non-binary writer based in New Orleans. Read more of their work at callmewhenurfree.tumblr.com.