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Requiem for a hustler

Jay Z and Pusha T boast about their drug-dealing pasts — but there’s even more pain

Jay Z is in the process of returning to hip-hop.

After nearly a two-year hiatus, his test run was a one-liner on Drake’s “Pop Style. Then, last week, came Jay Z’s appearance alongside Fat Joe and Remy Ma on “All The Way Up (Remix).” This not only ended the lyrical sabbatical, it helped quell one of rap’s longest living urban legends: that there was a Roc-A-Fella/Terror Squad beef allegedly beginning with Big Pun hitting Jay Z over the head with a bottle. Although lackluster, he did manage to reference everyone from Prince, to David LaChappelle, to his daughter to his wife’s new video album Lemonade. It’s a timely pop culture verse. Nothing more, nothing less.

And now, in another guest appearance, Jay Z appears on Pusha T’s “Drug Dealers Anonymous. Released Tuesday via TIDAL, the subscription streaming service that he owns, the song, set to be featured on Pusha’s forthcoming King Push, highlights subject matter both MC’s have explored to great success.

Street life. In particular, the drug game.

The DJ Dahi-produced number features two of rap’s most poignant MCs and they don’t disappoint. Pusha T, whose recent weekend included him fanning out after receiving a signed Allen Iverson jersey, plays welcoming host while setting the stage for Jay Z to deliver an autobiographical account of his life before Rocafella.

The song arrives at an interesting and tragic time.

Earlier this year, conservative TV host Tomi Lahren was part of a contentious interview with NYC’s Power 105.1 personality Charlamagne Tha God. Their conversation centered around Beyoncé’s Black Panther homage at Super Bowl 50 and about Jay Z’s long-acknowledged past as a drug dealer. Parts of that interview serve as a sound bite on this record.

Jay Z’s bravado masks the stressors of his upbringing on the streets of Brooklyn. But it forever haunts him.

The snippet of Lahren’s sarcastic remarks came days after rap found itself at the ever-sensitive intersection (and in the crosshairs) of art and reality. Last week, New York Police Department commissioner William Bratton slammed hip-hop culture in the wake of what’s become known as the Troy Ave shooting. The May 25 incident happened at the popular Irving Plaza, a musical venue not far from Union Square Park and Gramercy Theatre. It was a T.I. concert, and authorities quickly denied the superstar’s involvement in the shooting. The incident allegedly began after an argument occurred near the green room backstage. Brooklyn, New York, rapper Troy Ave, both popular and divisive in New York circles, appears to be shown on video firing a gun in a room as concertgoers attempt to shield themselves from bullets.

The shooting left Ronald McPhatter, Troy Ave’s bodyguard, dead. Three people were injured — including Troy Ave, himself, who was hit in the leg. “You’d like to think that with all the wealth that comes from the fame,” said Bratton, “that they’ll be able to turn their lives around, but they continue hanging out with the same people they hung out with when they came out of that world of desperation, poverty, and crime.” Troy Ave, born Roland Collins in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, was formally charged with attempted murder May 30.

A New York Police Department Crime Scene Unit is seen outside Irving Plaza on May 26, 2016 in New York. One person was killed and three others injured at a prominent New York music venue late May 25, 2016 during a show to be headlined by rapper T.I., police said. Concert-goers at Irving Plaza raced out in panic as shots rang out at 10:15 pm (0200 GMT Thursday) during the opening act before T.I., an Atlanta rapper with a history of legal run-ins.Police said a 33-year-old man was shot in the stomach and pronounced dead at a hospital near Irving Plaza, which is near Manhattan's bustling Union Square and the upscale Gramercy Park district. / AFP / TIMOTHY A. CLARY (Photo credit should read )

A New York Police Department Crime Scene Unit is seen outside Irving Plaza on May 26, 2016 in New York.
One person was killed and three others injured at a prominent New York music venue late May 25, 2016 during a show to be headlined by rapper T.I., police said.


And the Irving Plaza shooting came just a few hours after the release of GQ’s widely-shared, detail-drenched Bobby Shmurda profile. The piece revealed an artist at odds with a multitude of influences that ultimately derailed his career and future just days before Christmas 2014. Shmurda was raised in an non-gentrified portion of Flatbush, Brooklyn, and gained instant fame via a viral video featuring the Shmoney dance through 2014’s “Hot N—-.” All the while, unknowingly, a police department seemingly hellbent on making him a very public cautionary tale documented his every move.

Lahren, however misguided, in essence used Jay’s famous 2003 “Public Service Announcement” lyric, You was who you was ’fore you got here, against him. With a particularly disdainful comment, “Your husband was a drug dealer. For 14 years he sold crack,” TheBlaze TV host attempted to nullify Jay Z’s massive artistic, philanthropic, and entrepreneurial endeavors.

Not everyone is saved by music. Not everyone can speak of past exploits with such freedom.

She had her facts right. He was a drug dealer. And by bringing his past up contemptuously — she apparently inspired Jay Z to again tap into a personal and difficult chapter of his life. At its most powerful, rap is a series of artists detailing the battle zones many called home. The poverty, and the soundtrack of gunshots in Brooklyn’s Marcy Housing Projects when he was growing up, when he was surviving and manipulating situations during the crack-cocaine era — all of that, even now as we see him on yachts and such, stays with him. A recurring symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder is flashbacks, and Jay Z’s cocaine dreams are, in their own way, his version of PTSD. Working through it is a lifelong process.

The storytelling of “Drug Dealers Anonymous” is its calling card. Ghost stories, as some call it.

Both Jay Z and Pusha T, at their best, are descriptive MCs. If they’re going to rap about the drug trade, the listener is in the room with them as the deal goes down. Pusha T, now president of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music, has never shied away from his past.

Pusha T doesn’t spit his career’s magnum opus here—this is accomplished with 2006’s “Keys Open Doors.” What he weaves for “Anonymous” are strands biblical, and of the streets. After I make a call / I can baptize a brick / And wash away my sins like a Catholic / Who the f ain’t mastered this? This is less about exhibiting signs maturity and more about flashing back to the days when baking soda took the place of notepads. These lyrics are trauma disguised as a gloat. In the lyric directly after, he reflects on the United States’ latest example of shunning “have-nots,” a community he’s long since identified with. America’s nightmare is Flint, he raps, Children of a lesser God when your melanin’s got a tint / And I can’t even mention what I sent or what I spent / Cause my name in 18wheelers is evidence. Everyone’s doing dirt, he seems to be saying. So why are his sins worth more than the next man’s?

Not everyone is saved by music. Not everyone can speak of past exploits with such freedom. So haunted by the memories, Pusha T’s blood brother and partner-in-rhyme, No Malice, left the group in 2009, and found religion. The brothers found themselves at the center of a federal investigation that left their manager, Anthony Gonzales, serving 32 years for drug trafficking.

The breakup went like this: “I stood up in the middle of the aisle in front of all those people on the plane and I told him, ‘Yo, I don’t know if you thought I was joking,’ ” This is what No Malice said as he recalled the final conversation he and Pusha T would have as an artistic duo. “I don’t know if you thought I was playing. I’m letting you know, I ain’t doing this no more.”

Speculation sprouted from the moment rumors of the song hit the internet Tuesday afternoon.

Would Pusha T run Jay Z out of the building with far better lyrics? The answer was a resounding no.

Would Jay be more inspired than he was on his underwhelming “All The Way Up (Remix)” verse? The answer is: far more inspired.

And would this be further proof that a project from Jay, nearly 20 years following the release of his seminal, inaugural Reasonable Doubt, is on the horizon? That’s still up in the air. But Jay Z formally reintroduced himself to the musical conversation in 2016 with one verse. We got storefronts / We got employee stubs / We been opening studios and 40-40s up / The paper trail is gorgeous.


Cover of “Drug Dealers Anonymous”

As is most of his artistic trail. When Jay Z ranked his discography, his last solo project, 2013’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, was sixth out of 12. He was right. Grail is a middle-of-the-pack album, more groundbreaking for the manner in which it was released — via Samsung, which can be seen as one of the very first shots of the current streaming wars — than for its actual content. Watch The Throne was met with a positive reception, but it was a joint venture with West. That means Jay Z’s last hot solo project — depending on the taste buds — is either 2009’s Blueprint 3 or 2007’s American Gangster.

“Drug Dealers Anonymous” is Jay Z The Hustler stretched out on his version of a counselor’s couch peering back to a time in his life when fast money was the only money. And his verse sounds like a crisp leftover from the AG recording sessions — most certainly a positive. AG was Jay Z’s comeback album, a project that followed the worst album of his career, 2006’s Kingdom Come. The album American Gangster was inspired by the film American Gangster (starring Denzel Washington), which was based on a real-life american gangster, drug kingpin Frank Lucas. And Lucas was inspired by? That is the question.

And this revealing verse is back-to-back-glances at a life of crime. It’s most boastful claims — B—-, I been brackin’ since the ’80s / Google me baby/ ’89 in London pull the Benz up/ Type it in, Google’s your friend, bruh — places him back in days when credit mattered more with avoiding the long arm of the law as opposed to the black card(s) in his wallet. In his eyes, risking freedom to live “free” was a necessary cost of business, but not meant to be mimicked– canonized through Hov is back, life stories told through rap/ N—– acting like I sold you crack/ Like I told you sell drugs/ No, Hov did that, so hopefully you won’t have to go through that from 2001’s “Izzo (H.OV.A.).”

He recalls battles in the streets in a manner similar to a military veteran recounting war. No one wins in the drug game. One side just loses more slowly. Jay Z’s bravado masks the stressors of his upbringing on the streets of Brooklyn. But it forever haunts him.

A November 2007 Rolling Stone interview was as vivid as any song he’d ever record. “When dealers are in the middle of it, they don’t realize what they’re doing. They don’t humanize the people … using the drugs, they don’t humanize the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s not until you mature, and then you look back on it like, ‘I was causing a lot of destruction around the neighborhood.’ ”

On “Drug Dealers Anonymous”— the very name suggests group recovery — there’s arrogance in Jay Z’s verse that’s impossible to ignore. And beyond the bluster, the lyrics are a manifestation of an unwritten rule. No long term options exist in the game, or in the neighborhood Jay Z once found himself in. Jay Z, by his own admission — and not just through ““DDA,” but through years of introspective records — could have easily found himself in the shoes of Bobby Shmurda or Troy Ave had life put him at the wrong place at the absolute wrong time.

Pusha T doesn’t spit his career’s magnum opus here—that was accomplished with 2006’s “Keys Open Doors.”

There’s never a way completely out. Richard Pryor once said, “Everyone carries around his own monsters.” Jay Z included. Money and platinum albums help. Having the President on speed dial does, too. And marrying a woman whose celebrity somehow exceeds his is the ultimate trump card. But memories rarely fade. Especially of the drug game. “It was a very difficult thing, especially if you’re successful, to say, ‘Wait. I know where this leads. I’ve got to figure a way out of this.’ Once I made my decision, that was it,” he said nearly nine years ago. “But in the back of my mind, if the music didn’t work out, I was going back to drugs forever.”

Classic projects, worldwide — the world knows all about Jay Z’s successes, in and out of the trap. His career is at superhero status. The whole point of recovery, though, is admitting faults and embracing vulnerabilities. If Jay Z is to move the needle in 2016 — hopefully it’s by opening up. Knowing more about his life, about his marriage, about his career depict the evolution of a man who has always kept his vulnerabilities close to the chest. About his pain, and about his recovery. We clamor for more of Shawn Carter’s entire story.

The best Jay Z is the most forthright Jay Z. We’re waiting.

Justin Tinsley is a senior culture writer for Andscape. He firmly believes “Cash Money Records takin’ ova for da ’99 and da 2000” is the single most impactful statement of his generation.