Sunday, April 18, 2010

Feminsist Criticism of Jay-Z's I Know

Jay-Z’s last single, “I know,” from his 2007 album, American Gangster, isn’t your average love song. While on the outside it seems to be a song about the addictions of love, the whole song is essentially a metaphor for drug addiction. This interesting comparison of dependencies provides plenty of fuel for criticism. Throughout the song there is a heavy emphasis on the male gaze and dominance while females are continuously displayed as the weaker, dependent sex. Jay-Z makes vast use of metaphors and intertexual pop references to ensure his points are understood. Key symbols of power, drugs, and addiction help to provide support for the real world claims made by rhetor.

Jay-Z portrays himself as an authority figure throughout the song which establishes the idea of male dominance. This is evident right from the start where Pharrell Williams and Sean Carter maintain on the chorus that “I know what you like, everything you love . . . baby you love -- Hov.” Jay offers no other alternative to this reality and even goes as far as to silence any theoretical attempts. The key symbols used to assert gender are addiction and drugs, males are given power over their addicted counterparts through this metaphor. One of the most prevalent examples of creating social identities is in the line “I know what you like, I am your prescription; I'm your physician, I'm your addiction.” This line clearly establishes male dominance and helps to structure the identity of females as weaker and dependent by portraying the main female subject as an addict of the male gender.

The female gender is relentlessly represented as weak and dependent, “She fiends for me nightly, she leans for me.” The use of lean refers to the popular southern drug also known as Purple Drank and addiction; this is another example of the weaker feminine portrayal. Jay continues: “Now that feelin' got you trippin', you no wanna feel no differently; said lust has got you itchin'.” This line again represents male hegemony where the feeling that he gives her has her losing control of emotions, which is seen as a pitiful characteristic. Her uncontrollable eagerness for more of the sensation makes her somewhat of a salve to the drug that is the male gender. Jay once again continues the male role of dominance in the second verse claiming “I am so dope! … Like every color Giuseppe’s, your guilty pleasure is me.” Here, Jay directly refers to himself as the powerful addiction causing agent and likens its grips to the typically female obsession of shopping, specifically for (Giuseppe) shoes, that is prevalent in our culture today. This is further evidence of the lesser role that females are boxed into along with an example of the current day ideals of domestic sphere, which include shopping as a feminine chore. Jay exemplifies this argument with the claim that "It’s so much fun, you shun therapy … Shopping's like coppin', you constantly need it," once again offering an example of feminine weakness, this time for shunning therapy and not being able to help herself.

Even when thoughts of better options reveal themselves, Jay, like withdrawals, reminds the female addict that she needs him:

I keep tryin' to remind you, to keep tellin' yourself; now your conscience is interfering like "Better yourself!" Like you better get help, but when that medicine is felt? We're back together, don't ever leave me. Don't ever let 'em tell you that you'll never need me!

This section provides strong evidence of the male hegemony that still exists in our culture today, essentially claiming that the females need a male counterpart to not only be happy, but to simply function. This segment also demonstrates clear evidence of silencing women’s voices which decreases the importance of the weak role already constructed for women in the rhetoric act. Jay-Z continues to demean women, calling her his “China White” which refers to the purest form of heroin, objectifying the female gender to a prized possession which can only be useful for emotions of ecstasy.

Aesthetically, Jay-Z is a master story-teller in his own realm. His use of metaphors is almost unparalleled today in hip-hop along with his uncanny ability to relate near any subject to his targeted audience and beyond. Throughout the song Jay makes references from hip-hop and drug culture to the material world of shopping and popular culture that allows close to any modern audience to relate to even the toughest subjects such as that of love, abuse and addiction. Another dynamic that leads to the overall aesthetically pleasing experience is Jay’s choice of background for his story. Pharrell Williams crafted the perfect, laid back, instrumental for Jay-Z to smoothly layout his sinister scenario of love and addiction in a way that only the self proclaimed King of New York could over such dark synths. And just as the song tells a tale of two sides, so does the music video which offers two separate accounts displaying both scenarios in cinematic form. The combination of symbols from both the video and song offer an experience that evokes strong emotional responses that any audience can truly feel.

Psychologically the song offers different benefits for different consumers. One state that “I Know” evokes is almost an emotional catharsis to which listeners can escape into another world where the troubles of love and addiction don’t matter because as Jay-Z describes it, “She want[s] those Heroin tracks … That Black Rain will take away your pain.” As Jay cleverly points out with his word play of terminology from both worlds, music and drugs both have that supernatural power to take us far away and leave the pain an eternity behind.

While the rhetoric act may be lacking in morality and equality, it certainly displays a harsh, but truthful reality of love and society today. Jay displays the unfortunate reality of abusiveness and addiction that continues to create serious issues worldwide in not only relationships, but all aspects of life. Mimicking an abusive relationship, Jay plays on the idea of dependency where the weaker partner typically feels the need to be with someone stronger, in this case stereotypically confirmed as the female; and once again, almost mirroring the typical form of abusive relationships, he silences any attempt at rehabilitation and independence by reassuring his power and the reliance that his subordinate has for him.

Just as in the contemporary ideology of street life, the end result justifies the means by which it was obtained. This is not your average pop love song played on the radio where everything turns out well. But somehow it cracked the charts and as Jay eloquently puts it, when that medicine's felt “You'll never be down; I know where your peak is.” The harsh realities that Jay paints for his audience are not in any way decent or ethical, yet it works. And it works well. Jay-Z is the quintessential superstar today. Coming up through the drug game in Brooklyn to become one of the richest entertainers in America, is it any wonder that this formula works? As Jay’s long time protégé, Kanye West, ponders:

Why [does] everything that's supposed to bad, make me feel so good?
Everything they told me not to is exactly what I would.

This is one of the most ancient questions of humanity going back all the way to the time of Adam and Eve, but as another significant New York rapper simply put it: “Joy wouldn't feel so good, if it wasn't for pain.” Jay-Z has created a genre of mood music for a generation of impoverished and damaged audiences around the world and somehow through it all, managed to send messages of hope and motivation to those who need it the most. While the gloomy truths that “I know” depicts may be seen as immoral and unsuitable for mass media by some, to others it offers the perfect balance of escapism and real world guidance to use as ammunition for continuing the unyielding battles in their own lives.

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