Some Blues but Not the Kind That’s Blue

In music and literature, Jay-Z and Percival Everett meditate on maturity, black masculinity, and the confessional drive of the artist’s life

“A picture is a secret about a secret.” Percival Everett’s latest novel, So Much Blue, begins with this epigraph from Diane Arbus. It’s a fitting aphorism for this elliptical novel about a painter trying to work through the secrets and lies in his past. The line could also apply to Jay-Z’s 4:44, which is not just a rap album but a multimedia project that includes images of blackness and masculinity in popular culture, all set against the revelations of his own infamous marital infidelities.

So Much Blue and 4:44 appeared within weeks of each other in the summer of 2017 as America came to terms with the political catastrophe of the 2016 election. I happened to read So Much Blue the day after 4:44 came out. Both of these are works by mature black male artists who have been in the game for years and are contemplating life on the other side of 40. Jay-Z is an ancient 48 in the youth-obsessed world of hip-hop. Everett is 61 in the slightly less youth-driven world of writing. Both projects deal with similar themes of maturity, fatherhood, deception, and the unruly, bewildering desires of the flesh. One of my favorite pieces from the 4:44 project is the video for the song “4:44” featuring scenes with dancers Storyboard P and Okwui Okpokwasili moving with and against each other, amid a fractured montage of Internet videos including fights, celebrity interviews, protests, improvised performances, and silly stunts. The only image of Jay-Z and Beyoncé in the video comes near the end, in what we assume must be a fan video of them performing “Drunk in Love.” It’s an inventive commentary on our mediated digital lives and how that media shapes our stories. In their works, both Jay-Z and Percival Everett try to make sense of who we are, and who we are becoming, in these amazing and disorienting times. Capitalism is another common thread in both works (as it is in everything Jay-Z does). So Much Blue and 4:44 are not just about men facing past transgressions and trying to live an authentic life; they’re also about how a media-driven market exploits and complicates that authenticity—for the artist, and for everyone else.

In Everett’s So Much Blue, Kevin Pace is an abstract painter who finds himself narrating his past experiences in order to face the secrets that he has carried around for many years. The novel begins with him contemplating his latest abstract masterpiece, a large painting composed of blue shades, completed in the shed where he works alone and studiously, keeping everyone else out. Though he knows that his paintings have deeper meaning, he is also cranky about the language of art criticism. He rejects the facile comparison between painting and storytelling when he says, “A painting has many surfaces. To say that a painting is a like a story is a pedestrian utterance, not altogether untrue, but uninspired.” But there’s a whiff of denial in his statement, and the story that he ends up telling about his life is one that explores this very relationship between the image-making he has done as an artist and the stories that he has told about himself.

In alternating chapters with the recurring titles “House,” “Paris,” and “1979,” the novel follows three different timelines in Kevin’s life. The contemporary narrative, “House,” takes place around 2011 and features Kevin at 56 years old, married to his wife, Linda, with their two teenage children, April and Will. Sixteen-year-old April has just revealed to Kevin that she is pregnant, but she makes him promise not to tell her mother until she can get an abortion. So Kevin is caught between keeping her secret and being honest with his wife. But in “Paris,” which takes place 10 years earlier, we find that he’s been dishonest before, having carried on a fling with a 22-year-old painter and art student named Victoire. The sections titled “1979” backtrack to the year when he traveled to El Salvador on the cusp of all-out civil war. He goes there with his old grad-school friend Richard, to help Richard find his missing brother Tad, who has a reputation for being an untrustworthy fuckup and a drug addict. The El Salvador parts are gripping and suspenseful, and feature one of Everett’s most vivid characters, a profanely bigoted American soldier turned mercenary who goes by the name The Bummer, and offers to help Richard find his brother in exchange for $1,000. As the novel unfolds, we see the logic in the truncated multi-narrative structure. Kevin has repressed the events in El Salvador, and that repression has shaped his art, contributed to his bouts with alcoholism, and influenced who he has become in other ways large and small.

Oh, and Kevin Pace is black. In typical Percival Everett style, that information is casually dropped into the narrative in a line about how he and Richard were grad-school housemates in Philadelphia in a neighborhood where Richard was the only white person on the block. Kevin’s race is legible and relevant throughout the narrative, but never overwrought. (His wife’s racial background is unclear, though Victoire, the Paris girlfriend, is mentioned to be white.) So Much Blue is indicative of the way that Everett has treated the subject of race throughout his career, making race politically tangible, while also, subversively, refusing to accept the truth value of the thing.

But this blasé attitude toward race is also a class indicator of his characters. In this case, Pace is a successful painter and college professor who now lives in Rhode Island, can afford to send his kids to private school, and flies to Paris for an anniversary vacation with his wife, a vacation that turns into an affair when she leaves to visit a friend in Bordeaux, and he meets a smart, sexy art student at a museum. The word cliché appears several times throughout So Much Blue. Percival Everett knows that he is engaging in a tired convention of literary fiction with this tale of an older married man cheating on his wife with a younger woman, and at various points Kevin acknowledges the terrible banality of his situation.

Jay-Z opens his 2001 MTV Unplugged album by making a crack about the intimate, acoustic setting of the show with The Roots band behind him. “Welcome to Jay-Z’s poetry reading,” he muses, inviting the audience to snap their fingers after offering a couple lines of improvised doggerel. On 4:44 he essentially becomes what he once mocked. That indestructible flow is still there, but there are places on this album when he drifts toward a spoken-word style one might hear at Nuyorican or Brooklyn Moon.

There’s something endearing about Jay-Z’s willingness to take off his cool and allow himself to be corny and earnest. In this land of disposable black life, it means something to watch the black artist grow and evolve, and keep working into maturity. Just a few weeks ago Chicago rapper Fredo Santana died at 27 from liver and kidney problems most likely brought on by sipping lean. Santana himself acknowledged that his drug use was a form of self-medication. “I was running from my old life tryna get high didn’t want to face them demons,” he wrote in a tweet after a previous seizure, just four months before he died. This is why it matters to see a rapper like Jay-Z still at the top of his game, in control of his craft, and reaping the profits from it. Grown folks hip-hop was bound to happen eventually, and this is what it sounds like.

4:44 has a blues aesthetic in its tales of melancholy, regret, pain, and loss, such as in the track “Adnis,” about the relationship with his estranged father, who died in 2003, shortly after they reconciled. The accompanying black-and-white video provides a visual representation of fatherhood, pugilism, fatigue, and futility, with the actor Mahershala Ali, shirtless and sweaty, boxing in a spare gym, with the ghostly presence of Danny Glover as the trainer / father figure behind the bag. The African-American musical tradition of the blues is also implicit in the title and subject matter of So Much Blue. In a Publishers Weekly interview Everett mentions that the title was inspired by Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. In a New York Times review of the novel, critic Gerald Early suggests that alternate titles for the novel could have been “All Blues” (Miles Davis) or “Mood Indigo” (Duke Ellington).

Speaking of the blues, Jay-Z and Kanye have been known to tap into Nina Simone samples for their recordings, and she appears on this latest album as well. It’s just one example of how 4:44 is remarkably loaded with female creativity. The album is clearly a response to Beyoncé’s critically acclaimed multimedia album Lemonade. Producer No I.D. provides Jay-Z with a sonic palette full of women’s voices, from Nina Simone’s “Four Women” and “Baltimore,” to Sister Nancy’s timeless reggae classic “Bam Bam,” to a surprising sample on “4:44” from English band Hannah Williams & the Affirmations. And then there’s the revelatory track “Smile” that ends with his mother Gloria Carter’s poem about coming out as a lesbian.

But turning to women’s voices on such a confessional and therapeutic project also reinforces the gendered stereotype of women as inherently sensitive, nurturing, and maternal. This album is basically a longer version of the standard “as a father of daughters” responses to the #MeToo movement, whenever another horrid story of sexual abuse has emerged. Jay-Z says as much on the first track, “You had no father, you had the armor / But you got a daughter, gotta get softer.” This thinking essentially makes excuses for men, that they can’t learn to treat women decently without having them as offspring. It also ignores all the domestic violence and professional harassment that has made this moment of reckoning necessary in the first place. Time will tell if this project is just a one-off pandering to feminism or a true paradigm shift in his own body of work, let alone in the larger world of hip-hop. A more generous and hopeful reading of the album is that it represents a serious attempt to address the concerns of the black women artists and intellectuals who Beyoncé collaborated with on Lemonade, and who have engaged with her work.

With his mother’s coming out on “Smile,” with the track “Moonlight” titled after the award-winning black gay film, and with Frank Ocean’s appearance on “Caught Their Eyes,” this is one of the queerest mainstream rap albums by a straight male artist. That said, despite these indirect references, male homosexual desire is conspicuously absent and feels unthinkable in the album’s vernacular. And there’s also the heteronormativity of the whole confessional exercises in the 4:44 “Footnotes” videos—with clips from straight black performers like Jesse Williams, Anthony Anderson, Meek Mill, and others talking about their relationship failures and emotional struggles. In all those videos, queerness is the most obvious thing that is being elided; their emotional avoidances are about distancing themselves from any connotations of femininity or homosexuality. But I’m willing to lower the bar and put aside my misgivings to say there is something refreshing and meaningful in these influential straight black men speaking publicly about the limits of hypermasculinity. At least Jay-Z has turned away from the vicious homophobia that animated his Nas diss track “The Takeover” (and Nas’s “Ether”), not to mention all the other casual slurs on earlier albums.

From another direction this album is an intervention in an ongoing conversation with some of his harshest critics in the hip-hop world. To them, this whole exercise confirms everything they’ve suspected about his Illuminati ass. They believe he’s participating in a conspiracy to emasculate and undermine black manhood, that while a white-supremacist movement has captured the White House with the promise of giving white men their balls back after eight years of Negro Rule, here’s Jay-Z out here trying to get black men in touch with their motherfucking feelings. Whatever this is, it is astonishing to see one of the most powerful artists in the industry making a provocative and intensely personal album like this, publicly owning up to his moral failings, while amplifying the work of other black artists along the way.

Jay-Z’s obsession with artwork was the organizing principle in Magna Carta Holy Grail, and some of that also appears on 4:44. I don’t doubt that he has some genuine interest in visual art, but as a subject in his rhymes the painting is just another expensive object of conspicuous consumption along with the Bugattis and private jets. For Kevin Pace, painting is his creative medium, but there are no images in So Much Blue, so what we get is the visual artist telling a story. He’s forced to become a narrator in order to face the things that he’s been trying to avoid. Storytelling itself is an art form, and as such it is often full of exclusions and distortions. And yet, for all of us, story is a fundamental and universal tool for making meaning out of the confusing experience of existence.

As a professional artist Kevin is also in the business of selling his paintings in the marketplace, where the feeling he has put into the work is inherently commodified. 4:44 is a confessional work of art, and Jay-Z mentions being in therapy. The line “My therapist said I relapsed / I said pre-haps I Freudian slipped in European whips” is indicative of his own recognition of a relationship between this emotional exhibitionism and his perpetually market-driven worldview. After seeing all this content—the songs, the videos, the extended interviews—it’s apparent that this is part of the hustle, that he’s selling his personal revelations to boost his platform. But that’s an easy, simplistic critique. The more difficult recognition is that what he’s doing isn’t terribly different from what most artists do, mining their intimate experiences for public material. This commodified confessionalism is an essential part of our digital world now, where we’re all being encouraged to monetize our images, relationships, and life stories on digital platforms that rake in billions for a handful of tech bros in Silicon Valley.

Embedded in So Much Blue is a commentary on the crude amorality of capital. Among other things, it’s a novel about what it means to live in a world where an American can pay a mercenary $1,000 to lead him through the backwoods of El Salvador to find his dope addict brother. It’s about a sleazy white Dutch expat in El Salvador who calls himself Carlos and keeps a photo book of dead bodies, charging desperate people money to look through it in order to confirm whether their loved ones have been killed. As Carlos says to Kevin, “My boy, there is a nasty war going on in this little country. People go missing all the time. Loved ones worry, loved ones wonder. I address that need. And loved ones pay.” Though Everett keeps it mostly as subtext in the narrative, U. S. foreign policy is lurking behind these scenes in El Salvador. By setting the story in 1979, he gestures to America’s 20th century adventure in saving the world from communism.

Back on Watch the Throne Jay-Z rapped, “I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died / real niggas just multiply,” but he’s name-checking the same Fred Hampton who said, “We’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, we’re going to fight it with socialism.” Jay is surely a hypocrite, but his hypocrisy belongs to us all. On “Family Feud” he praises unfettered wealth accumulation (“What’s better than one billionaire? Two. Especially when they’re from the same hue as you.”), but then on “Caught Their Eyes” he’s the ethicist wagging his finger at Prince’s estate for selling tours of Paisley Park. “You greedy bastards sold tickets to walk through his house / I’m surprised you ain’t auction off the casket.” What he’s giving us is a valuable commentary on the conflicted ethics of capitalism. As Jay-Z has told us many times, he grew up in Marcy Projects surrounded by crack in the Reagan Eighties and hustled his way out, by crack, and then by music. He sells a different kind of dope now, but he’s still got a hustler’s spirit. “You can blame Shawn, but I ain’t invent the game / I just rolled the dice, trying to get some change,” he raps on the anthem “PSA.”

So Much Blue and 4:44 are both deployed as narratives of redemption and reconciliation. On the last track, “ManyFacedGod,” Jay-Z boasts of the Carters’ triumph in all this mess, that they’ve come out on the other side of the drama rich as ever with the family intact. By the end of So Much Blue Kevin Pace has found some measure of redemption too. He finally lets his wife into his secretive workspace and shows her his painting. It’s an intentionally heavy-handed metaphor for the pain and secrets that he has been hiding. He’s reached catharsis. And he’s also made another painting to sell.