The first time I heard “99 Problems” I was in the passenger seat of my mom's car, departing my orchestra concert in fourth grade.
It may sound dramatic, but at the time I was longing for a father figure. It was a big deal, this show. I was a young violinist who had just started playing. Sure, they were pretty basic chords, but damn if I hadn't played them well.
The parents in the crowd were absurdly proud. But when my wide eyes looked out among them, my dad was nowhere to be found.
Truth was, I never really knew the man, and I still don't. Even now, I don't know why things took the turn that they did – with him and my mom, or with him and me. Even though he doesn't live all that far away, I never hear from him.
My mom appreciated my performance, but on that quiet ride home I still debated my self-worth. If your own father doesn't want you, why should anyone else?
All of which is why I latched onto that Rick Rubin-produced rap-rock beat, which has become iconic.
“99 Problems” was everything I wasn't: Confident, brazen, and self-assured. In fact, everything I learned going forward about being an unflappable young black male, I learned from Jay-Z. He was somehow closer to me than my own father, speaking directly to me through tangled Sony headphones.
At 11, I snuck off into my local Washington D.C. Barnes & Noble to peruse their cramped, oddly-highbrow music section, highlighted by the Best of Tchaikovsky and Norah Jones' Come Away with Me. I was on a mission, prepared to pay $20 for an explicit copy of Jay-Z's retirement album, at an age when $20 was a big deal. It was a sacrifice I was willing to make in the name of fantastic aplomb.
So what if he didn't really retire; the Black Album was one of my first introductions to hip-hop, at least as a listener capable of developing his own opinion.
It gave me the opportunity to explore my own taste, and it inspired me to be indomitable and fearless. I conquered my fear of traveling alone that summer and ventured off to Australia. (Relax: It was on a student ambassador program, and I had a chaperone.)
But the most important thing was that I had found a kindred spirit. After all, Jay, like me, knew of his father but never really knew him as a man either, it turns out.
“Moment of Clarity” was particularly important. Here, after all, was a man at the top of his craft, who'd succeeded without needing his father's recognition. But despite his father's absenteeism, he forgave him for his transgressions. That's called being a man.
Still grappling with my abandonment issues, this resonated with me strongly. Jay-Z refused to be bitter. I modeled myself in that image.
The Black Album was my rock. Sure, it isn't Jay's most technically adroit effort and it isn't his most acclaimed work. For me, however, its timing was flawless.
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