JAY-Z by Michael Eric Dyson


Made in America
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The celebrated public intellectual offers a slim volume on an American musical icon.

For readers who only know Jay-Z as Beyoncé’s husband, the latest by Dyson (What Truth Sounds Like: Robert F. Kennedy, James Baldwin, and Our Unfinished Conversation About Race in America, 2018, etc.) is a serviceable primer. However, for readers familiar with Jay-Z’s music or role in popular culture, this brief book has little to offer. The publication coincides with the rapper’s 50th birthday, and it reads as if it was rushed to make the date. The chapters are disorganized and consist largely of riffs that have often tangential connections to his life or work. Dyson’s interests are wide-ranging, and some of his digressions are worthwhile in their own right. Ultimately, though, there’s too much filler in a book that needed more material. It’s no surprise that many of the tangents rehash older writings for which the author is already well known, and he also engages in excessive name-dropping, cringeworthy poetic affectations, and an attitude that sometimes feels condescending to readers and to hip-hop culture. In a long section on the late Nipsey Hussle, Dyson describes a time he sat by the rapper on a flight. As the two men “had an epic conversation,” Nipsey “brought up the psychologist Abraham Maslow.” This is a typical non sequitur meant to suggest to readers that Nipsey is worthy of our consideration because he is intelligent. The author frequently uses the same approach with Jay-Z, noting, for example, that the rapper uses many of the poetic devices employed by Robert Frost, Rita Dove, and other poets; of course, countless rappers use the same tactics. Dyson is usually far more insightful that this, and readers should turn to Julius Bailey’s Jay-Z: Essays on Hip Hop’s Philosopher King or Jay-Z’s own book, Decoded, a masterpiece of music memoir. Pharrell contributes the foreword.

Jay-Z deserves an in-depth study. This is not it.

Pub Date: Nov. 26th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-250-23096-6
Page count: 240pp
Publisher: St. Martin's
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 2019

Kirkus Interview
Michael Eric Dyson
February 2, 2016

In Michael Eric Dyson’s rich and nuanced book new book, The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America, Dyson writes with passion and understanding about Barack Obama’s “sad and disappointing” performance regarding race and black concerns in his two terms in office. While race has defined his tenure, Obama has been “reluctant to take charge” and speak out candidly about the nation’s racial woes, determined to remain “not a black leader but a leader who is black.” Dyson cogently examines Obama’s speeches and statements on race, from his first presidential campaign through recent events—e.g., the Ferguson riots and the eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston—noting that the president is careful not to raise the ire of whites and often chastises blacks for their moral failings. At his best, he spoke with “special urgency for black Americans” during the Ferguson crisis and was “at his blackest,” breaking free of constraints, in his “Amazing Grace” Charleston eulogy. Dyson writes here as a realistic, sometimes-angry supporter of the president. View video >


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