Rap, throughout its history, has always referenced parenthood in some form. Most often, it was to extol single mothers for their goodness while deadbeat fathers were berated and called out for going ghost. In recent years, as the social media landscape has blown open the avenues of communication, famous rap dads, in particular, have become increasingly transparent about their lives as family men. Where years ago there seemed to be endless bars mourning the demise of the father, artists are now using their platform to balance the scales. They’re showing themselves to be present and intentional.
Few albums make me think more about the concept of parenthood, and legacy, than Jay-Z’s 13th studio album, 4:44. It’s a stark and blistering work of memoir, heavy on confession and self-examination. When 4:44 finally dropped, I, like many others, was filled with wonder. How was it that Jay had managed to so fluidly deconstruct everything I’d been wrestling with for the last few years? Though the specifics of our experiences differed greatly, the central ideas dissected on 4:44, especially those concerning fatherhood and family life, had been swimming around my brain for some time.
Hip-hop saved my life. And it was fatherhood that set it on fire. This bears explaining.
What hip-hop has done for me, is what it has done for millions of fatherless and heart-wounded kids—it provided, at the very least, the shading of a better life. If it wasn’t for hip-hop, and the value I ascribed to it, it would be impossible to know just how far I’d have settled into the more lamentable aspects of my environment. Forasmuch of a goon as I was growing up, something always kept me from becoming too emotionally invested in harsh crime. I dabbled in mischief like an amateur chef knowing he would only go so far. I saw in hip-hop, in the art of it, something worth pursuing with tenacity; something like a healthy distraction. So I committed to finding my lane.
Though there were brief stints dedicated to developing my modest graffiti skills and footwork, it was the words that flowed and came without struggle. The school cyphers sharpened my wits and compelled me to feed my vocabulary daily. Only my wordplay could save me from getting ripped to shreds in a lunchroom battle. I read books and scoured the dictionary for ammunition, I listened to stand-up comics who fearlessly engaged the crowd and proved quick on the draw. It seemed fruitless to know a billion words if I couldn’t convert them into brutal attacks. I had to break the competition down and render them defenseless, stammering for a rebuttal. There could be no confusion as to my superiority. So instead of joining the stickup kids or depositing all of my energy into intramural sports, I put my soul and mind into the task of taking down all manner of wack MCs. That’s why I say that hip-hop saved me.
But fatherhood was its own saving grace. It showed me that the world did not revolve, nor would it ever revolve, around my passions. Fatherhood put an extra battery behind my back as a creative, sure. But it’s more about being a consistent presence at home than chasing any dream.
As an artist and writer, I cannot so much as think about fatherhood without considering some of the material that deals with feelings comparable to those I felt after I became a father. Songs that contextualize very specific emotions over the drums.
In his 2012 track “Glory,” Jay-Z, someone who had long been vocal about his strained relationship with his father, reflects on the birth of his daughter Blue Ivy, his first child with wife Beyoncé. Produced by the Neptunes, “Glory” was released on January 9, just two days after Blue was born. From start to finish, it carries a sort of gleeful melancholy that resonates on multiple levels. While it is, in essence, a comment on the exuberant joy attached with welcoming a child, “Glory” is also a note on death and mourning.
Before Blue came along and flipped the script, Beyoncé had suffered a miscarriage. The pain the couple experienced left them fearful of not being able to conceive. The dual purpose of “Glory” is made clear from the outset, and with blazing transparency. “False alarms and false starts,” offers Jay, laying the groundwork for what immediately follows: “All made better by the sound of your heart.” The second half of the couplet establishes what was, as we come to learn, the most pivotal moment in the rap mogul’s life up until then. The moment where all is made right, where the sting of loss is eclipsed by the possibility of new birth. Jay continues in this mode, shining light on the redeeming gift that is Blue and, also, how the child is a composite of her mother and father, yet more still.
The opening bars of the following verse are equally striking as Jay, addressing Blue, touches on the death of his father from liver failure. Jay is signaling here, leading us somewhere but with the intent to shift gears. Instead of dwelling on his father’s shortcomings like one might expect him to, Jay breaks left, resolving that deep down his father was a good man. What begins as an indictment of a cheat who walked out on his obligations, ends with a declaration of forgiveness and generosity. But Jay soon directs the focus back to his blessing and how hard it is not to spoil her rotten as she is the child of his destiny. It becomes apparent that this is a man at his most self-actualized. A few more welcome digressions and “Glory” closes the same way that it begins, with the final line of the hook: “My greatest creation was you.” This points to something that I, too, came to know as fact. That no matter what I do, and regardless of what I might attain—power, wealth, the esteem of my peers—nothing is quite comparable to the happiness and the terror that comes with siring a child. “Glory” succeeds as it casts aside any traces of bluster and bravado, making room for Jay to unearth lessons that were hard-won yet central to his maturation. And what is the purpose of making art if not to bust open your soul and watch it spill over? Shout out to the rap dads raising babies and doing the work to shift the narrative.
Juan Vidal is a writer, critic, and author of Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation.