Jay-Z certainly spent much of his career trying to convince everyone he was a grownup. The metrics by which adulthood were measured seemed, ironically, a little juvenile. But it wouldn't be 'button downs' or investing in sports teams that would make the case - it was fatherhood. As hip-hop continues to explore its dalliance with looking inward, one made up largely of young men crying over spilled milk, Jay-Z opts to deal with the largest issue of all, and with trademark poise.
His new single "Glory," released just two days after wife Beyoncé gave birth to daughter Blu Ivy Carter, sees the rapper celebrating with a strange mixture of certainty and guilelessness. It's a condensed saga, where the revelations range from somewhat brazen ("You don't yet know what swag is but you was made in Paris/ And mama woke up the next day and shot her album package.") to somber ("Last time the miscarriage was so tragic we was afraid you'd disappear but 'naw/baby, you magic.").
No longer compelled (or asked) to prove himself, Jay-Z has been steadily mining his experiences in new ways. His best moments come during bouts of self-tribute, nostalgia, or memorializing. On "December 4th" from 2004's The Black Album, he intimated that his parent's divorce led him astray ("Now all the teachers couldn't reach me and my momma couldn't beat me hard enough to match the pain of my pop not seeing me/so with that disdain in my membrane, got on my pimp game/fuck the world, my defense came"). And even on the bravado-heavy "Dear Summer," he's not so much acting the big, swinging dick as he is looking for catharsis and closure ("Still light shine down on all my peers, I know they weird/Some queer, I still wonder this year/And all the success I receive, I know you can't believe I still love them but they don't love me/They're like the drunk uncle in your family, you know they lame, you feel ashamed, but you love them the same").
While most rap claims to be autobiographical, the highs never register as meaningful as the lows. It's hard not to talk about Drake at this point, who's been both rewarded and lambasted for his perpetual wistfulness. But where his sensitivity can almost seem manic, with episodes of chest-thumping inlaid between recollections of heartbreak, Jay-Z's emotions are subtle, wiser, and always self-assured.
In the past, though, he's seemed so aloof as if removed from the problems of this world. He spent years trying to convince us he was still a hustler, that rapping was just a means to an end, and perhaps unconsciously, that women were too. And so what makes "Glory" a cautiously celebratory ode is the two-fold subtext - after he's finished exhaling, it almost feels certain that our experience of Jay-Z, as both a musician and a man, will also change.