The story of a man and his brood is the story of the world itself. Past, present, and future.
In the present, some are taking the old models of fatherhood head-on, our hands and feet in the muck. But the jungle from whence I came was light on men who acknowledged their namesake, if they stuck around at all. The divorce rates were staggering, and for some, dejection was our daily bread.
In 1988, around the time my folks were calling it quits, the Palm Beach Post reported that Miami held the second highest divorce rate in the country. Countless mothers were forced to inherit a seemingly impossible task, working double time simply to get by. My father hadn’t kicked the bucket like some of my friends’ fathers had, but he just as well could have been dry bones in the ground. I was always trying to measure my loss against theirs.
Out of this sense of desertion, we gravitated to art that helped us process our longing, a hunger that for so long went unnamed.
As an artist, 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 cold drums, and the men who were pressed to reevaluate their positions in a cold world.
In his 2012 track “Glory,” Jay-Z 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. And so: 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 Ivy 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?
This is an excerpt from writer and critic Juan Vidal’s new book Rap Dad: A Story of Family and the Subculture That Shaped a Generation. You can purchase it here.