When I think about Jay-Z and Zadie Smith, it is not usually in the same context. He occupies an endless looping show reel of music video footage in my mind, replete with fancy cars and Monte Carlo getaways. Zadie Smith is the author photograph on the back of NW. The literary prodigy from Cambridge, via Cricklewood.
Yet both positions – the rapper and the literary genius – are equally fraught with clichés and open to prejudice. I’m the type of person who can’t even write the word “rapper” without feeling hopelessly inauthentic.
Smith’s New York Times interview with Jay-Z is an illuminating read. All the critiques that have been levelled against NW’s formalism and fragmentation, its line by line experimentation, are put to good work here. It’s not often we get to critically dissect the mechanisms that make great hip-hop. Smith is clearly a fan. She knows her stuff and applies depth and wide-ranging analysis to the work of Jay-Z. It’s not your average reviewer who comments: “But asking why rappers always talk about their stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies. Because boasting is a formal condition of the epic form. And those taught that they deserve nothing rightly enjoy it when they succeed in terms the culture understands.”
PS. Jay-Z orders Smith a fish sandwich. This seems significant. It is mentioned twice.