Via New York Times Style Magazine:
My conversation with Jay-Z began with O.J.
When I was a kid growing up in black New Orleans in the 1960s, O.J. Simpson was a god. We imitated his moves, his swagger. We didn’t want to just play like him. We wanted to be him, gorgeous and running in the California sun. We practiced his juking moves in the mirror, our hands too small to hold the ball loosely, the way he did. We even wanted to go to U.S.C., where he led the nation in rushing two years in a row. We were angry when he lost the Heisman Trophy to the white, All-American, clean-cut U.C.L.A. quarterback Gary Beban, known as “The Great One.” We were triumphant when he won it the next year.
But O.J. was not a perfect hero for young black boys, even though he launched himself from poverty in San Francisco to superstardom. He was racially ambivalent. At a time when other athletes were starting to make their blackness a cause, he was trying to make his a footnote.
So when I was invited to interview Jay-Z, I wanted to talk about his song “The Story of O.J.,” from his most recent album, “4:44,” in which he quotes the legendary, maybe apocryphal, Simpson line “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”
I was less engaged by the rapper’s marital troubles or his infamous, caught-on-video 2014 elevator dust-up with his sister-in-law. But I did want to try to understand how, with an $88 million Bel Air mansion a freeway ride from neighborhoods where black people endure with so little, Jay-Z holds onto his younger self — a black man who grew up in the ’70s in the Marcy projects of Brooklyn. It seemed from his new body of work that examining this high-wire act of straddling two places had been stirring more deeply within him — much the way it stirs in me, a Southern black man who grew up revering O.J. and whose own success is infinitely greater than anyone in my early life would have imagined for me.
What is it about the story of O.J. Simpson that moved us both?
O.J. must have locked down part of himself when he presented himself as the noncontroversial star who never talked about race, the perfect foil for his fellow football player, Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown, who seemed more threatening, angry. I had to wonder if the pressure of that denial caused him to explode decades later.
All of this was on my mind when I met with Jay-Z for two hours in an executive office at The Times this past September. Besides O.J. and racial identity, we talked about his mother’s sexuality, and how he could possibly raise socially aware children who shuttled between mansions: After years of rapping about growing up in the ‘hood, he has produced an album that sounds like a middle-aged black man’s deeply introspective therapy session put to music.