The story of Jay-Z in 9 songs he will play at ACL Fest

Oct 02, 2017
Jay-Z performs Sept. 15 during the Meadows Music And Arts Festival at Citi Field in New York City. He’ll headline both Fridays of the Austin City Limits Music Festival. (Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)

The biggest artist at the Austin City Limits Music Festival this year is 47-year-old rapper Shawn Carter, who’s riding high on the release of “4:44,” his most powerful album in well over a decade. We studied his recent set lists to get a sense of what he’s likely to play. Here are nine songs you will hear at the fest along with brief explanations about what they tell us about the artist better known as Jay-Z. Bonus: We threw in five predictions for his ACL Fest set.

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1. “Bam” (“4:44,” 2017)

Jay-Z rocked a Colin Kaepernick jersey when he and reggae boss Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley blazed through the brick-stomping single currently burning up the charts on the season premiere of “Saturday Night Live.” The song is a classic story of hustler’s triumph, an ego-boosting fist pump, that shouts out hip-hop’s roots in the tradition of Jamaican toasting with samples of Sister Nancy’s dancehall classic “Bam Bam” and Marley singing a version of Jacob Miller’s “Tenement Yard.”

Prediction No. 1: Guess who has ankle-length dreadlocks and two open Fridays in his October tour schedule? This song is on fire and Jay’s been frontloading his sets with it. Marley’s tour schedule leaves him conspicuously open both weekends and his Emo’s date scheduled for later this month was canceled because of “schedule conflicts.” Will Jay-Z fly him in for ACL? Well, “Jr. Gong” was on tour in Africa when he wanted to shoot the video, so Jay sent a private plane to Ethiopia to pick him up.

Odds it will happen: 55 percent.

2. “Where I’m From” (“In My Lifetime vol.1,” 1997)

“I’m from New York, but I didn’t know that at 9,” Jay-Z said in his 2010 book “Decoded.” He grew up in the Marcy Houses, a 26-building public housing complex in the ghetto. “Bed-Stuy was my country, Brooklyn my planet.”

When the crack epidemic seized America’s cities in the late ‘80s, he was at Ground Zero. He dove in, and with his sharp mind for business, was quite effective. For years, he believed music would the side hustle to his more lucrative job as a drug dealer. In this gritty reality rap, he paints a vivid picture of the ghetto trap, where even the churches, “full of fake prophets and money-snatching preachers” contribute to destruction of the people’s faith in a better tomorrow.

3. “Big Pimpin’” (“Vol. 3 … Life and Times of Shawn Carter,” 1999)

“I’m notoriously tight with video budgets, but for ‘Big Pimpin’,’ I put out a million dollars,” he said in “Decoded.” Hype Williams directed the video, which unfolds as an ode to gratuitous hedonism. “We headed to Trinidad for carnival, then booked a mansion in Miami, got the biggest yacht we could find, and hired hundreds of girls from the top agencies.”

Jay-Z, already a star, asked Texas rap legends UGK to hop on this track even though they weren’t particularly well known to East Coast hip-hop heads at the time. “I’d always loved Southern hip-hop, and UGK combined great Southern bounce with sneak-ily complex rhymes and delivery,” he said.

After Pimp C died, Jay-Z performed the song in Houston with Bun B. The two of them (along with a crowd of roughly 15,000) spit Pimp’s verse together. Jay-Z called his lyrics — “if I wasn’t rapping baby / I would still be ridin Mercedes / coming down and sippin daily / no rest till whitey pay me” — a perfect eulogy.

Prediction No. 2: Jay-Z will intro this track with a passionate shout out to his wife’s hometown Houston, then bring out Bun B as a special guest.

Odds it will happen: 65 percent.

4. “99 Problems” (“The Black Album,” 2003)

With a bombastic chorus, Rick Rubin’s nerve-grinder of grimy guitar chords and manic cowbell, and a pointed snub to all the haters, the song blazes from start to finish. But the almost-true tale of a potentially perilous traffic stop in verse two is one of Jay-Z’s greatest narrative raps. “It’s a story about the anxiety of hustling, the way little moments can suddenly turn into life-or-death situations,” Jay-Z said about the song in “Decoded.” “It’s about being stopped by cops with a trunk full of coke, but also about the larger presumption of guilt from the cradle that leads you to having the crack in your trunk in the first place.”

The song leaves the ending ambiguous, but in the real story from his drug dealer days, Jay says he cut a lucky break. The K-9 unit was late and the cops let him go. “We were back on the road again, hearts pounding, crack still tucked untouched in the stash, when I saw the K-9 unit screaming up the highway, going in the opposite direction,” he said in the book. “It would’ve changed my life if that dog had been a few seconds faster.”

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5. “Empire State of Mind” (“The Blueprint 3,” 2009)

This soaring, Alicia Keys-assisted ode to his hometown, is one of his biggest hits. “Gave Frank (Sinatra, presumably) a run for his money,” he boasted when he ranked his albums on his own website.

6. “The Story of O.J.” (“4:44,” 2017)

“Now is the time to recognize that through our voices we really can effect change,” Jay-Z wrote in a June Hollywood Reporter guest column about two documentaries he is executive producing about the lost lives of Kalief Browder and Trayvon Martin. In 2012, Jay-Z famously (and unflatteringly) beefed with Harry Belafonte over the elder musician/activist’s criticism that he wasn’t doing enough work for social justice. He seems to have had a change of heart. This single, and the accompanying short film loaded with uncomfortable imagery, confronts the sinister persistence of institutional racism head on. It’s his most powerful statement song to date.

Prediction No. 3: Many, many white people will stand in Zilker Park and shout out the N-word. “It’s OK when you’re just singing along,” they will say. Nope. “Come on, we’re not allowed to sing the words to this song or ‘(Expletive) in Paris’?” they will ask. Nope. Consider every N-word sized space you leave in each song a tiny contribution to our country’s reckoning with an ugly history of racism.

Odds it will happen: 90 percent (please prove us wrong, white people).

7. “Family Feud” (4:44, 2017)

Over the past few years, Jay-Z’s music has been on the Carter family backburner, while his wife, Beyonce, stole the spotlight. Her 2016 album, “Lemonade,” was largely a gut-wrenching response to his infidelity. On the season premiere of “SNL” he performed “4:44,” the title track to his new album and the explicit apology for the damage his sexual meandering has done to his family, with his eyes closed. It might be the most vulnerable performance he’s ever given. Up to that point, he hadn’t been playing the song live. But this song, about how his understanding of manhood has evolved to a family-first position, has been in every playlist.

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Prediction No. 4: “What’s better than one billionaire? Two.” Look, we’re not going to get a full song from Beyonce, who is most likely contractually obligated to not to perform at festivals until she makes up that Coachella dates she skipped this year to give birth to twins. But is there a remote possibility that she could step out onto stage to perform the “Amens” she sings on this track live? Maybe.

We at Team 360 have been very conservative on the odds of a ‘Yonce ACL Fest pop-in, despite the fact that her husband and her sister are playing the fest on the same day. In his Rap Radar podcast interview, Jay said he planned his tour dates around the twins’ birth, to make sure he’d have adequate bonding time with them. He also said they will be with him on the road. Oh, really? And Beyonce has said she will appear on stage at Jay-Z’s Tidal X Brooklyn performance in NYC four days after his weekend two ACL set, so we know they’ve been rehearsing together. As the NYC show is a hurricane relief benefit, there’s a slim chance it might give them a little contractual wiggle room for a brief promo appearance.

Odds it will happen: Weekend 1: 10 percent. Weekend 2: 15 percent.

8. “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” (“The Black Album,” 2003)

In early 2008, before the primaries, when Barack Obama was still a long-shot candidate for the Democratic nomination, a friend of Obama’s reached out to Jay-Z to set up a meeting. They talked for hours. Mostly, Obama quizzed Jay on the political concerns of his friends, not just his rapper friends, but his Marcy Project friends. It was the first time Jay was truly inspired by a politician, but despite his excitement, he kept a low profile.

“I didn’t want him to get caught up in having to defend every one of my lyrics or actions. I’ve done some stuff even I have trouble explaining — I definitely didn’t want him to have to. I didn’t want my lyrics to end up in a question at a presidential debate,” he said in “Decoded.”

By late spring, the primaries were getting contentious and in a stump speech in April, Obama officially became America’s first hip-hop presidential candidate. He responded to attacks from his rival Hillary Clinton with Jay-Z’s famous “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” gesture. The moment will live on forever in Gif-story.

9. “Numb/Encore” (“Collision Course’ Jay-Z/Linkin Park album, 2004)

A year after he announced his retirement with “the Black Album,” Jay-Z put out a collab album with nu-metal band Linkin Park. The first single was a mashup of Linkin Park’s “Numb” and Jay-Z’s “Encore.” At his last three shows, this song has been one of his closing numbers, played in tribute to Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington, who committed suicide in July. In the Rap Radar podcast, Jay-Z said he’s been in therapy for four years. In an interview with the BBC’s Live Lounge last month, he said he hopes Bennington’s death serves as a wake-up call for people that mental health is real. “Men, we have this bravado, we have to armor up,” he said. “Nah, man, you have to take care of yourself — physically and spiritually.”

Prediction No. 5: Continuing the trend, his ACL Fest set will close with a shout out to Chester and a rallying cry for all of us to protect our mental health.

Odds it will happen: 90 percent.