Stem the Tidal: How Jay Z Is Trying to Gain the Trust of Fans (and Old Friends) All Over Again

Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Live Nation

It’s not hard to feel indifferent about Jay Z these days. This is not ideal for Jay because the only thing worse than people disliking him is people not caring. Antipathy, while worrisome, at least carries with it some passion. Jay Z has built a career — an empire — on making people feel passionately about Jay Z.

Year in and year out, Jay Z could be counted on to be talented, to be likable, and to be profitable. In this moment, all three are up for debate. This is a new chapter in Jay’s career arc: a time when things routinely don’t go his way, when people seem to take some satisfaction in watching him squirm.

Whether it’s his tenure with the Brooklyn Nets, his client list at Roc Nation Sports, a telecommunication-corporation-sponsored album, domestic elevator whodunits, or his entrance into the streaming music wars, there’s admittedly something satisfying about watching him stumble, as normal humans do. And there’s something therapeutically twisted in targeting him — a mass bullying of the unbullyable — since he feels too big to feel, and to fail. Rarely does it seem malicious, the Jay pile-on, but there is a sense that he’s long overdue for a heat check.

There has always been an idea that the pedestal upon which Jay sits — one we built for him — could not be toppled. That no matter how much one clowns Jay, criticizes Jay, puts pressure on Jay to use his powers for good, there a sense that he’s too high up to see the finger wags. Regardless of whether that’s true — and even it’s routinely stated that we may not see the good he does privately — the perception remains. And as his life becomes more closely aligned with the business of music rather than the music business, he will increasingly be viewed through a critical, unflattering, even occasionally distrusting lens.

Jay Z’s most recently perceived slip-up turned public target practice comes by way of his ownership of the music streaming service Tidal, which has not had the most flattering roll-out. Tidal is 2015 Jay Z personified: easy to deem out of touch, the butt of many a joke, and potentially groundbreaking. So what’s a maybe-not-that-cool, maybe-out-of-touch, easily mockable Jay Z and Tidal to do?

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It was an odd moment in the history of Jay Z. We’re not used to those who sit in thrones coming down to plead for acceptance — that is, unless a significant panic is in order. The act, oddly enough, was the humanized Jay that many people seemed to yearn for. But because this moment is also connected to Jay doing things that aren’t considered cool — defending a brand, corporate messaging — it was ultimately mocked. For the first time, it genuinely looked like Jay Z could not win. It’s a challenging world to navigate when you can’t be confident or humble, guarded or vulnerable. It was becoming painfully clear that this Tidal thing wasn’t going to work purely on the strength of Jay’s word or his taste. He needed help. Jay Z needed serious help.

Enter: the B-sides.

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The premise: two concerts for Tidal subscribers on back-to-back nights in New York City, starring Jay and his extensive back catalogue. The lesser-known songs. The tracks for the ever-romanticized day-one fans. The mere existence of this concert suggests that Jay knows, to some degree, that he can’t just make people do things anymore. Tidal will not benefit from the same “It’s cool because it’s mine — trust me” hypnosis that worked with, say, his early-2000s Rocawear clothing line. At this point in his career, he’s closer to an elected official. If he wants the support of his constituency, he’s going to have to work to prove he still deserves his seat.

A concert his truest fans have always wanted? On the surface, it seems like a legitimate start.

The critique cycle of Jay (and the Carters, and black celebrities, and people with money, and anyone with the privilege of having a platform) is fair. Even the occasional pile-on is fair. Because the haves typically owe something to the have-nots — the rise of the haves is in large part due to the support of the have-nots. So when the have-nots feel as if the haves have forgotten a time when they were have-nots, the have-nots will remind them, publicly.

This was true, in some part, after the first night of the B-sides concerts. The one thing I knew about Night 1, while preparing to attend Night 2, was the existence of a Jay “freestyle” in which he got “political.”

When Jay does anything that touches on a current issue, it will immediately be seen as good, bad, authentic, or fake, depending on the mood of the listener and their level of trust in the motives of 2015 Jay Z. Which explains the multitude of takes on Jay’s Saturday “freestyle,” one that included mentions of Spotify, YouTube, Mike Brown, and Freddie Gray in a 30-second span. The two overarching themes of the response: disgust (given the context) and pleasant surprise (given the context). These are the same conflicting yet coexisting questions concerning modern-day Jay: “Is he doing enough?” “Is he trying to do too much?”

At Manhattan’s Terminal 5 for the second show, I was prepared for another one of these commentary-filled moments. This — even more than the premise of being treated to portions of around 40 Jay Z songs — was my focus, because this show, like Jay Z, was bigger than music. And it seemed as if this moment at this concert could ultimately shed light on whether Jay Z was falling further into the abyss of “Who does this guy think he is?” or beginning to trend up back toward “That’s still my guy.”

The only way we can continue in hip-hop is if we pay respect to the past. I had to pay respect to the past so I can continue on to the future. Can I introduce y’all to my future. ROC-A-FELLA RECORDS, GIVE ME SOMETHING, JUST.

This is Jay, but not from 2015. This is 2003 Jay — peak rap icon Jay — during his “retirement” concert in Madison Square Garden, chronicled in the film Fade to Black.

In a show that was meant to be a celebration of the career of Jay Z, one of the night’s slight departures was the Roc-A-Fella interlude with Memphis Bleek, Freeway, and Beanie Sigel. It’s one of those moments in the film — like the three-song Beyoncé portion — that were welcome if not essential. But you also understood their inclusion, because both his then-girlfriend and his crew (and Jay’s verses with both) were important parts of his career. You understood it, but could also acknowledge them for what they were, favors — good looks, if you will — by Jay for people whose futures he was invested in.

Look back at Jay, however, during the Roc Boys Fade to Black reunion: He’s elated. He is at his happiest on a stage. It’s the closest thing to Jay as a member of a group. Beans, Freeway, Bleek, — that’s his Destiny’s Child. And for the six-plus minutes that is “You, Me, Him & Her” and “What We Do” — a two-song live medley that is as good as any two-song live medley in rap history — they were a unified presence. One with a clear star, sure, but a unified front nonetheless. Everything clicked while they performed those two songs. Even if it was a favor, it sure didn’t feel like it on the part of Jay’s crew. What you saw in that moment were three hungry rappers, ready to carry the torch that Jay had handed them, for the foreseeable future.

When the Roc reunited at Hammerstein Ballroom in 2007, things had changed. The gap between Jay and the rest had widened irreversibly. In 2003, Jay was still the guy, but the others were very much on the rise. By 2007, Jay’s success has grown exponentially, while the others were commonly thought of as rappers once closely associated with Jay Z, and little else. The result felt like an acceptance of “just happy to be here” for Beans, Bleek, Freeway, and the members of the Young Gunz. It was the prophesy from Jay’s charitable, factual, and rude lyric about Memphis Bleek fulfilled and now spreading to the entire Dynasty.

Bleek could be one hit away his whole career
As long as I’m alive he’s a millionaire
And even if I die he’s in my will somewhere
So he could just kick back and chill somewhere

When they performed these two songs in 2007, it was still great — because these are great songs — but the fire had been extinguished. It felt more nostalgic than relevant, like seeing the Temptations shimmy on a cruise ship in the 1990s.

That was eight years ago. A great deal has changed. And for the first time, the one in need of favors is Jay.

There’s an episode in the first season of House of Cards when Frank Underwood returns to his alma mater, the Sentinel, for the dedication of a new library on campus bearing his name. Before he’s set to give a speech, Frank asks the event’s planner if he received his guest list, as if there were a few additions that wouldn’t naturally be at this swanky, high-brow affair. It’s clear Frank doesn’t see the people he’s looking for, but has to launch into his speech anyway:

I left this campus with fond memories …

Right then, three of his old buddies from his college group enter the room, and Underwood instantly transforms back into his former self. “We wouldn’t miss it for the world,” one of Frank’s pals tells him of his big night. What ensues is a night of revelry as the foursome has their way with the campus, drunkenly breaking into buildings while speaking of the days when they were all boys — all equals to the outside world — long before one of them became a congressman.

“Do you think this place made us?” Frank asks his closest friend of the bunch.

“I don’t know,” he responds. “But I do know I always thought you’d be the guy with your name on something.”

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Observing the differences between Nights 1 and 2 of the B-sides shows, Keith Nelson noted at AllHipHop: “Night 1’s reunion resembled The Backstage-era Roc-A-Fella. A wild group unified by unbridled hunger that leads to unrehearsed passionate performances. Night 2’s reunion was more Fade To Black-era Roc-A-Fella. A well-oiled machine so in sync they looked like they grew up together their entire lives.”

This is a keen, accurate depiction of what made — and continues to make — Jay important, that group crucial, and their music long-lasting.

No one was just happy to be there. These may have been Jay’s B-sides, but for the rest of the Roc masthead, these were their A-sides. The mere fact that they did complete versions of both songs made this moment feel different from past reunions. Watching each rapper alternate who would be at the front of the stage, with no one spending too much time away from the safety net that was the group, was exciting. Witnessing the group do their choreographed “chicken and gravy” arm move was applause-worthy, as if they’d stuck a triple axel. Hearing a crowd get amped as it recited every word of Bleek’s verse, shouting “Y’ALL DUDES DON’T GET IT” as if it were a battle cry was glorious.

It was surreal. We were losing our minds over Bleek and Beans and Freeway verses as much as Jay verses all night.

In the past, either Jay would cede the stage to his guys — a magnanimous way of giving them their glimmer of fame — or they’d roam behind him until summoned. Here, they held a strong line. They were equals. He knew, like we all knew, that this was the Jay we wanted. The Jay we trusted. The Jay who convinced us what was cool and what wasn’t. This wasn’t about whether Jay could rap his songs, but rather if Jay could transform back to the guy who made those songs.

For years, Jay had been the one who always seemed to get the best end of the deal. His pals, not so much. Be it jail, dwindling success, or public ridicule, they’ve constantly been the ones attempting to stay above water. And historically, the way for each to feel a whiff of the good old times was when Jay would have them along for a ride.

For once, on that stage, it was Jay’s turn. It was Jay’s turn to not be the darling of the media. It was Jay’s turn to have public hardship. It was Jay’s turn to potentially fail. And it was Jay’s turn to ask for help. And in this moment — a make-or-break time when he needs people on his side more than ever — it was Jay who needed help from Bleek. And Freeway. And Beans. And Chris. And Neef.

And Beyoncé.

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The day after Jay’s final B-sides concert, one of the first true positives in the early days of Tidal, Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj released their video for “Feeling Myself,” exclusively on Tidal. Because it’s Beyoncé and Nicki, and the initial rumblings about the video were that it was superb, it was the first real moment when we saw a noticeable shift in the desire to actually subscribe to Tidal. And in that, those who did buy into Tidal had access to something that most people did not. And even when versions of the video began to sneak out — screenshots, GIFs, Vines, low-quality videos — it wasn’t the same experience. And there was no denying that you were bummed you didn’t have the real Bey and Nicki going full Bey and Nicki. Watching it anywhere else was like watching Avatar on network television.

For the second time in as many days, Tidal got a win, by way of Jay — by way of those who love Jay. In two days, Tidal went from an easy-to-dismiss prestige project with little proven need to something that could potentially carve out a niche in the zeitgeist. And that has nothing to do with high-fidelity sound. Again, it has less to do with Jay and more with what Jay can make happen, because he’s Jay. And it’s not just Jay, cramming famous people he knows in a room. It’s Jay figuring out the right help to ask at the right time.

Tidal isn’t much different from another Jay Z venture, the 40/40 Club, which most nights out of the year is little more than a shinier Applebee’s. But then there are those nights — the nights of legend you only hear about because they weren’t for you — when the place transforms into the “Roc Boys” video. Tidal will probably never be the thing. But when it’s on, it could be on unlike few other properties.

But that’s on Jay. He has to keep working, for us. It’s been proven that we don’t truly care if the things Jay does are built, we just want to know that he’s building them. And if he convinces us of that, then there’s a good chance we will come.

Filed Under: Music, Jay Z, Tidal, Roc Nation, Beanie Sigel, freeway, Beyonce

Rembert Browne is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ rembert