The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.
As Nothing Was the Same, Drake’s fourth studio album, comes to a close, “Pound Cake” wraps up the icy, gritty record on a melancholy note. Drizzy brings in JAY-Z for a mic-swapping tirade of wealth in its various shades, fittingly over Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” sample to give it its pop. Drake’s fifth album Scorpion again features JAY-Z, fresh off of the musical trio of commercial infidelity that is Beyoncé's Lemonade, his own 4:44, and EVERYTHING IS LOVE, in a new, even more prostrate world-weary manner on “Talk Up.” It immediately establishes itself as a sequel unlike anything that came before it, with Jay delving into political territory via attacks on Trump. That’s neither here nor there — JAY-Z’s vocal disdain of the country’s celebrity-in-chief has long been apparent. But what’s making people scratch their heads is the verse’s kicker: “Y’all killed X and let Zimmerman live. Streets is done.”
That “X” is Florida rapper XXXTentacion, victim of a robbery gone wrong, tragically gunned down on June 18 in Deerfield Beach, Florida, leaving a motorsport shop on a conquest to purchase a new bike. His death caused a national wave of examination into his life and riots at the fact that another black life was taken before it could reach its prime. His violent backstory and alleged history of domestic abuse didn’t go unnoticed — death just has a way of mitigating the worst of a person and pumping the media’s best version of them to the public. But, in death, he touched rappers that perhaps never had contact with him. A symbol for anarchy and singularity, he achieved a martyrdom in death that places him in the realm of influential artists taken before their time like Tupac, Biggie, and Big L.
Trayvon Martin was a young black adult that met his end at the hands of a local neighborhood watch member named George Zimmerman for minding his business while wearing a hoodie, and, of course, being black. His death changed the face of racial relations in the United States, becoming the beginning of serious conversation in the country that continues to fuel the need for change. Riots, protests, and programs have come in the wake of his death. All the while, Zimmerman gained a dark fame that comes with death threats instead of adoration. According to Zimmerman’s brother, his life is a living hell. Jobs won’t hire him, people don’t like him, everything changed when he ended that young man’s life. It doesn’t help that he still speaks about the shooting, even when the country is determined to forbid him the attention that he desperately seeks.
George Zimmerman lives and walks today while XXXTentacion rests in the mausoleum erected in his honor. While Zimmerman has continuously escaped justice, XXXTentacion met his end while minding his business and driving a $165,000 car. JAY-Z’s final line observes this, but with the finality of “the streets is done,” he opens up an entirely new conversation. One of vengeance, a call to action for a state immersed in controversy. If it does get acted upon, who will be to blame? The murderer? Or JAY-Z for inciting this methodology?
Waka Flocka Flame has been the first to speak out about the line. In a since-deleted tweet, Waka criticized JAY-Z’s seeming placement of blame on the youth. “Those words was uncalled for J,” he began. “You got way more coins/connections then us my g…you could’ve got that job done but blame the unguided youth.” He followed the tweet with another saying, “X died off pure hate and jealousy nothing more nothing less #LongLiveXXX.”
Turns out, Waka’s right. JAY-Z’s line showcases an understanding of the culture from a rich man’s perch, casually taking notice of matters that don’t impact his personal brand. He did align himself with Trayvon Martin’s cause; he has a documentary series about Martin’s journey coming out in the near future to Paramount Network. If anyone understands Zimmerman more than the average media consumer, it’s Jay. So, with this understanding and access, he could put things in motion, if he were serious, to bring his own version of justice to the situation. But instead, naught happens. XXX dies and JAY-Z takes the opportunity to inform listeners that the streets are to blame for the imbalance.
Considering that these streets are comprised of the same kinds of individuals that JAY-Z himself would have been a part of in this day and age, the true mystery comes from what this line could mean. Is this a call to action for the culture? For the unguided youth that run the streets in pursuit of elusive clout, should they jump at the opportunity to take down the villain?
At the end of the day, XXX’s murderer acted out of the wish for personal gain. He wanted a quick come-up and took XXX’s life for a designer bag and social media clout, going as far as to spill about the murder online. His actions shouldn’t be what the rest of the “streets” should be held accountable for. Even if someone were to go shoot Zimmerman down in broad daylight, it wouldn’t be indicative of the wishes of everyone, as Jay would like the world to believe. It’s a two-way street.
But this observation that he makes is a striking question reframed to remove the inquiry, with frustration apparent. Even after boasting about his role in Martin’s death and having a $10,000 bounty placed on his head by the New Black Panthers, Zimmerman walks the streets while XXX, a rising rapper, only a few years older than Martin was, gets gunned down for the sole purpose of a robbery. As it appears, the pursuit of justice in Florida is second to that of money. But this generalization carries a dangerous weight that could impact Zimmerman’s livelihood and place blame upon JAY-Z. He shouldn’t have that on his heart.
There’s also the fact that misguided youth’s association with the streets comes from not knowing any better. To blame the collective for the actions of one person is harsh, to say that the streets are “over” dictates that his belief in the convention has dwindled. What does that indicate about the future?
Both the deaths of XXXTentacion and Trayvon Martin were senseless and unnecessary. It’s understandable for JAY-Z and the general public to be upset and concerned at the troubling times and situations that dictate this country’s narrative. Commenting on these times is one of the conventions that rap has always been about, yet begetting additional violence by using one act to frame another is seldom helpful, and always problematic. God forbid, someone does take Jay up on his belief and take Zimmerman out. It’ll open up a can of worms that I don’t think JAY-Z, or hip-hop, could possibly be ready for — maybe even music itself. We all appreciate rap with substance, but, in the future, let’s avoid blaming each other for not becoming vigilantes, shall we?
For more of our opinion pieces, read how Drake's admission of fatherhood complicates his legacy right here.