Jay-Z released his new album 4:44 today, and the album’s first video, “The Story of O.J.,” is a powerful retro-styled animated piece that subverts the racial stereotypes and caricatures of vintage Hollywood theatrical shorts.
The video, co-directed by Mark Romanek and Jay-Z himself, is only available on the music streaming service Tidal, but the opening can be seen below
“‘The Story of OJ’ is really a song about we as a culture, having a plan, how we’re gonna push this forward,” Jay-Z explained in an interview about the song. “We all make money,and then we all lose money, as artists especially. But how, when you have some type of success, to transform that into something bigger.” Jay-Z chose to illustrate that concept by employing the dated racial iconography of Hollywood animation, and presenting a catalog of white animators’ interpretations of black people and culture from the first half of the twentieth century.
Many of the stock stereotypes of black people in old animated shorts can be found in Jay-Z’s video, from thick-lipped minstrels and cannibal natives to plantation workers, sharecroppers, and Little Black Sambo (based on Helen Bannerman’s children’s book The Story of Little Black Sambo). For the latter, Jay-Z himself assumes the role of Jaybo, a play on Little Black Sambo imagery, and introduces the cartoon by appearing in the iconic circular motif that was used for classic Warner Bros. cartoons.
The short gains poignancy by juxtaposing these stereotypes, which were a holdover from 19th century caricatures, against more sober and realistic scenes of the black experience in the United States, from people in chains aboard slave ships to segregation, lynchings, and the Ku Klux Klan dancing in the background. The video also caricatures real historical figures, from Nina Simone playing the piano to Olympic athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving a Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics — not to mention a brief appearance by O.J. Simpson. keep reading