The Essential Music Video series features different music videos, both new and old, that are great or historically relevant in some respect
Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.”, from his 2017 album 4:44, is an absolute masterpiece on every level, a song that scathingly explores racial politics, and the accompanying video is every bit a perfect match to the content.
“The Story of O.J.” predominantly features a sample of Nina Simone’s song, “Four Women”, a song that’s itself about racism, telling the story of four different type of women and how each of their lives was affected by a lineage of slavery. This is not a song to be referenced lightly, and Jay-Z shows it the reverence it deserves; though “The Story of O.J.” doesn’t specifically explore the plight of black femininity, Jay-Z uses this song to more broadly explore what it means to be black in modern America.
Choosing O.J. as a symbol here is a very powerful choice, not just because of what O.J. has come to represent, but also because of what we’ve learned in recent years, through documentaries like Ezra Edelman’s Academy Award winning O.J.: Made in America, and the FX series American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. To catch everyone up to speed: At the peak of his wealth and celebrity, O.J. distanced himself from the black community, preferring to live in a predominantly white community, marrying a white woman; he’s even been described, as quoted in the lyrics, as having an attitude of “I’m not black, I’m O.J..” Of course, the moment that O.J. became an accused criminal, he was cast out from the white communities in which he became involved with, suddenly, inescapably black.
Jay-Z is not invoking O.J.’s story here lightly or casually. Jay-Z’s message here is simple and could not be more clear: Black is black. No matter who you are, what level of wealth or fame or success they’ve achieved, as a black person in America, you will always face oppression. The message is so explicit, really, that I don’t feel the need to dive too much deeper into dissecting the song itself. So let’s look at the video, co-directed by Jay-Z and longtime collaborator Mark Romanek (who also did the iconic “99 Problems” video).
The video for “The Story of O.J.” is animated in a very unique style and way to evoke animations and cartoons from early parts of the century. The black characters are drawn with the grotesquely large lips of black characters in those early cartoons. We see blacks of all colors and styles, and we see references to dozens and dozens of racist stereotypes and imagery; a cross is burned; Jay’s avatar, Jaybo, eats watermelon and spits out the seeds; we see all manner of images of slavery, including Africans on a boat in chains. Invoking this offensive imagery is provocative and bold, a stark reminder of a racist past that America has always struggled with, and still struggles with to this day.
As the video concludes, we also see a raised fist held in the air, a deliberate and distinct homage to the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics. Jay-Z is sending a message here, amidst the history of all the many ways in which they’ve been oppressed, all the signs of racism across history and persisting to today, there’s a small reminder of the power that blacks still have to stand up, to make themselves heard, to express their discontent with the way things are.
On a simply technical level, the attention to detail in this video is simply astounding – the production team has perfectly rendered the style and form of the earliest Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons. This video could not be more deliberate or sharp. Jaybo is a perfect manifestation of Jay-Z, stylishly mimicking his every eye roll and hand gesture.
I also want to comment on a line near the end of the song where Jay-Z comments that “Jewish people own all the property in America”; some have commented that this song is antisemitic. As a Jew myself, I don’t find this line racist at all – Jews are disproportionately wealthy in America, and I don’t think there’s any ill intent here. You’re welcome to interpret as you please, but I didn’t think this was a problem.
This is one of the most memorable and distinct music videos in recent memory, and there’s no question to me that with 4:44, Jay-Z has reasserted himself as a peer to the brightest stars in hip-hop, people like Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Beyonce. Jay-Z has always been a master of the form of music video, bringing in some of the best collaborators for his videos, and so it’s no surprise to see this video sends as sharp a message as it does.