This holiday season, as a special gift to American readers, the publishing industry has had a magical spasm of biographical synchronicity: Jay-Z’s buzzy new memoir, Decoded, has been released right on the heels of Ron Chernow’s mammoth new George Washington biography, Washington. The coincidence enables us (obligates us, really) to compare the two: to consider how these mythic lives from opposite ends of the American experiment—the eighteenth-century father of our country and the 21st-century hustler-tycoon; the author of the song “Dead Presidents” and our most famous actual dead president—might speak to each other. It turns out that their stories, placed side by side, resonate more deeply than one might expect—they rhyme, existentially, in all kinds of surprising ways. Together they suggest a certain coherence in the unfolding variety show of American history.
The similarities between George Washington and Jay-Z begin right at the beginning. Both men were born on the neglected fringe of the world’s reigning superpower: Washington in colonial Virginia, a backwoods satellite of imperial England, and Jay-Z in late-sixties outer Brooklyn, a blighted world unto itself, perched right on the edge of the American continent. (“Bed-Stuy was my country,” he writes, “Brooklyn my planet.”) Both grew up without fathers—Jay-Z’s left, Washington’s died—and were raised by largely unavailable mothers: Jay-Z’s was busy working, and Washington’s was cold, selfish, and hypercritical. (She never praised him, even when he was off winning the Revolutionary War.) As a result, both George and Jay were forced to adopt, as boys, the burdens of adult responsibility. They were ambitious, scrappy, and self-educated—a liability in some settings (John Adams called Washington “illiterate, unlearned, unread”) but also often an advantage. As Jay-Z puts it in Decoded, describing the power of street wisdom in the larger world: “We came at shit from a different angle, snuck up on people, surprised them. We turned the thing that made us outcasts into our advantage.” This also happens to describe, pretty much perfectly, Washington’s unorthodox methods on the battlefield: the way his army co-opted the American Indians’ guerrilla fighting techniques—darting around, hiding behind trees—in order to flummox the British, who insisted on marching in orderly lines.
The parallels between George and Jay, once you start looking for them, turn up everywhere. Washington sold tobacco. Jay-Z sold crack. Neither of them, on principle, smoked his own product. (Washington went through a pipe phase, then decided smoking was immoral.)
Both men got early career boosts from eminent allies—namely Major General Edward Braddock and Big Daddy Kane. Both cultivated businesslike personas—steady, guarded, detached—in order to disguise deep emotional turmoil. Both had massive tempers. Washington used to have disobedient soldiers lashed mercilessly and occasionally even hanged them in public. Jay-Z once shot his own brother over a stolen ring and stabbed a music executive who’d allegedly leaked one of his albums. (“I was blacking out with anger,” he writes.)
Washington organized a boycott of British tea after England taxed it heavily. (It should be noted, just for the record, that he strongly opposed the tactics of the Boston Tea Party.) Jay-Z organized a boycott of Cristal Champagne, after its managing director tried to distance the brand from hip-hop.
Washington and Jay-Z both survived close calls early in their careers—escapes so improbable they suggested divine intervention. During an ambush in the French and Indian War, Washington had two horses shot out from under him, and his hat and coat were pierced by bullets. His survival was so unlikely that the Indians who witnessed the battle remembered him for decades. In 1994, Jay-Z was pulled over with a supply of crack stashed in his sunroof. The policeman radioed for a drug-sniffing dog; when it didn’t show up, Jay-Z was released—only to pass the K-9 unit as he drove away. “It would’ve changed my life if that dog had been a few seconds faster,” he writes, speculating that he must have been protected by “some kind of rogue angel.”
The parallels roll on and on. Washington was obsessed with real estate; he amassed huge land holdings by claiming unsettled territory on the edges of the colonies. (Unsettled, at least, by white people.) Although Jay-Z apparently did not, as has been widely reported, buy a $20 million island off the coast of Florida as a birthday present for Beyoncé, he does own a Tribeca penthouse and a stake in the Spotted Pig.
Washington and Jay-Z each married strategically. Beyoncé solidified Jay-Z’s crossover appeal. Martha bumped Washington up a tier in the social and economic hierarchy of the colonies—her fortune and station, in fact, helped enable George’s rise to power. The father of our country had at least 99 problems—bad teeth, legal disputes, unruly soldiers, hemorrhoids. But Martha, emphatically, was not one.