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.
The main talent of George Washington and Jay-Z, the reason we know their names at all, is deeply American: They were masters of linking their tiny lives to giant narratives, of making their private grievances and struggles seem universal. Both imagined themselves, most vividly, in the context of war—as righteous American underdogs caught up in the grand sweep of history.
Jay-Z describes his childhood in Bed-Stuy explicitly as “life during wartime.” Late-twentieth-century America, in his view, was “almost genocidally hostile” toward black culture, waging an endless campaign of institutionalized racism, cutting inner-city social services, and launching a War on Drugs that punished an illness—addiction—as a crime. “We came out of the generation of black people,” he writes, “who finally got the point: No one’s going to help us … Success could only mean self-sufficiency, being a boss, not dependent.” This epiphany gave birth to a figure Jay-Z calls “the hustler”—an antihero who manages, by any means necessary, to convert extreme poverty into wealth. Which brings us to the ethical pickle at the core of the Jay-Z myth. He moves very quickly, in Decoded, from lamenting the tragedy of the crack epidemic to profiting from it as a dealer—and he never quite makes clear the moral steps that justify that transition. When pushed about his contradictory image, he falls back on “I’m complex.” Complexity seems to be his ultimate value, in art and in life: tension, ambiguity—what Keats called “negative capability.” He’s the poet of cognitive dissonance.
The hustler, for Jay-Z, transcends drugs and crime. “For me,” he writes, “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for the basic human struggles: the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all.” Looking back from the pinnacle of his adult success, Jay-Z could just as easily be speaking about 1770s New England: “I was part of a generation of kids who saw something special about what it means to be human, something bloody and dramatic and scandalous that happened right here in America.”
The original American hustler, one could argue, was George Washington. In Chernow’s portrait—the first full-length biography to draw on decades of new scholarship—Washington turns out to be much more nuanced than the jingoistic sock puppet tossed around by cable-news patriots. He was not just a carved granite head: He was a flirter, a gambler, an enthusiastic dancer, the best horseman in America, and a conflicted slave owner. (This was Washington’s cognitive dissonance: He was a freedom-fighting radical who amassed great wealth and power on the backs of slaves. Throughout the revolution—at the Continental Congress, at Valley Forge—he was attended by his faithful black manservant, William Lee.) He was also a master of sneaky opportunism. During the Revolutionary War, he conjured an illusion of military might out of almost nothing, miraculously persuading the British not to attack his ragtag, undersupplied army. As a striving young man, he engaged in behavior that contradicts our cherished image of his cherry-tree honesty. He circumvented British real-estate laws by filling petitions with fake names. He won voters over by feeding them cake and enlisted a local sheriff to help turn an election in his favor. He was also addicted to colonial bling: He wore ruffles and silk stockings, ate with ivory-handled silverware, and accented his mansion with marble and mahogany. He ordered so many luxury goods from London, in fact, that he put himself into serious debt. One of the revelations of Chernow’s book is how much of Washington’s revolutionary fervor was fueled by wounded pride and petty grievances. It was not just the inalienable rights of man—it was also the suspicion that English merchants were skimming money off of his tobacco profits and building his fancy carriage out of second-rate wood. He was, as Jay-Z might say, complex.
Washington: A Life
By Ron Chernow.
Penguin Press. $40.
Spiegel & Grau. $35.