Sunday, June 16, 2013

Within Packer's new bestseller The Unwinding, a critical portrait of Jay-Z

Jay-Z generally gets treated fawningly by the media (see Zadie Smith's "Civic-Minded Hip-Hop Mogul," from the New York Times's T Magazine last September), so its notable to see a strong contrary view in The Unwinding, New Yorker writer (and Brooklynite) George Packer's new non-fiction narrative, subtitled "An Inner History of the New America."

In This Is How a Nation Unwinds, TIME columnist Joe Klein notes the series of secondary characters, those who've become successful in this stratified society: "Where do we find moral authority in a society that, as Packer writes, celebrates an unapologetic former crack dealer like Jay Z?"

Indeed, Packer's portrait, drawn all from secondhand sources, is harsh. Some excerpts:
The hustle was a paranoid fever, one eye always open, "excited with crime and the lavish luxuries that just excited my mind"
...He was always about the money. Second best wasn't worth the ultimate price on the street, so he learned to compete and win as if his life depended on it.
...He gave Marcy a voice, and the nightmare that America had locked in the basement was suddenly playing in kids' bedrooms. They wanted to live the American dream with a vengeance, like Scarface, like Jay-Z, they wanted to break the laws and win because only fools still thought you could do it in an orange uniform or cheap suit when that game was fixed, and there could be a shortcut with a big payoff.
...When critics called him a sellout or materialist, he had the answer: selfishness was a rational response to the reality he faced.
...When Jay-Z bought a slice of the Nets and fronted the team's move to Brooklyn, he became the boss and the star...
Here's some more of my coverage of Jay-Z. This week's news: the Rocawear chain Jay-Z founded, sold, but still promotes (with a store at Barclays Center) is having its troubles.

More on the book

NPR review:
Packer carves out his thesis by letting his characters tell their own stories. The argument, in short, might read something like this: Over the past 30 years, American democratic values have been undermined by the powerful lure of unregulated capitalism.
The Chicago Tribune review:
All of this makes for a richly complex narrative brew. And it is seasoned further by portraits of American success stories such as restaurateur Alice Waters, short-story writer Raymond Carver, Oprah Winfrey, Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell and Jay-Z. Packer is particularly sardonic toward Winfrey and Gingrich, but overall these portraits underline that, even in our broken America, an insatiable drive and periodic self-invention can lead to fame and riches.
An interview with Packer:
Like almost everything else, inclusiveness divides the country into winners and losers. For those with the education, talent, and luck to take advantage, it’s been a boon. For those marooned in urban cores like Youngstown, rural backwaters like Rockingham County, North Carolina, and the new suburban slums such as those around Tampa, the lowering of barriers remains fairly theoretical. Social tolerance gives an idea of equality, which makes the reality of inequality all the more bitter. Jay-Z’s story tells you that anyone can go from the projects to the very top. Most people don’t.

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