mensah demary’s previous Liner Notes columns for The Butter can be found here.
This will be brief.
Released in 2003, The Black Album was to be Jay Z’s finality before retirement. How, exactly, a rapper can retire still puzzles me. I assume a retired rapper refuses to rap, on the premise that he/she is now “retired” and therefore “doesn’t do that anymore.” But Michael Jordan still plays basketball, albeit in his personal gym, despite being retired.
Writers try to retire, which really means “maybe I’ll publish again, maybe I won’t, but if I don’t, it’s not because I’m no longer a good writer…it’s because I’m retired.” A failsafe against talent erosion, retirement is the ejector seat from a fighter jet now out of gas, nose-diving toward the earth.
This isn’t the 1950s or, hell, the 1990s, when you retired from thirty years of service as a salesman or insurance auditor or whatever because you were tired and you wanted to live out your last days on a beach or mountaintop. Retirement, upon further review, and when examined through 21st-century eyes, is an increasingly antiquated idea. Feels like you don’t so much retire as you simply quit, the seductive art of giving up on a thing.
Jay Z never retired, and never had any intention of retiring. This is my belief, that maybe he realized he had little else to say. Retirement still seems like overkill when less heavy-handed options like, say, a vacation are available. I don’t know. If I felt I had nothing left to say with my writing, I’d probably consider retirement too.
Writing is my life; music is Jay Z’s life; where do we artists go when we fear our creative energies are depleted for good? Where is our beach? Where is our mountaintop? Or is retirement a ridiculous notion, a melodramatic act attempted in the face of waning relevance?
Jay Z was, in 2003, at the top of the hip-hop world. His albums shipped platinum. His appearance on features guaranteed hit songs for collaborators. But his content post Blueprint—not a favorite Jay Z album of mine, but perhaps his last best effort (okay, throw in American Gangster)—has been decidedly repetitive. Jay Z has made his peace with repetition and faded glory, because his albums since The Black Album have been mostly lackluster.
You watched his relevance reduced over time, but maybe didn’t even notice it—before any of us knew it, he was BFFs with Kanye West. (After being resoundingly rejected by Nas.) Kanye has assisted Jay Z’s post-retirement life, the second life—or third—the re-entry into the workforce. Watch The Throne was more for Hov than Ye, whose fame has, at this point, eclipsed Jay Z, and maybe that’s okay.
Jay Z tried to retire, tried to be an executive for Def Jam, tried to enter the vodka business, tried to peddle Reebok sneakers, tried to write a memoir, tried to do guest verses for Beyoncé, tried to take on Spotify, but really—he’s a rapper, an emcee.
I don’t think you can ever retire from art. You either do it or you don’t. And if you can’t do it here, you do it elsewhere, anywhere, so long as you’re creating, entertaining. This is all to say that The Butter is shutting down, but life goes on and the beat never stops—it’ll keep on playing, whether you’re writing fire bars or not. Liner Notes lives on. Find me on Electric Literature soon.
mensah demary is editor in chief of Specter Magazine and a columnist for Fourculture Magazine. His fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Metazen, Little Fiction, PANK, Thought Catalog, and elsewhere. Originally from New Jersey, he currently lives and writes in Brooklyn. Find him on Twitter @mensah4000.