This week, one of the greatest love songs in hip-hop history was released, a song that made some cry. Hip-hop has not always dealt as well with the deeper emotions of the mature soul as the blues, jazz and soul music. But hip-hop has a grownup wing now and is becoming more comfortable with deep emotions. Case in point: the new, poignant, melancholy love song by Jay-Z called “Glory” that reminds me a little of Stevie Wonder’s classic “Isn’t She Lovely?” They sound nothing alike but are emotional cousins as both are powered by a man’s heart bursting over a young child. Jay’s chorus: “The most amazin’ feeling I feel/ Words can’t describe the feeling, for real/ Maybe I paint the sky blue/ My greatest creation was you, you. Glory.”
We have heard rappers rhyme about their love for their children before, but I can’t recall a hip-hop song about babies that’s as emotionally complex as “Glory.” It captures the exuberance of a new parent — Jay and Beyoncé’s daughter Blue was born two days before the song came out — but really “Glory” is a song about two pregnancies, one that was successful and one that was not. In the song, Jay’s joy about his new daughter sits alongside his lingering pain about a past miscarriage.
The fearful specter of failed pregnancy and the magical balm of a baby are referenced in the song’s first lines — “False alarms and false starts/ All made better by the sound of your heart.” It’s a bit shocking to hear Jay talk so openly about the couple’s previous loss — “all the pain of last time” — and fears that it would happen again — “We was afraid you disappeared/ But, nah baby, you magic.” But perhaps the openness he reveals in “Glory” is a reflection of the impact birth has had on him. Jay has presented himself as rather cold-hearted throughout his career. In interviews we’ve done, he has told me about hiding his heart because he never wanted to be hurt like he was when he was 10 and his father abandoned him and his family. Yet in this song, like none other in Jay’s storied career, you hear him with the ice melted. It’s in his voice — the sense of relief, bliss, awe and love. There’s no bravado here — he’s been humbled by the birth of his child. It’s Jay-Z so it’s a restrained example of exuberance, but it’s clear that he’s bursting with the pride of a brand new parent.
It’s something of a memoir, this “Glory,” but one that also stretches into the future. It sits at a central moment in Jay’s life looking both forward and back. He takes stock of the past — “Rough sledding here and there but I made it through.” The mention of traveling via snow is a clear reference to his past as a crack dealer (snow is a synonym for cocaine.) And he leaps into the future where he’s eager to spoil her — “2 years old, shoppin’ on Saville Row.” He gives us snapshots from the pregnancy. “Your momma said that you danced for her.” And “You don’t yet know what swag is/ But you was made in Paris.” And as his beloved mother hovers over the song — her name is Gloria — he links this present moment to the story of his absent father, which is the Rosebud of Jay’s life.
“Your grandpop died of nigga failure/ Then he died of liver failure/ Deep down he was a good man/ God damn I can’t deliver failure.” That’s a deep passage there. He indicts his father for leaving him, then forgives him. That hard-earned realization of his father’s essential goodness arrived after decades of hating him for leaving: just before he died, they re-met and Jay was able to table his anger and realize who his dad really was. Then Jay concludes that bit with how resolute he is about being a great dad and breaking the cycle of fatherlessness that’s plagued the hip-hop generation and his life. This isn’t the first time Jay’s spoken about that — on “New Day,” a song from his last album Watch the Throne (made with Kanye), Jay speaks to his unborn child about what sort of parent he wants to be and ends with: “Cuz my Dad left me and I promise never repeat him/ Never repeat him/ Never repeat him.” To hear this black man who grew up without a father repeatedly promise to be there for his child is heartwarming and inspiring and beautiful.
This is not Jay-Z posturing and branding and being a business. This is not a single promoting an album. This is a man who processes the world by making music and so, at a massive moment in his life, went into the studio with a beat that sounds like superproducer Pharrell Williams’s vision of a lullaby, and opened up his chest to reveal a swelled heart. This is his way of announcing her to the world. Some send cards, some send mass emails, Jay makes a song. And puts a recording of tiny Blue cooing and crying at the end. This is his Lion King lifting-baby-to-the-sky moment.