Barack Obama seems to like Jay-Z. There was the time Obama got the dirt off his shoulders during a televised speech. Then there was the somewhat infamous use of “99 Problems (But A Bitch Ain’t One)” as theme music at a Des Moines, Iowa victory event. Today, the candidate made an obvious reference to “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” in his Unity, New Hampshire speech, stating that, in the face of adversity, Senator Clinton had brushed difficulties off her shoulders and moved on, head held high.
Television pundits are raising the reference (it was explained to Chris Matthews by a female guest), but seem to have missed another quasi-Jay-Z reference in the speech. The second came as Obama lauded Clinton as “one of the finest Senators New York has ever seen.” This phrasing is similar to that used in the famous single “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)” from Jay-Z’s 1998 album Vol. 2 … Hard Knock Life. The line in question runs thusly: “From standin’ on the corners boppin’/To drivin’ some of the hottest cars New York has ever seen/For droppin’ some of the hottest verses rappers ever heard/For the dope spot with the smoke lot bringin’ the murder scene/You know me well from nightmares of a lonely cell my only hell/But since when y’all niggas know me to fail?” Surely, this could be a mere coincidence, and many will contend that it is. I will disagree, and proceed as if it the sentence was constructed on purpose, as all political proclamations are.
It is a more subtle allusion, partially because the song is older, and does not recieve the same kind of play it once did but is nevertheless one of Jay-Z’s best known works. I think Obama’s repeated use of Jay-Z’s music and language, subtly and overtly, has been part of a deliberate attempt to appeal to younger voters. By using language they are familiar with — whether they know it or not — Obama makes himself more relateable and his oratory more effective. He does not come off as being (or attempting to be) overtly “hip,” but instead weaves language of the youth culture into his rhetoric. If he were to come off as constructing speeches replete with hip-hop references he would not be taken seriously by the political classes or most voters, young or old. If he were to allow himself to look like he was clearly trying to be cool, he would force older generations towards either puzzlement or laugher and look aged in the eyes of the young. He at once makes such language appear as if to be a natural part of his persona and normalizes it into the context of American political rhetoric in a way that is unthinkable for other politicians, perhaps for want of youth, creativity, finesse or some other quality related to cleverness. Obama claims to hold Jay-Z in high esteem; many critics, listeners, and indeed Jay-Z himself, look at the rapper as one of the “the best rappers alive“. He is also well regarded among youth of all races. It seems reasonable then that Obama, often called one of the greatest orators of his generation, would pick the lyrical stylings of Jay-Z to accompany his speech making.