Prior to Marvel’s explosive 2018 movie, “Black Panther,” for the young Black Millennial (born in the mid to late 1990s), there were little live-action heroes with which they could socially identify. Sure, there were characters like DC Comic’s Static Shock and The Green Lantern that shared the same racial make-up as these children, but the weight of these minor protagonists was a far cry of that held by the tenacious T’Challa. In turn, this forced them to revisit the historically frequented avenue of entertainment (in this case Rap and basketball) in an effort to find a victorious vigilante in which they can straddle the duality of admiration and association. But, in a time where Michael Jordan wore a washed Washington Wizard’s jersey combined with hip-hop honchos, Tupac and Biggie Smalls, becoming ghost close to their birth, the well that was usually breaching at the brim left their buckets dry.
However, in the summer of 2001, this hopelessness ended when two figures – rapper, JAY-Z, and NBA MVP, Allen Iverson, – emerged from the ashes of their respective realms, put on their capes, and took flight. Becoming the saviors that the Black Millennial was seeking.
“Me and the boy, A.I., got more in common than balling and rhyming…” – JAY-Z, “Super Ugly” (2001)
For Allen Iverson, the 2000-2001 NBA season career defining. Throughout the regular season, A.I. displayed flashes of his otherworldly abilities as the six-foot-one-inch shooting guard fearlessly took on defenders that appeared to be twice his size. Showing heroic bravery as he slashed through the lane, using his handles and athletic ability to dunk on the opposing teams’ biggest player on multiple occasions. And if this wasn’t enough, A.I. proved his brilliance as a complete player by leading the league in scoring and steals en route to being that year’s NBA MVP.
This changed Iverson’s perception. While his talent and sense of fashion made him one of the more popular athletes since entering the NBA, by actualizing the immense potential which began when he hit Michael Jordan with his patented crossover his rookie year, his stardom elevated. Making it so that by the time A.I. reached the NBA Finals in Jun. 2001, everyone (including NBA players) began to style not only their game but also their clothes and hair, in ways that likened themselves to Allen Iverson. And although imitation is the best form of flattery, this impact came with a heavy cost.
Unlike his predecessor, Michael Jordan, A.I. did not embody the stereotypical “clean cut” look. Instead of suits, he either wore regular streetwear or custom jewelry and minks. And rather than keeping a freshly shaven head, Iverson donned pattered cornrows or a gaudy afro. This drew him much attention, leading many who did not understand that his fashion inspiration came from the dreams of the “average” Black person, to be angry at A.I for his impact and not at the ones who copied him. Yet this white outrage only increased Iverson’s connectivity adding to his “super strength.” But, still, his fans sought out the correct punishment for those who committed the ultimate ghetto sin of “jocking” someone’s style. And on Jun. 6, 2001, during Game One of the NBA Finals, Iverson showcased the full extent of superpowers resulting in the justice his fans were seeking.
With less than a minute left in overtime, Laker’s guard, Tyronn Lue, found himself in an isolated one-on-one situation in the corner of the court with the man who shook the G.O.A.T. As expected A.I. hit him with a crossover that not only gave him enough space to make his 47 and 48 points but also left his opponent on the ground. To which Iverson took this golden opportunity to show his dominance by stepping over Lue. And although the Sixers went on to lose the finals to the NBA’s original super-team, “The Step-Over” has lived in infamy due largely to the fact Lue looked like a generic version of Allen Iverson. The audacity of The Laker’s to have a horrible rendition of Iverson guard him in the clutch was all the disrespect needed for A.I. to take his anger at the league out on Lue. Giving those who idolize him the equity they craved while transforming Allen Iverson into the mythic being that is “The Answer.”
Almost simultaneously to The Answer’s zenith, another caped crusader was beginning to bubble.
Despite his advanced age, the late emergence and commercial “flop” of JAY-Z’s 1996, debut album Reasonable Doubt paired with his position an understudy of Hip-Hop greats like The Notorious B.I.G. and Big Daddy Kane put him in a space where his potential was questioned throughout the late 90’s. But, by 2001, JAY-Z had released four albums with the new-found appreciation for Reasonable Doubt securing each project as a platinum-selling classic. However, this unprecedented success brought Hov unwarranted enemies.
After the mega-success of 1998’s Vol. 2: Hard Knock Life and its Annie-inspired titled track, JAY-Z not only had a nearly RCAA diamond certified album, he was also showered with awards and adoration that sky-rocketed the rapper into a sphere of pop culture relevancy. He then followed this hype with another solo album the following year Vol. 3 which brandished the mainstream smash “Big Pimpin’.” And although this consistent onslaught would be enough to prove Hova’s superhuman presence, it is what happens at the height of his success that displays his true powers.
On the way to acquiring these platinum plaques and platinum chains, JAY-Z’s subject matter lost the duel impact made Reasonable Doubt a classic. Through commercial success, he became this polished businessman that is okay mingling with Warren Buffett and Pop Music starlets. Thus, making his lyrics either unattainable, unbelievable, or rhymes placed together with the sole purpose of making a hit. Thus, the relativity that made him a star was incrementally fading. But, on Dec. 1st, 1999, at the release party rapper, Q-Tip’s, “Amplified” album, JAY-Z returned to earth with a violent flash of emotion that began to repave the road he traveled to become the hero he is today.
Not to glorify any acts of violence, but the motives behind the 1999 stabbing of a former friend and record-executive, Lane “Un” Rivera, at the Kit Kat Klub and what ensued showed a humanistic side of JAY-Z that ironically made him a superhero. By attacking a man over stolen money and being detained via his infamous perp walk, Hov’s pop music assentation came to a screeching halt. This, however, might have been the best thing for his longevity. While fighting the lengthy case, JAY-Z kept busy by preparing for the release of his fifth studio album, “The Blueprint.”
During this time, Hova seemed to return to his Hip-Hop roots with verses and bars that were eerily similar to the patterns that generated him his core fan-base. He embodied an Iverson-esque fearlessness by welcoming all challengers, not just the judicial system. And like A.I., JAY-Z carried his unsuspecting team into a battle that they both consequently lost (JAY-Z plead guilty to stabbing Un Rivera Oct. of 2001). Yet, just like most of the popular culture remembers “The Step Over” rather than the outcome, Hov’s battle will be remembered for his perseverance and connectivity despite facing up to 15 years in prison.
This was best displayed through “The Blueprint’s” lead single, “Izzo (H.O.V.A.).” While most people on trial would create either a smash record that doesn’t address the issue at hand or a remorseful track that shows their compassion, Hov decided to do neither. On “Izzo,” JAY-Z showcases his hitmaking ability while reintroducing the duality of his subject matter with the lyrics. Also, like an undersized A.I. raising up for a put-back jam, Hov showed his fearlessness as he used the chorus of “Izzo” to address his legal issues head on through Hip-Hop vernacular. And if that wasn’t brazen enough, in the official music video, Hova and Roc-A-Fella co-founder, Dame Dash, have spliced scenes of JAY-Z rapping the record on the Supreme Court steps with a flag donning the company’s legendary logo draped over the building. This was a cementing moment for JAY-Z. Not only did he take on all opponents (including the tyrants of Nas and the U.S. government) he reestablished his connectivity, taking it to otherworldly heights which in turn gave hope to young Black Millennials who looked up to him.
In a sense, Vol. 2 and the stabbing of Rivera were equivalent to A.I. crossing Michael Jordan, while Hov’s summer of 2001 and mid-year release of The Blueprint mirrored Iverson’s ‘01 MVP season. And “Izzo,” which was released almost in succession with A.I.’s (and Lue’s) defining moment, was Hov’s “Step Over.” A smash record that projected his perseverance and – to the youth – shaped his heroic persona of “The Jigga Man.”
“Thank the invisible people” – Dick Gregory (2008)
Playing on motives behind novels like Native Son by Richard Wright or Ralph Emerson’s The Invisible Man, the lack of positive racial association leaves the black male with a desire to be seen. And while some might not see their presence as that of “positive,” the power of connectivity combined with coinciding signature moments made The Jigga Man and The Answer the figures they are today. By embracing fearless preference through their battles, they both made it so that the Black child can see themselves as more than just an invisible member of society, problem causing figure, or an entertainer. And through these two personalities, which took final form during the summer of 2001, they projected a necessary duality needed for this generation while also plugging in a light of perspective that still shines on this demographic. Thus, giving the Black Millennial the lane of visibility every marginalized person desires.