Jay-Z released his newest album, “4:44,” exclusively on his music streaming service TIDAL Friday, marking his triumphant return to rapping after a four-year hiatus since dropping “Magna Carta Holy Grail” in 2013.
But one track in particular, "Smile," makes an unprecedented leap for LGBTQ representation in mainstream hip-hop. During the conversational track between Jay-Z and his mother, Gloria Carter, it is revealed she is a lesbian.
“Mama had four kids, but she’s a lesbian / Had to pretend so long that she’s a thespian,” Jay-Z raps in the song.
“Had to hide in the closet, so she medicate / Society shame and the pain was too much to take,” he continues. “Cried tears of joy when you fell in love / Don’t matter to me if it’s a him or her.”
The track also features a spoken word outro from Gloria Carter herself.
“Living in the shadow / Can you imagine what kind of life is it to live?” she asks. “In the shadows people see you as happy and free / Because that’s what you want them to see. The world is changing and they say it's time to be free / But you live with the fear of just being me ... Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be / No harm for them, no harm for me / But life is short, and it’s time to be free / Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed.”
The song made waves almost immediately.
LGBTQ media watchdog GLAAD released a statement praising its powerful message of "Smile."
“Lesbian women are all too often erased or excluded from narratives surrounding LGBTQ people,” GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis said in a statement emailed to NBC Out. “By sharing her truth with the world, Gloria Carter is increasing visibility of lesbian women of color at a critical time and sending a powerful message of empowerment to the entire LGBTQ community that is perfectly timed with the end of Pride Month."
In an interview with NBC Out, black transgender advocate Tiq Milan said he expects the message of "Smile" to have a broad impact.
“Everybody looks up to Jay. You know, Jay is the daddy of hip-hop,” Milan said. “A lot of people bite his style, and they look up to him as a blueprint for success, and it’s like, 'If he says it’s OK, then it must be OK for all of us.' I’m hoping that this has a reverberation throughout the hip-hop community and throughout black culture.”
But as far as whether or not mainstream hip-hop is ready for an openly gay rapper, Milan said he is not sure.
“As open as people are, I just think it would strike a nerve that a lot of male hip-hop artists and fans just aren’t ready to deal with,” he said. “I think there’s this element of, because it’s his mom and she’s a lesbian, there’s more space there. But if that’s a first step, then I’ll take it.”
“4:44” is currently available for streaming on TIDAL.