TIDAL’s struggles since its launch have been well-documented—they’re pretty much the only thing that’s been documented about the streaming service, aside from the successful Lemonade launch. But even though the TIDAL postmortem pieces have already been drafted, Jay Z remains hip-hop’s greatest living symbol of victory. The Internet still hangs onto his verses, and he’s still out here grabbing the big business deals.
His latest is a two-year television and film deal with the Weinstein Co. The deal will give the film company exclusive rights to Jay Z’s unscripted and scripted projects that are already in development, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The occasion was big enough to inspire the rare Jay Z comment: “I’m excited to tell stories from real-life prophets, whom through their struggles have changed the world for the better, and others whose stories are filled with fantasy and delight.”
Jay Z has a bit of a mixed track record when it comes to film, though. Top Five, the 2014 movie he produced, was the best thing Chris Rock did on the silver screen since Pookie. But he also produced 2014’s non-essential Annie, and executive produced the soundtrack for 2013’s The Great Gatsby—two-and-a-half-hours of empty calorie pizzazz. But even if the resume is spotty, there’s still the possibility of some good content coming out of this partnership. Long before Jay Z caressed Mrs. Carter’s feet on premium cable, he made a long form video of his own.
At the start of his career, Jay Z didn’t look like a future music mogul. 1996’s Reasonable Doubt debut was a classic, but it was a slow seller. To remedy the modest chart success, Roc-A-Fella linked up with Def Jam for a distribution deal. 1997’s In My Lifetime, Vol. 1 went platinum, but had no runaway hits despite the Babyface feature and profuse Bad Boy beats. And it suffered creatively, too: Jay Z had gone from “Dead President II” to “I Know What Girls Like,” a track that reeks as bad the piss-stench elevators that Jay Z rose from.
The year was 1998. Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life was on the way. Hova could still be seen out in Marcy Projects in a down feather jacket, an example of unfulfilled ambition. In this magical climate, he released Streets Is Watching, his straight-to-DVD street gem. Made “strictly for the fans,” according to Dame Dash, the 60-minute flick was a loosely constructed series of vignettes that ran through pre-Reasonable Doubt material and Vol. 1. There were brothers doing shootouts in bubble jackets, models randomly showing up to perform foreplay atop stairs, and a series of Jay Z doing rappity rap poses. This was a family affair, too: auxiliary player Sauce Money and Kareem “Biggs” Burke—the behind-the-scenes man of Roc-A-Fella’s founding trio—also made appearances.
Shot in a little over a week and an estimated $320,000 budget, Streets Is Watching is a nostalgic encapsulation of the artist as an almost-superstar. It took its cues from Michael Jackson’s own Moonwalker, but its ethos was completely different from the King of Pop. Technically, the film’s a mess. The first half is a cobbled-together mess of violence and poured champagne that’s strung along by Jay Z’s B-Sides. In one intentionally hilarious scene, you can see the sky swap between night and day as a disgruntled ex-lover of Jay’s confronts him by the projects. (Shoestring budgets can’t account for sundown.)
But even though the vividness of Jay Z’s lyrics didn’t translate on screen, Streets Is Watching is a classic. A self-funded project, the film is a paean to the DIY, hustler’s mentality that birthed Roc-A-Fella and Jay Z’s entire brand. There’s a relatable charm in its haphazardness, something that the crime web series Money & Violence would recreate.
Streets Is Watching is also notable for featuring some of Jay Z’s first videos: pre-Reasonable Doubt classic “I Can’t Get Wit That,” “In My Lifetime” and its Big Jaz remix, and “Dead Presidents” close out its film’s second half. Coming in at a solid 60 minutes, the whole thing is a decent watch. “Murdergram,” the DMX- and Ja Rule-starring posse cut that stars on the film’s soundtrack, is at least worthy of a few more spins.
In 2016, Jay Z is worth too much money, of course. He’d look stupid visiting Marcy Projects in a Tom Ford suit. But after revisiting Streets Is Watching, it’s fun to think of the old Jay–the one with the against-all-odds narrative–working on a compelling approximation of the modern-day struggle for a TV series. It’s a far stretch, sure–and we’re wildly speculating on what could be solely based off this one official statement and the high-powered partnership it reflects. He’s 46 years old and has a film company behind him; let’s hope he takes advantage of it.