Jay Z is not what you would call a “weed rapper.” Sure, he’s peppered his verses with marijuana references since at least 1996’s “Feeling It” (“I free my mind sometimes I hear myself moaning/Take one more toke and I leave that weed alone, man”), but among his peers—of which there are few, consummately speaking—he might be the very last MC you’d envision blowing it down in the middle of a studio session. To that end, I can’t ever recall seeing a picture or video footage of him hitting a joint, blunt, or anything else one might use to get high. This is notable only because if it did exist, it’s not likely to have hurt his career. He’s a rapper, and rappers smoke weed. It’s practically in the bylaws. But if Jay is anything outside of a rapper—his status as a loving husband and father notwithstanding—he’s a businessman. And his latest and greatest business endeavor happens to be weed.

The company is called Monogram, a name I’m told Jay Z came up with himself. The idea behind it is that monogram print is characteristic of luxury items. Additional to that, the ‘gram’ component is a nod to the unit of measure. At Monogram, Jay Z is Chief Visionary Officer, a title that requires a great deal of time and attention as Jay attempts to grow the company in the new and already very crowded cannabis space. “Cannabis has been around for thousands of years, yet it is still an industry whose legacy of skilled craftsmanship is often overlooked,” begins a quote attributed to Jay within the company’s press materials. “I created Monogram to give cannabis the respect it deserves by showcasing the tremendous hard work, time and care that go into crafting a superior smoke. Monogram products are next level when it comes to quality and consistency and we’re just getting started.”

It was a Monday evening in December when I received a text message from Monogram’s Culture & Cultivation Ambassador DeAndre Watson, alerting me that he was downstairs with a package for me. In writing this piece I would be one of a select few to preview the products just before they went on sale. Monogram products are only available, at least initially, to California residents. Fortunately for me, I reside in L.A., where delivery is an option. While our interaction was brief (he handed me a nondescript black box that looked like it might otherwise hold an assortment of chocolates and wished me a good night), he did answer some questions about his role at Monogram via email.

“I work closely with Jay on the cultivation and strain selection process for Monogram, which starts with us putting together a taste profile for every strain,” he wrote. “This lets the team know exactly what kind of smell, color, moisture, and overall feel they should be looking for at each stage. Then we check every nug by hand, to make sure that each is perfect before we package it up to be smoked.” Without getting into specifics, Watson’s bio mentions that he’s been involved in the cannabis industry for 25 years. He sees Jay’s involvement as a win for people of color who’ve had a disproportionately difficult time getting into the very much still-burgeoning world of legalized cannabis. “He’s creating opportunities for people like me, who have decades of experience working with the plant but haven’t been able to reap the benefits of the emerging legal market until now,” Watson says.

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Monogram’s cultivation space.Photo: Courtesy of Monogram

When I heard that Jay Z had his own cannabis brand, the first person I thought of was Frantz Pascal. Frantz, an overly fit and always affable Hatian kid originally from Poughkeepsie, New York was one of my college roommates when Jay Z’s The Black Album first released. On a near nightly basis, after having finished his day’s responsibilities, Frantz would listen to The Black Album from front to back, while he and a group of friends, most always women, shared a blunt. I never partook, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t welcome. I had quit smoking weed just my junior year of high school (having been introduced as a freshman), coming to the conclusion that my usage was slowly suffocating my scholastic and athletic ambitions. Weed was wholly illegal at that time and while that didn’t bother me morally, it made it that much more difficult to engage with it on a medicinal level. At the time, there were but a handful of strains I could have called out by name (“hydro” and “chocolate” were popular in high school, and then “haze” in college), and the weed I had access to was most often described the way Louis Armstrong categorized music: either “good” or “bad.” Neither option, per my experience, seemed to get me any closer to where I wanted to go in the world. So I watched Frantz and his guests and admired the fellowship they shared when combining The Black Album with the green leaf.

My own weed hiatus ended somewhere near the end of senior year of college. I’d made it far enough that I was no longer afraid of not getting where I was supposed to go. I could see the finish line in graduation. In the many years since, as acceptance of, and access to cannabis culture has become more mainstream, I’ve been able to identify a personal affinity for sativa dominant hybrid strains, and a preference for flower over any other method of ingestion. Within the Monogram sampler pack are a two-gram jar of the brand’s No.01 Medium flower (“a cerebral strain to help chill, focus, and confidently tackle obstacles in your path”), a gigantic torpedo-shaped joint containing 1.5 grams of No.88 Medium (“meticulously crafted to hit just right when you are looking for that in-between feeling”), and four smaller joints each containing .4 grams of Monogram’s No.96 Heavy, which the company describes as “delicious and heady in equal measure…cultivated to maximize bliss.” The packaging doesn’t identify indica/sativa make-ups but to try and see what Frantz saw (and heard) when he listened to The Black Album, I chose No.96 Heavy.

pA selection of Monogram products.p

A selection of Monogram products.

Photo: Courtesy of Monogram

Unlit, the weed smells piney, but you get a bit of the “fruit aromas” the enclosed literature describes once it’s burning. The likewise suggested “sherbet-like flavor” seems like a bit of a reach, and I feel a gentle spiciness when the smoke reaches my navel cavity. “December 4th” is the first full song on The Black Album—appearing just after the one minute and 21 seconds long “Interlude”—and I am spectacularly high before the end of it. So much so that I decided to go for a walk to get some fresh air as I make my way through the rest of the album. I feel refreshingly clear-headed as I troop around my neighborhood—even a bit more mindful. The most striking thing about The Black Album in 2020 is how long it is. Devouring entire albums in a single sitting isn’t really the way I listen to music these days and the songs here are so rich in both bombast and wit that it feels a bit like plowing through a holiday meal.

I write down my thoughts in my phone’s Notes app as I’m walking: The “It’s hard to yell when the barr-ell’s in ya mouth” line from “What More Can I Say” is infallible. I picture Frantz sitting at his desk back in our dorm room with his head back and eyes closed during the “Hova” chant at the end of “Encore.” “Change Clothes” is very specifically of an era. (That is the only explanation I have for that song.) I feel like I’m watching a movie when I listen to Jay narrate the police stand off in the second verse of “99 Problems.” “Public Service Announcement (Interlude)” drops and I’m transported back to rooms full of New York City clubgoers shouting it in unison, as was civic duty for years after its release. The way “Lucifer” drops out to usher in “Allure” is actually spine-chilling. I am still very high when the album ends and excited at the prospect of being entertained beyond the assignment.

When I found out I’d be writing this piece, I reached out to Frantz (a friend to this day) to ask him what it was about The Black Album that made him play it so much. What was behind its staying power and how did it come to be that he and his guests would listen to it pretty much exclusively when they smoked? He happened to be driving when I texted him, so he sent me a series of video messages explaining himself: “In college, we was young with large dreams and things we wanted to accomplish,” he said. “We were beginning to know ourselves, and we was in the process of telling other people who we were. Being able to let your ‘walk speak louder than your talk,’ that’s what The Black Album meant to me. When I would smoke there was like a switch [that would flip]. Those raps made us connect and feel like our thoughts about who we were becoming were justified.”

Experientially, there’s quite a bit of space between listening to rap because you’re impressed by what an MC does and listening to it because it speaks to the whole of who you are. Combining weed and The Black Album provided both of those experiences for Frantz. I know that I couldn’t get there because I’m a tourist. I’m a different person today than I was when we were in college and this album, in particular, encapsulates a very specific moment in hip-hop. Jay Z is one of the greats, that’s par for the course for him—who knows how many people have memories attached to Jay Z songs? I’ve listened to enough music high to know that smoking absolutely changes the way we process art, but if there’s a singular thing I’ll be taking from this experience, it’s that few things will make your college friends prouder than when they find out you’re one of first people to smoke weed from Jay Z’s new cannabis line.

Source: vogue.com