Is Ray J. the Most Significant Black Entertainer of a Generation? No. But There Is a Case to Be Made


Illustration for article titled Is Ray J. the Most Significant Black Entertainer of a Generation? No. But There Is a Case to Be Made
Photo: Phillip Faraone (Getty Images for REVOLT)

A couple of weeks ago, Ray J. went viral when news broke that Suge Knight, the devil’s favorite Blood, ceded control of the rights to his life to Ray J. from the prison cell that Suge will likely die in. In fact, Ray is simply taking over Death Row Records, which I suppose means something to someone in 2019.

On Thursday, he made news for his alleged attempt to convince President Trump to pardon Knight, which is pretty ridiculous considering there’s a whole-ass video of Knight running a man over. And I can’t think of many people who deserve to be rocking a prison jumpsuit more than Big Suge.

Thirty years into his career, Young Willie Norwood, Jr. continues to pop up in the public consciousness like a bout of genital herpes, which lends itself to a mythos of sorts about the man: While many of his child-actor contemporaries are either dead or seeking references for their Chick-Fil-A applications as I type, Ray has managed to secure steady bags three decades into his career. In fact, I believe that Ray J. is responsible for a significant amount of pop culture in the last 12 years or so. But we’ll get to that in a second.

Ray J. doesn’t excel at any one thing that matters, but he’s just good enough at several things to keep people cutting him a check. His singing voice is just a touch more capable than Drake’s, and he never moved the pop music needle like his sister Brandy did. I’m sure most of you can’t name his four albums without looking.

His biggest hit, “Sexy Can I,” is essentially VH1 reality show soundtrack fodder; my personal favorite, “Wait a Minute,” bangs primarily because it dropped at a time when The Neptunes were carrying marginally talented niggas like Jesus carried the cross. (Panama disagrees with all of this.) (Editor’s Note: Not only does Panama disagree with all of this, Panama thinks Ray J’s career actually isn’t that bad at all. —PJ)

He was serviceable while capitalizing on nepotism in his supporting roles next to his sister on Moesha and One on One. But every “acting” role he’s had is simply Ray J. playing Ray J.: Dude lacks the range for any roles with heft, and he’s too slimy to play the earnest romantic comedy lead in roles that go to cats like Michael Ealy and Morris Chestnut.


Two things Ray J. seems to do well: first, he stays involved in the type of bullshit that keeps him on TMZ. In 2014, he caught a case for sexual assault and resisting arrest, eventually copping a plea deal that kept him out of jail. His physical altercation with Fabolous in 2011, when Ray was part of Floyd Mayweather’s Money Team, became the stuff of black urban folklore and helped bring us a hilarious 2015 Vince Staples interview.

He’s also been a significant mainstay in much of VH1’s lineup of trash TV. For the Love of Ray J. was, for my money, the best of the network’s dating shows that were prominent near the end of the last decade. A bunch of women nicknamed after liquor and/or with stripper monikers acting besotted with Ray J.’s arrogant ass served as a perfect low-power-mode for the thinking man’s brain.


But Ray J.’s most noteworthy contribution to our current entertainment landscape was one that he accomplished without trying: inadvertently jump-starting a multihyphenate family dynasty with his dick. He met and started dating Kim Kardashian when she worked as a stylist for Brandy. A videotape of them having sex in Cabo became the most-watched porn of all time. (You can say you never watched the video, but God and the blacklight on your keyboard know the truth.)

Before Kim Kardashian, Superstar dropped in 2007, Kim was just that cute, ethnically ambiguous Sorta Rican who popped up on Paris Hilton’s reality show, The Simple Life, from time to time. That shitty sex tape unlocked a level of fame and access for an already-wealthy family that’s still expanding nearly a decade and a half later.


We’re talking about a smooth 78 percent (rough estimate) of E! network’s content, including 17 seasons and 247 episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Multimillion-dollar modeling contracts and sponsorships. The highest-profile trans woman of all time. Various highly successful ad campaigns and product lines. The most ridiculous Pepsi commercial ever. Countless plastic surgeries for the family itself and people attempting to mimic them. The least-self-made billionaire ever. A seemingly interminable parade of masochistic black professional ballplayers. More reality television shows than I care to Google. And even the exoneration of prisoners.

Ray J.’s penis is partially responsible for all of it.

His tertiary effect on pop music is undeniable: Kanye West’s music has certainly been influenced by his wife, whom he likely would’ve never even met if not for that sex tape. ’Ye put a Ray lookalike in his “Famous” video and even called out Ray’s name on a verse. Travis Scott used his baby-mama Kylie Jenner as a muse for his critically and commercially acclaimed 2018 album Astroworld. I’ll bet Jenner’s Chris Hansen-baiting relationship with Tyga inspired some of his recycle bin raps. Kris Kardashian certainly deserves credit for her role in cultivating a collective 10-figure net-worth family dynasty off the back of that tape. But that whole damn family should be cutting Mr. Norwood residual checks in perpetuity.


Ray J. has still managed to maintain a degree of relevance away from the Kardashians, mainly by managing to always keep Black Twitter and paparazzi interested in his goings-on. His alleged romantic relationship with Whitney Houston (which makes my skin crawl just to type) before she died even connects him to one of the most prominent black celebrity deaths of a generation. Dude is like Forrest Gump: Decades from now, historians will find Ray J. lingering somewhere during every major event of early 21st century black culture.

As if keeping his name in the media wasn’t enough, Ray’s also trying to control how we listen to media. He co-founded Raycon Global, an electronics company that pushes earbuds and headphones to the tune of $10 million in sales in under a year. Promoting his business helped make him a late-2018 meme thanks to an awesome Breakfast Club interview.


Speaking of which, Charlamagne Tha God has stated on record that the now-legendary, perfectly fucking insane 2011 call Ray J. made to the show about the Fabolous tussle placed The Breakfast Club on the trajectory to become one of (if not the) the most influential syndicated “urban” radio programs in the world.

Certainly, Ray’s scumbag tendencies are a significant catalyst to his successes: There are the aforementioned attempts to free a murderer and sexual assault allegations, as well as the gauche-as-fuck “I Hit It First” song and video, which he had some goddamn nerve to deny is about Kim. Considering that the song motivated one of the biggest artists on the globe to keep Ray’s name and image in his content, however, “I Hit It First” was probably a masterstroke of self-promotion.


Face it: You’ve probably been underrating Ray J. for years, and all this time he’s never been far away, making money that’s quiet and loud at the same time. Years from now, there will be a sociology course at Hampton University titled “The Art of Ray. J.” When humanity as we know it comes to an end, there’ll only be cockroaches and Ray. J. left. And he’ll be keeping those roaches entertained with that black boy joy that only he can muster.

Dustin is a career writer living in Chicago, and the founder of He doesn't wanna fight, but he does wanna fight. Music >> air


Can’t tell the extent to which this is tongue and cheek cos the tone is all over the place (equating sexual assault to releasing tacky songs by categorising both as scumbag behaviour? Really? Some shit you just can’t be glib about). But this is particularly poor form:

Ray J.’s penis is partially responsible for all of it.

Kim is the absolute worst, but she rode and sold that dick into success herself. Nobody else (ok, maybe her mama). Watching the pendulum swing from either attributing women’s success (even partially) to their men or blaming men’s failures on the women in their lives, is so boring. And as the centrepiece of your case, the whole argument buckles under the weight of this lazy unconvincing trope.