The video, which weaves personal narrative with social commentary, traces America's drug policies from 1971 to today.
"In 1986, when I was coming of age, Ronald Reagan doubled down on the war on drugs that had been started by Richard Nixon in 1971," Jay-Z began. Illustrations from journalist Molly Crabapple flash across the screen as he narrates the story.
"Drugs were bad; fried your brain," he continued. "And drug dealers were monsters—the sole reason neighborhoods in major cities were failing."
The video leads the viewer from 1986 into the 1990s, when incarceration rates skyrocketed because of "tough-on-crime" laws and mandatory minimum sentences. Thanks in part to Bill Clinton's controversial 1994 crime bill, judges were forced to send drug offenders away for a minimum amount of time.
The decision had disastrous consequences.
"When the war on drugs began in 1971, our prison population was 200,000," the "Hard Knock Life" rapper explained. "Today, it is over 2 million."
Black and Latinos make up a disproportionate number of those 2 million prisoners. And, as the video fails to mention, a growing number of them are women of color. As political science professor Melissa Harris-Perry points out in an article for The Undefeated, women's rates incarceration of incarceration are growing faster than men's. The majority of these women are non-violent drug offenders.
The video also takes the viewer into today's drug climate, where some states have legalized marijuana. But people of color are locked out of this market as well: Convicted felons, many of whom are former drug dealers, are often prevented from entering the legal drug trade. Since a disproportionate number of drugs arrests are people of color, this means a sizable chunk of the Black population is left out of the lucrative industry.
"Venture capitalists migrate to [states with legal marijuana] to open multibillion dollar operations," Jay-Z explained, "but former felons can't open a dispensary."
Restrictive drug policies also lock African-Americans out of another crucial outlet: the voting booth. As Harris-Perry pointed out in another brilliant article for Elle, more than 6 million people can't vote because they've been convicted of a felony More than 2 million of those disenfranchised voters are African-American.
As activists and journalists alike heralded the video, one voice rose above the others: Senator Bernie Sanders.
"Jay-Z is right: We have to end the war on drugs," the millennial fave tweeted on September 15.
Commenters quickly leaped on the unconventional union.