John Singleton’s ‘Snowfall’ came to a tragic finish The season finale remains gutting a week later

Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) knew the consequences of selling drugs were inevitable, but seeing who suffered as he burned the world around him still remains gutting a week after Snowfall‘s season finale.

Early critiques of FX’s Reagan-era drama exploring the origins of the crack epidemic said that it moved too slowly and neglected the drug addicts.

But while Snowfall, created by John Singleton with Dave Andron and Eric Amadio, spent two seasons building the characters and their worlds, season three wasted no time destroying unblemished characters’ lives. The show’s accelerated pace helped the show emerge as one of the best dramas on television.

Damson Idris plays Franklin Saint, who grows increasingly cutthroat as he makes choices that alter the lives of everyone in his orbit in season three of Snowfall.

Prashant Gupta/FX

At the beginning, Saint is a kid with more ambition than options. Season three shows the young drug kingpin grow increasingly cutthroat as he makes choices that alter the lives of everyone in his orbit. The expansion of Saint’s business draws the ire of Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Andre Wright (Marcus Henderson), his former neighbor, who is eager to take him down because of the damage he’s causing in their South Central community and his relationship with Wright’s daughter, Mel (Reign Edwards).

Snowfall delivered a crushing blow in season three by turning an innocent, college-bound teenager into a crack addict without the heavy-handed tone of an anti-drug public service announcement.

Viewers see Wright cruising through South Central, appalled by crack’s effect. His most disturbing discovery is a girl, no older than his daughter, who nearly dies while stealing to feed her addiction. He knows the source of the problem: Saint. In turn, Wright drives Saint to a crack house for a closer look at how he’s poisoning the community.

“[Wright] sees what crack is doing more clearly than most people, which is why he’s taking a strong stand against it,” said crime novelist Walter Mosley, who joined Snowfall as a consulting producer and writer in 2018. “And in doing that, he and Franklin [Saint] become nemeses.”

Special Edition Roundtable: ‘Snowfall’ uses the past to explain the present and the cast explains it all

In a reference to the gang sweeps that the LAPD executed in advance of the 1984 Olympics, Wright gains support for his mission within the department by telling his superiors that crack is making its way toward the site of the Games: the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The police, led by Wright, attack Saint’s operation and family. As quickly as Wright becomes a hero within the department, he’s disgraced after Saint orchestrates the theft of his badge and gun in retaliation. His resulting suspension from the force, despite the successful initiative he led, is a harsh reminder that he’s black first and a cop second. This is underlined when he’s assaulted during a traffic stop by two white cops who only check to confirm that he’s a colleague after beating him.

In reality, Wright’s fate is sealed the moment he faces off against Saint. Both know the other’s vulnerabilities because of their complicated relationship, turning their battle into an antagonistic chess game. While Wright recognizes Saint is no longer the kid he watched grow up, underestimating him proves to be a fatal mistake. Before Wright meets his demise at Saint’s hands, he endures the pain of seeing his worst fear confirmed: Mel, his only child, is ensnared by the drug that’s ravaging the streets of Los Angeles.

Franklin Saint (Damson Idris, left) and Mel (Reign Edwards, right) have an on-again, off-again relationship. It has always been one of Snowfall‘s bright spots, even with the knowledge that it couldn’t last.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP Photo

Mel’s descent into addiction has been Snowfall’s most heartbreaking development. In just a few episodes, she goes from Spelman-bound to vanishing the day Wright is supposed to take her to college because she’s trying to score crack. Her shocking turn illustrates not only how widely available crack was during the 1980s but also how quickly it could dismantle anyone’s life, no matter how bright their future or sturdy their support system.

By ramping up the chaos it’s been building since the pilot, Snowfall depicted crack’s impact on a human level. John Singleton would be proud.

“In the beginning, people didn’t think, ‘Oh, this is terrible, I’m gonna be addicted,’ ” Mosley said. “But the next thing you know, it does happen.”

And no one thought it would happen to Mel. Her arc this season was a harrowing look at addiction, which erases morals, scruples and, in some cases, all traces of who the victim used to be. “Once the rock get a hold of they ass,” Saint’s friend and enforcer Leon (Isaiah John) tells him, “the person you knew, they’re gone.” Mel is sweet-natured and radiant, but as her addiction worsens, Wright, serving as a proxy for the audience, stops recognizing the person he raised. One chilling sequence, a montage set to Roy Ayers Ubiquity’s “Everybody Loves the Sunshine,” ends with Wright realizing that he can’t stop his daughter.

It’s through Mel’s addiction that Saint is forced to reckon with the weight of his own actions. He’s in his early 20s and establishing generational wealth for his family in less time than it would have taken him to finish college. Creating this life on his own terms is how Saint justifies selling crack.

According to Mosley, Saint sees his exploits through “million-dollar glasses,” a myopia that blinds him to the societal impact of what he’s doing. He’s able to rationalize everything as “just business” until he’s forced to pull Mel out of a crack house. It’s easier to sell drugs if you don’t humanize the people buying them. In Saint’s mind, he’s giving them what they want from a safe distance.

He’s rattled, however, after seeing what they do to someone he loves. “It takes him a while to realize the absolute devastation of those drugs, and I think toward the end of season three, he’s seeing that and more so experiencing it,” Mosley said.

Saint and Mel’s on-again, off-again relationship has been one of Snowfall’s bright spots, even with the knowledge that it couldn’t last. Needless to say, it’s unlikely that a drug dealer and a cop’s daughter have a future together.

That’s what crack did as it spread throughout the nation during the 1980s. It turned neighbors into enemies. It turned the girl next door into an addict. It turned the boy next door into a monster. Seeing this unfold so rapidly has been tragic, but it’s the payoff of Snowfall’s meticulous approach to storytelling. That Snowfall has even arrived at this point is a testament to patience and the power of slow-burning drama.

John Singleton (left) and Damson Idris (right) arrive at the Oscars on March 4, 2018.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP Photo

Viewers stuck with Snowfall without much buzz or critical acclaim because the show keeps improving as the drama mounts. Snowfall’s evolution is proof that some shows need room to grow. Imagine if HBO gave up on The Wire after season two.

It’s just unfortunate that Singleton isn’t alive to see Snowfall’s progress, although Mosley says Singleton’s vision and faith in the writers, producers and directors empowered them to make something they’re sure he’d love.

Snowfall delivered a crushing blow in season three by turning an innocent, college-bound teenager into a crack addict without the heavy-handed tone of an anti-drug public service announcement. Mel’s undoing was a tragedy, but it was presented as just a reality, making it more haunting. Wright fell victim to his own morality, and Saint was forced to face the consequences of his actions in a way that changed him for the worse. No one in this complicated triangle emerged unscathed.

By ramping up the chaos it’s been building since the pilot, Snowfall depicted crack’s impact on a human level.

John Singleton would be proud.

John Urschel recounts his journey from the NFL to MIT The former Raven talks about his new memoir, ‘Mind and Matter,’ driving a Versa and why there are so few blacks in higher mathematics

As a young boy, John Urschel would amuse himself for hours solving puzzles and breezing through math workbooks. By the time he was 13, he had audited a college-level calculus class.

He was also no slouch on the football field. A two-star prospect out of high school in western New York state, Urschel was a low-priority recruit to Penn State. He worked his way into the starting lineup and later became a two-time All-Big Ten offensive lineman. He won the Sullivan Award, given to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the country, as well as the Campbell Trophy, recognizing college football’s top scholar-athlete.

Urschel completed his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mathematics while at Penn State. He even taught a couple of math classes while playing for the Nittany Lions. After college, he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 NFL draft and signed a four-year, $2.4 million contract with the Baltimore Ravens.

Urschel loves football — the fury, the camaraderie, the adrenaline rush — and he enjoyed knowing that he was playing at the highest level. But he loves math, too, and he wanted to pursue that passion as far as his ability would take him.

Urschel got a taste of how difficult it could be to do both when he suffered a concussion during his second NFL training camp. The brain injury kept him off the field for a couple of weeks. It took longer than that for him to regain the ability to do math again. Still, the following spring he passed the qualifying exam that allowed him to enroll in a full-time doctorate program in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Penguin Press

It was a great achievement, but it also meant he had two demanding jobs. By his third year in the league, he was spending more time taking stock of his life. What did his future hold? How long would his body hold up to the brutality of football? How good a mathematician could he be if he devoted himself to it full time?

He was fine financially. He earned $1.6 million over his first three years in the league while driving a Nissan Versa and living with a roommate. His big expenses were math books and coffee. He estimates that he lived on less than $25,000 a year.

In the end, he retired from the NFL at age 26 to pursue becoming a mathematician. Urschel, now 27, has about one year left before he earns his doctorate at MIT. After that, he has his sights set on a career in academia.

Urschel chronicled his uncommon journey in a new memoir, Mind and Matter: A Life in Math and Football, co-written with his wife, Louisa Thomas. The Undefeated recently talked to the former lineman about his new book, his view of college sports, the safety of football and his twin careers.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why did you write this book?

I really wanted to write something that conveyed mathematics in a very beautiful light. The publisher kept pushing me to put more of myself in it. At the end of the day, the final product is a memoir that also describes my relationship with both mathematics and football.

What do you hope people take away from it?

I hope they take away a number of things, not least of which is that it’s OK to have multiple interests, it’s OK to have multiple passions, that you don’t just have to be one thing. Also, I hope people take away a newfound appreciation of mathematics that might feel a little different than sort of what they experienced in school.

Who do you see as your primary audience for the book?

First of all, I would really like to reach middle school to high school kids who may be athletes but might have some interest in academics and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] in some sense. Second, I would say anyone who simply enjoys football and math, because there’s a lot of both in this book.

Did you ever feel pigeonholed coming up?

Yes, I think I was, but I really didn’t pay too much attention to it. These things might bother some people, but I just usually viewed these things as an opportunity to change people’s mindsets.

Do you think there was some skepticism because you’re a football player, that this guy can’t be so good at math?

There initially was some skepticism, which I think was healthy. I completely understand why there was skepticism, and I think it was a reasonable thing.

Do you consider yourself a genius?

No.

What is a genius anyway?

I don’t know, and that’s why I don’t really consider myself one. Listen, I’m someone who is very good at math. I’ve been very good at math ever since I was little. A lot of hard work has gone into me being at the place where I am in mathematics today. With respect to football, I was a decent athlete. I don’t consider myself an extremely good athlete. I considered myself extremely hardworking.

Were you ever discouraged from pursuing high-level academics while playing football at Penn State?

I didn’t get any pushback from my teammates. I did get some pushback from Penn State football early on. But I do want to clarify the sense in which I got pushback, because I think I got pushback in a very good way. It wasn’t like they were saying, ‘Oh, John, this is going to take up way too much of your time.’ It was more of them saying, ‘John, let’s not take such a hard track so early on. Let’s move slow and steady, because college courses are a lot tougher than high school classes, and you think you are good at math from high school, but college is different.’ After my first fall semester, the academic advisers really picked up on the fact that, yeah, they don’t need to worry about me.

“There are brilliant, brilliant young minds being born into this country, but either they’re being born the ‘wrong’ gender or the ‘wrong’ color or into a household that doesn’t have the same opportunities as some other household.”

Do you think college athletes should be paid?

Of course they should be paid. That’s not an unbiased opinion. I’m extremely biased. Something is fundamentally wrong with the system. That’s obvious. But what’s the answer? I don’t know. Should all sorts of football players be paid? Certainly not. I don’t think the football players at, let’s say, the University of Buffalo are being exploited. Sorry. Does this football program make money? But we look at the Alabamas of the world and, well, clearly these football players are really contributing a lot and they’re the source of a great deal of revenue. How can we give them more? Because I do think they deserve more, but the right way to do it is sort of uncertain to me.

What do mathematicians do?

What a mathematician does is he uses the tools of mathematics to try to solve very complicated and important problems in this world. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians try to solve fundamental ideas in physics. In some areas of mathematics, mathematicians are trying to understand and perfect those things in machine learning, which have great practical importance on our world. You have mathematicians who are working on Wall Street. The only thing they’re making is money, but they’re making quite a lot of it. Mathematicians work for Google. They work for Amazon. They’re the people who help come up with the technology and the algorithms in your iPhone.

How did the fear of concussions and the prospect of CTE [chronic traumatic encephalopathy] factor into your decision to retire from the NFL?

Very nominally. It is something you have to take into account, but the risks were something I had been aware of for a large part of my football career. But I also wanted to create more time for mathematics. I wanted to spend more time raising my daughter and I wanted to be in good overall physical health. You know, I want to be able to walk around when I am 60.

Did you really live on $25,000 a year while playing pro football?

Yeah, maybe even a little less than that.

You’re kidding me. How is that possible?

I’m still a very frugal person, and frugal might not even be the right word. Even people around me will tell you, it’s not like I’m attempting to save money. I don’t do things like budget. I do the things I enjoy and I buy things that bring me joy. The things that bring me joy are typically like math books, maybe coffee at a coffee shop. Yeah, I guess luckily for me, both of those things are incredibly cheap.

Baltimore Ravens offensive guard John Urschel blocks during a game against the New York Jets at Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, in October 2016.

Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

So, no bling for you. No big Land Rover.

No, no. My car was a used Nissan Versa I bought in college. I kept it my whole career, although I’m not that sad to say I did let the Versa go because, well, I’m in Boston now. What do I need a car for?

In what ways do you miss football?

One of things I do miss about football is being on a team, being close with a bunch of guys, going through the whole deal of pursuing a common goal.

How do you replace the rush that you derive from football?

Yeah, that’s just something you can’t replace. You’re just not going to get that feeling from mathematics. As much as I love math — and there’s many amazing, beautiful things about math — you’re not getting that from mathematics. You’re getting a very different feeling, but it’s also quite amazing: this feeling of fighting against the unknown, this feeling of sort of trying to sort of go where no man has gone before, this idea of trying to solve problems that no one has solved before.

Why are there so few African Americans in math?

You look at, let’s say, all of the elite mathematicians at MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Cal Tech, Princeton, and maybe there’s like one or two African Americans. It’s not because these places have decided we just don’t like hiring African American mathematicians. The fact is that there’s just not many of us. And the sort of root of this, I believe, is not anything that happens in Ph.D. programs. The large part of the damage is done before a student even steps foot on a college campus. The large majority of American mathematicians in the United States, they are Caucasian, they are male and they generally come from pretty good backgrounds. And, I mean, it’s a sobering realization that there are brilliant, brilliant young minds being born into this country, but either they’re being born the ‘wrong’ gender or the ‘wrong’ color or being born into a household that doesn’t have the same opportunities as some other household. And these brilliant minds are being lost. I do believe a large contributing factor is sort of educational inequality.

One final thing: Would you allow a child of yours to play football?

I would, in high school. But not before then. There’s a big focus on college football players, NFL players and health in a number of ways. But the thing that people don’t talk about enough is young kids playing tackle football, contact football, before their bodies and brains are even developed. And that’s something that me, personally, I’m not a fan of. But in high school? Certainly. I think football is not for everyone, certainly not, but if it’s something that you think you’re interested in, I think it’s an amazing sport.

‘Pose’ on FX: an earnest, romantic family drama about gay and trans people of color Marrying art and politics is never easy, but Ryan Murphy’s show hits the sweet spot

This, as promised by the headline, will be an essay about Pose. But first, we have to get something out of the way: Stonewall is the worst film I have ever seen.

The 2015 film from Independence Day director Roland Emmerich was ostensibly about the Stonewall riots. But it found so many ways to be terrible that if you told me now that it was an elaborate exercise in trolling, my response would be OK, that makes sense.

Stonewall needlessly rewrote queer history, shoehorning in a made-up white ingenue from Middle America to drive its story while sidelining the tales of real-life trans women of color such as Marsha P. Johnson who were instrumental to the fateful Christopher Street revolt. It billed itself as the definitive, celebratory story of the start of the modern gay rights movement, but instead it was self-indulgent and meandering with bargain bin production values.

Schlock like Stonewall is why audiences have learned to temper their expectations when it comes to fictive narratives about queer people of color. Even in the queer cultural canon, people of color and trans people are largely missing from stage or screen, especially as central characters. This spring has offered renewed celebration of The Boys in the Band and Angels in America, pivotal works both, on Broadway. When it comes to television, Showtime broke serious ground with Queer as Folk and The L Word, making way for HBO’s Looking years later. Films such as Milk, The Normal Heart, The Kids Are All Right, Brokeback Mountain, Dallas Buyers Club, But I’m A Cheerleader, and Transamerica netted high praise and told valued stories about what it means to be queer — if you are white. And if you aren’t, better luck finding yourself within the pages of James Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, or the staged works of Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose play provided the source material for Moonlight. As for television with a majority-minority queer cast, there’s Noah’s Arc and … Noah’s Arc.

Now there’s Pose, a new FX drama from Ryan Murphy about New York’s 1980s drag ball culture, which premiered Sunday night. Pose debuted a mere three nights into June, which marks the start of Pride season in America because it’s the month the Stonewall riots began. Pose is Paris is Burning come to life, mixed with a dollop or two of Fame. It is the sort of thing that makes you offer up prayers of hope to Mother Ru: Please don’t let this be another Stonewall-sized Hindenburg.

In the queer cultural canon of Angels in America and Brokeback Mountain, people of color and trans people are largely missing from stage or screen, especially as central characters.

Before anyone had seen a minute of television, it was clear that Murphy and FX had paid attention to the politics of the production. At the Television Critics Association press tour in January, Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk were saying all the right things about listening and humbling themselves as architects of a closed-off world in which they had little to no expertise. FX made sure journalists knew that the show’s cast was composed of trans actresses of color. The word “intersectionality” came up a lot.

“The writers’ room is a very intimate space, so no question is off-limits,” Pose writer and activist Janet Mock told me at the press tour. “There’s a stripping away of ego because we’re all on the same level.

“There were a lot of conversations about blackness, about colorism, about hair textures — that’s why you see the girls all with naturals. It was through the conversation we had about what it means to be a person of color, but then a person of color in the ’80s, who’s a woman, who’s also a trans woman, who’s also poor. All of that stuff comes in and so you have to break it down to the very basic elements, and then not make it too conscious that we’re in the 2000s writing about the 1980s.”

But what about the show itself? I’ve watched the first four episodes, and I found it earnest, romantic, heartbreaking, and instantly addictive. It’s clear that the discussions of the politics of the show were merely a foundation from which an engaging, unique family drama could emerge. Pose is lush and expensive in a way that few stories about queer people of color are, and its audience took notice.

Murphy is no stranger to telling the stories of gay characters. He gave the world The Assassination of Gianni Versace and before that, Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) and Wade “Unique” Adams (Alex Newell) in Glee. But in his enthusiasm to portray the torture of being a gay outcast in high school, Murphy could sometimes forget the trauma stirred up by watching a kid get thrown into a dumpster or slushied, week after week after week. And Glee was contemporary. How would those inclinations show up in a period piece like Pose, set in 1987, with the AIDS crisis raging through New York, but still worlds away from the activism of Larry Kramer and a nascent ACT UP? It wasn’t just commonplace to hear Donna Summer on the radio, it was commonplace to hear schoolchildren taunting each other with anti-gay slurs. The cruelty of 1987 was arguably far more cutting than anything in 2010, when Glee began airing. But Pose is balanced. It doesn’t shy away from how awful anti-gay parents could be toward their gay children, as viewers see when Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) is kicked out of the house with only a backpack and coat for having a gay flesh magazine under his mattress. But Pose’s characters are not defined by their suffering.

The rejection Damon faces ends up being necessary emotional grounding for the show, and to understanding ball culture. Beneath the wigs and furs, there is community and refuge for people rejected by polite society. Set against the backdrop of ‘80s ball and drag culture is a show about how so many people like Damon relied on their “chosen” families to keep them alive.

The storylines and conflicts are connected by Pray Tell, Pose’s master of ceremonies played by Tony winner Billy Porter, a veteran who brings effortless magnetism to a show full of new and promising talent. Dominique Jackson, the actress who plays house mother Elektra Abundance, offers the sort of withering reads, with every syllable articulated, that would make Dorian Corey proud.

I hope Pose catches fire. It is a gem and it’s clear that Murphy, 52, has his eye on how he and his work will be remembered.

“He talked about legacy building in the sense of bringing other people in that he could help develop,” Mock said, explaining why Murphy approached her to work on Pose when she’d never written for television before.

So often, Murphy’s leading ladies have been straight cisgender women deployed as high camp. It was as though he kept birthing new characters with the expectation that they be re-created in the latest drag revues. And that’s fine. But in Pose, Murphy has tapped something else: the sort of heartfelt stories and honest emotion that result from going straight to the source.

The legendary ‘XXL’ Jay-Z, LeBron James, Kanye West and Foxy Brown cover It helped launch then-Def Jam honcho Shawn Carter as a ‘business, man’

By 2005, in the post-The Black Album era, Jay-Z was almost two years into a retirement from releasing solo albums. Kanye West was soon to erase any doubts about a sophomore slump with his second studio album, Late Registration. LeBron James had delivered on the prep hype: He finished his second season with the Cleveland Cavaliers averaging 27.2 points, 7.4 rebounds and 7.2 assists. The best was yet to come for all three, as they stood together on the August 2005 cover of XXL, alongside Foxy Brown, who was signed to Def Jam Records at the time and preparing an album titled Black Roses.

Shot by Clay Patrick McBride (whose website opens with a look from the shoot), it was a gatefold cover, and the fold featured Freeway, Memphis Bleek, Young Gunz, Teairra Marie, Peedi Peedi and DJ Clue. Incoming Island/Def Jam CEO Antonio “L.A.” Reid, in one of his first moves, had hired Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter as president of the historic Def Jam Records, and under that umbrella came the relaunch of Jay-Z’s R0c-A-Fella Records — without co-founder Damon Dash. The 2004 split between Jay-Z and Dash was the No. 1 topic in hip-hop. And as for James, he was not signed to any label, but he appeared on the magazine as a symbol of his close relationship with Carter and of Carter’s reach to the world of professional athletes with Roc Nation Sports.

The cover idea was President Carter’s cabinet, and the XXL cover captured a moment in time before Jay-Z, West and James, all household names in 2005, were catapulted into another stratosphere of social impact, cultural influence and financial success. More than a decade later, Jay-Z is one of the most successful creative entrepreneurs, West is arguably the most influential cultural figure on this globe, and James, in his 15th NBA season, is still the best basketball player in the world.


In 1996, music journalist Andrea Duncan-Mao was throwing a party. Among the invitees were Jay-Z, Dash and Kareem “Biggs” Burke. At the tiny New York City Bar, they told anyone within earshot about a record label they co-founded called Roc-A-Fella Records and about Reasonable Doubt, an album from Jay-Z. Drinks flowed late into the evening. “It was fun,” said Duncan-Mao, who profiled Young Gunz for the XXL cover story. “Dame was a visionary … really good at his job. But I think he started to really enjoy the fame, power and the lifestyle.”

By 2005, XXL was the pre-eminent hip-hop publication, and the monthly competition with The Source and other magazines meant battles for landing the most influential images and stories was intense. “The covers were everything,” said Elliott Wilson, who was editor-in-chief from 1999 to 2008. “I was being judged by how many units these magazines sold. I used to stress over the numbers. I [always] had [handy] printouts of what every XXL, The Source and VIBE sold.”

With Jay-Z transitioning into an executive role, and his recent break-up with Dash, Wilson knew who he could turn to for a splash. “Whenever there was a drought,” Wilson said, “Jay was always relevant.” The cover would serve two purposes: to bump up sales numbers on the newsstands and to have the No. 1 name in hip-hop tell his side of the Roc-A-Fella breakup.

Dash had already had his opportunity. In June 2005, Wilson and his team had put Dash and the rapper Cam’ron on XXL’s cover with the tagline Jay-Z Can’t Knock These Harlem Boys’ hustle, a callback to a classic Jay-Z song. Dash had started his own Damon Dash Music Group. Among the statements Dash made to XXL: “I don’t understand what’s going on with Jay.” So it was time to reach out to Jay-Z for the other side of the story. “You knew things weren’t good,” said Wilson. “but you couldn’t actually see it coming. … They were such a symbol of brotherhood.”

For Wilson, who joined XXL after working as music editor at The Source, and at College Music Journal, the hip-hop magazine wars were a real thing. Wilson joined XXL with a goal of outselling The Source at the newsstands within a year. It took him until 2003, and by 2005, Wilson was aiming to cement XXL’s reputation as the go-to music publication.

Jay-Z agreed to appear on the cover of the August 2005 issue and even suggested to Wilson his vision of a cover concept. Jay-Z wanted to do a presidential cover to reflect his new role at Def Jam. The photo shoot took place at New York City’s Chelsea Piers inside a mock Oval Office, and while all this was going on, team XXL included a teaser for the Jay-Z cover in the July 2005 issue: The last page in the magazine featured a Roc-A-Fella chain displayed prominently. The tagline was The Chain Remains — Wilson drew inspiration from Naughty By Nature’s 1995 “Chain Remains,” from Poverty’s Paradise.

When Wilson listened to Jay-Z’s guest verse on West’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone Remix” there’s the line: The chain remains, the gang’s intact … but the XXL presidential cover actually reflected a more popular line from “Diamonds”: I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man. Jay-Z, West and James were in very businesslike black suits, and Foxy Brown was in a sleek black dress. Because of Jay-Z’s ownership stake with the Brooklyn Nets, an early version of the cover included Vince Carter and Jason Kidd — instead of James. “I was thankful Vince and Jason didn’t make the [final] cut,” said Wilson. “I knew LeBron … would be a big deal.” It would be a few more years until Barack Obama became the 44th president of the United States, but Jay-Z was making himself an unofficial black president on the cover of a magazine.

In the one-on-one interview with XXL features editor David Bry, Jay-Z addressed his split with Dash, saying, “I’m not in the business to talk about guys I did business with — I want you to print all this — been real tight with, for over 10 years. But since there’s so much out there, so much has been said, I will say this one thing: I’ma just ask people in the world to put themselves in my shoes. However the situation happened, whether we outgrew the situation or what have you, it was time for me to seek a new deal in the situation.” Shawn Carter was speaking to Bry. The beloved Bry, an author and hip-hop scholar, recently died of brain cancer.

Jay-Z stepped away from his role as president and CEO of Def Jam in 2007. During his tenure, artists such as Young Jeezy and Rick Ross had huge successes. West, Rihanna and Ne-Yo became global stars. At the same time, projects involving Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek and the Young Gunz sputtered. Artists such as LL Cool J spoke out in frustration. Jay-Z also came out of “retirement” and released Kingdom Come in 2006, to mixed reviews. Questions were raised about whether Carter was focused as a music executive, and whether there were creative conflicts of interest.

Music journalist Amy Linden profiled Memphis Bleek for that presidential issue. “Sometimes I wonder whether having an artist as the head of the label is a good thing or bad thing,” said Linden. “On one hand … artists recognize art in other people. On the other, you can wonder [whether] an artist is going to worry about someone competing with him.”

Wilson has fond memories of the presidential cover, in particular an inside shot: Jay-Z and West re-created an iconic Robert Kennedy-John F. Kennedy shot. “I did a lot of great covers,” Wilson said. “Unfortunately, this cover doesn’t always get mentioned. It definitely deserves its rightful place. … It marked the beginning of Jay-Z moving on to the next stage of his life.”

More than a decade later, the impact of the split between Jay-Z and Dash still resonates. Then-senior editor Anslem Samuel Rocque, now managing director at Complex, who profiled Freeway in the issue, believes the breakup was inevitable. “I don’t think Jay would be where he is now if he continued to be a big fish in a small pond,” Rocque said. “He couldn’t keep rolling with [the] same folks. I don’t want to diminish anyone … but they were holding him back. In retrospect, it was what he had to do.”

As for Wilson, who went on to become co-founder of the popular hip-hop site and podcast Rap Radar and now works as an editorial director of culture and content for Tidal, there is one regret about the presidential cover. “No disrespect to Foxy, but as good as a career as she’s had, she’s not the cultural icon that Jay-Z, Kanye and LeBron are,” Wilson said. “When I look back … I’m like, holy s—, I had Jay-Z, Kanye and LeBron. If I had Rihanna, it would have been one of the greatest magazine covers of all time.”