Watch the Discourse: Luxury Rap, Success and Self-Absorption

Jay-Z, Kanye West
Watch the Throne
Def Jam

“Watch the throne”? Inasmuch as the title of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative effort refers to the combined talents of two of hip-hop’s current titans — or even to hip-hop’s steadfast and often encumbered position in popular culture and taste making — then, yes indeed, watch the throne! But with great cultural events should also come intriguing analysis, and so it’s useful to watch the discourse as well.

The value of a release as large as Watch the Throne is that it goes beyond the gargantuan personalities involved or even the monster show dates designed to promote it. Part of the value is the discussion it generates regarding such issues as consumer and critical expectations, quality control, cohesion, ego tripping, and subject matter. True to its magnitude, Watch the Throne has prompted much discussion, including analysis of its packaging (It’s all gold!) and the secrecy surrounding its ultimate release (Somehow, it didn’t leak!). All of this has become part of its lore and allure, much like the way the chronology of Kanye West’s own My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy became absorbed into the album itself: The Taylor Swift incident, self-imposed exile and recording, new single debut, songs released through free “G.O.O.D. Friday” downloads, direct a bizarre short film.

Interestingly, no one’s pretending rappers have never collaborated before Jay-Z and Kanye decided to join forces. We are all aware of hip-hop’s track record with groups (NWA, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, and many others), super-groups (Boot Camp Clik, Random Axe, Slaughterhouse, Hail Mary Mallon, eMC), deejay/producer albums that are almost always built upon collaboration, and crews (Boogie Down Productions, Native Tongue, the Juice Crew). When it comes to duos, we could always go back to one of my favorites, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith of EPMD, but honestly, hip-hoppers have been teaming up so often lately, either with a deejay or another rapper, that it can be tough to keep up. KRS-One has become particularly active in this regard.

While Jay-Z and Kanye certainly aren’t the first to collaborate, theirs is likely to seen as the largest of such joint ventures thus far. It’s larger even than Jay-Z’s own collaboration with R. Kelly. As such an event, there wasn’t a clear sign of what to expect, although I thought the project would be closer to the fun-loving word associating boom bap of Aesop Rock, Rob Sonic, and DJ Big Whiz (as Hail Mary Mallon) on 2011’s Are You Gonna Eat That?. Maybe a little less sonically dense, depending on Kanye’s shifting tastes, but probably about as cohesive. That we didn’t quite get that type of album from these two is, to borrow from Jay-Z’s Blueprint series, a gift and a curse.

Given Watch the Throne‘s significance as a release and cultural event, it is no surprise that expectations played a prominent role. Even Jay-Z, in interviews, intimated that the album was put through a deliberate process of drafts in order to scale the finished product down to size. The release would be enormous, but would it be worth listening to?

Once the album dropped, much of the discussion shifted to the artists themselves. There’s the differences in Kanye’s approach to making music compared to Jay-Z’s, leading to all kinds of speculation about how they well worked together, whether their contrasting styles and viewpoints could be properly merged, and, of course, which artist outperformed the other. About the latter, I’d say Kanye comes off as a bit more eager and hyped up, and so an argument can be made that he sounds fresher than the characteristically unflappable Jay-Z, but it’s basically a draw for me. Jay-Z’s wordplay is more subtle, but the flow is sometimes off, as if the beats were altered or changed altogether after he’d already laid his vocals. Kanye generally sounds like a little kid on this album, rapping with his big brother (pun intended) and so he manages to irritate me at times when I think he intends to sound cool.

Overall, though, they mesh well enough, at least as well as they have in the past, like on Talib Kweli’s remix to “Get By”, Jay-Z’s “Hate”, T.I.’s “Swagga Like Us”, and tracks on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Kanye, the ambitious producer who so often acts without thinking, provides a nice complement to Jay-Z, the charismatic wordsmith who seems to think a whole lot before he acts. What they have in common, aside from supreme branding in the commercial marketplace, is self-absorption, or at least the perception that they are plenty into themselves. Their music basically confirms this, as they are usually their own favorite subjects, concerned with haters and turncoats, and fond of talking about themselves in the third person, as if they are momentarily awed by the forces of their own talents and have to be distanced from the magnitude of it all. In fact, I tend to think of Jay-Z and Kanye as being so into themselves, their individual challenges, and their origin stories that I’m actually stunned when they manage to acknowledge each other’s presence on Watch the Throne. “Damn Yeezy and Hov, where the hell you been?” Kanye (a.k.a. “Yeezy”) asks of himself and his partner Jay-Z (a.k.a. “Hov”) in the Otis Redding sampling “Otis”. In the same track, Jay-Z says, “Run up on Yeezy the wrong way, I might merk ya”.

Riches and Splendor

Jay-Z and Kanye are the kings who came, saw, and conquered, and as I like refer to Kanye West as a sort of King Midas (another association for the gold cover), these kings are self-aware but quite insular and removed from the common touch. As such, it can be difficult to relate to them. It also means they share a level of self-absorption that might even surpass hip-hop’s usual level.

In “My B*tch”, for example, Jay-Z offers an interesting line about the standards of beauty regarding females and skin color: “Marilyn Monroe, she’s quite nice / But why all the pretty icons always all-white?” He adds, “Put some colored girls in the MoMA [Museum of Modern Art]”. But the point is somewhat undercut by the verse’s ending where he tells the “children” to “shoo”, stop gawking at his “dog”. They should get their own. You have to wonder whether it’s about “pretty icons” or some type of possession of them, since Kanye, in his verse says, “I’m a freak, huh… Rock star life / That second girl with us, that’s our wife”. If it’s about possession, the song says more about the possessors than anything else.

More overtly self-obsessed is “New Day”, a song in which Jay-Z and Kanye mostly speak about, not to, their (as yet) unborn children. They both spend the majority of the time talking about themselves, their mistakes, and the well-known sides of their public personas. Kanye makes a clever allusion to his infamous George Bush rant during a telethon following Hurricane Katrina. “And I’ll never let him ever hit the telethon,” he says. “I mean even if people dyin’ and the world ends”. He won’t let his son have an ego either so he won’t have “Yeezy’s life”. People will like him, or so Kanye hopes. Jay-Z, of course, is already worried about the paparazzi and trying not to repeat the mistakes his own father made. Jay-Z, to his credit, probably does more with the concept in terms of actually thinking about a future child, but overall the song is about these two hit makers. It’s not really about how they imagine interacting with their kids in the future. Tupac’s posthumously released “Letter to my unborn” strikes me as far more engaging as a bond between father and future child.

Theoretically, bragging and self-adulation should be limited by some concept of reality. It’s like when LL Cool J said in 1987’s “I’m Bad”, “Even when I’m braggin’, I’m being sincere,” there’s an awareness that bragging isn’t enough. The speaker must be able to back it up in some form or else credibility is lost.

As rappers chat themselves up, so too do they chat up their possessions. Dr. Dre, back in his late-80s NWA days on the song “Something Like That”, quite nicely articulated the general hip-hop songwriting recipe for making “something funky” that’s also “original”: “You need to talk about the place to be, who you are, what you got, or about a sucker MC.”

Jay-Z and Kanye do all of this on Watch the Throne, with special emphasis on the “who you are”, “what you got”, and “sucker MC” ingredients. The “place to be” part gets toned down, although Jay-Z already took care of this on his previous solo effort with “Empire State of Mind” while Kanye’s first line on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy made reference to locale (“I fantasized about this back in Chicago”). Watch the Throne is, for the most part, dominated by ego, materialism, and would-be competitors, as the two money-grossing celebrities trade verses and bars that name drop their titles and possessions.

This is “luxury rap” , as Kanye describes it in “Otis”. He is the “Hermes of verses” delivering “sophisticated ignorance” as he writes his “curses in cursive”. It’s understandable that we might question the timing of this release, given that it’s dedication to decadence coincides with troubling economic times. People are worried about getting jobs while these guys are talking about paintings and designer clothing and having “Maybachs on bachs on bachs on bachs on bachs”, and showing up in one’s “other other Benz”. Tales of extravagance don’t exactly reflect what’s going on with the “average listener”. No doubt, this is one of the reasons why folks would have a difficult time relating to, and identifying with, Watch the Throne‘s formulation of riches and splendor.

“Luxury rap” has been going on for a while now, at least since the mid-90s, as rappers increasingly earned more money, which in turn allowed them to own, and rap about, more things. Here’s the question suggested by Watch the Throne: if rap wants to maintain its “Keeping It Real” aesthetic, shouldn’t it be allowed to communicate the realities of its artists? Back in 1992, on Boogie Down Productions’s Sex & Violence, KRS-One chastised fakes for perpetrating a lifestyle they don’t live. In “Like a Throttle”, he asked, “If you ain’t a gangsta why play you a gangsta? / If you ain’t a hoe, why sell sex?”).

What about the flipside, though? What if you are living the lifestyle? On Watch the Throne, and for Jay-Z on 2009’s The Blueprint 3, the perception exists that these guys are living their rhymes. Isn’t this every bit as much of a reality as Nas detailing a young man’s coming-of-age struggle amid urban decay on Illmatic or Brother Ali describing his journey as a parent, as a man of faith, and as a conflicted and reluctant participant in race relations? I suppose KRS-One’s “Like a Throttle” had an answer for those in pursuit of money too. “When they sing, they sing for the cash / They fail to realize respect will outlast cash.”

For me, the trouble comes when luxury rap completely unpacks and unravels the conflicts of a rapper’s narrative. While anyone can find something to dig in Jay-Z’s mixture of Dale Carnegie (leadership and self-confidence) and Frank Sinatra (suave, debonair showman), it’s tough to muster applause when the underdog becomes the top dog, teams up with another top dog, and then insists on flaunting the combined spoils. There’s no tension, no one to root for, no reason to get riled up. But I get it. If you’ve got it, you might as well flaunt it. Heck, there are television commercials

What the artists have to figure out is whether this is a “reality” worth rhyming about. And it’s a quandary, no doubt about it. In a genre that is at least partially devoted to rhyming about oneself, how do you maintain the “struggle” of your narrative when you’re not struggling (in a relative financial sense, at least) that much anymore? Detailing one’s good fortune, then, runs the risk of alienating the audience. After all, even the Haves can imagine what it might be like to be a Have-Not. That type of empathy may not be mutual.

Hip-hop’s relationship to a back-story of adversity is similar to its general position on government relative to the election of President Barack Obama. After so much time of feeling like “outsiders” to the political process, U.S. hip-hop artists and fans who view the Obama Administration as symbolic of some sort of vicarious “insider status” are left to wonder how rap and American mainstream politics can continue to commingle. “M.J. at Summer Jam, Obama on the text, / y’all should be afraid of what I’m gonna do next,” said Jay-Z on The Blueprint 3‘s “On to the Next One”.

As an audience, Watch the Throne demands that we not only confront the excesses of luxury rap but also deal with the subtle legitimacy of it beyond the obvious fun of spending money. This occurs when Jay-Z and Kanye actually try to make statements, to be substantive, when the kings step out of their massive, splendiferous dining halls, lower the drawbridge, and speak about life on the other side of the moat. When it’s all about two dudes being awesome, I’m good with it. You’ve got jets and cars and expensive paintings? I’m cool with that. But the album also juxtaposes their bragging with attempts at social commentary, particularly on “Murder to Excellence” and “Made in America”. This juxtaposition, between materialism and sociopolitical talk, arguably insinuates that money is the answer to our social ills.

In “Murder to Excellence”, Jay-Z references Danroy Henry, a university football player killed by police. Split into two parts, the song tackles the blight of crime, particularly as it stands within the black community (“black on black murder”) while also attempting to end on a more positive note of progress. As the title states, the song literally transitions from lamentations on murder (“314 soldiers died in Iraq / 509 died in Chicago”) to a “celebration of black excellence.” But again, that celebration is filled with cars and money and name brands and the like. I’m just not convinced that all social ills can be remedied simply by amassing wealth and buying designer consumables, although I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt to try.

In “Made in America”, Jay-Z and Kanye operate through a personal lens. Kanye rhymes about his mother and his rise to prominence with his music. Jay-Z reminisces over his grandmother and calls her “banana pudding” his “piece of Americana”. Frank Ocean croons on the hook, calling on “Sweet King Martin, Sweet Queen Coretta, Sweet brother Malcolm, Sweet Queen Betty, Sweet Mother Mary, Sweet Father Joseph” and “Sweet Jesus” to witness that “we made it in America”. Positioned on an album filled with talk of money and materialism, it seems as though the implication is that these successful men were able to “make it”, to rise from adversity and humble beginnings into the giants of the field we know today.

That makes sense to me, and I don’t question their success. I do, however, question the invocation of our iconic Civil Rights couples (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott, Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz) in “Made in America”, as if they would view the acquisition of material possessions and status (“the new black elite” in “Murder to Excellence”) as a signifier of social progress. Or even that the successes of two individual men could be looked at as a triumph for an entire group. Somehow, the image of Malcolm X doing that “make it rain” thing with dollar bills pops into my head and it just feels wrong. Zoot suit wearing Malcolm, maybe, before he went to prison, found religion and political activism. But certainly not post-Mecca Malcolm X.

That, for me, is where Watch the Throne, as luxurious as it sounds, feels like an overreach. It’s got nothing to do with materialism for its own sake or to achieve the social Darwinist ideal of having more than one’s competitors. That part of the equation is deeply entrenched in hip-hop. No, it rings hollow in the perspective that, as “Made in America” frames it, we, through our protagonists, have “made” it. Past tense. It’s like when Eddie Murphy played in The Distinguished Gentlemen. His character, Thomas Jefferson Johnson, was a con artist who happened to share the name of an incumbent Congressman. When the Congressman has a heart attack, Johnson slides his name onto the ballet and goes to Congress where he discovers that politics in the United States capitol is similar to being a con artist, only with much higher stakes.

There’s a point in film when Johnson and his crew are hesitant to undermine the established political power brokers (chiefly, Lane Smith’s “chairman Dick Dodge”). Johnson turns to his crew and says, exasperated, “What are we, a bunch of f*ckin’ incumbents now?” That’s how some of this “luxury rap” business strikes me, as former “outsiders” to the political arena and, more importantly, to mainstream cultural norms, are seeing themselves as “insiders”. This breeds complacency, which results in art without conflict, that doesn’t struggle, that negotiates adversity with a glance at a Warhol and a Basquiat hanging on the wall.

This, I think, is the genius behind “Notice (Know This)”, Chuck D’s take on Watch the Throne‘s “Otis”. Touted by commentators as a song taking Jay-Z and Kanye to task, I see it as a preference for social awareness rather than viewing issue-oriented subject matter as a thing of the past. Better still, it’s the acknowledgement that there’s a world outside of the self, which doesn’t negate what’s important to the self, but rather emphasizes how art illuminates both self and the world at large. It need not be an either-or proposition. Like Chuck D, I am not debating the merits of the music on Watch the Throne. I think it’s good enough, enjoyable enough, for what it is. I just wonder if it’s really time for any of us — kings included — to be so self-congratulatory and then so quick to justify ourselves by monetary and material standards.