An essay from August 2011
by Barry Michael Cooper
Like Hip Hop’s Jordan and Pippen, the tag-team comitatus of Jay-Z and Kanye West, are balling out of control, as their bejewled sneakers squeak into a two-man weave of vintage obsessions and futurist intentions.
The oeuvre of Jay and ‘Ye’s brand new collaboration Watch The Throne manages to be both deadly serious and subconsciously political in its narrative. Watch The Throne subscribes to the politic of the nouveau riche; this is an album that escorts the listener into the corridors of power inhabited by the two most influential panels in the current triptych (the third being Sean “Diddy’ Combs, whose Last Train to Paris offering seems to have a subtle influence on Throne) of post-crack era Art-Hop. Make no mistake; these are two young Black men who have worked hard to wear the crown(s). And heavy is the head that wears the crown, or as another illustrious crown-wearer — the late, great painter, Jean Michael Basquiat — once said, “Most young kings get their heads cut off.” Jay-Z and Kanye reflect the sensibilities of deft (and somewhat jaded) guillotine-dodgers, in what turns out to be an instant classic.
The music and the production and the lyrical prowess of both Jay and ‘Ye are almost phenomenal on Watch The Throne. This is the first time in a long time that Rap Mu$ick, LLC has felt like real Hip Hop, and this is real Hip Hop that feels like 21st Century rock music. I would even venture to say that Watch The Throne might be Hip Hop’s Exile On Main Street In A Chop-Shopped/Drop Top Maybach 62 Zepplin With A Backseat Full Of Bad Beeshes (see the clip for the wildly popular single Otis), and Jay and ‘Ye are Mick and Keith before the nullification of heroin and the obfuscation of occult-ish ennui. Many listeners have complained about Jay-Z and Kanye’s endless roll-call of the bon bon vie: Maybachs, Hermes, Hublots, Audomars, Countachs; but there appears to be a sly political undertone in that, too. The psychopathy of Watch The Throne is about the end of cocaine rap, the end of gangsta. Nicky Barnes, Freeway Ricky Ross, and Frank Lucas will never eat lunch with Warren Buffet, or Bill Gates, or vacation at the Hotel Du Cap, or hold a Amex black card with no limits and without looking over their shoulders. Those men will never be on the Forbes list for the wealthiest — legally wealthiest — players in the game. Those men will never be dinner guests at the White House with President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle. Jay-Z and Kanye have done all of those things, and more.
As Jay-Z proclaims on Illest Motherf**ker Alive:”Know when to leave when the heat is coming, I learned that/this is where DeNiro would be/if he ain’t turn back…this is what the ending of Scarface should feel like…” Throne tells the story of two survivalists who successfully navigated hazardous terrain of Plantation Crack’s pharm-lands; literally (Jay scrambling red tops and blue tops in the hallways of the Marcy Houses in Brooklyn) and figuratively (Kanye having homeboys in the Chi who were demolished by the drug), and take a seat at the front of LBJ’s Great Society bus, more than 40 years later. Like Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and now Obama, Jay-Z and Kanye are part of the true American Power Elite. And that’s real American Gangster, not hood-ensnared gangsta.
Still, some of Jay-Z and Kanye’s swag on Throne, does indeed seem to suggest that they might be somewhat removed from the plight of the common man. Have they become too prosperous to empathize with everyday people? Maybe not; on one of the best tracks of the album, Murder To Excellence, Jay-Z and Kanye sync lamentation over Black on Black crime (specifically the horrific and bloody gun violence among the youth in Kanye’s hometown of Chicago, where he intones the truly prodigious line, “It’s time for us to us to stop and re-define Black power/41 souls/murdered in 50 hours”) with swimming in affluence; “Hit the mall/pick up some Gucci”.
This is a provocative quandary which speaks volumes not only about the content of Hip Hop, but the quality of Black life in post-millennial America; should the offspring of Mountaintop Children be reduced to the grotesque choices of committing genocide or living like a Medici? Murdering the beat or murdering each other? Is there no reasonably safe (and sane) median between these two extremes?
There is a brutal honesty embedded in the ornate tapestry of Excellence and the entire album; Watch The Throne is really a cautionary tale of the pleading wishes and woeful tariffs to answered prayers. Access granted and affluence acquired doesn’t always translate as being truly free. “Only spot a few blacks the higher I go,” Jay says casually, “What’s up to Will/shout out to O.” Will Smith stopped making music a long time ago to concentrate on becoming the biggest box office star in the world, and Oprah Winfrey broke the ribbon in the billionaire race around the same time. What they have in common with Jay-Z and Kanye West is what Biggie and Puff told us over a decade ago, that mo’ money means mo’ problems. As much as they might want to help the suffering masses, there’s only so much they can do for everybody (even Lady-O had to bring her long-running talk show to an end; e’re body ain’t gonna find a key to a new car underneath their seat).
What the covetous fail to realize as they salivate over the trappings of wealthy, is just that; the inordinate love of inanimate ducats is a trap. These celebs wage the same battle Fitzgerald’s Gatsby fought as he shrank from the terrifying haint of Jay Gatz ice-grilling him in the gilded mirror; the fear of being unmasked. Money changes everything except for the deepest psychic layers of the truest players; they understand they will always be who they were before they bought a ticket to go…there. There being the top of the world, Ma. Contrary to popular belief, emperors do care what the proles think about them. Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but after Jay-Z and Kanye West demolished a $500,000 dream machine in that Mad-Max-esque Spike Jonze clip, there was this disclaimer at the fini:
“The vehicle used in this visual will be offered up for auction. Proceeds will be donated towards the East African Drought Disaster.”
The most searing image in that unforgettable Otis video, is that humongous American flag draped along the side of that abandoned factory complex. The flag underscores post-mil Americas arrival at an economically apocalyptic crossroads. A noisy, dystopian boulevard which has affected everyone, even millionaires and billionaires. Otis is exciting, and Jonze and Jay-Z and Kanye have created something new; call it totemist chic or anthropological swank. I don’t know what it is, but do I enjoy watching Jay and ‘Ye having fun, screaming in muted m.o.s. and tearing-up half-million dollar toys, while flashpots spit fiery sparks into a starless sky. But while our Dynamic Duo may have gotten their swag back, scores of thousands of people will lose their homes and jobs the very same day Otis will tally more than 1 million Vevo views.
Despite their elite status, the one-percenters are not exempt from the suffering we all are feeling right now. As they toss/twist/turn in layers of 1020-thread count of Sferra linen sheets — tucked into a $6500 Dux bed — their porcelain veneers gnash, as they try and choke down the undigested guilt of having too much. This nagging existential anxiety prompts these aristocats to wax Camus-like: What’s the meaning/what’s the meaning of life? Remember that Jay? How ‘bout you, ‘Ye? Of course not; that was over a lifetime and several Franck Muellers ago. Jay-Z and Kanye can now afford watches that are not only spring-loaded and wound to the dark side of the Moon, but cost enough to pull a block of abandoned homes in Baltimore out of foreclosure. Yeah, being rich is nice, but being rich comes with the decorous insomnia of refined paranoia. Crushing fear and smothering self-loathing is added with each zero in the burgeoning bank account. Make no mistake; the throne is positioned in a place where the air is very thin. And if you don’t breathe carefully, you will suffocate. No matter who you are.