Friday, August 12, 2011

Feed them cake or: Why Jay-Z and Kanye West are not Public Enemy No. 1

Posted By on Fri, Aug 12, 2011 at 6:45 PM

Confession: I can't wait to purchase a physical copy of Jay-Z x Kanye's Watch the Throne today, but my conscious is already wracked with guilt over it. Mostly for the same reasons that have been expressed in album reviews, Twitter shit-talk, and even CL blog comments ad infinitum this week.

The first line of Rob Harvilla's Spin magazine review best sums up the sentiment: "They are both obscenely wealthy; you, in all likelihood, are not."

Just in case you didn't already feel conflicted about watching Jay-Z and Kanye spin doughnuts in a tricked-out, deconstructed Maybach, with the stars and stripes as the backdrop, in the Spike Jonze-produced video for "Otis" — so-named for the Otis Redding-sample-heavy first single from their obese pairing, which ironically was released on iTunes the same day that the Dow Jones bottomed out — check out the video response to the single that Chuck D dropped last week, titled "Notice - Know This."

The former Public Enemy mouthpiece says it's not a diss to the reigning kingpins of rap, but a decidedly old-school dose of rap rebelliousness recorded with the hope that "the J & K supergroup can elevate the masses and try a little bit more to reflect OTIS heart rather than swag." [sic]

In other words, stop dangling your diamond-encrusted nuts in our faces when we're the poor unfortunate souls that made you rich. That's basically the rub, right? Like a bunch of Wall Street bankers with boners, hip-hop's ruling capitalists seem to get off on suffocating listeners with their nouveau wealth. And yet, I can't help but feel a twinge of pride while watching "Otis." Because in a sense, rap's rise from the bottom-up represents a countercultural come-up.

As Jon Caramanica wrote in his extended New York Times review:

If [Jay-Z] frets about anything on this album, it’s the increasingly rarefied air he breathes, and the particular stresses that come with occupying those spaces as a black man. “Why all the pretty icons always all white?” he asks on “That’s My Bitch.” “Put some colored girls in the MoMA.” On “Murder to Excellence” he’s more blunt: “Only spot a few blacks the higher I go/What’s up to Will, shout-out to O.” And to Mr. West as well, who responds tartly: “We like the promised land of the O.G.’s/In the past if you picture events like a black tie/What’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys.”

So maybe what's missing from the upper echelon is more crumbs of knowledge instead of the same old bread-and-circus. That's asking a lot of entertainers. And of course, the game is sold, not told. It should be noted, however, that Jay and Ye have decided to auction off their "Otis" Maybach and donate the funds to ongoing drought relief efforts in Somalia. To silence the critics and gain a sizable tax write-off in one fell swoop? Now, that's hip-hop, son.

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