It’s been almost five years.
Back in 2011, I was broke. I mean really broke. Ten months before writing the article below, I was laid off from my job in professional development at a multi-national law firm. Three months before writing the article below, I exhausted my severance package and meager savings. Twelve hours before writing the article below, JAY Z and Kanye West, as the newly-formed supergroup Watch The Throne, blew my mind with one of the most ostentatious, jarring, and bold hip-hop singles I’d heard in years, in “Otis.” They stunted like no one’s ever stunted before. Forget Bentleys. Can you purchase political asylum in a non-extradition country? Can you guarantee a spot in Heaven? JAY Z and Kanye can.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, I did not have enough money to put gas in my 2003 Mercury Grand Marquis. The juxtaposition of those very different circumstances and a tweet from one of my writing heroes, dream hampton, inspired me to write this article in between reviewing life insurance policies at my temp job. The distraction was much needed.
The article, and subsequent response to it, was the first shard of light that sliced through a cocoon of depression, fear, and self doubt that enveloped me during that long period of unemployment. It was the first time that I gained any recognition for my writing from people other than close family, friends, and colleagues. Ms. hampton even commented on and Tweeted the article herself (please forgive my silly Twitter handle). I doubt that she knows how much it meant to me at the time, but I hope she does now.
The article as published at The Smoking Section is below:
Rich N*gga Rhetoric: Jay-Z & Kanye’s “Otis” May Be Too Rich For You
The shot heard round the Internet was fired late yesterday evening when the second leak from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album, the highly-anticipated Watch the Throne, hit whatever passes for the “streets” these days. I was genuinely excited. All willpower in relation to my thoughts of waiting until the album’s release before listening to any of the songs were dashed when I saw that the leak was “Otis,” the track I was most interested in hearing after reading the various reports that came back from Jay’s impromptu listening session.
I put on my recently acquired Sennheiser (Thanks for the birthday gift, mom!) headphones, and settled in. When Otis Redding’s pained baritone wailed into my ears, immediately followed by an Easter Sunday organ stab and piano loop, a sense of relief washed over me. The Roc Boys were in the building and did not plan to disappoint.
The duo weaved between and around Redding’s voice, manipulated into a series of grunts and howls, in a display of back and forth rhyming that I’m sure put a smile on the faces of Jadakiss and Styles P as they began attempts to leap over the recently raised bar. Jay was at his charismatic best with lines like “photoshoot fresh/looking like wealth/I might call the paparazzi on my self.”He calmly rattled off boasts about private jets, multiple passports and Hublot watches, like you or I might talk about finding a route to work that saves ten minutes. Kanye was incorrigible. Couture level flow? His other-other Benz? The whole scene-stealing play on customer/accustomed? Murder. The pair of kings did not seem to be playing around, and the Hip-Hop world stood to benefit.
As I ran Jay-Z and Kanye’s foot-stomping soul swagger showcase back for the tenth time, I scrolled through my Twitter feed to capture the reactions of the people I follow. As expected, the responses orbiting around the Twitterverse ranged from blatant fanboyisms (to which I may have contributed), to arguments about who outshined who, to reasonable criticism and, of course, unbridled hate. Nothing in particular stood out until I saw this tweet from dream hampton, a writer for whom I have immense respect, and who I’ve read since I was a teen.
Damn. Why’d you have to go and do that?
For the three-minute running time of “Otis” I almost believed I was a multi-millionaire jet-setter. I could feel the coolness and weight of that Rolex on my wrist. I could smell the smoke from Cuban cigars as it wafted throughout my beachside cabana. Now I have to think about real life. I think about being an underemployed, wannabe writer, and how my ends are about as far away from meeting as The NBA owners and players. I remember that even with my own problems, I’m still doing a hell of a lot better than the nearly 10 percent of Americans that don’t have a job at all. Hampton’s tweet made me wonder: Is it irresponsible for rappers to flaunt wealth to such a degree during such harsh economic times?
Make no mistake; Jay-Z and Kanye were not the first rappers to flaunt their material wealth. Many of us remember The Sugar Hill Gang’s rhymes about Lincoln Continentals and sunroof Cadillacs. However, over the past decade, it seems as if the ante keeps being raised to a level where very few, if any, of us will ever be able to have a seat at the table.
Watch the Throne’s golden cover art looks like something Indiana Jones would kill 50 natives to have, not like something that belongs in Best Buy. The aforementioned cover art was designed by Givenchy’s creative director Riccardo Tisci for god’s sake. I’m still not 100% sure how to pronounce Givenchy or Tisci. Bentley became the new Benz and Bugatti the new Bentley. Private jets are the new limos. Islands are the new mansions. How can we stand to listen to this when so many of us don’t have two nickels to rub together? Why do we let so many rappers get away with these braggadocios lyrics?
The recession is far from over, but it’s been three years since Young Jeezy became the first major label emcee to talk about the recession without mentioning being too rich for it to affect him. I looked for more to follow his lead, but most didn’t.
Are Hip-Hop listeners like the poor Tea Party voters who vote for legislation that helps the richest people in the country, despite their own humble circumstances? Have we succumbed to some delusion that we can ascend to the rarefied air occupied by our favorite rap stars, and like to listen to them as they keep our seats warm in anticipation of our arrival? Is it just an escape, like Bond films and HBO’s Entourage? Are we tuning out the content, and concentrating solely on well put together verses and/or ear-pleasing production?
The truth is I don’t know why boasts like the ones in “Otis” and countless other Hip-Hop songs don’t bother me, but I do wish that more mainstream artists spoke for the people who are its biggest consumers. In the meantime, I’ll keep listening to Jay, Kanye and others ball out better than everyone else in the business, but hope to hear a rounder version of the country’s economic story more frequently.