Friday, September 2, 2011

Watch The Throne - Redefining Black Power?

This is not an album review, this is an intellectual-academic introspection-investigation of the album. Anyone who knows me, knows that I have followed Jay-z like the loyalest of Hovitos for the past decade. And more recently, I have been fueled by Kanye West's creative unfolding. However, in the past few weeks, I have experienced trouble in paradise and uncomfortable emotions rose in me that I haven't known what to do with. Hence this opinion piece is born of many hours sitting, reflecting and synthesizing my thoughts into a digestible form.

When I listen to the album musically and lyrically, within the abstract world of Hip Hop, I love it, I could gas the album up for days, but that would be too easy. When I listen to it from an ideological perspective, I feel more than slightly uncomfortable, and this I feel is more interesting for me to explore.

You see, music is not just music. Especially when it comes to Hip Hop. An emcee/rapper can transfer stories, knowledge and ideology in his verses. When it is done right and wrapped up in an entertaining beat and flow, it can be hypnotic.

So, my intention with this post is to critically analyze the ideology relayed on Watch The Throne. As individuals, artists and entrepreneurs, I have enormous respect for Jay-z and Kanye West. The way they choose to live their lives is up to them, however, on this album, they ventured deep into ideologies and I felt it necessary to discuss this, because ideology is a shared space not a private one.

Ideologies are usually something held within the corridors and libraries of universities but now, as they enter popular culture more forcefully, it is vital to keep one's thinking cap on at all times - to be aware of the ideologies that inform one's life decisions and thereby one's future.

Siya told me once that a writer's job is sometimes just to think so that others don't have to think as hard, I hope with this piece to do this job.

In Jay-z's words: "These are just my thoughts, just what I was feeling at the time, you know what I mean?" & I really do appreciate you taking the time to read them & nothing would make me happier than hearing your response to it - positive or negative - so long as we start a discourse. For the most part, this is a conversation I'm having with myself, but hopefully someone out there can identify with what I'm saying.

THE GANGSTER WITHIN US

I originally didn't see eye-to-eye with Jay-z. I am a struggle baby, so I naturally gravitated towards the more 'conscious' Hip Hop available at the time; I was a big Rawkus Records follower, for example. I believed money was the root of all evil and that socialism, etc. was the only hope for justice - how joyously naïve.

Then one day in 2001, like the silly teens we were, we 'borrowed' my friend's mother's Land Rover and went on a pointless drive around Cape Town. On this drive, my friend played The Blueprint album on repeat. Being forced to sit there and actually listen to what Jay-z was saying, I was immediately converted. Obviously it wasn't that simple, I was going through all types of change at the time, but in many senses, it was that quick. He was more 'conscious' (in terms of being aware of what was happening in the world) than any other rapper I'd heard before and I could relate to his story: raised by a single mother, big dreams, etc. And of course, I desired his success, financially but also his at-ease-with-himself despite all the money - he seemed rich and grounded, the ultimate combination.

At the same time, I, like most other adolescent boys within my social horizon, was also exploring the underworlds of Scarface, The Godfather and Goodfellas. These mafia stories spoke to us: a generation of young, ambitious black men who felt that the system was against us and that the only way we’d get the “money, power and respect” was to take it, By Any Means Necessary. We were young, we were naïve; but we had a point.

Jay-z was/is the King of this movement. Power-hungry, ambitious and confident young black men determined to live by the words “I’d rather die enormous than live dormant.”  Jay-z made the entrepreneurial mindset easily digestible – in the motif of The Hustler.


“Nine-to-five is how you survive/I ain’t tryna survive/I’m tryna live it to the limit and love it a lot.” and with these words a whole generation of youth wanting to be their own bosses was born.

THE COLLEGE DROPOUT

Kanye West on the other end of the spectrum, came up quietly but powerfully. In my opinion, he saved Jay-z at a vulnerable point in his rapping career by influencing the sound and texture of The Blueprint album. Kanye West at this point was still quite understated and reserved, compared to who he is today.

It still fascinates me to see this moment on Fade To Black and to see how much Kanye has really transformed [loooooove the gully beat that he kicks in with]:



Kanye is a bourgeois boy who had a fairly stable life. OK his parents got divorced but this is Middle Class life we're talking about...whose parents aren't separated these days? He dropped out of College to pursue his career as an artist.

To me, Kanye represents the battle of the Middle Class black man to remain connected to his roots the black folk in the hood and this is a theme that we see driving Kanye's lyrical journey - that of seeking acceptance.

ALTER-EGOS AS ARCHETYPES

My blog conceptually focuses on the alter-egos artists create to tap into their art form. However, with Jay-z and Kanye I have concluded that an alter-ego can also be an exaggerated form of the artist's actual ego. In this case, the artist comes to represent an ego archetype.

This was my aha! moment.


Jay-z is the archetype of the rags-to-riches, hood-to-the-penthouse story. He represents the far off dream of every ambitious young, black man in the townships scattered across the world. To escape their circumstances and become part of the upper-class; that's why he buys expensive drinks and cars and now collects art - to prove that someone from the hood can also have class.


Kanye is the archetype of the middle class black-boy who wants to get away from his white-boy identity connected to being part of the upper class; the desire to connect with the majority of 'your people' - the masses in the hood.

What is funny about this is that if you think of Jay-z, all he's ever wanted was to be accepted by people like Kanye; and all Kanye has ever wanted is to be accepted by people like Jay-z.

In this crude, over-simplified psycho-analysis of mine, I find it funny to note what the result of this is:

You have a thug turned art-fag in the form of Jay-z; and an art-fag turned thug in the form of Kanye. A dog chasing its own tail.

Please note: I say these words (including "art-fag") with the utmost respect. I mean, I'm pretty much an art-fag. Fagged out is the new swagged out.

PUTTING THE TWO TOGETHER

What happens when these two archetypes come together? The two most ambitious corners of the black community who come together and meet on equal footing - both with an extraordinary desire to prove a point.


WATCH THE THRONE


This is the name they have chosen to describe it. This name works on many levels. In Hip Hop, one can see it as a statement of ruling the rap game, a continuation of the ancient 'best rapper alive' discourse. Jay-z explains that the name is about defending Hip Hop as a music and culture, against the rise of dance music for example.

I am taking a slightly different take on it, because I can and because I think it becomes more meaningful this way. I am defining The Throne as the collective ambitions of young, black men - the horizons towards which we all look and therefore towards which we are walk, or desperately run in most cases. I find this the most important issue to discuss, because this trajectory will define our future.

I know many people reading this may question my sanity, "they're just rappers," I can already here people saying. I disagree. Rappers are modern day prophets, we recite their lyrics like Yogis recite mantras. The images on their music videos manifests in popular culture in the form of fashion and other consumption patterns. Based on my limited travels, I believe that the words rappers choose to use have more power over African youth, specifically, than that of politicians, teachers and businessmen. I mean who would you listen to: Jay-z or JZ?

SO WHAT ARE THEY SAYING ON #WTT?

1. No Church In The Wild

The album kicks off on an epic note with No Church In The Wild Frank Ocean's hook questions the relativity of power: 'Mob to King to God to Non-believer' - there is always someone or something that can strip what power you think you have away from you.

Jay-z kicks off the train of thought with ancient imagery of Roman empires falling, Greek philosophers being doubted in their time, etc, showing just how learned he has become but how he still feels inferior/shunned because of his drug-dealing past: "I’m wondering if a thug’s prayers reach / Is Pious pious cause God loves pious? / Socrates asked whose bias do yall seek / All for Plato, screech".

Kayne kicks off with his thugged out mess of a relationship with Amber Rose (I think, I could be wrong) - the drugs, the sex, the debauchery - showing just how street he is now having experienced "somethin’ that the pastor don’t preach /... somethin’ thata teacher can’t teach."

The track concludes with Yeezy explaining the highest truth of our times: "When we die the money we can’t keep, but we probably spend it all cuz the pain ain’t cheap ...Preach."

The Wild being this age of manic consumerism and even though we recognise the shallowness of this 'the pain' we are trapped in the cycle.


2. Lift-Off

After this, they just throw us off a bit by placing Lift Off next. They don't say much here, Beyonce's lines are probably the most powerful on the track: "we gon take it to the moon / Take it to the stars / How many people you know can take it this far? / I’m super charged / Bout to take this whole thing to Mars." I almost puke at the cheesiness, but it calms us down - 'shit for a second I thought they were going deep on us.'

3. Ni**as In Paris

On Ni**as In Paris they introduce a somewhat new sound, but the same old tired boastful lyrics. But this track gets you all worked up and is full of catchy lines. It's infectious. But all-in-all it's loaded with misogynistic crap that just taints the whole song. For example, Kanye saying: "Prince William ain’t do it right if you ask me, / Cause if I was him I would have married Kate & Ashley" and Jay-z declaring "I got that hot bitch in my home," referring to his WIFE and Kanye replying "You know how many hot bitches I own?" referring to who-knows-which-supermodel. It's honestly ghastly but like the way they cheekily tell us what they're doing in the middle of the track with a little interlude sampled from Blades of Glory:

(white boy) Speaker 1: I don't even know what that means.
(white boy) Speaker 2: No-one knows what that means but its provocative.
(white boy) Speaker 1: No it's not...
(white boy) Speaker 2: It gets The People going.

It was at this point that I really stopped to think about what they are saying and what they're trying to get me 'going' towards. I love the outro though, it's perfect orchestral dubstepified rap outtro - musically masterful in my opinion, get's me 'going' every time.

4. Otis

Next up we have their first music video track, Otis, which I will keep for the very end to discuss.

5. Gotta Have It

Gotta Have It the choppy Neptunes product seems to be Jay-z and Kanye telling the powers that be that they're here to get the money no matter what. Kanye states: "Hello, hello, hello, white America, assassinate my character / Money matrimony, yea they tryna break the marriage up," and they end off repping where they're from - it's all about street cred - 'fuck you, pay me' type steez. I could be reading way too much into this but that's about as deep as I think it can get.

6. New Day

The RZA connects with Throne on the next track, New Day, sampling Nina Simone in all her glory. This track we see the two big mouths come back down to Earth for a second from their gold throne in space. I find this track the most insightful because when a man wishes something for his child, more than often this is what the man wishes for himself. Kanye wants a boy without an ego, who's humble, likes white people and marries his college girlfriend - the straight-forward Middle-class life he has so furiously ran away from. Jay-z isn't as descript; he wants his child to have good values and live free of the torment of fame, essentially.

Anyway, I find it odd that they're both basically saying that if they lived there life over they would have done it differently - they would have rather just remained who they were, the average.

I find this odd, very odd, especially given all the boasting they're doing on this album. It makes me wonder how sad and empty they are in reality...It was enough to make me seriously question or generation's envy for their lifestyle - maybe we're better off the way we are?

As an aside, it is interesting, after all he said about wanting to guard his child from the press, Jay-z looked really happy announcing it in the most press-happy of ways at the VMAs.

7. That's My Bitch

That's My Bitch. I really have very little to say about this one too. I think it's about introducing black women to high society, yachts and museums. I might be wrong but I don't think it's necessary to interrogate it too much further. Lots of art-fag name dropping, like Larry Gagosian, well done, woohoo, you know an art dealer, whatever.

8. Welcome To The Jungle

Onto the Swizz Beats creation, Welcome To The Jungle, ironically isn't a pure dancefloor track, it's the first time we actually get the sense that these two are real humans, with insecurities and fears. But it's basically a Jay-z track, Kanye has a short 8 bars, but the rest is the introspective Jay-z that I truly respect. The whole track is interesting with Jay-z explaining the pain experienced in his life, with his male models dying and the rough side of the street life making him ask why he was born. But the most telling 2 bars on the track for me are "I'm a tortured soul/I live in disguise," because a little part of me believes that lots of the swag and bling is an a bit of an act, a marketing plan, feeding the public what he thinks they want to see and hear.


9. Who Gon Stop Me

Then The Throne makes its full-on assault on the rising dance music culture with it's Flux Pavillion sampled Who Gon Stop Me. It's a hype track of note, but then again so was the original. However, I do think Kanye actually improved on Flux's work. Lyrically, this is another Jay-z track with Kayne providing some support. Conceptually, Jay is on pretty much the same topic as on Welcome To The Jungle - it's about how he "Graduated to the MOMA/And I did all of this/Without a diploma/Graduated from the corner.." like I said thug to art-fag.

But it's also spelling out the power of sticking "to the G-Code," which is essentially "I went through hell / I’m expecting heaven," and by that they mean "Green Faces" a.k.a. Money. The G-Code as borrowed from Scarface: Money, Power, Respect - until they kill you. But at least they do recognise that the effect of this way of living is "something like a Holocaust," and it's got "Millions of our People lost," which leads us very smoothly into the next track, which comes as an answer to the previous track: "Black Straps, you know what that's for?"

10. Murder To Excellence

Murder to Excellence is most relevant track on the album in terms of commenting on our times and showing some sort of leadership. It's about black-on-black murder, but it's not clear what they mean by this...they can't be talking about the same stuff Pac spoke about, can they? I don't think so...

Jay kicks off with a verse about black people being on the same team, and that they should show each other respect, especially when one of them is winning. It's something I've heard in conversations often - black people don't like to see other black people succeed. I agree with this sentiment, there is a lot of jealousy and envy within black society. But then Jay loses me when he says: "Power to the People / When you see me, see you."

The entire album up until this point has been about how not-you all of us minions are. It's about the opulence, and art-fag snobbery that has consumed his life, that seems to have taken over his aspirations. One reviewer, Jeff Weiss, made me think hard in his piece where he says:

"Both Jay-Z and Kanye West are now part of tax brackets that subtract more money from their annual income than 99% of their listeners manage to even gross. Their economic realities are reflected in their castle-and-moat rap, their constant barrage of references to designer labels and high-society signifiers like Rainer Maria Rilke manuscripts. Their album-length collaboration raises the drawbridge to the point where it’s impossibly difficult for peasants to connect with the kings."

There is no denying this - in Jay-z most listeners see their dreams and desires, but they cannot possibly see themselves. People who are living the reality Jay-z lives probably squaff at the immaturity with which he handles his wealth - which wealthy person boasts about luxury brands, who you dine with? It's just childish. You do "stink of success" and you need to wash...

Kanye West poses a poignant challenge: "It's time for us to redefine Black Power." I couldn't agree more, except I believe that you, Kanye and Jay-z, are Black Power - so in effect it's time to redefine yourselves. Like Jay-z says: "My religion is the beat / My verse is like church," and this is true - rappers are pretty much the preachers of the youth - voicing our dreams, fears and ambitions.

11. Made In America

Talking about preaching, let me just skim over the next track, Made In America. I think you have to be Christian and/or American and/or ignant to not get annoyed by this song. Firstly, they say Jesus about 19 times. Secondly, Jesus was not made in America, at all, in any way whatsoever. This song was probably made to buy them another dinner with the President. It does shed some light on the degeneration of morals that The American Way allows, where a drug dealer is accepted as a natural part of the capitalist norm - I mean, what's the difference between dealing coke and dealing Coke?


12. Why I Love You

The finale track Why I Love You is an incredible ending. It speaks to every criticism I've laid out in this essay. At the end of the day, I love Jay-z and Kanye West and I love this album. I've always said that Jay-z is a master debater, he lays out his arguments in an well-thought out manner and it is almost impossible to dispute him - just look what happened to Nas...

Jay-z addresses some deep issues on this track. How alone he feels at the top. How all he wanted was to open the door. How he lived for 'us' and all 'we' want to do is bring him down. Now he's turned is back on 'us': "So we no longer wear the same uniform / F**k you squares / The circle got smaller / The castle got bigger / The walls got taller / And truth be told after all that said / Ni**as still got love for you."

ALMOST FINISHED

When I first heard that Jay-z and Kanye West were doing an album together I was more than excited. I wanted to see what the two most powerful black performers in the world would say. I knew it would be epic musically and lyrically, but I was really interested in seeing what issues would they choose to bring to the table?

They most focused on what they're familiar with: opulence, wealth, bragging and luxury brands. But they also raised some important questions about where black power is going and the difficult situation its leaders find themselves in.

I said I would speak about Otis at the very end, so here it is. This is the premier music video they chose to represent it:



I think it's a beautifully shot video and it makes them drip coolness, but it made my heart sink. All I could think was you guys are 34 and 41 and you're behaving like children. Jay-z, you're married, why do you have little ('yellowbone') models in the back of your cut up Maybach? What are you doing besides boasting? We know you're rich and successful - how about telling/showing us something we don't know?

At the end of the video there's a notice that says: "THE VEHICLE USED IN THIS VISUAL WILL BE OFFERED UP FOR AUCTION. PROCEEDS WILL BE DONATED TOWARDS THE EAST AFRICAN DROUGHT DISASTER."

Ncaaaw, that's very sweet of you guys...no. This, instead of excusing their opulence makes it even more sickening. It's an after-thought, a cover up.

I would have been impressed if they had launched the album with Murder to Excellence and if they had been brave enough to go to Somalia and shoot the video there. That would have redefined Black Power.

 REDEFINING BLACK POWER

On this album, they speak of teaching niggas to be Kings, they talk of Thrones, but they know nothing of it - like The Guardian's Kitty Empire says in her review they need to read the basic theories of power to see how trapped they are in the instruments of power.

They only know the capitalist King - basking in opulence while the masses suffer. A true King does not go to a banquet when people under his protection are dying.

They know very well the effect they have on young minds - that's what they sell to the corporations/brands that have helped them gain all this opulence. Of course I am not implying that Jay-z and Kanye West are responsible for all black people across the planet, or anyone as a matter of fact, but by opening this ideological discussion they have opened themselves to this kind of criticism. It's the penalty of leadership, in Jay-z's words.

I believe that Jay-z and Kanye West are ultimately good people - this piece is in no way intended to judge them personally. They are however caught up in the shallow, hyper-materialistic world that is America - where you drown your soullessness in consumption. I like to believe that they truly do want the best for black people across the planet, but I don't think they have the sensibility to see past the Star-Spangled Banner, which makes them unfit to think critically. By virtue of being American, they are ignorant, in the way only Americans can be: as a result of their extreme absorption in themselves.


When discussing "Redefining Black Power" as an ideological discussion, I don't believe opulence and arrogance are what we need. I think we need a new definition of leadership. We need a new bling. One that is not based solely on material possessions.  We need to boast about how many mouths we've fed, not how many brands we've spread.

We in Africa know our situation. For the majority of our people, it is pretty bad. Let's not get lost in these music video dreams, let's stay rooted in reality.

Our social consciences are far more aware and awakened. Let's celebrate the doors that people like Jay-z and Kanye have opened - but let us be smart and not follow them down the road of greed and opulence to our own demise.

I think deep down inside, all men want to be positive role models, but the ego is a powerful thing - it craves attention, acknowledgement, a sense of superiority - and it usually consumes the heart, drowning the real yearning.

It's hard, I wrote this and I'm struggling to publish it because I don't even know if I have it in me to live by these thoughts. But I know it's the right thing to say and I will do my best to put my ego to the side and think of the greater good in what I do with my life.

I have the Bad Boy spirit flowing through my veins but all I really want is to be a Good Man.

To Redefine Black Power we would need to let our social conscience lead our efforts and let the money be an after-thought, not the other way around as it is today - then we would know what it truly means to be Kings.

Peace & Light.

5 comments:

  1. I'm pleased to have taken the time to read through the entire article, it is worth it. After getting past the initial judgements of "oh, no! another this is what 'I' (the author) thinks about it" and then getting over the disinterest in the subject matter discussed. The points made were insightful, suppose that many of the questions raised and the topics discussed are in light of current affairs & popular culture, but more than that of the artists and their artforms. It gets down to the root of the troubles and pitfalls of society on the whole.

    Transformation begins with the individual self, thereafter it spills out into the canals of collective selfishness and turns that briny water into crystal clear Water of Life.

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  2. I appreciate the feedback & I'm glad it didn't come across as self-indulgent.

    I try to remain considerate of the people who take the time to read my thoughts and although they are very introspective, I do try to make it as relevant as possible to contemporary issues.

    I'm even more happy that you read this even though you're not interested in the subject matter that much.

    Thank you!

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  3. Dude, i must say that its quite a read but you have managed to take a somewhat confused eclectic mix of contradictory ideologies in the album in an intellectual and well articulated manner.

    You have a truly unique style of writing that questions the norms of how our minds receive information sold to us through popular culture.

    And your synopsis of the album, is testimony to that bro! Big ups on the dope post and breakdown of the album. You have summarized exactly what I have often latently perceived Kanye West to embody as a soul but how you broke down Jay-Z's archetype was profound and further affirms his gradual progression from Mr "I Only Wear Throwback Jerseys & Blow Money Fast" to a more refined, business suite wearing gentlemen of note who, contrary to other rappers seems to truly value family and settle down to a simpler life that is contrary to the ideology he sells through his music.

    Looking forward to the next post!

    Shalom!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for your feedback brother man. I always intended it to be an academic essay of sorts so I'm glad it came through cohesively.

    These things are tough to navigate, even now when I read over this piece only a few weeks later, some of my sentiments have altered slightly, but that's why i write - to explore my thoughts and feelings, to offload and move on and up.

    Stay blessed.

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  5. Very interesting piece, I would encourage you to take another look at Made it in America though, perhaps the fact that it annoyed you prevented you from doing any further investigation :)

    ReplyDelete