David Samuels has a pretty good long-read about Kanye West in The Atlantic that’s, thankfully, light on attempts to pigeonhole Kanye or “Kanye” (i.e., Kanye-as-symbol-of-whatever-the-author-wanted-to-talk-write-about-anyway) into a recognizable political space. Nevertheless, the piece does touch on a pet interest of mine: the transformation of hip-hop from the self-styled soundtrack of the streets to the soundtrack of today’s bourgeoisie. I’m not interested in how it happened — that story’s been told in one form or another a thousand times and more.
But there’s a difference between resigning yourself to inevitable co-optation by capital and being the one who rolls out the red carpet.
As you can probably tell from the album artwork above, Kanye and Jay-Z’s latest record, Watch the Throne, is what it looks like when inevitable co-optation reaches its hip-hop apotheosis. There’s long been a tradition in hip-hop of exalting wealth and fetishizing consumption, of course. But what makes Throne noteworthy is how Jay and Kanye emphasize their membership in a cultural rather than simply economic elite. There’s precious little talk of the streets — Paris, however, is prominently featured.
What’s interesting about the record is the way Jay and Kanye express their ambivalence; the ambivalence of the anomalous. We may live in the Obama Era, but it’s still a fact of life: overweening self-regard is not the only thing most of the folks at Davos have in common. Jay rhymes, “Only spot a few blacks the higher I go/ What’s up to Will, shout-out to O/ That ain’t enough, we gon need a million more.” Kanye, in the album’s most memorable line, is more explicit: “In the past, if you picture events like a black tie/ What’s the last thing you expect to see? Black guys.”
Anyway, Samuels ends the piece with a great find. He heads to see Rakim, he of “Eric B. &” fame, to find out what the man who reinvented rhyme thinks of the guy who’s done the same for production. Turns out he’s ambivalent, too:
UPON MY RETURN back east, I pay a visit to Rakim, the humble, soft-spoken introvert with a uniquely dark and mesmerizing voice who is generally regarded as the most influential rapper alive. In 1987, when he was 19 years old, Rakim released a record with the DJ Eric B., Paid in Full, on which he invented the more artful and interior form of rap that Kanye West has since made his own. He now lives in a mansion in the woods of Connecticut, like an urban samurai in exile, surrounded by football mementos, history books, and Muslim texts. It seems fair to say that Rakim is the conscience of rap; he knows more about the music, and has thought about it more deeply, than any cultural critic or historian.
Rakim admires Kanye as an artist who can create new beats and rub them up against samples scavenged from 50 years of American popular music. “You’ve really got to appreciate an artist that’s really outspoken and feels like his music can change the world,” he explains, adding that he is impressed by the way Kanye’s sensibility has become more complex and thoughtful over time, even as his genius as a producer has continued to grow. “He’s living hard and he’s maturing now.”
Yet Rakim is also bothered by the “luxury rap” that Kanye and Jay-Z are promoting. He grew up in a working-class suburban town on Long Island, he tells me, where the first generation of New York rappers, including the likes of Melle Mel and the Cold Crush 4, seemed like impossibly distant and heroic figures. At the same time, he continues, the fantasies they created in their rhymes were shared with their audience, not alienating. “Even when you think of what the Sugarhill Gang was saying—‘after school, I take a dip in my pool’—he had no pool, he had no Cadillac, he didn’t have a lot of things he was speakin’ on.” Rakim worries that the enormous rift between the rap audience and millionaire rappers who rhyme about Gulfstream jets is robbing the music of inventiveness and joy. “It’s more like, ‘Look what I got’ or ‘You ain’t got what I got’ or ‘You got to get what I got,’” he says. “It’s making the listener a little envious of what’s going on, and it’s almost demeaning.”