Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne (2011) album was a watershed moment in hip hop, specifically, and American culture broadly, though to say this is a bit redundant, since hip hop is the most American culture. Never before had a hip hop duo had so much money and so much skill. In Watch, the typical, absurd boasts of fantastic wealth and ostentation—usually an extension of the rappers’ grandiose self-image and not a reflection his actual material circumstances—become realist description, and thus short-circuits the usual frame for understanding such lyrics. When Kanye says “They ain’t see me cuz I pulled up in my other Benz/ Last week I was in my other other Benz,” he’s rhyming about a level of wealth he has actually attained. Likewise, when Jay-Z says he’ll “flee in the G-450/ I might surface,” he’s referring to a plane in which he actually travels, even if he didn’t own it. Of course, that all changed the following year, when his wife, Beyoncé, bought him a $40 million private jet–a Bombardier Challenger 850–for Father’s Day, complete with fifteen seats, a kitchen, and two bathrooms.
Watch epitomizes a new level of wealth in hip hop, where the dues for this most exclusive club are not based on what you can afford, but on what you can afford to waste, what you can afford to destroy. The video for “Otis” is a mini-movie of majestic waste. In a vast, desolate, post-industrial park, where a Rhode-Island-sized flag hangs from the side of a defunct factory, Jay and Ye take welding torches to a $350,000 Maybach, reducing it to a Mad Max-type off-road vehicle, complete with a gaggle of undernourished models as backseat passengers, their thin frames the ultimate expression of an overfed, overstimulated culture that holds up the skeletal physique as a beauty ideal. Kanye, who rarely smiles in public, throws his head back and gives us a hearty laugh in slow motion as he donuts across the dusty lot.
Jay-Z bragged in 2009, on his hypnotizing Swizz-backed track, “On to the Next One” : “Big pimpin’ in the house now/ Bought the land tore the muhfuckin house down/ Bought the car tore the muhfuckin roof off.” This last line gives us a preview of the destruction to come, materializing in the opening of the “Otis” video. The first line reaches back to what was once considered a flagrant expression of high excess, but now seems old-fashioned in its smallness and misogyny compared to Watch’s displays of wealth: the “Big Pimpin’” video where Roc-A-Fella Records co-founder Damon Dash drew fire for pouring Cristal on the body and into the open mouth of a bikini-clad vixen kicking back in a hot tub. He later pours it on hair, breasts, and finally, on the camera lens, the equivalent of pouring it on the voyeuristic viewer who, up to that point, has been invited to fantasize himself a part of the yacht party. Dash reminds the viewer that this is an exclusive American dream. It is not one that welcomes women, only the bodies of women. It does not welcome most men, not even men with money, but men with money to waste.
I said that hip hop is the most American culture, the most American music, and it is. Hip hop is the greatest story of those on the bottom rising to the top. The brown and black kids that made hip hop out of the detritus and hollows of New York’s cityscape were not just abandoned by society, but were also disdained, as their poverty testified to the fact that America had not achieved its promise, that Martin Luther King, Jr. and his followers had not fulfilled the Dream. This is why Q’s mom in the movie Juice tells him to go to vocational school to learn electronics, but it was already too late for that. Even then, consumer electronics were becoming so cheap and shaped in their design by planned obsolescence that the electronics repairman was himself obsolete. The instincts of hip hop’s founders had been right on. Pioneers like Red Alert and Grandmaster Flash took the vocational training they had and bent circuit boards to their wills, rewired machines to make new sounds, bigger sounds, deeper sounds, accessed new reaches of our brains and bodies through their sonic tinkering. They were supposed to use their skills to fix the high end stereo equipment of the beautiful people in Manhattan. Instead they invented a new black culture, a new American culture, a setting and home for new levels of artistic and economic aspiration.
Watch represents a wealth attainment once thought impossible for rap artists. Watch as an album feels a little like the two emcees are trying to figure out what to rap about. Ye outshines Jay, the former more at home in the gaudy, debauched, ornate aesthetic of the visual afterimage created by listening to the album. Ye plays the libertine so well, likely because he is so much more religious than Jay. Extreme righteousness occupies not opposite but precisely the same moral ground as absolute license. Both are dichotomous ways of thinking and acting without a gray area. The righteous believe sex is always evil, an expression of the defiled flesh that must be hallowed by the sanctified spirit (which is itself always stained by sin). The indulgent also see themselves as morally higher than even those occupying the scripture-supported moral high ground. In his own mind, the libertine is more honest in fulfilling all fleshly pleasures, more alive, more true to what God created us to be, as Kanye preaches on the back-slidden masterpiece, “No Church in the Wild”: “We formed a new religion/ No sins as long as there’s permission/ And deception is the only felony, so don’t you ever fuck nobody without tellin me […] “Two tattoos/ One read: No apologies/ The other said Love is cursed by monogamy/ It’s somethin that the pastor don’t preach/ It’s something that a teacher can’t teach.” This being the first track on the album, Ye is taking us into the wild, but, as always, he retains his religiosity—he does not reject religion, but forms a new one. He is the new preacher, one that rejects the limits of the teacher, which we can easily read as referring to Jesus, who was often called Rabbi or Teacher in the Gospels. The new religion is just the old one inverted. Instead of the godhead as the highest power, the ultimate force to be heeded is the gut desire of the individual sinner, as Frank Ocean’s hook on “No Church” intones with wit and concision:
Human beings in a mob
What’s a mob to a king?
What’s a king to a God?
What’s a god to a nonbeliever
who don’t believe in anything?