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Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Commodity Culture (or, “Watch out now, they’ll chew you up”)

May 30th, 2012 by | Tags: , , ,

Here’s the video for Jay-Z & Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild,” off their Watch The Throne album. This joint features Frank Ocean and The-Dream.

Within about thirty seconds of starting this video, I was reminded of one of my favorite bits from Grant Morrison & Phil Jimenez’s The Invisibles. This page:

More specifically, this quote: “The most pernicious image of all is the anarchist-hero figure. A creation of commodity culture, he allows us to buy into an inauthentic simulation of revolutionary praxis. The hero encourages passive spectating and revolt becomes another product to be consumed.”

And of course, The Invisibles is guilty of this critique. Grant Morrison wrote it and DC Comics, the comic book wing of Warner Bros. published it. It sells anarchy to the masses. It is a book that is meant to make money, no matter the ink on the page, and as such supports our capitalist system and all the exploitation and misery that is part and parcel of that system.

But it’s apt, I think. Morrison is a good writer, and he nails a phenomenon that I think is fascinating. Our culture — maybe as a result of capitalism, maybe just because that’s how culture works — chews up and spits out everything, even things that are theoretically counter-culture.

One of the vilest concepts in American culture is the fear of the black man’s penis and hatred for the black woman’s body. Black women were considered animalistic and savage, to the point where raping them didn’t even really count as rape. Black men were savage, too, and the myth of black dudes being better hung than any other race derives from this idea. They’ve got bigger dicks because they’re closer to apes and savages. It’s not a compliment. They’re calling you a monkey. Black people were considered hypersexed. Interracial love was miscegenation, a corruption of white women’s virtue. White men who raped black women were safe, I guess, because the screwer tends to have power over the screwed.

Gross, right? No right-thinking person still believes in that stuff. But have you looked at interracial porn lately? At how many videos are based around a black guy deflowering a white girl with his huge penis, how many feature white girls actually saying the words “giant nigger dick” aloud, how many videos feature black women in all-white gangbangs featuring dudes with Klan robes or Confederate flags… none of that is rare. Our culture will take in anything and everything, including the worst of us, and spit it back in a format that you can spend dollars on. Racism as fetish, 29.99 a month. Malcolm X hats, conscious rap, drag queens, black nationalism, all of it will eventually fall prey to commodity culture. That’s just the way it is.

Which brings me back around to this Jay and Ye video. What is it about? It isn’t about anything. It depicts protests, sure, but what are the people protesting? What are Jay and Kanye protesting? Nothing. The video is message-less and meaningless. Jay-Z’s verse is borderline incoherent, a loose suggestion of sadness and distrust. Kanye’s verse is about his issues with love. The video depicts revolt for revolt’s sake.

Revolution is cool now. There’s even a catchphrase: “We are the 99%!” Protesting is cool, man. Protests are sexy. Occupy Wall Street is protesting economic exploitation, at least nominally. But what is this video protesting? There’s no message, and no signs. There’s just protestors and cops and police brutality. It encourages an us vs them mentality, which I think is poisonous to begin with, and takes advantage of the fact that protesting is cool these days to get a neat video out of it.

It’s exploitation, basically. An exploitation of Occupy Wall Street and protests in general. A protest without a point, without a goal, is not a protest at all. It is not civil disobedience. It is not revolt. It’s just mindless, empty violence. It’s the exact opposite of what protests are supposed to accomplish.

What makes this video even worse is that Watch the Throne is an album about consumption to the point of excess. It’s about how awesome and rich Jay and Kanye are, and how much stuff they have. It’s an album about being the 1%, though Jay and Ye are both small fish in that pond. To an extent, most rap albums are about being awesome, but Watch the Throne felt like a step far beyond the conspicuous consumption I’ve grown used to. It was too much.

Put the two together. The most commercial and capitalist rap album in a long time, one that’s almost overwhelmingly and off-puttingly about material wealth. A music video that co-opts revolutionary concepts to illustrate a song about Jay-Z creating a loose idea of sadness and Kanye working out his issues with love. There’s no connection, beyond maybe a loose sense of unrest. There’s just two mildly rich dudes jacking the imagery of people who have legitimate grievances with authority and furthering the story that protests must turn violent, or are violent by their nature.

Violence, or the threat of violence, has a very important and essential place in revolutionary acts. That is true, I think anyone who has read a book will agree with that. But this is not it. This is counter-revolutionary. This is the culture chewing up and recycling protesting. This is culture as commodity.

Jay-Z is actually a great example of this phenomenon. He’s made a career out of jocking fads, and even other rappers. He stepped into Christopher Wallace’s shoes after Big died and couldn’t keep Big’s lyrics out his mouth. Remember “The Death of Auto-Tune?” He delivered a hilariously sub-par verse on Juvenile’s “Ha” remix. He rode UGK to success off the back of “Big Pimpin.” He dallied with the Neptunes, Just Blaze, and more. He finds what’s hot and joins in. Which is fine. That’s how you stay relevant, and he’s managed to turn “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” from a hot line into a hot life. He knows how commodity culture works, and the “No Church In The Wild” video is just another example of that fact. Everything gets recycled, remixed, and sold, even things that are already for sale.

I don’t think commodity culture is a bad thing, necessarily, but I do think it is important to be able to recognize it when you see it in action. There’s nothing wrong with digging this video, as long as you’re conscious of exactly what it represents. This isn’t a realistic representation of revolutionary action or any type of revolutionary statement. It is exploitation, from top to bottom, and paints an inaccurate picture of civil unrest.

“No Church In The Wild” looks even dumber when you look at Yasiin Bey, fka Mos Def, and his song “Niggas In Poorest,” a direct answer to Jay & Ye’s smash hit “Niggas In Paris.” Video:

This song has a very clear message and it’s reflected throughout the lyrics, video, and even the awfully clunky title. See here for example:

Poor so hard, this shit crazy
Walk outside the whole world hate me
Nervous stares at the thoroughfare
Surveillance cameras, police tracing
Poor so hard, this shit weird
We be home and still be scared
There’s grief here, there’s peace here
Easy and hard to be here
Psycho: liable to turn Michael
Take your pick:
Myers, Myers, Myers, same shit

and here:

Fake Gucci, my nigga. Fake Louis, my killer.
Real drugs, my dealer. Who the fuck is Margiela?
Doctors say I’m the illest, I ain’t got no insurance
It’s them niggas in poorest, be them rebel guerillas, huh

These statements are clear as day. Being poor sucks. It’ll make you do things that people describe as unthinkable. It makes going to the doctor an expensive dream. People watch you. Nowhere is safe, not even home. It’s easy to become poor and hard to be poor.

It’s not perfect, but there’s a message. There’s a point. It’s a rebuke to the excess that Jay and Ye displayed on Watch the Throne, and it is pointed. It puts the lie to Jay and Ye’s fake revolutionary video, too. It’s sympathetic without being exploitative. The violence that Bey suggests is a result of a specific thing, not just “well it’s a protest so I guess people gotta fight?” “Niggas In Poorest” is a product, too, but it’s much more sound, politically, than “No Church In The Wild” or any of Jay’s stabs at political relevance. He’s a businessman, and his choices reflect that. But that doesn’t make “No Church In the Wild” any more authentic.

Recognize commodity culture when you see it. Don’t fall for these people’s lies. Don’t get caught up in no throne. They’re never gonna let you sit on it.

(It’s worth noting that Romain Gavras, director of “No Church In The Wild,” also directed MIA’s obnoxious and incoherent video for “Born Free.”)

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7 comments to “Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Commodity Culture (or, “Watch out now, they’ll chew you up”)”

  1. That Malcolm X clip in the middle of the Yasiin video is another factor making No Church in the Wild look worse.


  2. The whole theme of The Invisibles about the anti-establishment inevitably getting co-opted by the establishment is one of the more depressing themes I took away from it, and I could see it happening with OWS within a couple of days of the start of the protests/sit ins because obviously some scumbag marketer is going to find a way to turn it to someone else’s advantage, which in this case would by Jay-Z himself with those “Occupy All Streets” t-shirts and hoodies he was trying to hock.

    I like Jay’s newer stuff, but I think he should have just hung it up with Black Album because even by then he had a credibility gap wider than the Grand Canyon. Kanye also has the bored rich guy problem, but I think the bottomless pit of need for validation he represents will have him continuing to produce worthwhile material until his tragic death in a couple of years.


  3. Excellent.

    Seems that Jay-Z/Kayne are doing free PR for JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs by reducing legitimate protest to fashionably pointless/meaningless mob violence against cops… thanks guys!


  4. Thanks, Brothers, for pointing out some of the pratfalls of using depictions of revolution in some media. I’m writing some stuff myself and revolution and distrust in authority is a big theme that I work with and I’m trying to keep my message clear or at least honest.


  5. Yes.


  6. I am so glad that second track exists. I am.
    And I like Watch the Throne. No, I enjoy it, but it feels disingenuous. It’s an album about excess, a celebration of excess which makes me uncomfortable at the best of times, but this is the same album which also has Murder to Excellence. How does a man who claims to be ‘Out here fighting for [me]‘ also recite a litany of things he owns that I can’t even imagine affording?

    Its not fair on me to hold them to task, but it does make me wonder the thought process that allows for that to exist along this.


  7. I don’t get how Jay rode UGK to success. Maybe I’m not understanding your point David, but I would argue that he was just a fan and got them to be on the track to give them exposure as well as making the track hot. A win win.