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

May 30th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

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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neither revolutionary nor particularly gangsta

May 15th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I used to really bang dead prez songs, especially their RBG: revolutionary but gangsta tapes. But as I got older, I realized that there’s a serious disconnect between what they profess to be (conscious rappers, whatever that means) and what they put on wax (half-examined garbage and conspiracy theories). I have the same problem with Immortal Technique, too. It’s like these dudes fused bland, freshman idealism with like… obnoxiously libertarian-infused realpolitik and came up with revolutionary rap. Even worse, they stay complaining about the more pop rappers, like what they do is somehow more valid than somebody rhyming about their cars or whatever.

Case in point: “Hell Yeah (Pimp the System).” What I like about this song is that it’s probably the purest example of how high school dead prez’s philosophy is. The song’s a banger, don’t get me wrong, but it’s stone stupid. The title makes it seem like it’s all about pimping the system because you’re broke, turning the man’s methods against him, but in terms of actual content, it’s about robbing a pizza delivery man, pulling a credit card scheme so that you can buy fancy stuff, pulling a different scheme so you can get food stamps (???), and robbing whatever store you work at because “doing dirt is a part of living.”

I hate the first verse. I can’t even tell you how much I loathe it. Their big idea of getting a break from poverty is robbing a pizza delivery man. Now, I dunno if y’all have met any pizza deliverymen, but these cats are not the 1%. Not even close. They’re regular people working a crappy job where people regularly try to cheat them out of cash and short them on tips. A pizza delivery guy is a dude that’s sitting exactly one rung higher on the ladder than the characters in the song.

Robbing that guy is a sick idea. First, son is going to have sixty bucks on him, max, plus maybe three pizzas. Good haul, dunny. Second, it’s poisonous and stupid to attack someone who’s basically on the same level as you. If you’re going to rob anyone, you need to be running up in a rich man’s house or pulling Bernie Madoff into a dark alley or putting a gun to a celebrity’s back or something, not robbing somebody who makes six bucks an hour plus tips. The rest of the song isn’t much better. The credit card scam isn’t a way to escape poverty so much as to buy fly clothes and ruin your friend’s credit while he ruins yours. How is that pimping the system?

dead prez has got a few genuine bangers. “Hip-Hop” and “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop” still go (trivia: Kanye to the West produced the latter). “The Pistol” is pretty okay, and that last verse is pleasantly cold. But a lot of their stuff, stuff like “Mind Sex” and every time they talk about running up on white folks just because and whatever… it’s good agitprop, but it isn’t good philosophy. It’s not workable. It’s not real. It’s terrible, in fact, and for it to be positioned like something to emulate, as something that’s more real and important than Scarface serving cocaine to the geeks is just… dishonest. At least these dudes pushing jiggy or crack raps have a coherent position. “I like money more than I like my fellow man.” dead prez has a chaotic assortment of overcompensatingly militant Black nationalist rhetoric, and precious little of it is applicable to your life.

I mean, look at the video for “Hell Yeah.” You rob a white family, steal their video camera, and throw a party? What part of the game is that? That’s revolutionary? That’s J Edgar Hoover’s wet dream.

Every time somebody is like “Do you know dead prez????” I basically react the same way I do when someone asks about Ron Paul/Ayn Rand/Johnen Vasquez/Charles Bukowski/MIA. I know that I’m in for a painful conversation that’ll probably be about black helicopters and how school exists to brainwash you into being a robot and la-di-da. And I mean, I went out and got “uhuru” tattooed on my actual body. I’m down for the cause or whatever, but having a cause or claiming to be a socialist or vegan or feminist or whatever is no replacement for actually having ideas that can be applied to real life and have a possibility of causing change.

“Rob a white family, throw a party” isn’t going to cause any change I want a part of. “Stick up a pizza delivery man to feed your folks” is a shortsighted and stupid plan. And dead prez’s music is rife with this stuff. It gets to the point where my eyes are rolling while my head is nodding. It’s frustrating.

I think it’s awful that Jay-Z, of all people, got on the remix to “Hell Yeah” and had more compelling content than these conscious rappers, when all he was doing was biting The Eminem show-era Eminem. Ice Cube’s “Gangsta Rap Made Me Do It” is more sound and honest than any dead prez song you care to name:

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“show ya grill if you will, and you down with the trill”

November 2nd, 2011 Posted by david brothers

I watch a lot of music videos. I usually stream Google or Amazon music at work or whatever, but sometimes I think of a classic (note: lie) that I just have to hear and see at the same time. So off to Youtube I go, typing in phrases like “Ruff Ryders Drag-On” and “Made You Look official” and “Adina Howard” and “Trina Baddest Bitch” and “Curtis Mayfield live.” I’m not sure what my favorite is. Maybe Jay’s “Blue Magic” because the beat is so hard, it’s the last time Jay-Z was actually dope enough to get away with calling himself Hova, and my secret crush is off in there with an ill adidas jacket at (1:48, 1:57, more). NERD’s “Everyone Nose,” both remix and original. I like the original mainly cause Lindsay Lohan is in it and it’s the hardest coke anthem since… ever. Everyone else raps about selling it, not using it. Redman’s “I’ll Bee Dat” is up there. I dunno.

One of my favorite thing about music videos is how they heighten the song when done right. All those early Wu-Tang videos were perfect, “Shadowboxin’/4th Chamber” especially (“I judge wisely” and Method Man’s first verse, hmmmm!). Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” is legendary. Tupac doesn’t have many great videos, surprisingly, but “California Love” is fire. A good video melds into the song and hooks you. It pulls you deeper. I like looking at what people try to use as hooks. Sometimes it’s with a bunch of stupid looking cats dancing in garbage bag suits. Sometimes it’s a chick hitting the back of a taxi in slow motion. Sometimes it’s just flossing in front of as many nearly naked, blurred out, glistening butts as you can. Sometimes it’s stupid. Sometimes it’s cool.

ASAP Rocky “Purple Swag” from Jason Ano on Vimeo.

I watched this A$ap Rocky video a while back. Somebody linked it somewhere or said I should or something, I dunno. It was for his song “Purple Swag.” The song’s aight. The beat is actually pretty tight, to be honest. It sounds like something screwed but not chopped, which I’m very down with. It probably sounds incredible when you’re overhigh, I dunno. It sounds like the type of song that would. And that part where the Akira bells come in is nuts. I’m pretty sure they’re the ones from “Tetsuo”.

Rocky ain’t much of a rapper though. If I wanted to hear that flow, I could just bump old Three-6 or 8Ball&MJG or UGK. In fact, that first verse has a whole lotta Pimp C in it. You can practically hear “Smokin’ out, throwin’ up/Keep a liter in my cup” in his first eight or so bars. Which I guess makes sense, cause of the beat, but whatever whatever.

(Drake was on that Texas steez for a minute, too, and the result was “November 18th,” the hardest song he ever did.)

The video isn’t much to write home about either. Real low budget, 2011 unsigned hype ish. Dudes chilling and lifting weights or drinking or lurking, the occasional girl in the background or somewhere, and some shots outside on a skateboard or bike or stoop or something. Mild house party swag, like an old Ruff Ryders video turned down to 1.

But I really do like one part of this video. Mixed into the chorus is footage of this All-American looking white chick. Pretty eyes, thick makeup, blonde hair, and big ol’ dangly earrings. And before you have a chance to go “aight, cool” the song kicks up and she’s not only rocking gold fronts. She’s lip-syncing the whole joint. Maybe this is internalized racism or something (“I’m a victim, brother. I’m a victim of 400 years of conditioning. My conditioning has been conditioned.”), but the juxtaposition between her appearance, the dragged out and slowed down song, and the chorus she syncs being screwed is crazy.

It’s a better image than the song deserves, I think. It’s not like white girls don’t like screw music (they do) or wear grills (they do that, too). But something about this one here really, really works. It’s like when Method Man showed up with the gross contacts and licked his lips like a lizard or Mary J is singing in the hallway in that “All I Need” video (3:10 and 2:53). I’ve never forgotten those images. And the Purple Swag chick has got so much attitude and energy, like this video is her one chance to get on and she’s not gonna waste it. Her mannerisms are perfect rap sass swag, and she bows out of the video with a nod and a smile like “Yeah, I kilt that.”

And she did.

(I got more thoughts on music videos and strong images, but I wrote this in twenty minutes [more, now that I’ve edited it for links and watched like ten youtubes] to get it out of my head. More later.)

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The Cipher 04/13/11: “Golf Wang”

April 13th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

this is what the devil plays before he goes to sleep

created: I haven’t been sleeping well. My throat hurts, so every time I swallow, I wince. Apparently, every time I swallow in my sleep, I wake up. That’s right: I’m the guy who wakes up an hour after taking sleeping pills. It’s had the odd effect of increasing my productivity, though. I’ve been dashing out stuff at work and at home like mad. I’m this close to getting out in front of every deadline I have control over. Crazy.

-Got a lot of irons in the fire (two, in fact, with another probably coming tonight), but all that’s up now is a little bit about Stan Sakai

-and ten Marvel books for June

go to school with this

consumed: But forreal though WHY DOES MY THROAT STILL HURT!!!!!

-Have I linked this Charlie Huston piece at Mulholland Books yet? I like this cat a whole lot, and the conclusion he comes to is interesting. I like his commentary on the piece over here, too.

-You know what’s nice about comics? There’s so many good ones that I can be well-versed in the greats and have a fantastic library without having to give Will Eisner any props for The Spirit and Ebony White. “It was just the times! Ha ha! Not racist!” Nah son, that looks pretty racist, especially for 1972, but I guess ’cause Ebony was an Upstanding Honorable Guy Who Gets The Job Done it’s okay that he’s drawn like a pickaninny. Doing a smug strip like this is dumb, too. Why should I give you the time of day? Sheer skill only goes so far, man. Spotted at Diversions of the Groovy Kind.

-While I’m on the subject I guess:

Jonathan Hickman is the guest on the new Word Balloon podcast. Skip ahead to 1:13:00, when Hickman answers a question and goes into things he wouldn’t feel comfortable writing.

-I can respect Hickman’s point (glibly paraphrased: “I’m not completely comfortable writing black guys because I feel like a faker, and that’s not the kind of writer I want to be”), but at the same time… at a certain point, you gotta man up, man. I (inelegantly) talked about this a while back, but you can’t let the possible reception throw you off your game.

-What’s more, black people aren’t so different from other people. You know what black people hate? Taxes and nagging moms. You know what black people love? …if you do, let me know, ’cause I’m real uncomfortable with the concept the concept of love.

-But seriously, if you can write space aliens, secret histories of the world, and time travel, I’m pretty sure you can write a believable black guy. Just go for it, man. Do some reading. Take a look at some magazines. Flip through a history book. Research it like you would anything else. Run it by a friend. Some people will not like it, others will, so just soak up the feedback (“Oh, so I was a little wrong when I did ______”) and keep it moving. You’ll get better.

-Also, please add some more colored folks to SHIELD. The world’s a big place. Thanks in advance.

-Ellen Page is pretty interesting. I liked her AV Club interview, particularly the stuff on how she chooses to go about her career, and all of these sketches of her by dope artists is pretty cool. As far as Inception goes, her and Joseph Gordon-Levitt shared the only real moment of humanity in the entire movie (the stolen kiss) so I’m pro-Page.

-This is mind-boggling:

-If I tried to pull this as a kid (“Oh, that was a lie. I didn’t mean it, I just wanted to say something.”) my mom would’ve beaten me in the street and I would’ve deserved it. Jon Kyl is either a hero or scum. The country we live in, man. We keep electing creeps.

-Colbert cracks up during this bit, and I really can’t blame him:

-That’s really, really funny stuff, and it gets even funnier because of Colbert breaking character.

-Did anybody see Norm Macdonald’s new show last night? I missed it.

-Norm wasn’t funny to me at all when I was a kid, but he’s legendary these days. Me Doing Stand-Up was funny, and so is stuff like this:

-I pay three bucks a month for Yen Press’s Yen Plus. It’s pretty okay, but the highlight by far is still Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&!. Funniest comic, man. I liked this bit from the new chapter. Read it right to left.

-So much of Yotsuba&!‘s humor revolves around being mean to Fuuka.

-Tyler, the Creator’s Bastard came up this morning while it was raining. It triggered a funny thought. I latched onto Jay-Z in a big way once he started talking about his experiences as the child of a single mother. “Where Have You Been?” was incredible to me. I was what, 16? 17? Whenever that Dynasty joint dropped. I was putting that on mix CDs like it was going out of style and at all appropriate to give to a girl you liked. I was that high on it.


Do you even remember the tender boy you turned into a cold young man?
with one goal and one plan: get mommy out of some jam
She was always in one
Always short with the income, always late with the rent
You said that you was comin through
I would stay in the hallway (waitin), always playin the bench (waitin)
And that day came and went
Fuck You! very much you showed me the worst kind of pain
but I’m stronger, and trust me I will never hurt again

-So tell me if this exceprt from Tyler’s Bastard” is all that different from “Where Have You Been?”:

My mother raised me a single parent so it’s apparent
That I got love for my mother, none of you other fuckers
Are much important, I’m getting angrier while recording
I’m feeling like the Bulls, I’ve got a Gang of Wolves
Odd Future is children that’s fucked up on they mental
Simple but probably not, fuck ’em

-Being able to relate to music in some way is vital for me, whether through the pleasure of living someone else’s life or affirming some aspect of my own, and Tyler’s rapping about the same stuff I’ve been struggling with for years. I think I would’ve been an Odd Future fan in high school.

-The beat on “Yonkers” is so hard. I bought it off iTunes a while back, just because.

-Video ain’t safe for work, I guess.

-Wolf Gang.

losers can never win me, you can never offend me

David: Uncanny X-Force 7
Esther: Yes: Batgirl 20 Maybe: Batman and Robin 22, Red Robin 22, Superboy 6 (would have been a yes, but ugh, crossover) New Artist and a Story About Huntress and Catman? Oh, HELL Yes: Birds of Prey 11
Gavin: Batman And Robin 22, Booster Gold 43, Justice League Generation Lost 23, Captain America Fighting Avenger 1, Carnage 4, Deadpool 35, Incredible Hulks 626, Iron Man 2.0 3, New Avengers 11, Punisher MAX 12, Secret Warriors 26, Ultimate Comics Avengers vs New Ultimates 3, Uncanny X-Force 7

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4l! is only built for cuban linx

September 9th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

This is a big week for rap. Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3 drops this week, but the album of the week for me, the big deal, is Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Pt II.

The first Cuban Linx, the legendary Purple Tape, is one of the best albums to come out of the Wu-Tang Clan, and one of the best rap albums, period. It took crack rap and kicked it over onto its ear, redefining it for a generation. The Clipse, Young Jeezy, and even Jay-Z have been working from Raekwon’s blueprint, which is itself borrowed more from Godfather and Hong Kong action flicks than from Scarface.

Cuban Linx II leaked last week, as usual, and I copped it. For me, it’s album of the year contender. It’s only real competition, I’m thinking, is Mos Def’s The Ecstatic and maybe Heltah Skeltah’s D.I.R.T. (Da Incredible Rap Team), though that last one is purely personal taste. OBC4L2 is exactly what I’d been missing: hardbody New York rap of the grimiest variety. The producers come through with a lot of RZA-style, or maybe post-RZA, production, including J Dilla on the incredible House of Flying Daggers joint with Ghostface, Deck, and Meth. New Wu is a Rae/Ghost/Meth cut that bangs, too. It’s a classic Wu cut, like Ice Cream or 4th Chamber. We even get some Detox-era Dr. Dre on a Busta Rhymes feature, and every single guest star goes in. Ghostface is on seven of the twenty-two tracks, another nod to the classic Purple Tape. RAGU: Rae And Ghost United.

And really, that’s what this record is: it’s a Wu-Tang album. Not a collection of songs, not a gang of singles and a bunch of filler. It’s an album. There was thought put into the sequence. Opening the album with a Poppa Wu introduction and ending it with Kiss the Ring is the sort of thing that means something. Poppa Wu is classic, and Kiss the Ring is kind of like Jay-Z’s Blueprint 3: a victory lap.

The difference between Rae and Jay, though, is that Rae won the race. Jay’s just talking like he did.

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