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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“Heavy metal for the black people”

February 6th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I did this Q&A thing on Tumblr the other day, probably because I was both bored and felt starved for attention. It was neat. I liked this question below a lot, so I’m going to repost it here and expand on my answer some:

Anonymous asked: Had you ever posted anything about Mos Def’s “Rock’N’Roll” from Blackstar?

I haven’t. I listen to Black On Both Sides every couple of months, and I’m always happy that it’s aged so well. “Umi Says” is as weird as anything Blu has done, “Mathematics” is still fire, and “Mr. Nigga” still goes in.

I loved “Rock ‘n’ Roll” in high school, mostly because it preaches a point of view I was really fond of. I feel like a lot of my time growing up and figuring out who I am wasn’t about taking a position so much as taking a position opposite from another position. The idea that rock was stolen from black people was an attractive and emotionally valuable one when discovering what being black is all about (which I’ve learned is mostly your white friends going “What do you mean you never listened to The Beatles growing up?! How is that possible?!” and cops looking at you funny).

“Rock’n’Roll” is not just about how rock music was stolen, but how modern rock sucks and classic black music is better. “You may dig on the Rolling Stones, but they could never ever rock like Nina Simone.” “Elvis Presley ain’t got no soul, Little Richard is rock and roll!” I was all about that back then. Stealing back the culture, maybe, or demanding to be heard by being as strident as possible. One part attention-getting spite to one part sincerity.

Now that I’m grown, I still like the song a whole lot. I can and still do sing along with the whole joint, even. Mos’s flow is great and unbalanced, the beat goes, the Bar-Kays sample sounds so much like “Nautilus” at first listen it isn’t even funny, and I’ll never not love that Mobb Deep sample. The difference between now and then is that I disagree with parts of it now. I think he’s pretty much correct when talking about who gave birth to what and who’s specifically iller than who, but the main position of the song, the white versus black thing, doesn’t work for me any more. I mean, I understand nuance now, for one thing, and know a little more about rock history. I’m also less concerned with proving the worth of what I choose to enjoy or the lack of worth of something someone else likes.

The song still bangs, though. The transition from slow flow lazy raps to bang your head clatter is a good one. It’s only now that I’m older that I can appreciate what the progression the music takes from blues to punk rock represents and the seamless switch, if there is one, from punk to rap between “Get your punk ass up!” and “Company — MOVE!” on through “Rock and roll for the black people.”

I get the song better now, if that makes sense, as a statement, than I did when I believed the statement behind it. I probably actually like it better now that I disagree with that tiny bit of it.

It’s still not the best Mos Def song with the word “rock” in it, though. That would be “Body Rock” off that Lyricist Lounge Vol 1:

Tash basically steals the show (“but I’m doper than sherm, plus the way I put it down could burn the perm off Big Worm” yooooo), but Mos gets it in with that “Barkin that you want a bout, but son you know the comeabout.”

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Mos Def – The Ecstatic

June 8th, 2009 Posted by david brothers

For today only, apparently, the new Mos Def record is only four bucks on AmazonMP3. AmazonMP3 is basically my choice for getting mp3s online. It’s easy, fast, and the prices are great. There’s always a great sale on, usually a 50 Albums for $5 deal, and then there’s one-offs like this.

The album itself, other than being a good deal for 4 bucks, is about 45 minutes of distinctly Mos Def music. It isn’t so much that he’s been moving away from hip-hop so much as interpolating a lot of his own influences and creating a sound that’s kind of like neo soul, kind of like rock, kind of like jazz, but undeniably hip-hop.

I don’t know if Mos has a radio hit on this one. I hesitate to call this a personal album, but it sounds like one he made because he wanted to, rather than to simply get on the charts with a hit single and finance another house or wife. One song is entirely in Spanish, which is an interesting choice and vaguely reminiscent of “Umi Says” from Black On Both Sides, while others feature non-standard beats or cadences. “Auditorium,” featuring Slick Rick, features a long beat drop between Mos and Rick’s verses, as the song essentially fades out and starts over, creating an interesting sound. The guest appearances are kept to a minimum. Talib Kweli shows up for History, Georgia Anne Muldrow sings on Roses, and Slick Rick on the previously mentioned Auditorium.

I don’t know that I have the vocabulary to accurately describe what I like about this album, but I do like it. At four bucks, it’s an easy risk to take. Worst case, you can give the DRM-free mp3s to a friend who might like it more than you.

Check the video for Casa Bey, courtesy of NahRight and MySpace:
Mos Def – "Casa Bey" – The Ecstatic – 6.9.09

While I’m on the NahRight tip, here’s a few more links:
Mighty Mos Def: The Underground Album, a collection of some of his early-ish work
Mos Def on the streets of Osaka kicking acapellas
Mos Def Casa Bey acapella
(CurrentTV is really going in, I’ll have to start paying more attention to their coverage.)

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