In The Atlantic, several prominent music critics reviewed “Watch the Throne,” the fabulous collaboration between Kanye West and Jay Z. Again, critics are angry about the subject matter. The song “That’s My Bitch” met with this reaction — it is the only song where Jay sings about B, and in the song, he does not adequately sing the praises of monogamy. First, he does more than sing about B (his wife, Beyoncé Knowles) — he enters her, as a black woman, into the pantheon of women men dream about (like Marilyn Monroe) and second, yes, he is “crass” and “protective” because he is saying, with cheek and guile, “that’s my girl.”
A host of questions ensue. Do we really associate musical maturity with our image of a monogamous family man? Do we ask our artists to promote social constraints, or do we want our art to articulate fantasy and felt experience? Does the egregiously simple image of maturity= monogamy play on a host of stereotypes about black men — not being monogamous, leaving their families, etc. and even if these stereotypes are partially true — is it the place of music and its’ critics to address them?
Jay Z has assumed enormous social responsibility. He openly discusses his early years dealing crack, cautioning young people not to do it by saying “you will end up in jail or dead.” He is philanthropic. Must we ask that his music, his fantasy, his creativity — his art — be as pedestrian and unambiguous as his politics?
Here is another loopy bit from the monogamy-happy review — another reviewer decided that the rapper in a steady marriage (Jay) sounded happier than the rapper who has yet to wed (Kanye). Huh? I have gone back repeatedly in search of this happiness (because the reviewer does not ground the comment) and for the life of me I cannot figure out what the hell she means — they both sound happy — at the top of their games.
Two years ago, young Jeezy and Jay sang a euphoric song about Obama, wherein they brag about their diamonds and lambos. Another critic for The Atlantic was offended by their lack of sensitivity to the recession. Again, an odd content based criticism that seems designed to avoid the song as a song. What is left out of the review is central to the song’s power and political relevance. The song goes from bling to racially charged politics and celebratory verse:
My president is black, in fact, he’s half white, so even in a racist mind, he’s half right, if you have a racist mind, you be light, my president is black, but is house is all WHITE, Rosa Parks sat so Martin Luther could walk, Martin Luther walked so Barack Obama could run, Barack Obama ran so all the children could fly, So Ima spread my wings and you can meet me in the sky.
The opening is noise — or boys being boys — then the song takes off, veering into rap’s real home, the tortured story of race in America.
Rap is forever political.
Back to Reagan’s America. Rodney King was mercilessly beaten beyond repair by white cops. The cops walked and riots ensued — blacks destroyed their own neighborhood in fits of impotent rage as ghetto birds (helicopters) hovered above the scene. N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” was an artistic retort to the King beating — in the tune, the tables are turned and the rappers restage the courtroom drama with themselves in charge. The real issue — racist cops and racial profiling — are put on trial.
The album dropped in 1988 — and from Reagan to Bush and early Clinton, little changed. In 1995, OJ was acquitted. Whites were horrified and blacks were thrilled. Finally, a black man got away with murder. The reaction to OJ’s acquittal reveals that, in 1995, race relations were as tense as ever and blacks still felt held under the spell of the Rodney King travesty.
During the 80s and 90s, racial profiling on the highways was out of control. Blacks coined the phrase “driving while black” to nab the violation they routinely committed. Jay’s “99 Problems and the Bitch Ain’t One” is a complex tale wherein some black guys are driving on the highway (with drugs in the car, locked in the glove compartment and the trunk) and the cops pull them over for no reason, or “doing 55 in a 54” — an absurdity. As the story unfolds, the guys running drugs assert their rights and the cops call the canine unit and while waiting for the “bitches” to come, the cops get another call so they have to release the guys running drugs. Both sides are in the wrong, but we are not on the side of the police; we are on the side of the guys being harassed.
L’il Wayne spins a tawdry melody of power and its reversal, wherein a female cop pulls him over but wants him to “fuck the police.” (The music video is below.) His allusion to N.W.A. is completed in the lyrics with a shout-out to Rodney King. He writes of the lady cop: ” I make her wear nothing but handcuffs & heels/ And I beat it like a cop/ Rodney King baby yeah I beat it like a cop…” — it is a sexy play on fucking power, and before we see it as too simple, the video features Wayne tied up, in a submissive position while the officer does her thing — she, too, beats it like a cop.
We are in the here and now and the issue of police brutality and racial profiling are alive and kicking. “Watch the Throne” has a song about black on black murder “Murder to Excellence” with lyrics that decry “314 soldiers dies in Iraq; 509 died in Chicago,” and also celebrates blackness: “it is all black, I love us.” The tune “Who Gon Stop Me” reaches back into imagery of whippings (“black strap, you know what that is for”….). Frank Ocean opens “Made in America” with a lush melody that puts rappers in the context of Martin and Malcom. The rap punctuating Ocean’s ribbony voice addresses coming up, dealing, bad manners learned on the streets and driving hummers.
It makes no sense to discuss songs about police brutality as mature or immature. I cannot see how addressing black on black murder is something an artist grows into or out of — we won’t say anything real if we attack the question of maturity from this angle.
Some rappers talk more about bitches than others but none of the rappers who are winning Grammys have failed to grow. The question of maturity, it seems, is radically complex because we need to start with an interrogation of what we mean by maturity.
Let’s end with an example. Kanye went to New Orleans with other black musicians. On live TV he went off-script — typical Kanye — and said “Bush does not care about black people.” If this line were in his music, would we call it immature? (It more or less is when he sings about making his son Republican so everyone will know “that he love white people.”) And, outside of his music, in the realm of politics, was it immature or was it mature? Is it childlike or is it adult to call a racist a racist?