Remember when people talked about Kanye instead of Kimye, and Jay-Z was more than just Obama’s bud?
When Jay-Z and Kanye West recorded their album Watch the Throne back in 2011, it was the first time two hugely successful solo rappers both at the top of their game had collaborated on such a grand scale. In doing so, the two self-appointed kings of hip-hop were for once happy to share both the glory and the throne, despite their massive egos and wildly divergent solo careers.
When he was starting out, Jay-Z used his time as a teenage drug dealer as proof of his street cred (that line in ’99 Problems’ is only partly ironic: ‘Rap critics that say he’s money / cash/hoes / I’m from the hood stupid / what type of facts are those?’).
But these days, he rarely addresses the time he spent and the huge amount of money he made dealing crack cocaine in the Brooklyn projects. He’s reinvented himself.
Now, he’s a proud family man, a public Obama supporter, and is increasingly protective of his private life. Marrying Beyoncé, the ultimate classy diva, has made them both the stuff of hip-hop royalty. Jay-Z sees himself as an authentic artist, poet, cultural tastemaker, and visionary, living the American Dream: ‘I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man.’
Kanye, however, is first and foremost an entertainer. His pre-fame life has never been the focus of his image. His exaggerated cockiness is more typical of glam rock. It’s all performative. The way his first few album titles spelt out the trajectory of his musical growth (The College Dropout, Late Registration,Graduation). The contradiction between his playboy persona and his practiced Christianity—and the music itself, both lush and aloof, technically accomplished and yet still rough-edged.
Jay-Z, the more collected man, is like Kanye’s laid back older brother. He takes his craft seriously, but always with a wink and a nudge at how much fun it is. What more outrageous embodiment of boyhood dreams is there than buying your favourite NBA team?
Kanye, on the other hand, is Jay’s wayward little bro. Everyone else is fair target for ridicule (ask Taylor Swift), but he has little sense of irony when it comes to his own life. Kanye’s many fashion faux pas are like an audition forZoolander 2: baggy full-length fur coats; dropped-crotch leather pants; impractical sunnies with horizontal plastic bars.
He describes himself (seriously) as the point “where art meets commercial,” “the sweet spot between the hood and Hollywood”. His cloying relationship with Kim Kardashian seems genuine and horribly contrived at the same time. It’s easy to imagine their double dates consisting of awkward silences between Kim and Beyoncé, while the two men toast to each other’s success.
Kanye and Jay-Z are a study in contrasts. But the best thing about Watch the Throne is that at its core it still sounds like two friends just fucking around, riffing off each other.
Their raps are tightly crafted, but they still sound like they’re dropping in and out of freestyle. There is lyrical subtlety and political awareness, but the main themes remain hip-hop’s enduring concerns of wealth, fame, and women (aka ‘money/cash/hoes’). The album’s most successful song, ‘Niggas in Paris’, is Jay and Kanye partying on record. They brag, bump chests, and perform mutual masturbation via their lyrics (Jay-Z: ‘Ball so hard, bitch behave / just might let you meet Ye’). At their concert in Paris last year, they played it twelve times.
They complement and temper each other. Jay-Z subdues Kanye’s childishness and loose cannon tendencies; Kanye rescues Jay from haughtiness. And on a personal level, they are far more likeable together than they are separately. Egomaniacs they most certainly are, but as far as hip-hop royalty goes, they’ve earned the right to be.