Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail
How do you “share a brainwave” or find yourself upon the “same wavelength” with someone else? Well, to start, you could be so syncopated in your thoughts and behaviours that you begin to echo each other’s preconceptions of reality. Or, more likely, you’ve been so bombarded with the same image that you can’t help but adopt it into your worldview. E Martin Nolan recently wrote a post about Drake’s function as a “walking advertisement” for Toronto. I was startled to find that both his responses to current trends in mainstream rap and hip hop and my own zoned in on an overwhelmingly dominant motif: branding.
If I was to describe the “point of view” of music right now, the common thread shared by the artists’ approach to their craft, it’s that popular musicians predominantly focus on representations of status. For mega stars such as Jay-Z and Kanye West, money is no object. It has transgressed its traditional function as an aspirational motive—rolls of bills as a symbol of ascending from the streets—into a ubiquitous wellspring. Compare, for example, Jay-Z’s early chart-toppers and the origin stories he traces through narratives of crime and prejudice—with, of course, a necessary dose of the party life and the staking out of rap game territory. Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, however, is the output of a grandmaster. A person so untouchable in the celebrity sphere that his “billion” is more than a dollar figure; it’s an indicator that wealth—alongside talent, luck, and business savvy—is what has redefined the power that celebrities hold over people’s attention.
Despite marital troubles and a fist-swinging sister-in-law, Jay-Z has built a universe around himself. He is the Hip Hop King, Def Jam is his castle, and everything he touches, glances upon, or puts his mind to (e.g. Rihanna) turns to platinum. He and Beyoncé are arguably the most powerful couple in the world, and their value as iconic people of colour cannot be underestimated. No matter how much I may take issue with the dwindling quality of rap music in general, I cannot level my discontent at the subject matter upon which rappers are making their millions. The boastful image of the successful black man cannot be waved aside just because the swag beats that accompany it have become derivative and boring. Jay-Z’s “Oceans,” for example, has a really catchy hook and Jay spits his customarily simple rhymes (now copied by most other rappers) but the references to Hermès, Mercedes, Basquiat, and other relics of the 1%, represent a narrative of a transformation. The yacht that Jay-Z finds himself on now is the ultimate inverse of his ancestry’s trajectory. Frank Ocean evokes the painful passage across the Atlantic from Africa to America and Jay-Z basks in the sweet sense of triumph as his champagne dribbles into the ocean and the water that “tells [his] story”. It would be foolish to pine for a time when rappers were still spitting about the streets and focusing on social issues such as poverty, crime, and racism because then I’d be negating the value of economic success to a culture whose creative output (at least in rap) has used money as a driving factor in overcoming adversity. But why doesn’t rap sound as good as it did twenty years ago? All of these rappers are richer now, but what else is different?
To start, Kanye West exists. For better or worse, Kanye West changed rap forever. He didn’t do it, however, in the same way that Wu Tang Klan, Outkast, Tupac, Biggie, or Lil Kim did. He used his creative powers to both imagine new avenues for rap (think “Black Skinhead”) and a new way of looking at rappers. He is not the most handsome man, or the smartest, but GQ’s August issue used Kanye as their cover star and as the man to copy if you want to “grab attention”. When West’s “Bound 2” was released, it was lampooned, celebrated, hated, and most importantly, replayed endlessly. Here, West takes images associated with white culture—mountain ranges evocative of the north, motorcycles, and plaid—and spins them as the backdrop to his erotic odyssey across America’s consciousness. While West has had moments of overwhelming clarity and creativity in combatting racism in the industry, he also appears to have fallen prey to the seductive nature of fame. The Guardian reported a month ago that Kanye West believes that celebrities are a minority that ought to be protected and its rights defended, and that the struggle for privacy is not unlike the issues at the core of the civil rights movement. Black or white, anyone living outside of the 1% can see that West’s argument stinks of privilege and that he has lost sight of the positive impact his fame can have on socio-cultural dynamics.
While Jay-Z and Kanye West are only two examples of the turn to excessive luxury in popular music, younger artists are continuously absorbing the cult of status into their own oeuvres. For any Torontonian with a love of rap, the lyrics of Drake’s “Started From The Bottom,” are hyperbolic and a little emphatic to be taken seriously. Drake grew up in Forest Hill, but here he feels the need to prove his own struggles as a mythic prerequisite for becoming a rap superstar. At this point, “leaving the streets” has been so warped as to mean: “I was poorer then, but look at me now” without the traces of political protest that made ’80s and ’90s rap so powerful, provocative, and dangerous.
A$AP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa” epitomizes the highbrow transformation of rap today. The successful rap star feels as at home with his “Aunt Jemima” as he does in the front row of Paris Fashion Week. His ideal woman “got a lotta Prada, that Dolce & Gabbana” and their closets are legacies for their children as much as their albums (if not more). In “Ghetto Symphony” A$AP declares that, “I decide to spit like Andre” and A$AP Ferg replies with promises to “kill like Big Boi” yet neither of them can claim to rap like either Outkast demi-god. Their lyrics are too slow, their beats too simple and repetitive, to ever see themselves classified in the echelons of the greats. Yet, their material wealth has skyrocketed them to a level of respectability, and the general populous perceives them as rap’s new royalty.
Rap’s downturn is not unilateral. There are underground artists still embracing the experimental approach to music and Eminem is still kicking around. His song “Rap God” is an ingenious response to the rap’s elite who wouldn’t be able to hold their own in the battles that defined the masters of the 20th century. But as high fashion and rap continue to collide, rap’s language continues to change. Instead of impressive verses rife with word play and polemic critiques of society, rappers use placeholders. Need a rhyme? Throw in “Tom Ford,” “Dolce and Gabbana,” hell, why not “Rick Owens” to be really avant-garde? Fashion houses have so seamlessly branded themselves that the roll-off-the-tongue quality of their monikers has been absorbed by rap as a crucial ingredient in both music and persona.
Of course, rappers are not the only people guilty of putting money ahead of quality. In a nutshell, that tendency has cheapened Hollywood, killed cable TV, and reduced visual art to a niche hobby. Is the glamorization of wealth taking over literature, too? For now, a writer’s prowess is more likely to win formal accolades than an Adidas line or Cara Delevingne’s friendship. For most, literary fame is not quite as enviable as celebrity life and many famous authors are still regarded as flukes, albeit talented ones. Most people will have noticed that with the rise of Amazon (the Net Porter of reading), business tends to come before quality. Bestseller lists are as much indicators of pop culture and social media trends as Billboard charts. As bookstore sales dwindle, so too does literature’s buffer from excessive consumerism. In an age where patronage has turned into endorsements, it’s unclear whether rap’s sartorial obsession is just a fad or an indicator of music’s corrupted function in culture.