America is still in the unfriendly throes of the Great Recession, and the economic outlook steadily becomes bleaker. On Friday (Aug. 5), credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the nation’s rating from AAA to AA+ for the first time since the U.S. won the top ranking in 1917. In response, yesterday (Aug. 8), the stock market suffered its worst day of trading since the financial crisis of 2008, wiping out $1.2 trillion in stock wealth.
It’s a good thing Jay-Z and Kanye West can still afford Maybach’s though, right?
Watch the Throne, the highly anticipated collaborative album between two of hip-hops biggest stars, was released at midnight eastern time on Monday and immediately had the social media world buzzing. People were split on the quality of the record overall, but a recurring point of criticism, one that has plagued at least Jay-Z for most of his career, is that these two have chosen a time in which so many of their potential fans have an uncertain economic future to release an album that celebrates opulence and conspicuous consumption.
We find Kanye arrogantly boasting about how “Y’all weed purple, my money purple. y’all Steve Urkel, I’m Oprah’s circle,” while Jay laments that he’s “planking on a million” and asking “what’s 50 grand to a motherf***er like me, can you please remind me?” The lead single, “Otis,” finds the two “poppin bottles, putting supermodels in the cab” and “Driving Benzes with no benefits” but this time over an Otis Redding sample that once pleaded that we all “try a little tenderness.”
This drew the ire of Public Enemy frontman and hip-hop elder statesman Chuck D, who recorded a YouTube video asking that these two highly influential superstars use their voices to “reflect the people better.”
It’s not entirely their fault. There’s no way Jay and Kanye could have anticipated the debt ceiling debate, the U.S.’s credit downgrade or the subsequent stock market turmoil. If they could, they would be economists and not rappers. But unemployment figures have hovered around 10 percent for some time now, reaching up to 16 percent for black people, 17.5 percent for black men, and just under 50 percent for black male teenagers.
We are three years deep into an economic recession that has greatly affected the racial wealth gap, widening it the point that the average white household has 20 times the wealth of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic ones. These are not auspicious numbers. It’s possible Jay and Kanye, in order to be empathetic, could have toned down the braggadocio and, as writer dream hampton put it, “tuck[ed] away G4 talk this summer.”
This isn’t new. You don’t have to reach too far back in hip-hop’s history to find examples of rappers flaunting their riches while their fans experience a much different economic state. In 2007, T.I. was rapping about “Big Sh*t Poppin’” while gas prices were flirting with $3 per gallon for the first time and driving food prices up right alongside them. T.I. was acutely aware of his unique situation, as the next year he rapped on the song “Every Chance I Get”: ”High as gas is, the country at war and people are starving, and I pay a million dollars for Ferrari’s, retarded, huh?”
Last year the economy wasn’t much better than it is now and the big summer hit was Rick Ross’ “B.M.F.” which stands for “blowing money fast.” That’s a far cry from the reality of people seeing smaller paychecks week to week and worrying about whether unemployment benefits will be extended.
Hip-hop isn’t in the same place it was when Run-DMC stepped on the scene, sporting leather pants and Adidas shelltoes and connecting with their audience by exclaiming: ”Unemployment at a record highs, people coming, people going, people born to die.”
The struggle and frustration of the inner-city and black youth isn’t being articulated in quite the same way as when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message” and said: ”You’ll admire all the number-book takers, thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money-makers, drivin’ big cars, spendin’ twenties and tens, and you’ll wanna grow up to be just like them.”
We’re not even in the same place that made Young Jeezy, a Jay-Z protege, make 2008’s The Recession, a political album in its own right that expressed the dire circumstances of the economic downturn in very plain terms: “its a recession, everybody broke.” In these instances, the artists desire to connect with their audience drove the creation of art that served as a reflection of their everyday lives.
However, for as much private jet flying and unnecessary watch wearing that takes place on Watch the Throne, there’s considerable substance residing in plain sight. The song “Made in America,” albeit a bit cheesy, is a nod to the ancestors who fought for the freedoms Jay and Kanye now enjoy.
On the amazing “Murder to Excellence,” they touch on myriad topics ranging from violence in black communities to lack of black wealth, and declare “it’s time for us to stop and redefine black power.”
It may not be a “Black Nationalist Masterpiece for the New Millenium” or “Black Rich Militance” as filmmaker Ava Duvernay describes it, because I would never accuse either of these men of exhibiting anything resembling militancy, but there is something powerful in them asserting both their blackness and their self-made wealth. They’ve established a different type of connection with the audience, built not on a common sense of bleakness, but on aspiration. It’s summed up perfectly in one of Jay-Z’s more memorable lines from the album: “Power to the people, when you see me, see you.”
Certainly, Watch the Throne is a statement by Jay and Kanye about how hard they have worked and how they indulge in the lavish lifestyle now afforded them as the result of the copious amounts of money they’ve earned.
From the standpoint of a working-class, unemployed, or underemployed American living in these uncertain times, it’s a bold and swift slap in the face. They could both benefit from a dose of humility. But in a way, it’s also an admission that they don’t enjoy being the only ones sitting on the throne, and this album is a way of extending an invitation for all of us to join them. They may not have much of a job creation plan, but hey, neither does Washington.