Wednesday, November 16, 2011
JZ occupy all streets -- scam
"For any image or symbol or creative act to mean something, it has to touch something deeper, connect to something true." – Jay-Z, writing about wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, in Decoded (Virgin Books/Random House, 2010).
As a Jay-Z fan, I find myself depressed and a little angry. Shawn Carter and his Roc-a-Wear company have decided to create and sell a T-shirt ostensibly supporting the Occupy Wall Street protests, and, while perhaps not actively planning keep all the proceeds for themselves, don't intend to disclose if any money will be donated to the cause they're trading off. And yet, also as a Jay-Z fan, I have no right to be surprised. If his 15-year career has revealed anything about the man, it's that he's determined, self-reliant and focused on making money. So why do I expect something better?
The CEO of several successful companies who has rapped on various occasions about his desire to be taken seriously by America's business elite, Jay-Z is an unlikely OWS supporter. Almost certainly a member of the 1% rather than the 99, expecting him to donate commercial earnings to a protest movement aligned against the capitalist system that's served him so well seems faintly ridiculous. Hip-hop's version of socialism relies entirely on entrepreneurialism to function: the average rap star's (laudable) commitment to spreading their wealth around their immediate circle, employing childhood friends as managers, or even just giving their rapping mates a leg-up by introducing them as guests on album and mixtape tracks, is an exercise in making capitalism work in their favour.
Ideological consistency is an overrated virtue in an artist anyway, and major rap stars are the last people to look to for revolutionary credentials – so this doesn't seem to matter most of the time. But when artists stress their connection to the "streets" and the "hood" to the point it becomes a fundamental part of their commercial offering, perhaps fans have a right to question where they choose to draw those lines.
Another exhibit for the defence is the garment itself. The T-shirt takes the movement's name and plays word games with it – literally crossing out the "W" and adding a final "S" to graffiti-spray its new message: "Occupy All Streets." It can be considered an act of creativity, in the same way that a parody of a work of art constitutes a new work, not a derivative of the original – so why shouldn't Roc-a-Wear profit from it? (Even if they were not the first to come up with the slogan). It's not as if the shirt is making a definitively aligned political point: in this context, it's really just an extension of Brand Jay. The new phrase could be interpreted even more broadly than the OWS protests and their inchoate aims. Is it more likely to be a call to arms against the financial elite, or a blank-canvas slogan that could mean different things to Jay-Z's audience? This is just Jay being Jay, wanting to have his cake and eat it – and if he's eating someone else's cake while doing so, so be it.
If, though, we accept the shirt is trading off the OWS concept, it marks the second time in four months that Jay-Z has been implicated with his hand in the creative till (something he definitely doesn't like if the boot's on the other foot). In August, the independent Chicago reissue label Numero Group revealed that The Joy, a track on the "deluxe" version of Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne LP, had sampled Syl Johnson's Different Strokes, mislabelling the credit and implying permission had been obtained and payment made when it hadn't. In October, Johnson sued. (Numero's original blogpost detailing the saga is no longer online, but it can still be read because, with no apparent recognition of the irony, Pitchfork reproduced it in its entirety.)
Defenders point out the track was produced by Pete Rock, and the duo are being made fall guys for administrative errors that wouldn't be newsworthy without their names attached. That might be reasonable if we agreed tthe pair have no responsibility for their work once the writing and performing stops, but to accept that argument we also have to accept West and Carter no longer care about the art bearing their name. Also, we're talking here about Different Strokes, a record so heavily sampled it is practically ingrained in hip-hop's DNA: although it's not the main vocal lift (that's from The Makings of You, by Curtis Mayfield), anyone who's ever been even remotely interested in hip-hop samples will recognise Johnson's shrieks. If Jay and Kanye want us to believe they didn't know what they were rhyming over, they're asking us to conclude they've lasted this long at the top of their genre without having the level of curiosity and understanding about the art form you'd expect from anyone for whom rap is not only a job but a passion.
And yet, ultimately, none of this would matter if the music made it worthwhile. But the sad fact is that Jay-Z's star has risen – in Britain, anyway, where since headlining Glastonbury he's really vaulted on to the A-list – right at the moment his muse seems to have decided to only come in to work three days a week. The Blueprint 3 is by no means a poor record (Jay-Z seems constitutionally unable to make one of those), but it marked the first point in his career where he seemed to have paid attention to what everyone else was doing and tailored his music to fit. Tellingly, when the record got a pre-Christmas push last year, the TV ads contained vocals by Alicia Keys, Rihanna and Mr Hudson, but none from Jay-Z.
Watch the Throne is a far more interesting record, but between its tilts at issues it showcases a rapper whose themes are narrowing alarmingly. I don't mind hearing Jay-Z talking about how he's one of the best who's ever done it – he is, undoubtedly, and there are barely a handful of MCs who've consistently made inventive and compulsive fare out of hip-hop's thematic equivalent of boiled potatoes, the brag – but since American Gangster he seems to define his success solely in terms of the stuff that it's brought him, not the abilities that got him there. There are still more than flashes of the old greatness: the final verse in Welcome to the Jungle – life seen through the eyes of the street hustler he once was, transplanted to today, teetering on the edge of despair – is spinechilling, while in Murder to Excellence he manages to drop those designer names while making perceptive, poetic points about race, class and police brutality. But it's frustrating and tiresome to hear the author of Can I Live, What More Can I Say and Roc Boys reduced to listing his wristwatch purchases. When as inveterate and loyal a supporter of hip-hop artists' right to say what they like as Chuck D flips one of your hits around as a way of asking you to add some content, it's surely way past time to get out of bed and put your nose over the espresso machine.