So, I finally got my hands on a copy of Jay-Z and Kanye’s collaborative album Watch the Throne (2011), I’ve been listening to it all weekend, and I gotta write about it. If Kanye’s previous album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was like dropping E with your best friend you’ve had a crush on since you were a little kid, Watch the Throne is like doing mounds of coke with your best friend you’ve been jealous of and competitive with since y’all were kids, then going to a party full of people richer than you, getting smashed, and walking home through the city streets with your arms around each other singing camp songs into the dark, expensive night.
Since his last solo album, Kanye’s vision of luxury has deepened–not just aurally and lyrically, but visually, too–and branded. While it’s no secret that Watch the Throne is about luxury, I’ll let you listen to the lyrics on your own time. Today’s post is about visuals: in the music video for “Otis,” Jay and ‘Ye dismantle a Maybach– you know, Maybachs on backs on backs–and Ricardo Tisci of Givenchy art directed the CD, the tour, and a few videos, “Otis” included. The CD materials for WTT aren’t as beautiful as MBDTF’s, but it’s not Tisci’s fault. MBDTF has a fold-out packaging in rich red with gold lettering that seems designed with its holiday-season release in mind. After the banning of its miscegenation-themed cover art, an original oil painting by George Condo, buyers ultimately had the choice of one of five other original Condo paintings as their peekaboo cover image. Inside the packaging, the CD booklet folded out into a square poster of the Condo painting on one side. On the inside, in bright gold lettering, all of the album’s credits and permissions. For a guy who made name through innovative samples, a task that’s too often wrought with legal troubles and debt for artists, these gold letters screamed that Kanye had every singer, rapper, producer and sample on his album that he wanted, and he paid for it all, straight-up.
By the time WTT rolls around, Kanye’s provedhis piece. Gold letters behind him, he’s onto gold covers now, that is, the gold-plated cover art for the album designed by Ricardo Tisci, the head designer for luxury house Givenchy. On the pack page of WTT’s album booklet, Tisci is credited as “Creative Director.” And while folks kept hounding Kanye for touring in a leather skirt and a t-shirt with a picture of himself as a tiger on it, it only takes a quick flip through the WTT CD booklet to realize that that’s a Givenchy shirt designed for this album by Ricardo Tisci. So who’s laughing now?
Also in the booklet is the screen-printed American flag that adorns the wall above the dessicated Maybach in “Otis” — a fibrous, pop-art looking thing that reminds us from the booklet’s inside cover that what’s happening here is uniquely amazing because it’s uniquely American: rags-to-beyond-riches, hiphop style. (As Jay-Z writes in Decoded, hiphop tells the story of “something bloody and dramatic and scandalous that happened right here in America” (18).) Unlike in the MBDTF literature, WTT’s booklet is all business: certainly no lyrics, some custom Givenchy art, and two tight pages of permissions in a basic sans-serif typeface with Gothic lettering for the song titles. But it’s still all there. Contains samples from. Contains samples from. Additional creative input by. Used with permission. Used with permission. Appears courtesy of. Used with Permission. All rights reserved.
As Stringer Bell said to Avon Barksdale, “We making so much goddamn straight money, man, the government come after us, man, ain’t shit they can say” (The Wire s3e6, 2004).
So, my point is, Kanye’s last two albums point to an interesting new development in sampling ethics, which have grown and heaved over the last decades as the legal profession has run them raw. We’ve seen the Lil Wayne response, which is to rap over whatever he wants, then release it for free as a mixtape; the Tyler the Creator response, who doesn’t even sample–he wants other folks to sample him. And then, fittingly, the Kanye response: big, brash, and willing to shell out for what he wants. This is luxury sampling ethics, samples bought and paid for, further elucidation of Mychal Denzel Smith’s claim that “For Jay-Z [and, I’d add, Kanye], wealth is revolutionary”–and this is the part where I string together a bunch of WTT song titles, so brace your dork-o-meters–’cause it’s a New Day, they’ve Gotta Have It, these tracks were Made in America, and Who Gon Stop Me? Not Otis (nor the keepers of his estate).