Watch the Throne, Givenchy, and the Ethics of Luxury Sampling

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.

MBDTF Ltd. Edition Vinyl

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).

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If I’m Not a Hustler, What You Call That?

When I was in high school, I took the SAT, did well–and my mom made me get a private tutor to raise my score a few hundred points. Not only did I not want to go–because my time was precious, because the desired score was only incrementally higher than the one I’d already received–but also because my burgeoning social consciousness told me (and told Mom) that This Is Not Fair. That is, using my family’s economic standing to artificially raise my SAT score was unjust viz. all the people who did not have the social and economic resources to do so. Her response?

“Tessa, it’s a game. Play the game.”

Yep, that’s my Machiavellian Mama.

But it turns out, hustlin’ is a generational skill. Sure, Nielson has decided we 18-to-34-year-olds are Generation C (that is, Generation Connected), but it’s been clear to me for a while now that we’re the HipHop Generation. We share hiphop’s values: connectivity, yes, but also community, intertextuality, multiculturalism, diversity, revolution, empathy, storytelling, political engagement, art, self-expression, global awareness and local impact.

In his book Decoded (2011), Jay-Z (and dream hampton) declare that “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for human struggles: the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all” (18). To Jay-Z, “the story of the hustler” is rap’s central tale, the hustler its archetypal hero (10). But when my students and I discussed an excerpt from the beginning of Decoded, I realized how central the hustle is to our generational experience writ large. We hustle to get into a good college, to get good grades, to get into that organization we have our eyes on, to maintain social position, to get a job, pay rent, secure health insurance, please our parents, make something of ourselves. As Jay would say, “If I’m not a hustler what you call that?” (10).

Two recent articles in GOOD bring a similar message home. Mychal Denzel Smith writes about “How Jay-Z Inspired a Generation of Hustlers.” This article is too specific for my taste, not least because I’m excluded from its demographics. Smith argues that Jay-Z has become the wise uncle figure for “millenial black males,” articulating a radical new politics where “wealth is revolutionary.” Jay-Z is “representing for the seat where Rosa Parks sat by standing next to Warren Buffet on the cover of Forbes.” I’d argue that the revolutionary power of wealth here isn’t limited to young black men, but to all millenials out there hustling. This is a world where autonomy is dependent on self-sufficiency.

More compelling, though, is Smith’s “What Generation Overshare Can Learn from Biggie.” In this piece, Smith takes Biggie’s “Ten Crack Commandments” seriously, zoning in on the first two which both tout the value of silence. Though this article’s central drive is about the strategy of not sharing–not “livetweeting the interview process,” for example–Smith makes claims about “Generation Overshare” in the process of developing his argument.

I’m part of that generation known as Millennials, and even if we don’t know whether social security will be around when we retire, or if we’ll be able to retire, or if we’ll even have jobs to consider retiring, we know this: We are hustlers. We’re gangsta. We pimp. We grind.

Most of us don’t do any of these things in the literal sense, but my generation has come of age listening to the sounds of hip hop, and we’ve borrowed the language of illegal hustlers to describe our legal hustles. It feels only natural we should also adopt aspects of their code of conduct and apply them to our quest for survival and world domination.

Back to Biggie and the “Ten Crack Commandments”: It’s no accident that the first two commandments have to do with learning to keep quiet. “Rule nombre uno, never let no one know, how much dough you hold” and “Number two: never let ‘em know your next move, don’t you know Bad Boys move in silence and violence.” Any hustler worth his weight knows that he should draw as little attention to himself as possible….

And imagine negotiating a deal that would expand your territory or triple your income, bragging about it to everyone you know before it goes through, and finding yourself filing fingerprints and a mugshot because word got around and reached the wrong snitch. Silence is a valuable asset. (Smith, “What Generation Overshare Can Learn From Biggie”)

I like this article because it takes the implications of Jay-Z’s metaphor seriously: if we’re all hustlers, we can learn from the hustlers, like Biggie, who have gone before. And sure, this is another answer to the perennial question of why White kids love hiphop: ’cause if I’m not a hustler, what you call that?

What’s Right There? (an exploration in fan fiction)

I had another dream about Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. They were sipping champagne in the back room of a restaurant, alone. Well, except I was there. But I’m not me.

Dr. W. stares at me. She is an older white lady with taupe-colored hair and horn-rimmed glasses. I don’t think she cares for gossip.

Well, actually I was Patti Stanger–

I’m don’t follow, says Dr. W.

The Millionaire Matchmaker, I explain. It’s a TV show. She sets millionaires up on dates.

In the dream?

No, she’s a real person. She’s a third-generation matchmaker. She’s good. Behind the skinny jeans and the Brazilian blowout she’s an old-world bubbe. There are rules. In the dream, we recited them together. Kim, Kanye and Patti-me. No Sex Before Monogomy. I was their chaperone.

How did you feel?

In the dream?  I felt important. Like I was helping them. They need a mother. They need a Yenta. Patti has a two drink maximum. Sippy sippy? She’ll make sure they behave themselves. Kanye was wearing a salmon-roe colored tuxedo and Kim was wearing those beaded shoes he designed. She flew all the way to Paris for his bad fashion show.

Bad?

Yes, but that’s not the point. They could love each other. I want them to be happy.

Why?

I believe in their feelings. I believe they have feelings. His are on his roe-colored sleeve and hers are stored away in a Louis Vuitton suitcase but they have them. Their love could be redemptive.

For whom?

Dr. W.’s office is on the sixteenth floor of the only highrise in town. Through her windows I can see the houses north of us peter out into a wide strip of green. At least it’s a nice nowhere.

What’s right there?

I don’t know, I say. Nice view. You don’t follow celebrities, do you?

Why do you want to know?

Well, because despite our  happy illusion that you’re not a real person with real habits and real desires the fact is that you are one, and it just occurs to me now and then that perhaps one of your habits may or may not be to flip through the glossies in the check-out aisle in the grocery store. I am wondering how you’re judging me. I am wondering if you also care. If you could fathom caring.

I look out the window again. A forest is lovely but I’d trade it for Central Park or Topanga Canyon. No one wears heels here and all the women have short hair. Dr. W. has short hair. I can’t help it if I care about them.

What’s right there? Dr. W. asks. I’ve been quiet.

A song. You want me to sing it?

I look at my hands piled in my lap, my boring trousers, the carpeted floor:

The prettiest people do the ugliest things,

            For the road to riches and diamond rings.

What else?

In the night I hear them talk
            Coldest story ever told
Somewhere far away from home he lost his soul–
            To a woman so heartless.

            Was that song in the dream?

It’s two songs.

Dr. W. stares at me.

Why you standin there with your face screwed up?

            Don’t leave while ya hot, that’s how Mase screwed up.

Those are real lines, I say. This is important. You know how sometimes in a dream you know that something is supposed to be something but it actually isn’t that thing? Well this wasn’t like that in my dream. I knew the lines right. They were correct.

Mimesis, says Dr. W.

We are sitting around the table drinking champagne when Kim says, Let’s have a toast to the douchebags.

Then Kanye raises his glass. He says, Let’s have a toast to the assholes.

Then it’s my turn. Every one of them that I know, I say, and we all laugh, and I wink, because I am the matchmaker. That’s when I wake up.

Putting my rhymes where my teach is

At the end of last semester, some of my students expressed chagrin that a writing class about rap never asked or taught them to write raps. So at the beginning of this semester I slotted a day for “Writing Raps?”–question mark and all, because that ish makes me nervous–and today I finally had to face the music. Literally.

We started off by talking about what Jay-Z describes in his book Decoded as the two kinds of beats in rap–the constant, foundational musical beat, and the variable meter of the rhymes–that is, a rapper’s flow. I explained that rap songs generally have four beats per line. Older raps usually have around 8 syllables per line, while newer lyrics have closer to 16–double time!

We talked about end rhyme, internal rhyme, and figurative language, then brainstormed some potential subject matter: why I’m great, why you suck, school, my hometown, money and material goods, fantasy, what I did today, random anecdotes, personal struggles.

Then we read the first verse of “We Don’t Care” aloud to, you know, get in the groove. We decided the beat we’d work on was the track from “All Falls Down.” The hook is on there, which is a nice thematic jumping-off point, too. And then–we were off. I suggested folks try to build units of 2, 4, or 8 lines, with the ultimate goal being (of course) 16 bars! To show solidarity, I promised I’d write and perform some verses with them, too.

At the end of class, about 6 people performed. So great! My favorite rhyme was from a girl spitting about her chemistry exam: she rhymed “Boyle’s theory” with “Can you hear me?” Ever the storyteller, I delivered 16 bars about my leaky travel mug.

note: not my actual mug.

Man I promise, I’m so damn tired

Woke up this morning ‘fraid I got fired!

Like my contract expired, air from my tires

Gone to the moon, asleep in my room.

Woke up, got up, make some coffee

It’s my new best friend, named Mr. Coffee

Not that hazelnut toffee, it’s the realest shit

Pour it in my travel mug and seal that bitch

Then I’m ready to go, till I see it drippin

Damn Mr. Coffee, I’m like, You been trippin?

Like my day been clipped, like my coffee mug is shit!

How’m I gonna drink this when the top don’t fit?

Right, that’s right, the top ain’t tight.

The seal’s too loose so the juice take flight.

Now I gotta go to class with these stains on my pants.

Should I go home and change them? I can’t take the chance.