In case you haven’t heard “Otis” yet, I won’t spoil it for you. I won’t even spoil the reason for that odd title. You’ll get it, or you should, as soon as the track begins. What I will say is that it is full of the classic, juxtaposed dynamic of soul and pomp from two of music’s greatest minds.
We know their stories well by now. Kanye was the college dropout who, though initially slighted by the hard-core hip-hop community, developed a sound and work ethic that has been matched by very few. Influenced by greats like Primo, Pete Rock, and Dr. Dre, West brought the soul back to mainstream hip-hop. But he also introduced art to it. Sean Carter was the drug dealer-turned-rap-superstar-turned-mogul. Enough said there. However, what makes their story intriguing is the same thing that makes them heroes to some and heels to others.
Through the years we’ve heard West and Jay rap about living the good life as well as the struggles of everyday people with less thrilling existences. We heard Jay rap lines like “I’m a poster for what happened seeing your moms doing five dollars worth of work just to get a dime. So pardon my disposition. Why should I listen to a system that never listens to me? Picture me working McDonald’s. I’d rather pull a Mac on you.” and then turn right around and tell you about how much the Maybach costs and how much of power player he is because he has a stake in the Nets. We heard West make a whole song about working at the Gap. Now he raps about getting intimate with super models and traveling the world like a villain in the 007 series.
But why is it that when these two style on a record, most of us accept it and hail it as “dope” or “classic?” And when others do the same, we bash them for throwing their wealth and lifestyle in our faces out of spite. How can these two make an entire song, albeit it riveting and full of soul, about how much money they have to blow and get away with it but when someone like Soulja Boy does the same (minus the soul) he is hated on and dismissed as a clown who got rich off ring tones? I’ll tell you. Or better yet, I’ll let Kanye tell you:
“… sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive.”
Forgive me, but that line is from “Otis.” And it sums up why certain rappers can say things that others can’t.
Some rappers are just lyrically more talented than others. Mature listeners are not naive. We understand that most rappers are going to boast and brag about what they have. But if you’re going to say those kinds of raps, at least make it — sophisticated. Because then it is no different from Sammy Davis Jr. in the original Ocean’s 11.” In the title song, “E-O Eleven,” he sings about having a chauffeur, a block-long limousine, and a penthouse with stacks of money. Now go look at the video of this particular scene on YouTube. All the comments are positive. This was the’ 60s, the Rat Pack, Vegas, living the good life with class and sophistication. Sure, they did their dirt. But they did it with style. And it takes real talent to be able to rap about the good life and not have less fortunate people hate you for it.
Also, Kanye and Jay still incorporate the intelligence of the struggle in their songs from time to time. Remember Kanye’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing?” Yes, we could all relate to that. We all realize that in this country it can be so hard to make it that when you finally do, you don’t want to listen to anyone. To paraphrase NYC’s motto; “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” This is the American dream in a nutshell. It is the rags to riches story. And it is America herself that is responsible for the irresponsibility of our most of our misguided rappers today. The perpetual greed of those in power and the love of money itself have cultivated an excessive, sloppy culture in hip-hop. Now it’s all about who can be the most outrageous while trying to convince everyone that they are just being themselves.
But Kanye West and Jay-Z have found the happy, and lucrative, medium. I admit Kanye has crossed the line a few times and paid dearly for it. Not even I, a true fan of his, could defend some of his actions. Jay has had his moments as well. But unlike most modern mainstream rappers, these two for the most part have found a way to keep a foot on the stoop of the around-the-way kid and the other on the lawn of the kid from the suburbs. They don’t boast about how rich they are. And they don’t rap about how rich they are on every single song. They focus on making music that people can feel. They consistently showcase the duality of the human experience. Sometimes we want to be great and humble. Other times we just want to be great.
I believe the world would be a better place if we only had raps like the one I used to begin this essay playing on the radio. But hip-hop began with B-boys battling and rapping about the same things Sammy was singing about in the ’60s. It was about the dream. It was about making it; no different from a pretty young thing boarding a bus from Kansas to L.A. in hopes of becoming a star. Still, if you possess the talent, drive and creativity, the trick with rapping is balance. No one wants to hear you stunt and style all the time, especially in this economy. But we don’t mind it as much so long as you do it with a sense of dignity and remember from time to time to reminisce about the good old days when you folded clothes, waited tables, or (if it’s the truth) sold drugs, in hopes of attaining the wealth you have now. In other words, young rappers, give us your braggadocio in good taste. Keep it fresh and innovative, not crass and redundant.
Stay classy, hip-hop.