Jay-Z and Kanye  Flaunt Their Wealth, Celebrate Occupy Wall Street

Slate's Culture Blog
May 30 2012 3:46 PM

Jay-Z and Kanye Go Awkwardly Populist Again

churchwild2
A still from the new video for "No Church in the Wild"

Last night, Jay-Z and Kanye West released a video for “No Church in the Wild,” off their collaborative album Watch The Throne. Directed by Romain Gavras, the video, filmed in Prague, portrays a populist uprising against well-armed police forces, with various classical statues interspersed throughout.

Gavras is no stranger to politically themed projects: He and M.I.A stirred up controversy two years ago with the video for her single “Born Free,” which graphically depicted governmental oppression of redheads. Of course, M.I.A. is known for her political flame-throwing, so the imagery for “Born Free,” while jarring, did not seem entirely out of place. But Jay-Z and Kanye don’t protest wealth on their record, they celebrate it. Kanye’s verse seems especially incongruous over the backdrop of a (seemingly all-male) political protest. “And deception is the only felony,” he declares, “So never fuck nobody without telling me.”

Advertisement

The narcissism of the lyrics seems to cheapen the imagery deployed in the video. So what’s going on?

One way to answer that question would be to point at the director, whose use of violent, politically loaded imagery is not restricted to his famous M.I.A. collaboration. As Slate pop critic Jonah Weiner put it on Twitter, “Nobody fetishizes the (savage/naff) underclasses like Romain-Gavras!” But the truth is that Jay-Z and Kanye have, both separately and together, awkwardly bounced between celebrating their own wealth and condemning fellow rich people for some time.

A common complaint about Watch the Throne when it was first released was that two of hip hop’s biggest stars were out of touch with the dismal realities of America.  Then Jay-Z attempted to capitalize on the Occupy Wall Street Movement with “Occupy All Streets” T-shirts. (And now, apparently, he’s going to write music for an updated Annie.) Kanye, meanwhile, followed up the album with a song that asks “Can’t a young nigga get money no more?” In that same song, he asks someone to “Tell PETA my mink is draggin’ on the floor.”

Of course, there’s no reason artists should refrain from depicting both the attraction of wealth and the dark side of affluence. Indeed, watching this video, it’s impossible not to think of the last place we heard this song: in the new trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. At this point, however, Kanye and Jay-Z’s grasp on the tension between those two subjects doesn’t quite match Fitzgerald’s, to say the least—and Romain Gavras isn’t helping.

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.