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.”
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.