Ideally, critics would do their required reading and due diligence before jumping headfirst into their shallow pool of opinions. Jay-Z and Kanye West would probably agree with the sentiment. When it dropped last August, their collaborative effort Watch the Throne was instantly met with disdain from, frankly, middle-class journalists who aren't familiar with "the struggle" or the two rap titans' extensive, progressive catalog.
Most said the album was an hourlong set of black elitist raps, glorifying their riches and wealth with no shame or regard for fans who likely aren't draped in gold links and Rolex watches. But fortunately for the pair, the packed arenas on their current tour prove that their fans know better.
The critics are partially right, though. Throne is very much about being at that philosophical mountaintop. But more than that, it's about the journey there. And not only theirs — "ours," too. The aforementioned "struggle" refers to that of the African American.
Without turning this into a history lesson, know that the trip from being an enslaved people to seemingly being on a level playing field with those they once exclusively served has been a rocky one. And though Kanye and Jay may not be able to say they experienced the worst of what racism and bigotry have to offer, they both possess a distinct have-not awareness. Watch the Throne is less about flaunting and more about the result of hard work in spite of roadblocks and glass ceilings.
At their show Saturday night, New Jersey's Izod Center was filled with people who get the message. One week into their Watch the Throne tour, the two appeared on separate portions of the stage to "H.A.M." Kanye, in a black shirt, matching leather pants and, yes, a kilt, kicked his verse on the main stage. Jay, dressed simply in black pants, Timberland boots and a T-shirt, opened up on a rising, skillfully lit cube.
The evening's purpose was entertainment. But make no mistake about it — lessons beyond the obvious were served. More times than not, that lesson was that success is attainable if you're willing to get a little dirty.
Images of the human rights activist and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. blended with shots of the Ku Klux Klan flashed on the screen as the duo paused to observe. "Racism is tough," Jay said. "We will make it out alive."
Really, it's hard to look at the guys and not think that you, too, can "make it." Kanye West was an overlooked, underappreciated rapper in the late '90s and into this century who slithered his way to microphone prominence by becoming a top-tier producer. And look at him now, out touring with the rap legend he admires most.
Jay-Z spent the majority of his later youth selling drugs and being far from a law-abiding citizen. Two decades later, at almost 42, there he was onstage playing it straight — with a U.S. flag hanging out of his back pocket, no less. For obvious reasons it sounds crazy, but they are the embodiment of the American dream.
That's why Throne's most popular single yet, "Niggas in Paris," isn't about two snobby rappers pointing to their broke, passport-less peers and wittily saying, "nana-nana-na-naaa!" It's about guys who, based on their pasts, shouldn't be able to live so lavishly, but are.
"I ball so hard motherf—-ers gotta fine me," raps Jay on the opening line of the track — meaning that his success is so offensive to some that it comes with a penalty. Media scribes apparently are the ones doling it out. The tongue-in-cheek yet spiteful mentality is so hip-hop, it's hard for people not familiar with the culture to understand.
The song is such a hit that Jay-Z and Kanye saved it for last on this tour stop — and they ran it through three times, to the delight of their fans. There they stood, free of the monetary woes that concern most, but also free to inspire. The crowd, bouncing and rapping along to every line of their "luxury rap," got that the song, along with the album, is not only a display of good living but an invitation to join the club. You've just got to pay your dues first.
Brad Weté is a contributor to The Root.