Jay-Z and Kanye West are richer than you. If it took you until Watch the Throne to realize this, you’ve either been paying zero attention to your bank account or you’ve suffered a Bernie Madoff-like betrayal of fortune that should have you pitching all the world’s editors with your sad story. This is probably not the case. But how else to explain the sudden surge of criticism directed at the Throne rappers for releasing their opulent collaboration amid, as Sean T. Collins wrote, “the debt deal and the London riots or something”?
Or something. Never mind that the U.K. riots exist in a totally different social and musical sphere and that the musicians speaking out are names the U.S. has barely heard of like Lethal Bizzle and Professor Green. Never mind that if Jay and Kanye were to wait out the recession to drop Watch the Throne, we might have gotten a posthumous release. The album’s strenuous anti-leak regimen, as if Roc Nation was fending off Julian Assange instead of disgruntled assistants and fanboys, was both cause and effect–cause, because critics and commenters couldn’t hear Watch the Throne in advance and thus snatched up easy angles like brand names; effect, because the subtext of all this leak talk was how much it cost. There’s about as much interest in Watch the Throne‘s price tag as in its music. Nobody’s been able to come up with an actual price, of course; the faint whiff of spending is outrage enough.
When people criticize Watch the Throne‘s cost, they’re usually conflating two things: how much Watch the Throne cost, and Jay-Z and Kanye West’s gilt-greased, unrelatable verses. Let’s look at the first. No one is disputing that Watch the Throne was expensive. It’s no accident that the album’s release coincided with Forbes setting out their latest chunk of linkbait: their Cash Kings list of hip hop’s top earners, crowned with a few grafs about the Throne rappers’ list-topping wealth. People who make millions tend to spend millions.
With Watch the Throne, though, the focus shifted to the spending process, as if you could hear the album with no names attached and immediately price it. People talked about its “expensive sound,” as if a sound could be inherently expensive. They gasped about how much it must’ve cost to sample Otis Redding when they’d never even questioned the price of samples before. Some people pored over production credits for what must’ve been the first time in their lives. The album cover, the leak patrol, the pop-up store–all were dredged up as proof of Jay and Kanye’s wild expenditures.
But how wild are they, really? We’ll stay out of Hollywood–although the average major studio spends throneloads of cash on even filler and flops–and stick to music. Just a few months ago, NPR wrote about how a song as uneventful as Rihanna’s “Man Down” costs a million dollars or so. Extrapolate based on chart position, and that’s a lot of millions per pop star. Moving up the event echelons, Britney Spears’ Circus tour had a $10 million stage and cost $6 million a week in upkeep. Lady Gaga’s costumes put her millions of dollars in debt. Album sales, tour sales and advertising deals make artists even more millions; according to Forbes again, U2, Bon Jovi and even Michael Buble’s earnings in the past year far outstrip both Jay and Kanye combined.
On the surface, the second argument seems to hold more weight. Before Watch the Throne‘s release, the most-quoted lyric was from release single “Otis”: “Luxury rap / the Hermes of verses.” Watch the Throne has plenty of similar product-name drops to give those looking hours of indignation; they’ll find isolated words about watches, cars, couture and fine art. This is wrong, the thinking goes, because people can’t relate to having an “other other Benz” or sheepskin coats. But the realistic and the confessional are only two ways to approach music. Aspirational art’s been around as long as art itself, as a glance through any lifestyle section of any magazine or newspaper can tell you.
And if people restricted their listening to songs they could relate to, they’d lose a lot. The No. 1 song in the United States contains the lyric “be the first girl to make me throw this cash / we get money, don’t be mad,” and if you thought that was a fluke, LMFAO’s follow-up is about spraying women with expensive champagne. Right behind it is a song about teenage debauchery that’s so glossy and consequence-free that it bears no resemblance to the real world’s messier benders. More than one hit single involves the apocalypse; just as many involve VIP rooms and bottle service and sex lives beyond the reach of the average clubgoer. Nobody is complaining about any of this.
So why the complaints about Watch the Throne? Partly it’s timing, but Watch the Throne itself holds further insight. On one track, Jay-Z laments: “only spot a few blacks the higher I go.” Another track finds Jay and Kanye, as Brandon Soderberg writes, “painfully aware of how whites see their partying”: “This shit weird / We ain’t supposed to be here.” Now extend this to the entire album. Subconscious or not, there’s a sense that Jay-Z and Kanye West are only allowed a certain level of spending power as black hip-hop musicians; for Watch the Throne to find them talking, even boasting, about exceeding it is seen as an affront. Many people are nothing but well-intentioned pointing out the Throne’s opulence, but the greater the critical mass, the more room for uglier sentiments to build up underneath. The sad thing is how directly Watch the Throne addresses all this. But as in life, it’s much easier to gawk at the label.