Unapologetic Millionaire Jay-Z to Sell 'Occupy All Streets' T-Shirts

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They'll cost $22 apiece and the profits will reportedly flow partly to the one percent--that is, to the rapper himself

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When Slate published a widely and justly derided article positing that the best album of the last decade was The Strokes' Is This It, I remember thinking, "But what is the best album?" Were I a more talented music critic, I'd have written about how Rolling Stone puts Jay-Z's The Blueprint in its top 5, but that The Grey Album, a mash-up of Jay-Z's The Black Album and The Beatles The White Album, is arguably the perfect standard bearer for the collaborative digital era. All of that is to say that I have much respect for Jay-Z as a hip hop artist. Even weeks after buying Watch the Throne, his recent collaboration with Kanye West, my guilty pleasure is the third track, "Otis." The lyrics are absurd. It's hard to see how it's any sort of tribute to Otis Redding. It's nevertheless what I've been blasting as I drive my girlfriend's Suzuki Verona down Highway 1.

But this news that the clothing company he co-founded, and in which he retains a stake, is going to sell Occupy Wall Street inspired T-shirts that say "Occupy All Streets"?

It's just too much.

I'm not the type to mix musical affinity and politics, nor to let the substance of lyrics get in the way of my enjoying a good song. "Under My Thumb" by The Rolling Stones? Fantastic. The Beatles singing "I'd rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man"? Undeniably creepy, but still a good song. Jay-Z concluding an otherwise complimentary verse about Beyonce by rapping, "stop looking at her tits / Get ya own dog, ya heard, cuz that's my bitch"? Indefensible, obviously. And I'd have loved to be a fly on the wall for that dinner table negotiation. But I like the flow. And its appalled critics would too if they heard it in another language.

Even presuming that the narrators of Jay-Z's songs are characters, however, and granting artistic license, there is no escaping the major theme in the man's work: I used to be a drug dealer, but due to my staggering talent, hood authenticity and irrepressible hustle, I am now crazy rich. And I am going to flaunt it flagrantly so that you're blown over by my staggering wealth. In his most recent hit, he raps about driving through the New York City hood with his wrist dangling out the window, adorned with new watches that cost tens of thousands of dollars. He says that if you roll up on Kayne West the wrong way, he might just kill you and then escape in his private jet, getting away with the murder because "asylum can be purchased."

Then there's real-life Jay-Z.

Here is a Forbes article that estimates his net worth at $450 million and displays a photograph where he is lunching with Warren Buffett. If we must frame modern America as a struggle between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, have no doubt where Jay-Z stands: nowhere near the Brooklyn residents and small business owners losing their property or apartments to eminent domain proceedings, and literally right next to the billionaire developer benefiting from the deal.

In other words, it doesn't really matter if you're talking about the hip hop artist or the businessman: It takes all kinds of audacity to be Jay-Z and to bring to market Occupy Wall Street-inspired t-shirts that sell for $22 each. The man is arguably the most aggressively unapologetic member of the 1 percent in America. And that's fine, as long as he owns it. What's too much is lauding conspicuous consumption, mocking less wealthy rivals, then trying to profit off OWS.

I can't respect that.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal reports that the shirts have been pulled, and that calls to the company for comment haven't been returned.   

Image credit: Reuters 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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