One rapper wants permission to sleep around; the other's a vision of wedded stability
Sean Carter and Beyoncé Knowles were married about three years ago; according to both spouses, the arrangement has been going pretty well. "Still all up on each other, ain't a damn thing changed," Knowles sang on "Countdown" off of her recent album 4, a record largely devoted to the idea of devotion. And on Watch the Throne, the new, chart-topping LP co-authored by Carter—better known as Jay Z—he gives a few, loving shout-outs to the wife. In one song, "That's My Bitch," he says her portrait should be hung in the MoMA. "You too dope for any of those civilians," he raps. "Now shoo children, stop looking at her tits / Get ya own dog, ya heard?" Crass, sure, but also protective.
Watch the Throne 's other principal, Kanye West, serves up his own version of that same line earlier on "That's My Bitch." "I paid for them titties, get your own," he drawls, twisting Jay's idea of ownership-via-romance to romance-via-ownership-of-body-parts. The rest of his verse reserves its acid for the opposite sex, describing a relationship with a girl who was too déclassé to appreciate Kanye's interest in life's finer things. For example, she mispronounces "Basquiat," and is "learning a new word—it's yacht." The only vision of domestic bliss we get is decidedly non-traditional: "I'm a freak, huh, rock star life / The second girl with us, that's our wife."
On the lyrics interpretation website Rap Genius, someone has slapped an image of the poster for Vicky Cristina Barcelona on that last Kanye couplet. It's perfect. The 2008 Woody Allen flick depicts Javier Bardem, improbably, arranging to love and live with Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz—together, under the same roof. Chances are, Kanye's a fan. To an ever-increasing extent, his rap fixates on the idea of sanctioned polyamory, in which sleeping around jibes with having a committed relationship. Which is funny, given how much his Watch the Throne partner Jay-Z talks up one girl and one girl alone.
Kanye's romance rap typically comes across as bitches-and-hoes boilerplate, but listen closer. He's trying to establish a new order, to evangelize for Dan Savage-ordained good-giving-gameness between lovers—an acceptance of kink that the outside world condemns. For Kanye, as for a lot of guys, that kink is having multiple partners. "Hell of a Life," off 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was about this; on it, he fantasized about being married to a permissive porn star who'd let him get with whomever he'd like. On the track before it, "Runaway," West's protégé Pusha T laid down a far colder verse on what infidelity often means to rappers. "I did it, all right, all right, I admit it," he rhymed, putting himself in the moment of confrontation with a girlfriend who'd found he'd been cheating. "Now pick your next move: You could leave or live with it."
There's the tension: West's previous relationships have been apparently marked by a kind of infidelity tied, corruptly, to his own wealth and influence. He cheats because he can; she accepts it because she relies on him; there's no trust. But he wants out. In Watch the Throne's opening number "No Church in the Wild"—a song about having the ability to write one's own rules—he rhapsodizes about a new religion: "No sins as long as there's permission' / And deception is the only felony / So never fuck nobody without tellin' me." A few lines later, his mind drifts to a dream girl marked by two tattoos: "One read 'No Apologies' / The other said 'Love is Cursed by Monogamy.'" The sour tone of "That's My Bitch," meanwhile, comes from remembering a relationship where money was definitely an object, and where the girl wasn't on this wavelength—" You had no idea what ya dealing with," he opens.
As for Jay-Z? His rap about girls—or, about a girl these days—is significantly less fraught (remember the one problem he didn't have on "99 Problems"?). But that's true for virtually every subject the two rappers touch on Watch the Throne. Kanye's persecuted; he externalizes his woes. Jay just wants to inspire imitation through coolly executed awesomeness. Kanye's rapping about how, for all of his success, he's still out of step with the way the world works; Jay's demonstrating that he's conquered the world as it is and wants to show others how he did it. But disconnects like these are to be expected. Watch the Throne is an album about bromance—about Jay and Kanye's own buddy-buddy relationship serving as an example for black aspirational unity—but it's also, necessarily, a study in contrasts. Debate all you want who's got the right view, or who's the better rapper, or whatever. But it's clear which of the two sounds happier.