It is part of Kanye West’s job to tell people the truth about himself, just like it is part of his job to make great songs. “And now having the most Grammy nominations. I told you the truth,” he announces to the audience at the Staples Center. “People always tell you, ‘Be humble. Be humble.’ When was the last time someone told you to be amazing? Be great! Be great! Be awesome! Be awesome!”
Kanye and Jay do “Niggas in Paris” eight times in a row in Los Angeles. With each new repetition, the song sounds more like a mantra. The more I think about the tour, the more remarkable Kanye’s accomplishment seems, as does the risk he takes by appearing onstage with Jay-Z so many nights in a row in such a tightly scripted setting. His demand for more lights before performing “All of the Lights” is a self-abnegating bit of theater, in which he makes fun of what is actually interesting about his artistic persona. Repeating “Niggas in Paris” over and over again is something else—expressive, emotive, and over-the-top. The impulse to turn a rap song with a good beat into something that actually feels like art is both abstract and liberating for Kanye, for Jay-Z, and for the audience. Anyone who can use Jay-Z as a prop and make him like it—and make the rest of us like it, too—can do anything he wants.
After the ninth and final, record-breaking rendition of “Niggas in Paris,” Jay-Z sees fit to apologize to the sweaty, exhausted L.A. crowd. “I’m sorry if this is your first concert,” he says before the lights come on. “It’s all downhill from here.”
Upon my return back east, I pay a visit to Rakim, the humble, soft-spoken introvert with a uniquely dark and mesmerizing voice who is generally regarded as the most influential rapper alive. In 1987, when he was 19 years old, Rakim released a record with the DJ Eric B., Paid in Full, on which he invented the more artful and interior form of rap that Kanye West has since made his own. He now lives in a mansion in the woods of Connecticut, like an urban samurai in exile, surrounded by football mementos, history books, and Muslim texts. It seems fair to say that Rakim is the conscience of rap; he knows more about the music, and has thought about it more deeply, than any cultural critic or historian.
Rakim admires Kanye as an artist who can create new beats and rub them up against samples scavenged from 50 years of American popular music. “You’ve really got to appreciate an artist that’s really outspoken and feels like his music can change the world,” he explains, adding that he is impressed by the way Kanye’s sensibility has become more complex and thoughtful over time, even as his genius as a producer has continued to grow. “He’s living hard and he’s maturing now.”
Yet Rakim is also bothered by the “luxury rap” that Kanye and Jay-Z are promoting. He grew up in a working-class suburban town on Long Island, he tells me, where the first generation of New York rappers, including the likes of Melle Mel and the Cold Crush 4, seemed like impossibly distant and heroic figures. At the same time, he continues, the fantasies they created in their rhymes were shared with their audience, not alienating. “Even when you think of what the Sugarhill Gang was saying—‘after school, I take a dip in my pool’—he had no pool, he had no Cadillac, he didn’t have a lot of things he was speakin’ on.” Rakim worries that the enormous rift between the rap audience and millionaire rappers who rhyme about Gulfstream jets is robbing the music of inventiveness and joy. “It’s more like, ‘Look what I got’ or ‘You ain’t got what I got’ or ‘You got to get what I got,’” he says. “It’s making the listener a little envious of what’s going on, and it’s almost demeaning.”
When I tell Rakim about my earlier encounter with President Obama, he smiles. Unlike the president, Rakim says he prefers Kanye to Jay-Z. He stops himself for a moment, and then looks sad. “It’s good that the president knows about Kanye, but to have to call him a jackass?” he says, leaning forward in his chair. “He should be a little more focused … I mean, that exposure could have been ‘Yeah, Kanye, he’s a very interesting person.’ Instead of ‘He’s a jackass.’”