Features & Columns

Occupy Mainstream

Jay-Z and Kanye West's Watch the Throne tour hits San Jose this week-and the debate over street cred and Wall Street credit rages on
kanye west jay z

WHAT DO Jay-Z and Adbusters magazine have in common? On the face of it, not much. Adbusters is a small magazine published out of Vancouver, while Jay-Z is one of the most successful entertainers in the world. Yet both Adbusters and Jay-Z have seized upon the economic and psychic dislocation caused by the grinding global recession as a means of extending their brands and product lines, with wildly different results.

Adbusters is credited with having conceived of the Occupy Wall Street protest that began in New York in mid-September. The protest against unemployment, inequality and the power of the financial elites was nicely captured by the slogan "We are the 99%" (as opposed to the elite one per cent who control a widely disproportionate share of global wealth) and was a natural extension of the magazine's main product line—strident screeds against branding, marketing and the symbolic flotsam of global capitalism.

The Occupy meme proved highly viable, and it quickly spread to other cities in North America and Europe. But anticipating that anything this popular must have commercial value, some members of the protest in Manhattan's Zuccotti Park quickly applied for a trademark on the phrase "Occupy Wall Street," to prevent it from being co-opted.

But if the decision to trademark "Occupy" led to a moment of soul-searching among the participants, Jay-Z's attempt at getting a piece of the action snapped participants out of their existential gazings. In mid-November, he was photographed backstage at a concert wearing a shirt that read "Occupy All Streets," and announced plans to make the shirts available through his clothing label, Rocawear. But while the company said that the point of the shirts was to remind people that "there is change to be made everywhere, not just on Wall Street," it said it had no intention of sharing the proceeds of any sales with the Occupy movement itself.

The backlash against Jay-Z was so fast, and so vicious, that Rocawear quickly pulled the T-shirts from its website, only to quietly re-introduce them a few days later, with still no commitment to supporting the Occupy movement. For his efforts, Jay-Z has been immortalized in bronze by the artist Daniel Edwards, whose sculpture Mogul (Jay-Z Occupies Occupy Wall Street) depicts the blinged-out rapper at the base of a totem pole, with busts of cartoon plutocrats Richie Rich, Scrooge McDuck and Monty Burns balanced on his head.

kanye jay z YOU ARE WHAT YOU WEAR: Jay-Z comes under fire over a T-shirt critics (fans included) believe exploits the movement's notoriety.

It is hard to see, though, just what Jay-Z has done wrong. After all, in looking to profit off anti-capitalist sentiment and popular discontent with consumer culture, he is merely aping a marketing strategy that Adbusters did not invent, but has long since perfected. What is Adbusters selling? Most obviously, it is selling a bimonthly magazine that retails for $8.95. But the magazine is itself little more than one long advertisement for the organization's true product, which is the idea of rebellion.

Founded in 1989, Adbusters is the flagship publication of the culture-jamming movement. In their view, society has become utterly permeated with capitalist propaganda, to the extent that the culture as a whole is designed to reproduce faith in the system. The goal of culture jamming is to monkeywrench the system by subverting the messages used to reproduce this faith, by blocking the channels—advertising and the mass media—through which it is propagated.

Culture jamming takes various forms, most often various forms of graffiti or defaced advertisements. But Adbusters' most successful innovation is Buy Nothing Day, which falls on the Friday after the American Thanksgiving holiday, and which is reputedly the busiest shopping of the year. Buy Nothing Day is pretty much as billed—it is a day when citizens are invited to spend no money at all, as a way of jamming what would otherwise be a large-scale orgy of consumerism. Adbusters has since expanded its anti-capitalist rhetoric into other areas, most notably the Occupy movement. But in an inspired bit of brand extension, the magazine has just launched its OccupyX-mas campaign. Through various pranks that will include mall sit-ins, flash mobs, credit card cut-ups and poster campaigns, it aims to "unseat the corporate kings on the holiday throne."

So what does any of this have to do with Jay-Z's crass attempt at profiting off of the Occupy movement?

kanye jay z ALL STARS: The Blackspot store emphasizes democracy in a capitalist world, creating a brand name that can house and sell anything users may create.

Only this: Since 2003, the Adbusters website has been happily accepting orders for the Black Spot Sneaker, its own signature brand of "subversive" running shoes. When the shoe launched, Adbusters editor Kalle Lasn described the sneaker project as "a groundbreaking marketing scheme" that would "revolutionize capitalism." There are now three Blackspot shoes, retailing for between $75 and $99, and Adbusters has made Blackspot into an "open-source brand" that can be used by anyone, to sell any product whatsoever.

But when it comes to profiting off anti-capitalist sentiment, it is hard to see what distinguishes the Blackspot sneaker from Jay-Z's "Occupy All Streets" T-shirt. For that matter, it is hard to see what distinguishes either of these from other successful businesses that arose out of a desire to "do capitalism differently," from The Gap and Starbucks to the Body Shop and Whole Foods.

Perhaps, then, the difference is simply this: More than almost any other mogul alive, Jay-Z has always known that his success rests on maintaining a careful balance between his street cred and his marketability, and with his "Occupy All Streets" shirt, the self-styled "black Warren Buffett" has for once misjudged his audience.

It would seem that when it comes to selling rebellion, even Jay-Z has nothing on the Warren Buffett of counterculture, Kalle Lasn.

Andrew Potter is the author of "The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves," out now in paperback from McLelland & Stewart.

kanye jay z ALL HAIL THE KINGS: Kanye West and Jay-Z usher in a new era of American musical royalty.

Bragging Rights

Why hip-hop needs Jay-Z and Kanye West's epic spectacle

By Steve Palopoli

EVERYTHING ABOUT Watch the Throne has been big. Not just another-sequel-to-Tha Carter big, but truly epic, on a scale dizzying even for hip-hop. Two of the genre's most successful, ambitious and downright relentless stars delivered the year's most anticipated album, which has become the year's most anticipated tour, which arrives at HP Pavilion Wednesday.

Anything less would be a letdown for a project that brought hip-hop's unstoppable force Kanye West back together with its immovable object Jay-Z. Kanye got his big break producing for Jay-Z, but that was a decade ago—a lifetime in hip-hop. This time, they were working together as equals.

Right from the start, the project was as over-the-top as it had to be, with Kanye kicking the rumor mill into gear almost two years ago, and initial talk of some kind of minialbum with a handful of songs blossoming into plans for a full-length.

Their collaboration on "Monster" from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy last year raised the stakes, proving they could still make something brilliant together. And when the "H.A.M." single dropped early this year, the anticipation hit new heights.

When the duo finally released Watch the Throne this summer, it was every bit the monster hit everyone thought it would be. But if every action has an equal and opposite reaction, then it should be no surprise that the backlash snowballed quickly.

kanye jay z ALL STARS: Shawn Corey Carter's rise from street-drug-dealer to New York's 'New Sinatra' (worth an estimated $450 million) perfectly captures hip-hop's shift from emphasizing social change to capital.

Reviews were positive, but almost begrudgingly so—while most everyone had to admit the beats were untouchable, the complaints started rolling in, and Watch the Throne got called everything from soulless to stupid to insensitive in the rush to take the album down a notch.

Some fans, too, got a little queasy on first listen, and I admit I was one of them. Gone, it seemed, was the neurotic Kanye whose self-analyzing had powered the best songs on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Instead, Watch the Throne was two naked egos on a rampage, rapping about the high life in the year of the 99 Percent. Did anyone want to hear about West's "other other Benz" in the "Try a Little Tenderness"–sampling "Otis," or Jay-Z calling the paparazzi on himself?

But after repeated listens and enough time, I came around. The haters can maintain that Watch the Throne is nothing but shameless boasting and shallow materialism, but there's a lot more going on here. In many ways, despite its dose of social commentary on songs like "Murder to Excellence," it's a party record. But it's a party record that came along at exactly the right time. Here's the short list of who needs it:

Kanye needs it: For his last album, this guy wound himself tighter than he ever had before. Think about his history, and then read that last sentence again. It's fairly mind-boggling. He pushed himself to the limit, reportedly keeping the recording studio going 24 hours a day and working with more than three dozen other artists over the course of laying it down.

The resulting record was his masterpiece, but it was also a huge downer. Dense layers of sound made it feel oppressive even through its best beats. That's why he needs something ridiculous like "Otis" on the new album. This is his catharsis.

And Jay-Z humanizes him, even when they're boasting about private planes. Reports from the early stops of the tour are that Kanye is goofing around on stage and actually having fun.

Jay-Z needs it: It's not 2002 anymore. Jay-Z has still outsold Kanye by millions, but it's been a decade since his best work. West is at the height of his powers, and critical acclaim. One of the thrills of Watch the Throne is hearing how their two very different styles sound better and better together over time. Ye's the better writer, but he still can't touch Hove's flow. "I guess I got my swagger back," Jay-Z raps on "Otis." And why not?

Hip-hop needs it: No genre has been getting the beatdown like hip-hop as of late. Every year, somebody new is declaring it dead, from Nas to The New Yorker.

Lil Wayne can't prop it up forever, even if he achieves his apparent goal of appearing on every song released by anyone. No, hip-hop needed Watch the Throne, both the album and the tour. It's spectacle, but it's not empty spectacle. It's a joke, but it's not a joke. Anyone who doesn't get that both rappers know how goofy their oversized boasts are just needs to listen for the Blades of Glory sample buried in "Niggas in Paris": ("I don't even know what that means!" "No one knows what it means, but it's provocative!" ) These guys are cracking themselves up.

But more seriously, Jay-Z has stated flat out that Watch the Throne is partly a response to rock music's total dominance on the live-music stage. He doesn't want hip-hop to be confined to the club floor, he wants it to be the biggest show in town, which is why the tour is even more important than the record itself. Songs like "Lift Off" seem to have been written specifically to be performed live.

Jay-Z and Kanye have given the entire genre a come-to-Jesus moment, so it's no surprise Watch the Throne constantly invokes an odd kind of hip-hop spirituality.

"Hova flow the Holy Ghost," Jay-Z raps, but upon repeat listens, it becomes more clear that this is not just about two egos and a game of thrones, but also about two artists asserting the power of their music, and of hip-hop music in general. After all, as they say in "No Church in the Wild": "Human being to the mob/What's a mob to a king?/What's a king to a god?/What's a god to a non-believer?/Who don't believe in anything?"

Watch the Throne Tour, Jay-Z, Kanye West

Wednesday (Dec. 14); 7:30pm

$59.50 and up

HP Pavilion, San Jose