When one of the greatest MC’s to ever pick up a microphone directs their anger in your direction for any reason, it’s pretty difficult to find the silver lining. Then again, the more I thought about it over the last few days, the more it felt like Jay-Z’s not so subtle shots at his one-time friend and former collaborator Kanye West on his most recent album 4:44 might be the best thing that could have possibly happened to Yeezy in 2017. In fact, it might be the exact thing he needs to regain his place at the top of the rap world.
Before I get to the why, it’s import to first revisit what happened. For well over a decade, Jay and Kanye have reigned as one of the most potent duos in the rap game. Whether it was West manning the boards on all-time classics like The Blueprint, Jay dropping gems on the remix of “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” or their incredible full-length collaboration Watch The Throne, magic happened whenever the pair entered the studio together. Then, last year, West suffered a very public meltdown.
During a concert in Sacramento, California on his Saint Pablo tour in 2016, he called out Jay — who, along with Beyonce didn’t show up to his wedding with Kim Kardashian, and apparently wasn’t interested in setting up play dates with their daughters — saying, “I’ve been sitting here to give ya’ll the truth. Jay-Z, call me, bruh. You still ain’t calling me. Jay-Z, call me. Aye, bruh, I know you got killers. Please don’t send them at my head. Just call me. Talk to me like a man.”
Whatever tension existed between the two of them behind closed doors seemed to have finally boiled over in that moment. Notably, Jay didn’t address the issue at the time. Instead he decided to share his thoughts about Kanye, someone he brought into the game, supported, and even apparently loaned large sums of money to, on his latest album 4:44, which was entirely produced by West’s mentor, and the former President of his label G.O.O.D. Music, No. I.D.
On the opening track, “Kill Jay-Z,” Hov lays it all out there. “You dropped outta school, you lost your principles / I know people backstab you, I felt that too / But this f*ck everybody attitude ain’t natural / But you ain’t a Saint, this ain’t KumbaYe / But you got hurt because you did cool by ‘Ye / You give him $20 million without blinking / he gave you 20 minutes on stage, f*ck what was he thinking?”
On another track “Bam,” which samples the song “Bam Bam” that Kanye flipped to create his own song “Famous” Jay appears to allude to a line that Yeezy rapped on “30 Hours” –- “hit the gym, all chest no legs” — saying, “Uh, n****s is skippin’ leg day just to run they mouth.” Then in “Caught Their Eyes,” he raps, “I’ve seen pure admiration become rivals / I’ve been to Paris at least two times/I’ve seen the Eiffel, I’ve seen an eye full,” which might allude to their joint track, “N****s in Paris.”
It’s difficult to pin down what, exactly, were Jay’s motivations are by taking these shots. He’s one of the most calculating artists in the game today, and has been for a minute. In an explanation of “Kill Jay-Z” that he gave to iHeart Radio, he explains that the song is “not to be taken literal,” and that, “It’s really about the ego. It’s about killing off the ego, so we can have this conversation in a place of vulnerability and honesty.” Some big brotherly love to his younger colleague perhaps then?
A more cynical person might say that going after Kanye is a move designed to draw eyeballs and garner attention for his latest project. Even if that wasn’t his main goal, Jay had to know that that would be the result by committing these words to tape? There’s hardly anything that rap fans love and relish in more than a good beef. A public battle between him and Kanye would be one for the ages.
Then, of course, you’re left with the simple fact that Jay was actually pissed. He’s never been someone to take public slights lightly. He was angry Kanye would drag his name out there in front of 20,000 people inside a basketball arena and create nauseating, unwanted headlines as a result, especially after all the times he’d personally helped him out. Then Kanye affiliated himself with Donald Trump and became basically radioactive to everyone in the world of rap. Despite the rumors, Jay-Z is still human after all. Maybe it was just all too much for him to take.
Regardless of his motivations, like I mentioned in the intro, Jay’s shots at Kanye might be the best thing that could have happened to Mr. West, or at least for fans of the Chicago rapper for the simple reason that, historically, he’s always created his best, and most compelling work when he’s got an adversary. This stands true for a lot of rappers, actually, but for whatever reason, it seems that Kanye really thrives when he feels that the odds are stacked against him. When the world doubts his abilities. Is there anything that could light a fire under his ass more than having his “Big Brother” come after him?
To many, Kanye’s greatest work is his magnum opus is the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Now think about how that project came together. It was, in essence, his grandiose apology to the world for being a douche bag over the last year — a “jackass” in the words of President Barack Obama — after stealing Taylor Swift’s moment at the VMAs. He retreated from the world, went to Hawaii with the Avengers of rap and came back with a masterpiece that proved his art was worth the public shenanigans
The same theme was in place for his debut album, which was created to show all the elites in the music world that he was more than just a producer. Then, again, on Late Registration and Graduation, when he showed the hardcore, gangsta rappers out there that a kid in a pink polo and a Louis Vuitton backpack wouldn’t just resonate in the culture, he would outsell them all too. Then there was Yeezus, a 45-minute long temper tantrum aimed at the fashion industry that wouldn’t allow him the spot at the top he felt he deserved.
A lot of the messiness that marked his last album The Life Of Pablo, in my view at least, could be chalked up to the fact that he’d run out of targets to rail against. Where they didn’t exist, he tried to invent them — “I made that b*tch famous!” — but it didn’t quite feel right. With Jay-Z testing him out in the public sphere, it really feels like we might once again see the return of a Kanye West with a chip on his shoulder, which is a very, very good thing for rap fans. He’s already decided to take Tidal to court over back royalties, and slowly seems to be re-emerging in public and on other prominent folk’s social media accounts. Smiling no less!
If Jay’s shot don’t bring about the return of the “Old Kanye” I’m not sure what will.