Inspired by Washington’s conservative ideas, Garvey did not object to racial segregation laws or separate schools, but astutely he paired these ideas with a fiery polemical attack on white racism and white colonial rule. Unlike the NAACP, which appealed to a rising middle class, Garvey recruited the black poor, the working class, and rural workers. After establishing a small base of supporters in Harlem, he embarked on a yearlong national tour in which he appealed to blacks to see themselves as ‘a mighty race,’ linking their efforts not only with people of African descent from the Caribbean but with Africa itself. In uncompromising language, he preached self-respect, the necessity for blacks to establish their own educational organizations, and the cultivation of the religious and cultural institutions that nurtured black families. In January 1918, the New York UNIA branch was formally established, and later that year Garvey started his own newspaper, Negro World; the following year the UNIA set up its international headquarters in Harlem, naming their building Liberty Hall.
Central to Garvey’s appeal were his enthusiastic embrace of capitalism and his gospel of success; self-mastery, willpower and hard work would provide the steps to lift black Americans. ‘Be not deceived,’ he told his followers, ‘wealth is strength, wealth is power, wealth is influence, wealth is justice, is liberty, is real human rights.’
— Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention - Manning Marable
For the lazy critic, Watch the Throne came out at just the right time. Here were two extravagantly rich men rapping about unheard-of fashion brands, luxury watches and premium sports cars while looters ransacked London, American exceptionalism got piqued by a credit rating downgrade and markets threatened to destroy the world. The narrative was set. Income-gap rap was coined. The album was dismissed as irrelevant, out-of-touch.
Given its creators, accusing Watch the Throne of gold-gilded obliviousness is awfully tempting. ‘Fur pillows are actually hard to sleep on’ is a tweet that Marie Antoinette was never lucky enough to make, and Jay, while less Twitter famous, informs us that he’s ‘planking on a million’ a short while into the album. It’s fair to say that the pair aren’t apologetic about their wealth in the age of austerity.
Last time the two were trading bars was on Kanye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Watch the Throne was born out of that album’s sessions and has something of the feel of a sequel, stylistically and in terms of narrative. Kanye’s solo opus moved from extroverted swagger to solipsistic retreat via a messy descent, but ended with Gil Scott Heron asking, ‘Who will survive in America?’
Far from gaudy posturing, WTT attempts to answer that question. If MBDTF was a study of a wealthy black American, WTT is a examination of wealth and black America. ‘This is a celebration of black excellence,’ Jay-Z toasts in the interlude of ‘Murder to Excellence’ - a track that swings from police brutality dirge to manifesto-cum-celebration of a future black elite, extremes that WTT rocks between song-to-song, line-to-line. The album charts the twinned pride and despair of an America with a black president and a burgeoning black bourgeois - just look to Chicago, Kanye’s hometown - but nonetheless remains a nation that binds blackness with underprivilege in a way not dissimilar to the era of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and black radicalism that the album quotes generously from. Rapping about riches and possessing self-awareness are not mutually exclusive qualities, and the pair are more than aware of the problematic relationship between the wealth they’ve attained and their race.
A fairer term for what The Throne is doing here might be Garvey-rap. The album’s philosophy shares much with the black nationalist. Black self-sufficiency, self-reliance – it’s all here in a more globalised and typically capitalistic way. The pair made it, but are also aware of the social and economic barriers preventing others from doing the same thing. Garvey’s most obvious invocation in Hip Hop comes from Mos Def and Twalib Kweli’s collaborative project, Black Star, which took its name from his shipping company of the same name, and the school of thought that Garvey helped establish still presides predominately in that half of Hip Hop known patronisingly as ‘conscious’, but perhaps more than any recent release, WTT splits the difference between underground ‘conscious’ Hip Hop and mainstream bootstrap gangsterism, producing an album that has an unshakeable and unpopular belief in both colourblind, muscular capitalism and black social justice.
That uneasy belief in the transformative yet entrapping power of wealth is best sketched out by Jay-Z. In his verses it’s easy to pick out a dozen times where his position will be celebrated in one instance and then admonished as something still too exclusively white. As notrivia points out in his excellent track-by-track analysis, a Du Bois-ian double consciousness ‘permeates much of the album’. On the aforementioned ‘Murder to Excellence’ he observes, ‘only a few blacks the higher I go,’ before suggesting, ‘we gon’ need a million more’. Whilst rampaging around Paris – in the very Du Boisianly titled N*ggas in Paris - he stops and recognises the strangeness of two wealthy black men traipsing around the Old World (‘we ain’t even ‘spose to be here’). Before taking the All-Back Everything philosophy to the arts and culture and asking, ‘why all the pretty icons always all white? / Put some colored girls in the MoMA,’ and expanding his coalition to Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek on ‘That’s My Bitch’.
A decade ago Jay would’ve been happy cruising around on a big dumb yacht surrounded by dumb white women. Now the joy of being black and rich has realised that that joy is implicit with the ‘sense of always looking at one-self through the eyes of others,’; the expectation that black people never amount t much. As well as hollering about how they made it, they’re trying to ‘kick in the door’ and smash the glass ceiling. How do we make more people like us? Why does society privilege white beauty above black beauty? Why is it so hard to get out of the ghetto? Why are black people still overwhelmingly trapped by their circumstances?
Rather than just gauchely waving hundred dollars bills in our face, the pair hold themselves in a more statesmanlike manner: becoming book-smart as well as street-smart, attending black tie events, performing at the MoMA, moving away from unthinking nouveau rich-ness, tackling issues of white privilege and relating that back to their blackness. For all its swagger, WTT is an album that recognises that the idea of black wealth, a black elite is a recent development and something still revolutionary in its own way – more so when that wealth is tied with knowledge. You know what the most dangerous thing in America is, right?
The argument isn’t always coherent, it has its contradictions and hypocrises, but you get the impression its intent is as much to provoke as it is to be right. Just take Kanye - partly because of the relative bourgeois comfort of his origins - his role on the album is the familar Malcolm X-type agitator/asshole. While Jay’s talking about getting black girls in the MOMA, Pablo Picasso, Rothkos, Rilkes, Kanye’s baiting White America in ways we’ve become accustomed to – comparing inner-city black-on-black crime to the Holocaust, placing the death toll of Iraq in comparison to homicides in Chicago and asking who’s gon’ stop him with that characteristic ‘HUNH?’ WTT, and particularly Kanye’s role in it is just like that deadpan one-liner that caught a nation off balance: ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’. He and the album are both outrageous, incoherent and wrong - but it shifts the argument, it gets attention, it launches thinkpieces. What if there’s something to this?
Grantland’s WTT review, the review that coined income-gap rap, suggested – in a roundabout complimentary way – that the album was a curiosity because it presented a situation where, ‘art cannot possibly prophesy a better future for either of them’. Financially speaking, it’s true for the two as individuals. But when Jay-Z interjects, ‘I’m out here fighting for you,’ or speaks of how he’s ‘tryna lead a nation,’ it’s obvious that he’s not just talking about his comrades, business-partners, or, in the case of the latter quote, his child - he’s talking to black America as if they were his comrades, business-partners and heirs to the black elite vanguard he’s helped found; envisioning a future where the black bourgeois won’t be beholden to the white gaze, white capital and other lingering remnants of institutional racism. Malcolm X’s radicalism often led him to describe the comfortable black bourgeois as House Negroes in White America. WTT shares little of that radicalism, but the critique it’s making is coming from a similar place. After all, X is referenced as a kind of saint of black emancipation alongside his wife, Betty Shabazz, on the earnest but saccharine ‘Made in America’.
And when you give WTT a closer listen and realise it’s not all dumb swagger, the events that those lazy reviews used to slag off the album’s supposed irrelevance actually do have a lot to do with the album. As I write this, the Metropolitan Police have killed another young black man; the killing of another ignited the London Riots. Those riots exposed to the world a disproportionate number of black faces with nothing to lose, no discipline at home or pride in their area. Studying the markets collapse, you see a disproportionate number of white faces with too much they know they won’t lose and no discipline or social conscience. To this, Watch the Throne offers no revolutionary message, or coherent answer, but its questions on what it is to be black and wealthy are far from impertinent.