Get our free newsletter
Is “Otis” a terrible song?
I thought so. It’s a lazy, looped beat that is trampled on by weak punch-lines, and is just about impossible to consume. But three songs into Thursday night’s Monsters of Rap summit, the track felt central to whatever cultural unifiers linger in the middle class’ societal fabric. An extended intro turned the Verizon Center into “Try a Little Tenderness” karaoke in the dark, then a big fucking American flag adorned the biggest of the three platforms Jay-Z and Kanye West would go on to occupy; lasers and fire came next.
Just like the $300,000 Maybach the duo carelessly destroys in the “Otis” video, Jay and ‘Ye proceeded to carve into an untouchable standard because they could afford to clear the Otis Redding sample. Wealth is just stuff and the ’60s were just things that happened 50 years ago. The united reciprocity from attendees was unguarded catharsis, building up ever since Keith Richards told my generation that Puff Daddy’s “Come With Me” wasn’t real music. And about those attendees: Generation X played cool older sibling, representing the Tunnel Banger era in Timbalands and puffy Gore-Tex winter-fresh vests; white students bobbed along politely, harmless with hoods up; pre-teens who couldn’t discern “Jigga What, Jigga Who” from “Nigga What, Nigga Who” waited patiently for Watch the Throne cuts; and the crowd’s backbone of area African-Americans dressed up for a night at the lounge made everything fun.
It was my fourth time seeing these artists dating back to September 2010 at Yankee Stadium. That show was a brandishing of status fueled by a king’s court of guest stars. March’s undone-by-probing-Tweets South By Southwest mess was about a feigned egalitarian spirit that failed because it turned into a Darwinian model of exclusivity. The summer festival performances by West were theater: inventive and brilliant, led by structured queues. Thursday night was a loose, celebratory rap concert.
After emerging from dueling, elevated blocks on what amounts to opposite ends of where Javale McGee rolls out his “just dunks” offensive philosophy, our heroes stacked two-minute versions of hits for more than two hours. There were nearly 40 songs that took it back to Volume II—a token Reasonable Doubt bone would have been sweet—with a booming parade of muscular tracks everyone knows: “Run This Town” and then “Monster,” “Empire State of Mind” and then “Runaway,” “Big Pimpin’” and then “Gold Digger.”
Collectively, Jay-Z and West have released hugely popular, memorable albums every year since 1996. Extrapolate the smash singles and the night’s playlist was crowded with songs that have big-budget music videos. Under all of the lights, folks knew all of the words.
The same experience happens at Celine Dion or Paul McCartney concerts. But two non-singles brought rare vitality to the traveling arena spectacle. Both of Watch the Throne’s excellent Frank Ocean hooks became reflective bits about where, exactly, a certain class of people sits in society. Leading up to “No Church in the Wild,” a stirring short film of gruesome highlights in American history—race riots, children in KKK outfits, atom bomb tests—compelled even the night’s protagonists to gawk at the screens. During “Made in America,” montage footage of Dr. Martin Luther King played in slow motion; it was another fish- in-a-barrel move that nonetheless stopped everyone in their tracks because of the circumstances surrounding its presentation. Even the club promoters had to breathe it in before eagerly littering 7th Street with glossy invites to exclusive afterparties.
Photos by Ramon Ramirez