“I arrived on the day Fred Hampton died.” Jay-Z delivers this line from Watch The ’s “Murder To Excellence” with such hyperbole that you almost miss that he’s telling the truth. Indeed, on December 4th 1969 Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, was murdered in his bed by the FBI. On that very same day Gloria Carter pushed her son S.Dot into the world. I’d be remiss to assign too much significance to this coincidence (hey, that rhymes) but it’s wonderful theater. It’s the type of imagery that opens movies, which is essentially what WTT is, a Hip-Hopera. Two black men made an album in a castle and came down from the mountain with it wrapped in gold foil. But for a moment Jay-Z wants to divert your attention from the bling to the bullet. It’s one of his frequent challenges to see if you listen to music or “just skip through it.” Yes, Gwyneth Paltrow is one of my best friends but I’m still Black, really.
Which is why this Fred Hampton line gives me pause, along with Kanye’s “We need to redefine Black Power” from the same track. These allusions to militant thought aren’t necessarily out of place for two of the wealthiest men in hip-hop. Jay-Z has recorded with dead prez and Talib Kweli, while Kanye defiantly called out former President George Bush for his racism on national TV. But in the build up to Watch The Throne these were not the images Jay and Ye wanted to promote.
Instead they held listening sessions in museums and released promo videos of themselves holed up in a fortress on the other side of the world playing snippets for Russell Crowe. On the night the album was released an unprecedented event for the music industry occurred. Thanks to social networks like Twitter, a countless number of people were able to experience an album simultaneously in real time. People bought the project not just to hear it, but to participate in the discussion around it. Your $15 tithe to Hova on iTunes got you a seat in the first pew.
But almost immediately my timeline began to mention this one song, co-produced by Symbolic-1and Swizz Beatz. A song that had the wonderful audacity to open with, “This is to the memory of Danroy Henry.” Henry was the Pace University football player shot and killed by Westchester County cop who was later named Officer of The Year by his union. [read more about him here]
N*ggas watching the throne, very happy to be
Power to the people, when you see me, see you
The sentiment is certainly more Hampton and less “H.A.M.” and I believe it is sincere. Not to mention it is musically one of the best songs on the album. But why couldn’t this have been the first impression? Why couldn’t this be the statement to the world from two of the most influential rappers out right now? What if we didn’t spend all that time dissecting the over-the-top celebration of excess in “Otis” and instead celebrated “Black Excellence”?
What if they recorded the album on a campus instead of a castle? …There’s no progress without the rest.