Hip hop has provided some engaging documentaries in the past, but this new Channel 4 documentary really caught my eye. It focuses on two of the biggest superstars in hip hop; Jay Z, one of the most legendary and successful rappers ever, and Kanye West, a musical innovator who happens to be my favourite artist, and their relationship over the past two decades. After hearing it aired I had to make sure I watched it. It always interests me to hear what goes on behind the scenes in the genre outside of the music.
Ever since the early 2000s Jay Z and Kanye West have been at each other’s side, for different reasons. More recently their relationship seemed to be at stake when Kanye publicly called out Jay for not being a good friend. This documentary, Public Enemies: Jay Z vs Kanye West, aimed to give us some insight into the history of their relationship, showing us that it was never always great to begin with.
The main viewpoint that’s pushed by the doc is that Kanye has always been under Jay’s shadow. Partially true maybe? It was Jay who gave Kanye his first record deal under his Roc-A-Fella label – as a producer.
All the information given aside, the documentary goes deep into the past by speaking to Ye’s close friends GLC and Consequence (both of whom laid good verses on The College Dropout). Another friend tells us about being part of Kanye’s first rap group, State of Mind. We get to see the bedroom in which Kanye produced music as a 14/15 year old. It’s nostalgic to see these origins of Kanye where all the magic began. We don’t get to see Jay’s origins in the way we get to see Kanye’s.
The doc doesn’t have to tell you that it’s common fact that Kanye has been indispensable for Hov. He’s produced some of Jay’s best songs of his career. Kanye first got a beat to Jay for the song “This Can’t Be Life” in 2000. From there he landed five beats on Jay’s The Blueprint, arguably his best album to date.
Kanye kept producing for Jay, but what he really wanted to do was become a rapper. This is the area where the documentary sheds some light on.
Kanye was signed as a producer for Roc-A-Fella, but he wanted an artist deal. So Jay gave one. But apparently, he had no intention of backing Kanye as an artist and only signed this additional deal to keep Kanye’s production services exclusive.
Sounds harsh. By this time, Jay had become a formidable force in the rap game and Kanye hadn’t even put out his first album yet. This is the part of Kanye’s come-up that interested me the most.
No one believed in Kanye. Did people like his beats? Yeah. But no one thought he could become a capable rapper. He proved everyone wrong after his fatal car accident by going behind Jay and the label’s back with his debut single – “Through the Wire” – putting out the song and a music video.
Jay was pissed. But once he saw the song catch on and become successful, he had no choice but to back Kanye as a legitimate artist. Ever since then he’s delivered classic after classic.
Early on in the doc it becomes clear who the creators are routing for. Kanye’s presented as a vulnerable, outspoken creative whose talent was never truly appreciated by Jay and the music industry. Jay’s presented as a business tycoon just looking out for success. It’s hard to not believe this narrative, because the facts seem to be there. Kanye’s always looked up to Jay; he’s the one who gave him a record deal, and has even showed his appreciation for him on the song “Big Brother”. They’ve always come across as a big brother–little brother pairing.
Despite the lack of belief by Jay in the mid-2000s, Kanye’s never came out and criticised Jay for that. In a way it’s understandable. A producer-turned-rapper, at that time, would have sounded like a sure-commercial failure. So maybe it makes sense that Jay kept Kanye out, and they probably weren’t close friends at that time anyway.
Then what has gone on to cause a rift in their friendship? The way I see it, Jay and Kanye are polar characters. Jay is politically correct, all about making good connections and keeps his business out the public eye. Kanye on the other hand, is passionately outspoken and controversial, opinionated and open to the public.
The differences were always there. Kanye was a middle-class Polo-wearing nerd. Jay was a hustling drug-dealer from the projects. Their two worlds were bound to collide.
It seems like Jay needs to distance himself from Kanye whenever he’s being controversial, possibly to maintain matters on the business end of things. Moreover he likes having his private life private. When marrying Kim Kardashian, Kanye sacrificed any privacy in favour of being in front of a camera non-stop. Sounds like a bit of a petty reason to drift away from a friend, but maybe for Jay’s side of things Kanye changed to the point where he wasn’t bearable to be around. Even his friends in the documentary stated that they don’t recognise Kanye anymore; he’s not the same friend that they used to know. Like Jay said on 4:44, “If everybody’s crazy, you’re the one that’s insane.”
Then again, if your friend’s wife got robbed, surely you should visit them instead of calling them up to ask if they’re “okay”? Even if you don’t like your friend’s wife, that seemed insensitive on Jay’s part and this lack of communication probably led to Kanye airing out their personal problems live onstage.
Whatever happens in the future, their friendship and work relationship has provided monumental songs, albums and moments in hip hop. The documentary didn’t provide all the answers, it touched upon most of the topics on a surface level, but it was still a very interesting watch, even though not all the information was news to me. If these two manage to sit down and put their problems aside they could become a formidable force again, because they’re bigger and better together.