Like most Americans, from time to time I make lists of things Barack Obama and I have in common. We both live in Washington. We both think Hawaii is an excellent vacation destination. We both have taken an interest in U.S. counter-terrorism policy. And both President Obama and I have Kanye West in our iTunes music libraries.
Speaking to People Magazine for an end of the year interview, Obama acknowledged he thought Kanye’s music was “outstanding.” But he also said he’d rather socialize with the family from Duck Dynasty than Kanye and his bride Kim Kardashian, who appeared in her husband’s latest music video having sex with him on a motorcycle.
Part of Obama’s initial appeal as a politician in 2008 was that he charmed the hip-hop generation. During the 2008 campaign, my friend Spencer Ackerman noticed Obama’s reference to Jay-Z’s 2003 classic “Dirt off your shoulder” at a campaign event when he made the hand gesture implied in the song’s title. Spencer’s blog post went viral and a meme was born.
For younger voters this was a welcome change of pace. Bill Clinton tried to connect to voters by signaling his love of classic rock. The Clintons in 1992 made their campaign song the perky ode to positive thinking from Fleetwood Mac, “Don’t Stop Thinking about Tomorrow.” George W. Bush’s iPod had plenty of country music. The 43rd president has said one of his favorite songs is the frat party anthem, “Brown Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison.
When Eazy E, the founder of the group that sang, “F#$K The Police,” attended a White House Luncheon in 1991 for Republican fundraisers, it was treated as a political oddity; Today, Jay Z’s friendship with Obama is treated like Frank Sinatra’s friendship with Jack Kennedy. And while Jay and Obama are in very different fields, they are both natural-born front men.
Since its infancy there has been a division of labor in hip hop between the master of ceremonies (MC), or the rapper, and the DJ who would later become the producer. When hip hop music began as soundtracks to parties in the Bronx, the DJ was the more important than the MC. The MC hyped the party, but the DJ extended the dance breaks on those records to keep the party going. As rap music became a business, the rapper emerged as the star and the DJ who created the sonic landscape for the rapper was relegated, with a few exceptions, to the background.
If Barack Obama was in the hip hop business, he’d be a rapper. His speeches inspire, his rhetoric soars and he exudes charisma. Obama however would not be a producer, a job that requires the skill to manage the egos of artists and pay attention to the details that can turn a rapper’s lyrical vision into a downloadable single. DJ Premier or Pete Rock would have never allowed the Obamacare website to be unveiled before the bugs were worked out.
This is where Kanye comes into the picture. While Kanye is a rapper today, he made his mark at first as Jay Z’s producer. Even though Kanye has sold millions of records, his lyrics never seem as natural or spell binding as many others in the game. If you don’t believe me, google “Kanye” and “sweet and sour sauce” or listen to Kanye’s verse on “See Me Now,” the brilliant final track on My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy. On that song he raps, “I’ll admit my first watch was a Fossil, now I’m in the Louvre, looking for Fossils.” We get it Mr. West. You were once middle class like us and now you are in Paris with stratospheric wealth. Kanye returns to this theme on “I am a God” from his latest record Yeezus, where he raps, “Hurry up with my damn Croissants.”
In addition to being an egomaniac, Kanye is also a terrible politician. He says things that alienate his audience. Consider Kanye’s interruption of Taylor Swift at the MTV Music Awards, when he made an impassioned plea that Beyoncé should have won the award. Obama said Kanye was a jackass at the time for interrupting the young starlet’s award speech. Kanye later apologized. Could you ever see Jay Z doing that?
But in this sense maybe Obama and Kanye could benefit from a friendship. Obama could teach Kanye about how to appeal better to his public and keeping his cool. Kanye on the other hand could teach Obama how to better manage a project and seeing it through despite the opposition of those wishing him to fail. And then the two of them could trade stories about Jay Z, Chicago and French pastries. Don’t get me wrong. An evening with game hunters from Louisiana has its charms, but Obama would benefit more today from the head of a rap dynasty than the duck variety.