What's up with you and Jay, man? Are y'all OK, man?
That question was posed over a decade ago on the remix to Kanye West's introspectively conscious anthem "Diamonds From Sierra Leone," featuring his longtime industry "big brother" Jay Z.
We may have now received that answer.
Jay Z and Kanye West have been a curious duo for as long as we can remember. Dating back to the early aughts when Kanye was an awkward producer mentored by the likes of both No I.D. and Deric "D-Dot" Angelettie, it seemed as though once he received his Roc-A-Fella chain, Kanye would remain a quiet fixture in Jay Z's shadow. Kanye produced some of Jay Z's deepest cuts like "This Can't Be Life" and "Lucifer," as well as some of his most famed hits, including "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," "03 Bonnie & Clyde" with Beyoncé and the nefariously beefy "Takeover." To say Kanye West helped shape the iconic Jay Z sound wouldn't exactly be a lie. To say Jay Z made Kanye West a household name wouldn't be one either. Their relationship has been equally beneficial, with the ups and downs that brothers typically endure in the familial game of competition. Could all that really be over?
At the Seattle stop of his Saint Pablo Tour, Kanye West took one of his famed breaks to incite a rant about Jay Z. It stemmed from the song "Pop Style," originally aimed as a posse cut with Jay, Kanye and Drake, leaving Drake as the only rapper standing on what ultimately became a Views track. The reason, as Kanye so eloquently stated, was due to "TIDAL-Apple bulls**t." He emphasized to the crowd his distaste for not being able to just deliver art, a claim he's made numerous times in the past, while still chasing his disappointment with a need for funding. This is also not the first time he's been perplexed by the newly minted big business of streaming music. Back in July, he referred to the streaming wars as a "d**k swinging contest" on Twitter.
And maybe that fateful evening in Seattle we could have chalked up Kanye's tantrum to that aforementioned mission of artistic delivery by any means necessary, but he punctuated that speech with some deeply seated emotions directed toward Jay Z. Among them, the criticism that Jay merely called to check on his family following the Parisian robbery of his wife Kim Kardashian (Ye preferred a visit) and the now infamous soundbyte "Our kids ain't never even played together!" The coup de grâce was the announcement that there will never be a Watch the Throne 2, and he placed that entire blame upon Jay Z.
However, their tattered dynamic is anything but new.
Kanye West may have entered the game as a brainy, artsy neophyte, but he quickly found his footing in the swarm of Roc-A-Fella egos. Sure, he was the new kid on the block, but being touted as a creative genius early on (who dodged death by car accident no less) was not going to maintain his humility for very long. Plus, he was aligned with the crowned G.O.A.T. of hip-hop, a lyrical titan and shrewd businessman. Like Warren Buffet meets William Shakespeare. Under that wing, Kanye was destined to fly. But with great mentorship comes great competition.
Look at the list of Jay Z's underlings: Memphis Bleek, Beanie Sigel, hell even J. Cole. These are artists who, while all talented, never really reached Jay Z's pinnacle and have for the most part known their place on the team in season. We only learned about the dissention with the first two mentioned later on, though Bleek's stance was hinted at through Jay's "Coming of Age" and its sequel. Still, if emotions like jealousy were ever produced, none could boast Jay's track record in that friendly game of war. Kanye could.
Ye's 2004 debut album The College Dropout went Triple Platinum. Line that up alongside Jay Z's Black Album a year prior, which yielded the same sales (and some hard-hitting Kanye West production). Kanye's Late Registration in 2005 also went Triple Platinum, Jay's Kingdom Come the following year undersold with Double Platinum status and 2007's American Gangster only went Platinum, as well as The Blueprint 3 in 2009. Meanwhile, Kanye in 2007 went Double Platinum with Graduation and Platinum in 2008 with 808s & Heartbreak. It's like their record sales were chasing each other, indicative of the fact that despite Jay Z's head start, Kanye was putting equal numbers on the board.
The tension was building in 2007, when Kanye released the sappy "Big Brother" track detailing his journey from protégé to provocateur. The cut produced thinly veiled jabs about Jay outshining Ye on the aforementioned "Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)" along with Kanye taking credit for discovering Coldplay's Chris Martin's knack for singing over rap beats and a list of musical equivalents that embody the phrase "You Mad?" Back then we called it "growing pains." And when Kanye took an unfortunate turn a year later with the passing of his mother Donda West, we decided his unruly yet artistic new direction was his own form of grieving and self-therapy. He hasn't really looked back ever since.
It quickly moved from trauma to trademark, a fate that was actually sealed even earlier in 2005 when Kanye declared, "George Bush doesn't care about Black people," and then in 2009 during the MTV VMAs and his "I'mma let you finish" speech to Taylor Swift. Ye was always nervously outspoken, but life made that an integral part of his personality. And somehow it worked for his relationship with Jay Z. 2011'sWatch the Throne proved that, where we met two millionaires who together can strip Maybachs for fun and apart can build their own dynasties (pun fully intended). Jay is the composed one, Ye the crazy one — a less volatile Michael and Sonny Corleone.
But over the course of the last five years, that formula needed recalculating. Kanye's rants have intensified, Jay Z's business has boomed. Even when public mud (or Lemonade) was flung into his publicly personal persona, Jay has managed to remain shockingly cavalier. Kanye, on the other hand, has proudly strewn his crazy cards across the table screaming "Gin!" when everyone is playing solitaire. And Jay has removed himself gradually from that narrative. Regardless of the speculations of reasons, he never attended Kanye's wedding to Kim Kardashian in 2014. In 2015, he named Kanye as a TIDAL partner, but the list of so-called "partners" was long and extensive. At the Yeezus listening session at Milk Studios that same year, Jay and Bey were off to the side to themselves. Jay attended the 2016 listening session for The Life of Pablo at Madison Square Garden tucked away in a bleacher and not in the pit with Kanye and all of his friends. They say sometimes you have to love people at a distance, which appears to be exactly what Jay Z is doing.
So maybe Kanye West is using the rotten Apple-TIDAL metaphor for his deteriorating relationship with Jay Z. Kanye is very Apple: creative, innovative, overpriced and a necessary evil. Jay is very TIDAL: sharp, expensive, yet evolutionary and at times a little stoic. When those businesses merge, the temporary excitement would eventually fade since, side by side, these are clearly square pegs and round holes, even though both started as a mission for good music.
A departure between Jay Z and Kanye West would change the hip-hop allegory by confirming that all things fall apart. Their ability to always find each other was our greatest exception. Sometimes the exception proves the rule. But most of all, the end of Jay Z and Kanye West is the fall of one of the greatest balances in hip-hop history: sense and sensibility.
(Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Roc Nation)