Thursday, June 28, 2012

Murder to Excellence; an expose

"When the hook("whole lotta money in a black bag. black strap you know what thats for") is repeated at the end of the song, the line “black strap, you know what that’s for” segues into “Murder” (part of “Murder to Excellence”), which discusses black-on-black crime." -Rap Genius 

Murder to Excellence, the tenth track off of Kanye West and Jay-Z's storied "Watch the Throne", participates in the artist practice of the form of the art matching it's content. Murder (the first part of the song) has a gritty beat, with instrumentation and tones matching a more urban, harsh theme. The backing vocals create a driving force for each of the rappers, pushing them on, creating an aura of tension and giving the feeling of almost being hunted. This element is regarded as form, as it is the structure of the song; it frames the song and provides a skeleton that the content, or the lyrics, is laid over. The content of this section is about how black people murder each other, how black culture is self destructive, how murder is a manifestation of symptoms of a system that discriminates, oppresses and drives black people to murder each other. It's a mature approach to race relations, as it places blame on both black people ("It's time for us to stop redefine black power, 41 souls, murdered in 50 hours") and on the system (the same line Dan pointed out, "What's the life expectancy of black guys? The systems working effectively, that's why"). It challenges the community to move past violence and become more sophisticated ("If you put crabs in a barrel to insure your survival/You're gon' end up pulling down niggas that look just like you/What up, Blood? What up, cuz? It’s all black, I love us "), and as Rap Genius points out, "Jay uses the 50 Cent line “What up, Blood? What up, cuz?” to demonstrate that he is talking to all young black folks (“Blood” refers to the Bloods gang, and “cuz” is a common Crip salutation), and to remind them not to get caught up in gang violence, but rather to feel pride in their race. "

Excellence (the second half), has a cleaner, loftier rhythm. It's sounds sophisticated, and classy. The voices that made "Murder" ominous and threatening sounding shift and make it now sound high class. There are comparisons that can be made here between these vocals and gospel music. Gospel music could be considered one of the shining beacons of hope for the black community, as it has existed through hard times, through slavery and civil rights, and has remained a major part of the community through all its hard times. It has remained an unwavering force for good, and more importantly, a force for wanting to be better. There's a sense of hope in it, that they can push past this life full of hardships and misery and achieve a better one in heaven. The verses here talk about moving up in society, and how black people aren't really involved in high society (because of structurally imposed racism on black people dating all the way back to the middle passage). This song has a hope that blacks will rise up and join their equals in positions of power and influence. Hope that black people won't be stopped by police, for our society will have stopped demonizing black people to the massive extent that it does today. There's the clever line "Domino, Domino, only spot a few blacks the higher I go". If dominoes and black with white dots, the higher the number, the less black you will see. I'm not sure if this is what Jay-Z meant, but true art is something that gets us to ask questions, and whether or not the artist "meant" it does not matter as much as much as we think (for more on this, read Roland Barthes' "The Death of the Author").

The participle "to", when used here, indicates a movement from one place to another. This is what the song does. It moves from one aspect to another, and not only in terms of moving from one topic of discussion to another. The song carries the overall theme of hope, and in this same vein, The Throne hopes that African Americans can move from Murder to Excellence. In this way, by uniting form (rhythm, tone, the aesthetics of vocal parts) with content (the lyrics), Kanye and Jay Z have created a masterful piece of music. This uniting is commonly found in good literature (most commonly in poetry).

Who ever said hip hop wasn't art?

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