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JAY Z and Kanye West
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The Jay-Z & Kanye doc: a razor-sharp look at friends & fame

Pubic Enemies provides a stark, nostalgic visual recalling soul-exploring hip hop films of yesteryear, unpacking an ‘epic rivalry’ between two creative giants

Less than a month ago, Jay-Z released his 13th album 4:44, an amalgamation of business advice, introspection and confessions. The album’s opening track, “Kill JAY Z”, is not only a self-examination of his ego but a delve into his relationship with long-time producer and collaborator, Kanye West. “But you ain't a saint, this ain't kumbaye / But you got hurt because you did cool by 'Ye / You gave him 20 million without blinkin' / He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinkin'?” Jay raps on the track, a direct response to Kanye’s odd rant last November on his Stop for the Saint Pablo tour.

Channel 4’s new documentary Public Enemies: Jay Z vs Kanye is a throwback to talking head-style hip hop examinations, directed by Nico Wasserman. Over the phone, Wasserman discussed with Dazed the importance of showcasing the lives of rappers in this manner, and his motivations behind it. “I wanted to explore these two influential guys and what they’d done for hip hop but through nuanced storytelling,” he says. “But to also tell a story about these two figures in hip hop who have this really peculiar rivalry.”

Jay-Z and Kanye first met in 2000, working on the all-time classic Blueprint album. Ye had also begun producing for artists on Jay’s label Roc-a-Fella, after establishing himself as a formidable producer in his hometown, Chicago. Kanye had aspirations beyond sitting behind the boards though: he saw himself on stage. By this point, Kanye had already worked with Cam’Ron, Nas, Trina, Alicia Keys, and Lil’ Kim. He’d also received the coveted Roc chain – but this is where Jay-Z and Kanye’s vision met a bump.

Public Enemies makes a noted effort to showcase the pair’s differences in background: the working class, projects-based childhood of Jay-Z and the middle class suburb beginnings Kanye came from. It’s not often in hip hop journalism of late that we see this diversity of voices within the genre. White, mainstream fans have often romanticised the struggles of rappers due to a homogenising of the black experience, which is the belief that we are all poor, inner-city kids with few prospects for the future.

Nevertheless, West’s route into hip hop was less smooth, he had to be more trusting than Jay-Z. The documentary chronicles the moment the producer was shelved and his subsequent, career-kickstarting performance of “Through The Wire”, unbeknown to Jay-Z and producer Dame Dash. At the time, rappers like West were a bold risk in a world of DMXs and 50 Cents, and from Jay-Z’s perspective, it was business. “It’s like with Madonna, she works with so many different producers throughout her career. Someone like (producer and DJ) Clark Kent was representative of a particular period in Jay-Z’s career, as was Kanye, but I don’t think the rift was anything personal,” says Wasserman. 

“Kanye’s always let us into his world, whereas Jay-Z’s has always been a bit more controlled” – Nico Wasserman

As the documentary highlights, it wasn’t necessarily one falling out that caused the rift, but a misunderstanding of their public and professional relationship. Jay’s lyrics are littered with references to mafioso icons such as Tony Montana and Michael Corleone, championing their business savvy, as well as crime. Perhaps he always held Ye as a business associate, something I myself hadn’t quite realised until 4:44 dropped. “Don't big bro me, don't ‘Big Homie’ / I've seen pure admiration become rivals,” Jay-Z raps on “Caught Their Eyes”. It was in reference to Kanye’s homage to his mentor on “Big Brother”, taken from his third studio album in 2007, Graduation. The doc prises this open.

DJ Clark Kent had known Jay-Z back when he was a 19-year-old kid, and he would eventually be the one to introduce him to Jaz-O, his mentor. Speaking to some of Jay-Z's former friends and associates like Clark Kent, they allude to why Jay-Z is guarded in that way. Kanye’s always let us into his world whereas Jay-Z’s has always been a bit more controlled.” In the documentary, conversations with his former teacher Renee Lowden, where she went as far as to call him ‘her little Shawn’, gave further insight into the kind of kid he was. Detailing his emotional state following his father’s departure, it perhaps suggested that Jay has spent years controlling how much of what we see. 

“We had some interviews scheduled, and mysteriously, an hour or two before they’d be cancelled: so it gives you some insight into how much he controls his life. But there were moments where we was happy for us to know certain things, like his time in London. Whereas Kanye’s the opposite, he’s got people who are a lot freer to talk about their relationship with him,” Wasserman explains. 

Recently, documentaries such as HBO’s The Defiant Ones and Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop on Dre and Diddy respectively have shone a light on hip hop’s most influential figures, but it doesn’t negate the question: why do this now? Looking at Jay-Z’s relationship with Obama, which is in America's consciousness, there's been a kind of shift in the way they talk about hip hop,” Wasserman says. Documentaries such as 2004’s Fade To Black and Beef, which focused on Jay-Z and his career, were representative of hip hop’s golden years. Now, there’s a need to place him within our newer consciousness and understanding of the star.

Due to the current state of hip hop documentation and journalism, which over the years has seen black voices increasingly overlooked, it is important to observe the lens in which Public Enemies was created. Anything close to what looks like a beef in hip hop is often masqueraded as some gross fetishisation of violence among black men. Both artists are in spaces dominated by affluent white people, and with both transcending hip hop culture as mainstream giants, we must acknowledge how these two black men are perceived in media. “I think getting to a point where you stop and question where your life is headed is, that can be just as important as being open with your mental health. Because the audience of hip hop is so broad, both of their stories are relatable and it doesn’t necessarily mean one has more weight than the other,” Wasserman explains, comparing the artists. 

The film includes a lot of special moments, specifically, some time is spent in a teenage Ye’s bedroom, where who knows how many hits were first brewed. Wasserman adds: “I was always into documentaries from the mid-80s, with people like DJ Kool Herc but I wanted to see beyond the talking heads and go into their worlds. Getting into the bedroom of a teenage Kanye, which just happened to be a lucky turn of events, is a memorable moment. It was easier to understand the world he came from by standing in his bedroom.”

Both rappers are far removed from their humble beginnings and now exist on a plane where they are lauded as much for their shrewd business decisions as they are for their musical prowess. A lot of mainstream audiences only began to revere Jay-Z, for example, in the latter years of his career due to his close proximity to Barack Obama, as well as his stake in the Brooklyn Nets basketball team. “We spoke to Combat Jack who worked with Def Jam as a lawyer way back when as well as Touré. I thought it was important to have contributors from similar backgrounds especially from black communities because that level of nuance often gets lost in hip hop commentary,” Wasserman says.

The documentary suggests that West’s public appearance with Donald Trump was a subtle taunt and mocking of Jay-Z, who publicly supported Obama on numerous occasions. It may often appear as though West is the villain of this story, but what the film identifies is something that even Drake understood earlier on in his career: “I could relate to kids going straight to the league / When they recognise that you got what it takes to succeed / And that's around the time that your idols become your rivals / You make friends with Mike but gotta AI him for your survival,” Drake rapped on “Thank Me Now”. Essentially: be weary of your heroes. 

I doubt neither rapper is going to be as forthcoming about their relationship with one another, but the insight delivered by Jay-Z and Kanye’s friends and associates are a reminder that hip hop is as much a theatre of big egos as it is its own cultural entity. Astute and insightful hip hop journalism has been difficult to come by in the industry’s shift towards video content, but Public Enemies gracefully captures the essence and substance of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s story.

Public Enemies screens on Channel 4 tonight (July 31) at 10pm