And we all just entertainers And we're stupid and contagious
-- Justin Timberlake, from Jay Z's Holy Grail
PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Take a close look at the nominees in the Best Rap Song category and you'll find a familiar and significant name among their writers: Kurt Cobain.
Because nominee Jay Z's Holy Grail uses a chorus based so heavily on Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," that Courtney Love had to approve it, and Cobain, Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic received songwriter credit. That puts Cobain in the same company as Kendrick Lamar, A$AP Rocky and Drake at this year's awards, but it also sheds a high-wattage light on one of music's most significant developments of the last few years: Its artists' focus beyond fame.
On Thanksgiving week, Kanye West had a tabloid-fodder day that was busy by even his standards. On both The Breakfast Club morning show on New York's Power 105.1 and a Sirius XM (SIRI) appearance with host Sway -- now best known for Kanye's quip "You ain't got the answers, Sway!" -- West tried to pound home one key argument -- that the music isn't all that matters. The music makes him a commodity, a spokesman and a paid personality, but it's not giving him power. He referred to his Watch The Throne collaboration with Jay Z as a "rap idea" and argued that his latest release, this year's acclaimed Yeezus was "more a film or Broadway or play idea." It's his broader art that he's clearly envisioning as a parallel to the multimedia pop art of Andy Warhol's Factory period, which was only confirmed when Warhol product Lou Reed reviewed the album earlier this year.
When Power 105.1 host Charlamagne The God argued that people love Kanye for his music and not his fashion, business and art, West pushed back that he wants far more. He doesn't want himself and his Yeezus sneakers to be Nike's (NKE) equivalent of Michael Jordan and his Air Jordan line -- he wants to be Phil Knight. He wants to be "Shakespeare in the flesh. Walt Disney (DIS), Nike, Google (GOOG)," as he told Sway, and he wants the power and influence that come with it. He doesn't want a promotion deal, he wants to dish out those deals. He doesn't want to open a store in his neighborhood, he wants neighborhoods and their political representatives around the world to offer him concessions and beg for him to consider building factories there.
He wants a place at the table that he argued black celebrities outside of Oprah Winfrey just don't have, but he could have just as easily argued that he was seeking power that celebrities in general lack.
Consider Jay Z's last week, for example. He received nine Grammy nominations for Magna Carta Holy Grail, but his most notable achievement came on Dec. 6, when his sports management business helped sign client Robinson Cano away from the New York Yankees and into a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Seattle Mariners. Consider that before he could take that sports management gig, he had to sell a minority interest in the National Basketall Association's Nets. While small compared to that of majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov, Jay Z's stake was nonetheless influential in getting the Barclays Center built and the Nets moved from New Jersey to Brooklyn.
When Jay Z posts on his Life + Times that he considers Magna Carta Holy Grail only the sixth-best album of his 12-album solo career and finds only six of its songs worth his time, he's not having himself a good cry. By ranking only one of his albums from the last decade above it -- 2007's concept album American Gangster -- he's tacitly admitting that he's been thinking in broader terms lately.
Since appearing in Forbes with him back in 2010, Jay Z has been bending the ear of Warren Buffett and applying what he's learned to other enterprises. He's been diversifying, and even his own lyrics suggest that's a wise move.
Bright lights is enticing but look what it did to Tyson.
If you look closely at the template for hip-hop royalty in the late '90s and early 2000s, it hews closely to the example set by Mike Tyson. The first time this writer and many other Americans became familiar with the Bentley line of luxury cars was when the then heavyweight champion and future Boxing Hall of Famer crashed his $180,000 Bentley convertible into a parked car in May of 1988. He kept pet tigers on the grounds of a 50,000-square-foot Connecticut mansion that was so tricked out in '80s brass an accoutrements that its current owner -- 50 Cent, who bought it for $4.1 million citing its "Miami Vice feel" -- has sunk $6 million into renovating it and still can't sell it after nearly five years on the market.
Like Jay Z, 50 Cent also seems focused on other things these days. After making more than $100 million when Coca-Cola bought out his stake in Vitamin Water in 2007 and watching his album sales slump and his feud with Ja Rule fizzle into fodder for a Vh1 I Love The 2000s segment, 50 Cent has been intermittently doling out financial advice and distancing himself from a public image that leaned heavily on his Get Rich Or Die Tryin' story of surviving a shooting to start his rap career. In his mellowed life, there's little room for Miami Vice anymore.
"That's why I'm downsizing, I need somewhere where I can feel at home," he told Vibe about his sprawling estate a few years back. "It feels like I'm in a hotel."
The house is also a sprawling reminder of Tyson's multiple missteps including a rape conviction, threats to eat New York sports broadcaster Russ Salzberg's babies and his very real gnawing of Evander Holyfield's ear. It's a standing symbol of his conspicuous spending that included the $60,000 a year he spent on cat food, $9 million he paid out to actress Robin Givens after their divorce and six figures he routinely spent his vehicles. It was an outward display of status but, as 50 Cent and Tyson can both attest, it's not a lasting one. Then again, it doesn't always take reckless and criminal activity to make a fortune go away.
Caught up in all these lights and cameras But look what that s-- did to Hammer
It's easy to take shots at M.C. Hammer for amassing a $33 million fortune in the late 1980s and early 1990s on the strength of albums like Please Hammer, Don't Hurt 'Em and Too Legit to Quit and blowing it on a $12 million house and a 200-person payroll costing nearly $6 million a year, but that kind of money wasn't exactly something hip-hop was awash in at that point in time. Other rappers had promotional deals, but Hammer had PepsiCo and British Knights sewn up, had Mattel produce an M.C. Hammer doll and had the Hammerman Saturday morning cartoon on ABC. Sure, LL Cool J and 3rd Bass took shots at him publicly, but no less than James Brown, Deion Sanders, Ice-T and Tupac Shakur had his back.
Hammer had the world's attention and had influence that had escaped hip-hop to that moment, and that was a far more valuable asset to squander than what, in today's terms, is a relatively small hip-hop fortune.
I know nobody to blame, Kurt Cobain, I did it to myself.
At a time when the ceiling for musicians appears to be signing an exclusive streaming deal with Spotify, it's tough to blame them for pushing for more. It's ambition not just limited to hip-hop either. Dave Grohl likely could have hung it up after Cobain's death 20 years ago in April, but has instead become a one-man foundation supporting what little remains of guitar rock. In the last five years, he's been active with Foo Fighters, Them Crooked Vultures, Queens of the Stone Age and Tenacious D; teamed with Paul McCartney on various projects, filled in for Chelsea Handler on E!'s Chelsea Lately and gave the keynote speech at this year's South By Southwest in Austin.
About half a decade ago, he and Foo Fighters bandmate gave an interview to Canada's CBC that alluded to much of what's been driving him over the last two decades.
"It was just time to keep playing," he said. "I'd been in bands a long time before that, I wasn't ready to give up music and there were times I really felt like it because it was associated with the death of a friend of mine."
Through that lens, what Jay Z and Kanye are looking for aren't all that different from what Grohl is seeking. They're looking to push on and accept the next challenge, but they're also looking to create something larger than themselves and create a legacy beyond the songs. Grohl mentions his daughter in the same interview and notes that much of the fear he'd held prior to her birth disappeared as his priorities shifted and he began to think about her well-being as well.
Both Jay Z and Kanye West have also recently become fathers and face similar questions about not only their legacies, but the urgency with which they should be building them. All three saw the role fame played in Cobain's demise and seem bent against allowing it to strip them of the same life and relationships Cobain let it take from him.
Cobain's absence, like that of Jay Z's mentor Notorious B.I.G., serves as a reminder of what can happen when fame obscures all else. That blindness left both men feeling trapped and led to horrific repercussions for each. Jay Z doesn't want his fans to have to grovel to community boards to name a street for him after he dies: He want enough influence to engrave his name on the face of New York City the way the Astors, Rockefellers and Carnegies did.
As Holy Grail suggests, fame is no longer the goal for the musicians mentioned above: It's the burden they bear for pursuing a greater purpose.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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