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.