Niggas in Paris is a rap song about celebrating being able to attain wealth while being black, which is hard. It’s about celebrating being black while wealthy, which is also hard.
It was the apotheosis of luxury rap, which turned out to be just as biting and trenchant as gangsta rap. (Gangsta rap reported the street-level overt carnage that came with being an underprivileged black male in a society that seemed better equipped to destroy black men than raise them up. Jay Z and Kanye’s luxury rap reported the mental lashing that came with being a wealthy black male in a high society that was better equipped at ignoring wealthy black men than understanding them.)
On Kanye West’s first album, The College Dropout, there’s a song called “All Falls Down.” It’s about being self-conscious, but really it’s about being insecure. In the second verse, West, rapping about shopping above his base- bottom level of consumerism, says, “I can’t even pronounce nothing; pass that Ver-say-see.” It’s a half-joke, but really it’s no joke at all, and this is the point from which we need to stand to see the entirety of the scope of “Niggas in Paris,” because it is a big, big, expansive song, with big, big, expansive ideas.
When Kanye produced five beats for Jay Z’s album The Blueprint, including “H to the IZZO,” which fire-started Kanye’s career, Jay was already a superstar, and so their relationship since has always carried a big brother– little brother tone. But by the time Watch the Throne came, the album they collaborated on in 2011, they were on (mostly) equal celebrity footing, albeit for different reasons, and for reasons that would influence the album (Jay = unflappable, sophisticated, affable; Kanye = flamboyant, emotional, impassioned).
A quick story about Kanye West from early in his career:
Kanye’s first major placement came when he sold a beat to Jermaine Dupri, who was somehow famous at the time. That led to a meeting with Michael Mauldin, an executive with Columbia Records. Now, this was before Kanye was Kanye, in that he wasn’t super-duper famous yet, but he was still very much Kanye, in that he was full of himself. Here’s Rhymefest, who cowrote Kanye’s “Jesus Walks,” talking to VH1 for the Driven documentary series in 2005: “He went in there acting like, ‘I’ma be better than Jermaine Dupri, I’ma sell more records than he would ever sell,’ and they wasn’t ready for that.” What Kanye didn’t know, and what he would come to find out, was that Mauldin was Jermaine Dupri’s father. Kanye has always been a bit of a loudmouth, it seems.
A quick story about Jay Z from early in his career:
Jay Z’s first album, Reasonable Doubt, a true and real classic project, has a song called “Regrets” on it. In the first line, Jay says, “I sold it all, from crack to opium,” only he pronounces it “oh-pee-um,” kind of slow and tilted, because he wanted it to rhyme perfectly with the lines that followed (“I don’t wanna see ’em . . . / With my peoples how to ‘G’ ’em / From a remote location in the BM”). He practiced saying “opium” over and over again for “at least an hour, maybe two”2 so he’d get it just right. Jay Z has always been a bit of a machine, it seems. Without that juxtaposition, loudmouth and machine, this song could never have worked.
“Niggas in Paris” is very fun. That’s why it was successful. It’s this exciting and impressive elegy about obsessive-compulsive materialism, and an A1 version of luxury rap, a term Kanye came up with on a song called “Otis,” which was also on Watch the Throne, which was a very luxuriant album.
Its front two-thirds are fast-paced and brakeless, the production whipping around the curves without much care for consequences. And then the last third is this crunchy, dominating, copycat take on dubstep, a subgenre of electronic dance music that had gained popularity through 2011 but was still mostly a thing rap tended to avoid borrowing from. The whole thing just felt pricey and imposing and cool and exciting.
When Jay and Kanye performed it during their Watch the Throne tour, even that was an exercise in overabundance. They’d play it three, four, five, eight, ten times. When they did the show in real-life Paris, they performed the song twelve times in a row, and that’s a thing that had never happened before.
But “Niggas in Paris” is also very smart. Without that it couldn’t be nearly as important. There are two viewpoints expressed on “Niggas in Paris,” and they work together to form a single thesis statement. There’s Jay Z’s viewpoint, which, if you look at all of it at once, is about overpowering and overtaking all of rap, because that’s always what Jay Z has been about for the length of his career.
Example: He talks about being fined by the NBA (“I ball so hard motherfuckers wanna fine me”), and how inconsequential it was (“What’s fifty grand to a motherfucker like me? / Can you please remind me?”), and now seems like a good time to point out that Jay Z famously left the waitresses at the Watch the Throne release party a $50,000 tip on a $250,000 bill.
He raps, “Psycho; I’m liable to go Michael / Take your pick / Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game Six,” and the implication is clear: “I am as important to rap as each of these Michaels were to their field,” and he is not lying. Every last bit of the verse is very confrontational, but in the most dismissive way achievable, and it’s a justifiable condescension because Jay Z is one of the eight most influential rappers of all.
And then there’s Kanye’s viewpoint, which, if you look at all of it at once, is about overthrowing rap, because that’s always what Kanye has been about for the length of his career, and one example would be the way he starts, “You are now watching the throne,” to say that they’re the tastemakers, but the most straightforward example of Kanye’s sway is his turning the word “cray” into an acceptable way to describe something.
But the most important line in the song, the one fattest with historical inferences (and ramifications, too, really), is also the most startling: After talking about having too many watches to keep up with, Jay Z, in a tone that suggests befuddlement, then awe, then hubris, glows, “I’m shocked, too / I’m supposed to be locked up, too / If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too,” and, truly, this kind of writing (and thinking) is a first-class example of how Jay has managed to stay relevant— but more than that: beloved—in rap since 1996’s Reasonable Doubt.
He does three separate things here.
1. With “I’m shocked, too,” he perpetuates the us-against-them, rich vs. poor arm of his mythos. In a 2011 GQ story, Alex Pappademas wrote, “No hip-hop artist who owes his credibility to the street has moved farther beyond it and into the rarefied air of twenty-first-century high society than Jay has,” and the way he’s done that without losing his credibility (the way, say, 50 Cent did) is he has always presented all of his winnings less as business ventures and more as the spoils of war conquerings.
He lives in a different world than the regular non-wealthy humans do, but he is in that other world as an outsider looking to annihilate rather than assimilate;6 he’s a Trojan horse in black sunglasses and a Yankees cap. And he does it without undercutting his own accomplishments, and that’s just as necessary to the story.
Here’s David Samuels, writing about Jay Z for The Atlantic in an article titled “What Obama Can Learn from Jay-Z”: “[Jay Z’s] ability to stand before his audience without pretending to be any less skilled or less wealthy than he actually is, and to present his wealth and privilege as having been fully earned, while also identifying with the streets he grew up on, makes him the most important popular artist in America today.”
2. With “I’m supposed to be locked up, too,” he (once again) addresses the impropriety with which the American justice system incarcerates black males.
In 2014, a report by the Brookings Institution’s Hamilton Project showed that black males born between 1975 and 1979 who dropped out of high school had a 70 percent chance of spending time in prison by their mid-thirties. Compare that with a 10 percent chance for white males who fall into the same set of circumstances. Jay Z does not have a high school degree. He has about half a billion dollars but no degree.
3. With “If you escaped what I escaped, you’d be in Paris getting fucked up, too,” he introduces the story of black Americans escaping to Paris for a more hospitable territory to rap.
It’s no accident that this song is called “Niggas in Paris” and not “Niggas in Germany” or “Niggas in China.” There’s a long history of blacks migrating to Paris in search of a more accommodating (i.e., welcoming) living environment, from the post– World War I soldiers to black culture renaissance figures like Josephine Baker and Richard Wright and Nina Simone and James Baldwin.
Andrew Hoberek, an English professor at the University of Missouri who lectures a class devoted to examining the careers of Kanye West and Jay Z, takes this a step further, explaining in an interview with Forbes.com in 2014 that they’ve ideologically aligned themselves with some of literature’s most imposing figures. “I think both artists are fully aware of this element of their work. Jay’s song ‘D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),’ for instance, begins with Jay— who is no singer —performing an intentionally out-of-tune version of the band Steam’s 1969 song ‘Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye.’
To my ears this sounds a lot like the way modernist writers such as T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf produced intentionally difficult poems and fiction to counter writing that they thought had become (like auto-tuned pop vocals) too smooth and pretty. And the video shows Jay performing the song with a small jazz band, harkening back to similar experiments by bebop musicians in the mid-twentieth century.” Jay and Kanye recorded “Niggas in Paris” in Paris. That wasn’t an accident, either.
There was a reactionary pushback to the extravagance of Watch the Throne when it began rolling—this was all happening near the same time as the Occupy Wall Street stuff was going on, so it was very timely to call out the album’s opulence.
But the criticism faded as it became more and more clear that it (the album, but also “Niggas in Paris”) possessed the same sort of social critique that more lauded rap songs before it contained, and that, if anything, it had its finger on the pulse of these same anti-capitalist ideologies. It was just being delivered from a place no rappers had ventured into before. It made smarter the artistry of this particular discussion and did it with a beat that you couldn’t get out of your head.
Really, “Niggas in Paris” echoed the fundamental premise of W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. It was just the new version of that. That’s what it was about. That’s the whole point of “Niggas in Paris.” I guess that viewpoint was kind of surprising. But it shouldn’t have been.