On the Radio: Ni**as in Paris

As I have mentioned before, my wife brainwashed both of our children in utero with mainstream hip-hop and top 40’s formats. From the posts on this blog it would seem that I don’t care at all about hip-hop, which is not actually the case. The problem is more that the necessary ingredients to love hip-hop as an adolescent were absent from my youth (listening to R&B, funk; the right atmosphere and geography) and my gene pool (my parents were the whitest people on the planet and grew up in some of the whitest places on the planet; they never listened to jazz, blues or anything edgier than the Rolling Stones).

These, of course, are excuses. The real fault is my own. After an early love for bad mainstream rap (MC Hammer, I still feel you), I was a bit put off by the gangsta rap explosion (which came around the same time as grunge). The kids in my all white high school who were wearing cross colors, dropping their pants low, and talking about forties and the like just seemed like morons. So, I ignored the whole damn thing.

And missed out on some great artists. Sure, I heard enough Dre, Snoop, Tupac and the like to know one from the other, but I didn’t really get to appreciate hip-hop until I met my wife who listened to nothing but rap and hip-hop (with the exception of Bon Jovi, an addition I still do not understand) until she met me. Cross-pollination happened; and eventually so did children.

So, rather than wholly brainwash my children, or fight against their preferences (they really do seem to dislike some of the slower, guitar driven stuff I prefer), I play the local hip-hop station on occasion. And for about the past six  months or so I can’t get enough of one song: “Ni**as in Paris” by Kanye West and Jay-Z.

Here’s the first weird thing about this: I don’t really like either artist individually. Jay-z does too much that isn’t rapping (although, as a producer I find him to be a great deal less annoying than the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy); Kanye, whose talent cannot be denied, just seems too thin-skinned in his public proclamations and a bit of a nutjob.

But, because I am so unfamiliar with current hip-hop, no longer watch music videos, and habitually ignore what DJs say, I didn’t know who sang Ni**as_In_Paris. The music drives forward, the opening rapping is aggressive yet not violent. The alternation between rappers works really well. The contrast between the faster and more muscular phrasing of the first rapper (Jay-z) and the dirtier, drawn-out syllables of the second (Kanye) keeps the song from getting repetitive.

(I had to be told by my wife who the artists were, that Jay-z was saying “ball so hard” and not something like “Hasselhof”; I told her that the lines in the middle are from Will Ferrell and originally reference that “Milkshake” song.)

In fact, I think that it is Kanye whose vocals made me like the song the most. When he first takes over the mic, he raps “She said Ye can we get married at the mall? / I said look you need to crawl ‘fore you ball / Come and meet me in the bathroom stall /And show me why you deserve to have it all”. He stretches and builds the vowels at the end of each phrase, and the growl in his voice coupled with the slightly lazy articulation makes me think of the Ol’ Dirty Bastard (R.I.P.)

Here’s what else sets this song apart from the noise on the radio: like the best rap songs it is clever. The driving metaphor of the song is ‘ballin’ of some sort: Jay-z starts with a great boast (“So I ball so hard muhfuckas wanna fine me/ first ni**as gotta find me”) and later turns through a great list of luminaries (“Psycho, I’m liable to go Michael / Take your pick, Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6”).

But I think there is a self-deprecating play going on here (or else I should hate the song for being another anthem to how rich and awesome the rappers are). Let’s start with the obvious contrast in the song’s title between the reclaimed yet still powerful racial epithet and the European city known for its sophistication. From the beginning, then, I would suggest that this song declares “we, who are from the outside, are now where you live; we have the best”.

But rappers have declared this before. Kanye seems to play with this concept by poking holes in the pretense during one of the best parts of the song:

What’s Gucci my ni**a?
What’s Louie my killa?
What’s drugs my deala?
What’s that jacket, Margiela?
Doctors say I’m the illest
Cause I’m suffering from realness
Got my ni**as in Paris
And they going gorillas, huh!

Note the inverted invocation of brand names (Kanye declaring he knows them by claiming not to know them) followed by a re-assertion of the artist’s realness as he reminds us again of the scene that might have been (and still is if we accept “ni**as” as denoting a particularly American identity) one of fish out of water, of outsiders dwelling (and now buying) where they shouldn’t. Implicit then in the last line of this verse is the cumulative force of racism and stereotyped expectation that both rappers buy into even as they undermine their own identities as hip-hop artists by indicating the shifting and problematic nature of their realness.

Moments like this are what I love the most about hop-hop—it provides a framework for some of the most complicated identity negotiation that occurs in modern music. I may spend most of my time listening to whiny indie music, and I have to admit that there is as much crap on the hip-hop frequency as on any other dial, but there is a reason that 100 years from now the rise of hip-hop will garner more notice than the zenith of alternative rock. It is more vibrant, worldly and often packed with the power of great poetry.

Oh, and my children love the beats.

I am also so on board with this:

(Yes. I drive a prius and listen to NPR. We are all stereotypes to some degree.)

14 comments on “On the Radio: Ni**as in Paris

  1. theyoungerj says:

    Brother, this may be my favorite post you have written. Well thought out, articulated and you reference my main man ODB. Also, I laughed so hard I spilled a little of my beer. Well done and I hope it brings some more NPR Prius driving folks into hip hop.

  2. londongigger says:

    You’re not alone. I have also struggled to appreciate hip-hop, even though I go and see a wide spectrum of music. It wasn’t until 2008 when I saw Jay-Z live at the Wirless festival that I saw for myself the energy and enthusiam it engenders. That summer I also saw a guy called Lupe Fiasco live which I was sent to cover by Blues and Soul. One of the Best Live shows I have ever seen, full of drama – the rap was pure poetry and it evoked a mood of what it was like to grow up in the Ghetto. British hip-hop, I think, is slightly more lighter and tongue in cheek compared with its American cousin. I still don’t like the Gansta rap stuff at all – American or British.

    • theelderj says:

      British hip-hop is definitely more playful (I’m thinking of the Streets). I don’t know Lupe Fiasco well, but I’ll take your praise as a reason to learn more.

      Gansta rap is an acquired taste, and I don’t love much of it. I wasn’t (and haven’t been) very fond of more recent stuff (like 50 Cent), but when I go back and listen to NWA or early Dr. Dre, I cannot deny that I am hearing something special.

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  7. […] Rap Performance: I love the song “Ni**as in Paris” by Jay-Z and Kanye West. As long as the winner isn’t Drake, I will be […]

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