There’s a sequence in the music video for the track “Otis,” from Jay-Z and Kanye West’s 2011 collaborative album Watch the Throne, that still seems like a perfect vision of male friendship. Standing in front of an oversized, oversaturated American flag, they tussle with each other like brothers while delivering bars about their collective success. The two have been collaborators since the year 2000, when Kanye produced “This Can’t Be Life” from Jay’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia album, and share a distinct chemistry. Kanye, the eccentric creative, and Jay-Z, his mentor, the cool and calculated businessman, make an unstoppable duo. Watch The Throne remains one of the best hip-hop collaborations in history, but sadly, the relationship that birthed it appears to have deteriorated. If Watch the Throne was the epitome of brotherly bonding, the pair’s more recent troubles reveal the inverse: what happens when competition, money, and ego get in between two friends.
There have been rumors for years about the state of their friendship, beginning with Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s conspicuous absence from Kanye’s 2013 wedding to Kim Kardashian. And then last October, an outburst by Kanye at a concert in Sacramento seemed to confirm the worst: that his and Jay’s relationship was on the rocks. But things came to a head this week when, just days after the release of Jay’s album 4:44, it was reported that Kanye would be leaving Tidal, Jay-Z’s ‘artist-owned’ platform and his current business priority. The split perhaps has something to do with a line on 4:44: “You gave him 20 million without blinkin'/ He gave you 20 minutes on stage, fuck was he thinkin'?” Jay raps on “Kill Jay-Z.”
The two rappers have exchanged subtle, competitive barbs going as far back as 2002, as one 2005 Time story documented. “Then there's Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn't see how it could work," Jay said at the time of Kanye’s rap aspirations. The Tidal rift, however, seems different and somehow more final. TMZ reported that, according to a source close to Tidal, Kanye has been unhappy with the company for months, claiming that it owes him more than $3 million in bonuses after his album The Life of Pablo allegedly brought in over 1 million new subscribers to the platform last year. Kanye, who has publicly admitted to being in significant debt, also alleges that the company failed to compensate him for the music videos he premiered on the platform. It’s the sort of legal squabble that feels like it is about more than just money. In Kanye’s now-infamous rant, he described Jay’s response to Kim Kardashian’s robbery as uncaring, and bemoaned what he believed to be unfair treatment from Beyoncé regarding an MTV Video Music Award appearance. “Beyoncé, I was hurt,” he said.
Watching their friendship unfold as a fan was like watching a super team in the NBA get better and better each year.
And so it would appear that one of hip-hop’s greatest storylines, Jay-Z and Kanye West taking over the world and inspiring each other in the process, has ended. Over the course of their friendship, the two facilitated a major shift in hip-hop’s place in pop culture, opening the door for a generation of artists who are unconstrained by the scope and scale of their genre. Watching it all unfold as a fan was like watching a super team in the NBA get better and better each year, proving you wrong about just how good they can be. Like sports, there’s an undeniable emotional factor at play. On “Big Brother,” from Kanye’s 2007 album Graduation, he raps about how much of an idol he sees Jay as, and how much their natural competitiveness pains him. “Have you ever walked in the shadow of a giant?/ Not only a client, the Presidito, hola, Hovito” he rapped on the track. It’s a remarkably sincere song that, today, puts the two rapper’s conflict in context.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. Jay is undoubtedly better on tracks where Kanye is involved, and Ye could certainly take a few cues from the always calm and collected Jay-Z. Watching the video for “Otis,” a celebration of black wealth and success, sticks out to me because of how aspirational it felt. Not only could you become a mogul from nothing, but you and your BFF could team up to take over the world, and have fun while doing it. I can’t help but hope they get back to that place. As Jay himself said, the only thing better than one billionaire is two.