The Beeb, The Brits & Jay-Z
October 30, 2008, 9:27 pm
Filed under: Miscellaneous

Jay-Z: He Came, He Saw, He Conquered

I’m gonna kick this post off by upping my street credibility by like, a gazillion: my mother texted me to let me know about Tuesday night’s BBC arts documentary that propounded to explore “the life and work of the chart topping rapper and multi-millionaire businessman Jay-Z.” Great, I thought: it’s rare that we get any decent coverage of American hip hop in the British mass media; I really like Jay-Z (duh); I’m intrigued by how his Glastonbury set was ultimately so well received and believe that there’s quite a lot to consider as a British fan of the genre about the way that we – as a nation – interact and engage with American rap.

And it’s not because I think there’s anything particularly lofty at stake here as we already know that rap is global and Jay is one of its leading figureheads, but up until last June my parents and their friends had never really spoken or inquired about the man and now they do (I approach this topic scientific-like). It may not seem it for those of you across the pond, but that seems like a pretty big deal to me because I would say that Jay-Z is the first American rapper to cross over to that extent in this country, where Jonathon Ross interviews him and pretty much everyone knows who he is. I guess Hammer may have done it back in the day, but what we’re talking about here is ‘real’ hip hop and one of its key proprietors becoming a part of the everyday collective consciousness in this country.

So this could have been good, and to be fair in places the program worked reasonably well. Some of the interview segments with Jay were enjoyable as were the clips of footage from gigs in L.A., Las Vegas and New York, but unfortunately that was about it as the remainder of the show’s content was blighted by two key factors. Firstly, presenter Alan Yentob who I’m sure is a very culturally informed man outside of hip hop knew next to squat about Jay-Z or his music and secondly, at times the focus for this documentary strayed too far away from the music and tried to get ‘in deep’ about his other interests only to expose the distance between interviewer and interviewee even further. Cringe-worthy moments included the pair wandering through an art gallery which made Jay look kind of stupid (which he clearly isn’t) and Mr. Yentob incredibly uncomfortable (which presumably he was) and Yentob commenting on Jay’s compositional process of feeding off a beat “freeing up the lyrical flow.” I’m sorry old man, but I just ain’t buying it.

I guess the problem is that the aesthetics and legacy of hip hop at a core level feel in some ways distinctly at odds with what it is to be British, or at least certainly at odds with the BBC’s version of Britishness. It’s what makes me slightly uneasy telling people that I’m into rap music in this country because certainly for the majority of the population, they don’t get it and I don’t blame them. On the surface, Jay-Z’s music is too gawdy, too brash and his persona too overtly materialistic to be taken seriously by middle Britain and that’s why what this documentary needed was somebody who could in some way bridge the gap between these two worlds and make sense of it in some way. Ultimately, by placing a stuffy, middle-aged intellectual as interviewer Jay-Z: He Came, He Saw, He Conquered only served to highlight the disparity between American rap and your average Brit and in all probability left most viewers feeling even more bemused by Jay-Z, his popularity and his role in global popular culture.

Yentob started the documentary with the statement, “If there’s one rapper you need to know about it’s him.” Alan, if you’re out there, name three other rappers that someone might need to know about in 2008. Nope? Didn’t think so. If the BBC wants to be cool and informed then that’s great, but it seems like a bit of a no-brainer that if you plan on this sort of coverage you should probably get someone involved who has a vague understanding of the subject at hand in the first place. Seriously, I’m available whenever.

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