Throughout the Kon The Louis Vuitton Don mix-tape Kanye West samples the part of "Lucifer" where Jay-Z gushes "Kanyeezy you did it again. You a genius nigga!" in a way that made me think about the Simpsons gag where Smithers turns on his computer to reveal screensaver of an unclothed, lascivious Mr. Burns cooing "You're. Quite. Good. At.Turning.Me. On". It'd be a stretch to call Kanye a sniveling Smithers to Jay-Z's power-mad Mr. Burns but throughout his career West has publicly worshipped his friend and frequent collaborator in ways that border on embarrassing. Even before he became the head of rap's most powerful label Jay-Z functioned as an aloof but supportive father figure to much of hip hop but Kanye clearly has enough daddy issues with Young Hov to keep him in therapy for the rest of his life.
Kanye quotes Jay-Z reverently, has him appear on his albums and publicly professes his eternal allegiance to the empty shell of a rap label that is Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella. Jay-Z helped make West's career. The two bring out the best in each other. How much better would Kingdom Come have been if Kanye had produced it in its entirety? Kanye has produced many of Jay-Z's signature hits and Young Hov always brings it on a K.West track. Even their remixes are top-flight: the Kanye remix of "Girls, Girls, Girls" blows the original out of the water.
The Jay-Z song is always a highlight of Kanye West's albums but in place of a Jay-Z song on West's new album Graduation comes "Big Brother", a song about Jay-Z that's a strange, singular combination of heartfelt lament, personal history, weirdly ambiguous diss track and sad meditation on the intertwined nature of friendship, competition and business.
As I wrote in my Graduation review West specializes in emotional transparency. If something is on Kanye's mind it's probably going to end up in his music as well. That's both a major strength and weakness: it makes fans feel like Kanye is rapping directly to them with no filter (including common sense or canny judgment) but it can also make West seem like a whiny little crybaby.
Accordingly, the sentiments expressed in "Graduation" probably belong in a long, queasily intimate letter, not the last track on a giant pop album. West is essentially laying out a list of grievances and agitating for a long, heartfelt conversation about his feelings with Jay-Z. Now that's gangsta.
In West's early projects Jay-Z comes off as an idol-turned-mentor but in "Big Brother" he's addressing him more or less as a peer. Jay-Z is no longer the all-powerful daddy whose praise and love he craves but a cagy competitor eager to keep anyone from approaching his throne, little Brother included.
West's grievances come off as both petty and legitimate: he grouses about Jay-Z making him pay for two tickets for his legendary Madison Square Garden show (cold!) and stealing his idea of collaborating with that dude from Coldplay, which seems a little ridiculous. After all didn't Kanye steal Jay-Z's idea of talking rhythmically over beats? And collaborating with singers and other rappers? And wearing pants and shoes before leaving his house everyday? And breathing air? Collaborating with a wimpy British dude is an awfully weird thing to get all possessive and territorial about.
I have profoundly mixed feelings about "Big Brother". On one hand it's heartfelt, emotionally complex and refreshingly honest. On the other it's petty, filled with zealously held grudges and burdened with a clunky, unwieldy chorus that goes "Big brother was B.I.G.'s brother/Use to be Dame and Bigg's brother/Who was Hip Hop brother, who was No I.D's friend/No I.D., my mentor, now let the story begin".
"Big Brother" represents a creative act of patricide: Kanye must kill his professional father in order to become a man. It's personal history as pop culture history, a secret history of one of the most complex, fruitful relationships in rap.