To supplement this year’s Pazz & Jop launch, Sound of the City asked a few critics to expand on the reasonings behind their voting. This is from Nick Minichino, who voted specifically for Funkmaster Flex’s premiere of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Otis” this summer.
That was the driving force of it—to create that moment of unwrapping the CD and listening to it for the first time. It was a very old-school way for things to happen. People really were anticipating an album on a certain day and everyone got to experience it simultaneously.
—anonymous Roc Nation executive about Watch The Throne‘s tight leak policy
Before Watch the Throne, music-industry talk about the “album experience” always felt like code for BUY THE ALBUM and especially DON’T STEAL THE ALBUM, especially since, in practice, no one really seemed all that interested in preventing leaks. The external-hard-drives-in-locked-briefcases mystique of Steven J. Horowitz’s Billboard story (from which the above quote is sourced) merely revealed that, prior to this album, basic data protection was a skill music-biz folks had yet to learn.
And yet. Despite disheartening leaks Jay-Z and Kanye West had experienced in the past (the article cites My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy tracks, but there are plenty of other examples at least as far back as The Black Album in 2003) the “old-school” motivation rings true, thanks to plenty of other elements of the album’s release. Of course, having actually exerted control over who will hear one’s album before its release enabled quite a bit of the hoopla, and allowed the artists to make an event—complete with pop-up shop—out of the release. Having the money and power to ensure a release date before the release of a single allowed them to use the single’s hype to goose album excitement (and vice versa)—a ploy only a handful of other rappers would be able to replicate. And the “listening party” allowed them, however briefly, to re-inscribe critics as gatekeepers.
That said, the crucial element of the old-school presentation was the premiere of “Otis.” There was enormous incentive to determine the best possible venue and timing to release the first “real” single, especially after “H.A.M.” debuted and sank. Jay-Z and Kanye West could have put the song anywhere online at any time, held it for the video and had an MTV premiere (which they got anyway), or made it an event in any number of other ways. Instead they premiered the song, relatively unannounced, on a Wednesday evening over terrestrial radio in New York City.
It goes without saying that until recently, if new music wasn’t on the radio, you didn’t hear it—especially rap, which, Yo! MTV Raps aside, didn’t get the television airplay it deserved until the shiny-suit era. Mixtapes didn’t travel all that effectively until the internet changed the game, and that happened just in time for the physical-mixtape business to get attacked. (Today is the five-year anniversary of DJ Drama’s arrest.) If radio airplay didn’t matter, would anyone care who Stretch and Bobbito are? That said, for nearly twenty years, Hot 97 has been the hip-hop station in the hip-hop city, and therefore the place to premiere big New York City rap singles. (One noteworthy example comes from Just Blaze: in 2002, he gave Dipset over-the-phone permission to use the “Oh Boy” beat, expecting to re-record the sample to save on royalties, but then on his way to the studio to meet them, he heard the song on Hot 97. In the time Just Blaze’s drive took, Cam’ron and Juelz Santana had written and recorded their verses and the crew had immediately run the track over to the station—without bothering to clear the sample at all.)
Premiering the song: Funkmaster Flex, who takes the cake as outsized rap-radio personas go. Flex even proclaims his greatest strength (and greatest weakness) during the over-22-minute premiere of the under-three-minute “Otis”: “No one takes this rap thing as seriously as I.” And Flex goes hard, even for a guy who already SPEAKS IN ALL CAPS (as an ego trip. writer aptly describes him). Breathless blogging has robbed radio DJs of one of their stocks-in-trade—hyping singles—so opportunities to ride hard for new records from New York City rappers are few and far between. (The last non-Jay record to get a “blast-off” might be “In Da Club”!) Needless to say, Flex hypes “Otis” for all it’s worth, and then some. By the seven-minute mark he’s already given listeners the following advice: “New York City, you listen to me. If you’re near a convenience store right now—any type of 24-hour store—go into the store right now and put your hand in the cash register for no reason. Their money is your money as of right now.” And he’s not even a third of the way done.
The first comment on the ego trip. post about the premiere simply notes, “What a fucking helmet he is”—which is in a way accurate, but entirely misses the point. When Flex gets in this mode, he’s like Matt Pinfield with a big red button that says “bomb sound effect”. His enthusiasm is so infectious, and reads so guilelessly, that its superlative nature surpasses ridicule and reaches an almost sublime thrum. (*BOMB*)
Keep in mind that actual guileless enthusiasm would require an impossible amount of cognitive dissonance. Even if Jay-Z and Kanye West gave Hot 97 the premiere gratis, the fact that the mp3 was available “exclusively” from the DJ’s website (inflexwetrust.com, in case you haven’t listened to the track and heard Flex mention it what feels like fifty times) has to constitute its own form of payola. But what a performance they paid for! Flex shouts out a number of personnel associated with the record, laughs out loud while repeating Jay’s and Kanye’s punchlines (mostly Jay’s), predicts that all other rappers are shaking in their boots, recommends that any rapper releasing an album anywhere near Watch the Throne push it back, talks watches, cars (of course), New York City (the West Side Highway and Con Edison), and overall just rewinds the track incessantly in order to gush over it. Everything is bigger, better, and more than it really is: “New York City, this has been playing for thirty minutes,” he shouts, eighteen minutes in.
What’s most striking about the premiere is the way in which Flex feeds the record’s hype, and in turn it feeds his braggadocio. At the two-thirds mark he laughs himself off with a “Come on, you knew the crazy talk was coming.” Then he goes into an extended explanation about why he’s the best and then offers this advice to his “peers”:
If you’re a DJ, struggling—which is mostly what you’re doing out there—you can always take that Kodak camera, take a picture of me, paint it on your face, and then you’re good. You can book for the rest of your life. That’s Plan A, B, and C for most of you.
And then he rewinds to the beginning again, only to point out something he hadn’t yet mentioned about the very first couplet in the song.
I suspect that for some of you, what I’ve described here may sound like your own personal hell, but I hope I’ve conveyed to the rest of you why I find this so compelling. Sure, Flex is effusive bordering on nonsensical, but he’s been saving up for a special occasion. This is how a guy who SPEAKS IN ALL CAPS speaks in all caps, and though nothing could possibly live up to his praise, for 22 minutes “Otis” sure sounds like it does.