Monday, November 7, 2011

Using "Otis" by Jay-Z and Kanye West to Talk about Social Class

First, allow me to acknowledge the source of this teaching exercise. Karl Bakeman (tweeting from @wwnsoc at the time) retweeted something from Nikki Jones (@socprofjones). She recently tweeted "Best critique I've seen of Jay-Z and Kanye's 'Otis' - from the Black Youth Project" and included a link to an article.

Having recently heard the "Otis" song on the radio, I was curious to read the critique. I found the criticism to be very interesting and insightful. Basically, it boils down to saying that the song is over-the-top in terms of bragging about money and material goods. If you watch the video, you'll see the standard visuals: expensive cars, watches, sneakers, and beautiful women. In the song, there are references to supermodels, champagne, diamonds, private jets, and money. Kanye sings about his "other, other Benz." All of this, according to the article, is shallow and out of touch. This is no time for such an excessive display of riches, the writer says. In tough economic times with a high unemployment rate, the song and video offer an unnecessary show of a luxurious lifestyle. Furthermore, the writer says, this is not what their audience wants to hear. In essence, it's overkill.

I liked all of the author's points, and went to my Introduction to Sociology class on a Friday morning to discuss the video and the author's viewpoints. I showed the video and asked for reactions. During the discussion I brought up points from the article. I found that students (at least those who spoke out) disagreed with the writer. They didn't find the video to be over-the-top or "in your face." One student described Jay-Z as someone who embodies the "rags-to-riches" story. Another said that Jay-Z and Kayne would be criticized if they were singing about the streets, or being in jail, or glamorizing a criminal style. In other words, he argued, they'd get criticized for singing about the streets or singing about being rich. So they can't win. Another student said that people continue to "drool over" the materialistic lifestyle that is rapped about in the song. So, the student said, people do like to hear this kind of song. None of my students voiced an opinion that was in agreement with the critique.

I came away from the class thinking that people firmly believe in the American Dream. No matter that the economy is stalled and millions of Americans are struggling. People still cling to the Horatio Alger myth (anyone who tries hard enough can get ahead). I suppose that people like to see the outcomes of this hard work (material goods and riches). If it's presented in hyperbolic fashion, so be it.

I'm curious what students at other colleges and universities think about this song and video. Do they relate to it? Find it entertaining? Does anyone find it to be repulsive? Foolish? Or out of touch? In any case, the exercise makes for a good discussion about social class.


  1. I think in the context of many MANY other songs from the Jay-Z catalog, there's some validity to the claim that Otis is about a "rag to riches" story. In fact, Jay-Z says as much about the second single from the album in an interview I read just today.

    "It's not, like, 'We're here! We're balling harder than everybody,'" he says. "It's like, 'I'm shocked that we're here.' Still being amazed, still not being jaded. Having so much fun and then stopping and saying, 'What are we doing here? How did we get here?'"

    Jay-Z is ever-cognizant of his lower class background as a youth and there's much to be said of his "grind/hustle in the face of adversity, no matter the circumstances" approach to upward mobility.


    there's a fine line between advocating the importance of "the grind" and suggesting that "the grind" is all you need to make it, structure be damned

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