“Otis” and Its Remixes
by Zack Rearick
Here are the three things you need to know before we watch the video for Kanye West/Jay-Z’s single “Otis”:
- The first single Kanye West and Jay-Z released after they had announced they would be making an album together was “H.A.M.” Though it had a substantial impact on America’s lexicon, the song wasn’t very good and everyone knew it. Being fellows of large ego and larger influence, the duo (who have convinced absolutely no one to refer to them by their official group name, “The Throne”) responded by releasing “Otis” as the first single off of their official album.
- The cover art for the single highlights the song’s attempt to speak about America as a capitalist empire. Also, it makes it okay for hipsters to buy it on iTunes.
- The song crucially samples Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” by the great Otis Redding. Listen to more Otis Redding. Yes, you.
I’m not going to analyze every frame of the video (yet!), but I am going to make a few important connections for you. The video is, as you surely noticed, is essentially Kanye and Hova de-framing a luxury Maybach and riding around in it recklessly, while also rapping in front of a giant American flag a la Green Day’s “American Idiot.” The import is fairly obvious: Kayne/Jigga are talking about customizing America to fit their own tastes. As black males, the American cultural ideography is decidedly unfriendly to them; as wealthy artists at the height of their powers, they have the ability to do something about it. So they gut America, leaving only the frame (the capitalist model that they used to gain the money that has given them their power), and customize it to their own satisfaction. It is not a coincidence that Jay-Z identifies himself with another much-hated minority group which America uses to fuel its economic machine: foreign immigrants. The song is an exuberant celebration of a new America, an America for (only) wealthy, black rap stars. The exclusivity is highlighted by Kanye’s verses, which both accuse his listeners and remind them of their inability to participate in this new America (“You ain’t accustomed to going through customs. / You ain’t been nowhere, huh?”) .
But “Otis” is bigger than just that one single. The incredible beat (another gem by Kanye, who is rising higher in the list of Greatest Producers Ever with every passing year) is/was ripe for remixing. And, given its loaded political/ideological messages, I was interested to see what other rappers, but mainstream and not, have done with it. I trudged through a lot of terrible remixes to find six songs that not only make mildly interesting theoretical points, but also don’t suck. You have my personal guarantee that all of the people you’re about to listen to can—gasp!–actually flow.
Remix 1: ”Otis” by Konan & Krept
Konan and Krept, two absurdly British rappers from South London, win major points for their hilarious music video, clever wordplay, and, most importantly, the fact that they are a thousand times more entertaining than The Streets. Yeah, I said it.
Anyway, aside from the relentless sight gags, this video is interesting because it attempts to do the same thing Kanye/Jay-Z did, only humorously, and, much more importantly, without the actual money behind it. I don’t know much about Konan and Krept’s personal finances, but I doubt that they are drowning in J’s and Armani, as their song claims. While they clearly don’t take themselves overly seriously, it’s interesting to think that they feel obligated to make reference to their finances in hope of being part of the exclusive rich people Kanye club, which they obviously aren’t rich enough to actually be a part of. Also, because they’re British, I kind of feel like this song misses the point. America-as-a-capitalist nation, guys! We don’t need YOUR colonialism, we have our own now!
Remix 2: ”Otis” by Adrien PER & PMAC
I picked this song for three reasons: 1) the fact that the rappers in question are clearly Filipino-Americans (and somehow also Diamondbacks fans?) adds an interesting element to their potential criticism of American ideology (even though they never actually get around to doing that), 2) they represent the necessary “college rappers who are obviously not doing this as their only profession surely right please?” demographic, and 3) the video is shot in a child’s park playground and still manages to be pretty cool. Once again we see our rapper friends making references to large amounts of money and women that they doubtlessly don’t possess, making me wonder if they got that the original “Otis” is SUPPOSED to be exclusive (even if that exclusivity is ultimately not productive). Bonus points for the “hey, we shot a video!” high-five at the end.
Remix 3: “Bomb the Throne” by Jasiri X
Extending Jay-Z/Kanye’s idea to its logical (if less subtle) conclusion, politically-minded Pittsburgh rapper Jasiri X turns “Otis” into an overt criticism of the two Bush presidencies, rebuking not just American capitalism, but American colonialism and the American war machine. Of all the remixes I’ve chosen (and all I’ve listened to), this one probably requires the least explanation. Though it would be insulting to say that it’s straightforward, it delivers its message so well that I don’t want to take anything away from it by adding to it, if that makes sense. Just be aware that this video is pretty vitriolic.
Remix 4: “Otis” by Papoose
C-List rapper Papoose has talent, but he’s never come close to mainstream due to his derivative flow and lack of marketable…anything. But one thing he does have is a clear love for the game, as exemplified in this video. Turning the commentary on capitalism to a love for the rap game (with visual shout outs to everyone from Big Pun to Big Daddy Kane!) isn’t exactly a theoretical masterstroke, but it’s genuine and I appreciate it. Aside from that, Papoose still manages to take a strong dig at consumerism (setting it opposite the hustle) with this line:“Those fake Gucci shoes lookin’ cheap on y’all feet / while I keep mine grounded.”
Remix 5: “Otis” by Jai-C & Von
North Carolina local Jai-C and Von are two more talented underground rappers going over this well-worn beat. I found this remix interesting for a few reasons. One, it makes more sports references than any other remix we have here (and possibly more than any remix ever). From a critical theory standpoint, this is interesting, not just because professional sports institutes its own hierarchy and presents itself as its own separate world (just like ‘Ye and Jay do with the original “Otis”), but because they mention Cam Newton. Cam Newton! Secondly, the rappers spend more time talking about their own rap skills than any of our other MCs, fulfilling our “rappers who isolate themselves from others because of their skills rather than their money” quotient for this article because, you know, we had to touch on that iteration of rap separatism at some point. Other than that, my favorite thing about this song is that they call out posers for pretending to like Otis Redding just because they like Kanye’s sampling of him.
Remix 6: “Otis” by Ne-Yo
Ok, first off, what the hell is Ne-Yo doing here? Even after hearing him talk for 30 seconds about how he’s not a rapper, it’s still weird to hear him go hard over a Kanye beat in the most impressive random rap performance by a pop/R&B singer since Trey Songz on the “Bad News” remix. That he has a sense of humor about the whole thing is kind of (pause) charming, especially when he says during the outro “I thought I was a thug for a minute.” Funny stuff. From a theoretical standpoint, this freestyle is notable for Ne-Yo’s indictment of those who claim to have money but don’t (we see you underground rappers from earlier in the article!) and his attempts to make Jay and ‘Ye his peers (see the shout-out at the beginning of the song). Whether he’s successful is debatable, but since he spends the whole song talking about how much money he has, there isn’t a lot else to talk about here.