The luxurious sheen of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne has beamed brilliantly over the last couple of weeks. But among the chatter marveling at the upscale audacity of it all, there came a sobering and grounded moment just before the album’s release, when Chuck D uploaded his response to Watch the Throne’s lead single, “Otis.” Flipping the song into “Notice – Know This,” the YouTube video saw the Public Enemy frontman clad in a baseball cap turned to the back, addressing his screen and balancing Jay and ’Ye’s high-end consumerism with what he termed “a polite respect call to the troops.”
Chuck’s two curt verses addressed the common man – the person who’ll never own a Benz (singular), and would clear up credit card bills and debts before splashing on a Hublot – as he spoke about “45 years of fucked-up health” and “losing homes.” When he threw in the barb “No swagger,” it resonated like a rap slogan sadly never to become a meme, let alone a movement. Of course, “Notice – Know This” has been largely overlooked, but for those who were listening, the song and its sentiment offer a persuasive reminder that hip-hop needs a statement from Public Enemy just as much as it needs Jay reading off his bank balance.
Predictably, the murmur that “Notice – Know This” did create focused on whether Chuck’s missive was dissing, hating or criticizing Jay and Kanye. It’s a charge symptomatic of the times, not the song (which opens with the disclaimer “No disrespect to our heroes”). These days, every comment that doesn’t lavish praise on a rapper and their music is seen as an outright expression of jealous hatred. (In hip-hop, you cannot tweet that the weather outside looks miserable without having to add a “no shots” hashtag disclaimer to the end of the sentence.)
But Chuck hails from a different time in hip-hop, where straight-talking and responsive dialogue were a part of the cultural commentary. Back-and-forth debate – among rappers, critics and fans – should be encouraged, not stifled. But instead, we’re suffering through an era censored by the decorum of “hating,” with only the mythical antidote of “balance” offered as a remedy.
For a few years now – perhaps since Kanye debuted with The College Dropout – we’ve been forced to listen to rappers and fans bemoan this lack of balance in hip-hop. If a rapper goes platinum talking that ig’nant jabber, the artist who sells only 5,000 copies on an indie label laments about how in the good old golden days we had both N.W.A. and Public Enemy, De La Soul and Kool G Rap. Acts like Little Brother, Talib Kweli and Common are the usual names offered up as forces stabilizing the impact of Gucci, Waka and Weezy. (Despite the fact that it’s all too easy to selectively pluck from Common’s rhymes to cast him as an alcoholic who opposes interracial marriage and abortion.)
But this idealistic quota of different types of rappers is a fantasy: Hip-hop music isn’t some precariously weighted equilibrium that needs to mix equal parts gangsta with consciousness. The music can do what it wants, whether that’s reflecting the times or a rapper’s whim. What’s really missing is not some sort of unattainable balance, but the tolerance for an alternative view and the forum to bring that view to the masses.
And that’s just what Chuck D has supplied. “Notice – Know This” might not be the year’s most fashionable rap record, but by offering an outright, unabashed counter-opinion, its existence is every bit as relevant as anything topping the charts. Besides, “Notice – Know This” is better than “Otis,” anyway. #NoShots.