On August 8, Harlem looked just like a wireless headphones disco. Everybody in the hood wearing earbuds was guaranteed to be bopping down the block with Watch the Throne.
Naked ears caught muted snatches of “Otis,” “No Church in the Wild” and “Lift Off” bleeding from the MP3 players of everybody else plugged into The Throne matrix. Walking Amsterdam Ave in a NYC heatwave after seven years of living and writing right by the French capital’s 14th arrondissement, I’d planned to have “Niggas in Paris” on my iPhone’s continuous loop from the minute I heard the title. But Jigga and Yeezy kinda let me down.
As a music critic with stripes from XXL, Salon.com, Rolling Stone, Vibe and elsewhere, I’ll say that there’s nothing so wrong with “Niggas in Paris” per se. It’s got earthquake-bass moments, Jay-Z’s Twista-rized flow, and a melodic hook my French-American preschooler sons love to death. There’s just not much Paris there, or any sense of what it’s like to be black in Paris. (For the record, it gets pretty liberating to turn in your race card and just be, but black Americans get a much sweeter deal from the locals than French-speaking Africans do.)
“If you escaped what I’ve escaped, you’d be in Paris gettin’ fucked up too,” Jay says. Raised in the Bronx during the crack era, I’ve been plastered at Georges and Le Fumoir a few times with the same thought, sure. “Excuse my French, but I’m in France,” Kanye says, a beat after calling some bougie wallflower out her name. Cute, I guess, but where’s Le Queen or Le Milliardaire nightclubs? What about the hot chocolate at Queen Ann café or melt-in-your-mouth Laura Todd cookies? Or Furthermucker? We get a Louis Vuitton reference (“What’s Louie, my killa?”), and the first arrondissement’s luxury Le Meurice hotel (“Le Meurice for like six days”), but that’s it.
So what does it mean for The Throne to even name the track “Niggas in Paris” then? Like the Blades of Glory snippet says, “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative.”
Miles Marshall Lewis is the author of Irrésistible, a novel, There’s a Riot Goin’ On, a Sly & the Family Stone bio, and the essay collection Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises. He’s currently writing a memoir about living in Paris since 2004, and directing Radikal, a documentary on the history of French hip-hop media and culture. He blogs at Furthermucker.com and tweets at @MMLnyc.