My World Of Flops is a featured column in which A.V. Club head writer Nathan Rabin writes a twice-monthly essay about a book, television show, musical release, or other form of entertainment that was a financial flop, critical failure, and lacks a substantial cult following.
Last year, I took a buddy to see Jay-Z and Kanye West perform at the United Center as part of their Watch The Throne tour. The tickets were not cheap. In fact, they were almost inconceivably expensive. Yet I plunked down a small fortune because I was convinced I wasn’t just paying to see a show. I was investing in an experience I would remember until the end of my days, and paying to see a cultural event I might never have an opportunity to witness again: two giants of hip-hop at the top of their game uniting for a lavish spectacle that was considerably more than the sum of its parts.
I was convinced that decades from now, I would tell my progeny that I had seen Jay-Z and Kanye West perform together. I would use the same hushed, reverent tone my father would use to tell me he saw Elvis Presley perform in Las Vegas and got a steak dinner for under 30 bucks sometime in the ’70s. Jay-Z lends an element of ceremony and historical importance to everything he does. He has the ability to make wherever he is seem like the most exciting, important, dynamic place on earth. That’s certainly how the United Center felt the night of the Watch The Throne show: like the white-hot epicenter of the hip-hop universe.
Part of what made that tour seem like such a seismic pop-culture event was the men’s complicated history together. West has been mythologizing his relationship with Jay-Z nearly as long and with as much intensity as he mythologized his own unlikely ascent to super-stardom. Because he leads a life of complete transparency, West shared every stage of his relationship with Jay-Z with his audience, from the fawning hero worship of his early days as an aspiring producer through the giddy stretch when Jay-Z’s light shined down on West and illuminated the path to stardom, and then finally the stressful, intense period when Jay-Z’s Michael Jordan-like competitiveness and West’s own out-of-control egomania threatened one of the most fruitful and important collaborations in music.
There was a lot of history at play when Jay-Z and Kanye stepped onstage together. Here were two men who loved each other, resented each other, and experienced a thousand other complicated emotions in between, from mutual respect to a desire to blow the other one offstage on every song. Their relationship mattered. Jay-Z and Kanye West have each become so huge that everything they do qualifies as a statement. Joining forces for an album and then an international tour felt like a major statement from two icons who don’t go in for half measures.
Watch The Throne was a bold project in part because its broad outlines recalled one of the few flat-out failures in Jay-Z’s professional life. Watch The Throne wasn’t the first time Jay-Z hooked up for an album-length collaboration (or two) with an eccentric musical genius whose life resembles an elaborate act of avant-garde performance art. In 2002, Jay-Z hooked up with R. Kelly for the ironically titled The Best Of Both Worlds, a project that seemingly should have scared him off risky album-length collaborations forever.
The album-length pairing of Jay-Z and Kanye West was more than a decade in the making, a product of an intense personal, professional, and creative partnership that brought out the best in both men and spawned such iconic hits as “Takeover,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love),” “Girls, Girls, Girls (Remix),” “Lucifer,” and “Encore.” The shotgun marriage between Jay-Z and R. Kelly, by contrast, feels like it was engineered by bean-counters, while staring at spreadsheets, album sales, and printouts that pinpointed the key demographics a joint album between these two massive commercial forces might target. Jay-Z and Kanye were doing it for love, and also for money. Jay-Z and R. Kelly were transparently in it for the money.
For one song, however, the Jay-Z/R. Kelly union made sense creatively as well as financially. R. Kelly and Jay-Z first teamed up on “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” a standout track from Jay-Z’s underrated 2000 album, The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. The song delivered a timely report on the rapper’s ongoing legal problems, stemming from his regrettable decision to (allegedly) stab a rival, Lance “Un” Rivera, he suspected had bootlegged his previous album.
On “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” Jay-Z pulls an …And Justice For All and condemns the legal system, the press, and the world at large for judging him before he’s had his day in court. Jay-Z’s defense is to go on the offense, railing against the media, foes real and imagined, and a white world he’s convinced, somewhat reasonably, would love to see him down for the count, another black icon destroyed by his own demons.
Over a quivering electronic beat from Rockwilder that pulses with anger, anxiety, and danger, Jay-Z waxes defiant without ever breaking a sweat or losing his poker face. He transforms his court case into a referendum on white America’s persecution of black celebrity, hollering mockingly, “I thought this was America, people!” before bragging “the soul of Tupac hovers over us” toward the end, in spite of Tupac’s hostility toward Jay-Z. On the minimalist hook, Kelly combines his legal woes with Jay-Z’s when he croons, “Jigga, Kelly, not guilty.” (How’s that for economy?) R. Kelly didn’t have the most spotless reputation when “Guilty Until Proven Innocent” was released. He infamously attempted to marry protégé Aaliyah when she was 15, but that didn’t keep Jay-Z from presenting himself and Kelly as examples of strong black men judged and condemned by racist white America.
“Guilty Until Proven Innocent” is arrogant, snotty, grandiose, and mean-spirited, but at least it’s about something: fame, paranoia, persecution, the blinding glare of the spotlight. It’s autobiography, hagiography, an indictment, and a defense all at once. The same cannot be said of The Best Of Both Worlds. There’s nothing wrong with making an album about—to borrow The Notorious B.I.G.’s indelible turn of phrase—“party and bullshit,” but Best Of Both Worlds forgets to bring the party and doubles down on the bullshit, beginning with an opening track where Jay-Z’s gift for grandiosity fails him. He laughably compares his collaboration with R. Kelly to a pairing of “Martin and Malcolm,” then crows “this is bigger than the album.” It’s not.
From the beginning, Jay-Z and R. Kelly seem, in spite of the title, to inhabit completely different worlds. On the album-opening title track, Jay-Z raps about the size and expense of his trucks and serves as an overcompensating hype man for this misbegotten project, while R. Kelly dedicates the project to “single mothers in the hood,” because he knows “it’s rough in the ghetto.”
On the same track, Jay-Z says The Best Of Both Worlds is fundamentally about “strength in our people,” as if a pair of narcissistic multi-millionaires engaging in market-dictated synergy represented a massive step forward for African-Americans. Considering the antithetical aesthetics of its principals, the album understandably has a hell of an identity crisis. Is it a towering, unifying statement of tremendous historical significance, or a fun party album of disposable pop from two men with an uncanny ear for hits? It’s a little from column A, a whole lot from column B, and spectacularly unsatisfying on both levels.
The kickoff track aims for pomp and circumstance, for a sense of historical rather than musical importance. Instead, it feels like someone’s hammering away on the “horns” keys of a giant synthesizer. Jay-Z has class, taste, and sophistication. He’s married to Beyoncé. He hangs out with the president of the United States. He founded one iconic record label (Roc-A-Fella) and was president of another (Def Jam). Jay-Z’s stint at Def Jam was rocky, but he did sign Nas and The Roots to the label. He essentially made the careers of Kanye West and Just Blaze, and gave huge boosts to the careers of Timbaland, The Neptunes, 9th Wonder, and Frank Ocean.
This terrible judgment continued when Jay-Z chose the Trackmasters as the album’s producers. The Trackmasters (Poke & Tone) somehow managed to become extraordinarily successful throughout the ’90s without ever distinguishing themselves as anything other than proficient providers of generic party beats: airy, interchangeable concoctions with big R&B hooks and mellow guitar.
Hiring some of the least interesting, least distinctive big-name hip-hop producers to “referee” this epic battle of egos promised to steer a potentially groundbreaking collaboration into the safest direction imaginable. “Take You Home With Me A.K.A. Body” provides a dispiriting preview of what’s to come: inane raps from Jay-Z, a leering hook from R. Kelly, and rinky-dink production. Kelly pays homage to his partner by quoting some of his lyrics from the early Jay-Z single “Ain’t No Nigga,” but it feels less like genuine collaboration than like the noxious narcissism of two men getting off on their combined fame and success.
Yet Jay-Z contains multitudes. There’s the politician, the businessman, the street philosopher, the acclaimed scribe of hard-boiled fiction, the capitalist, and the gangsta. The Best Of Both Worlds has the misfortune to feature the least interesting side of Jay-Z: the party rapper for hire. That’s the Jay-Z that shows up on interchangeable tracks like “Take You Home With Me A.K.A. Body,” “Break Up To Make Up,” “Shake Ya Body,” and “Pussy.” The Best Of Both Worlds doesn’t even feel like a proper Jay-Z album, collaborative or otherwise. It feels like an album where Jay-Z features on every track except the R. Kelly solo joint, “Naked.”
Given the impersonal nature of the album, it’s ironic that one of the only songs that Kelly and Jay-Z seem emotionally invested in is “It Ain’t Personal,” an uncharacteristically sober, downbeat exploration of the havoc money and success can have on long-term relationships. “The Streets” follows with another welcome blast of substance in the form of harrowing narratives of the emotional costs of street life that find Kelly and Jay-Z both digging deep within for the last time on either of their collaborative albums.
The Best Of Both Worlds never aspires to be anything other than a breezy, disposable album of R&B-leaning pop-rap from two men capable of much more. But it fails to meet even that low standard. The album isn’t even good pop-rap. It’s never an encouraging sign when most of the highlights from an album between two of the most talented musicians of the past 25 years come from guest artists. R. Kelly and Jay-Z are two of my favorite artists. I love R. Kelly to the point where I’m tempted to buy tickets for his tour even though it’s called “The Single Ladies Tour,” yet I spent The Best Of Both Worlds waiting for those precious moments when anyone else was on the mic, whether that meant Beanie Sigel’s concrete cameo on “Green Light,” Lil’ Kim getting saucy on “Shake Ya Body,” or best of all, Devin The Dude providing an origin story for his famous love of female flesh on the album-closing “Pussy.”
I don’t hate The Best Of Both Worlds, because it isn’t worth hating. It’s too stubbornly inconsequential, the product of two men operating at the bottom of their talent and the height of their cynical, commercial calculation. The album was supposed to be a can’t-miss proposition, at least before it was heavily bootlegged. Then, in early February 2002, a video surfaced of a man who looked an awfully lot like R. Kelly doing illegal, non-hygienic, and socially frowned-upon things to what appeared to be an underage girl. Jay-Z suddenly came to his senses and took great pains to distance himself from Kelly personally and professionally. The two men were never particularly friendly; their “collaboration” was strictly long-distance. They never actually worked in a studio together; they chose instead to send each other their individual songs. (The work they produced together reflects the manner in which it was created). After the child-abuse scandal, joint appearances, videos, and a tour were all out of the question; The Best Of Both Worlds went platinum on the strength of its collaborators’ fame and body of work, but no one considered it a success, secret or otherwise. It was a bad, cynical, pandering idea that just didn’t work. It proved to be a malfunctioning money machine.
Yet that somehow didn’t keep Jay-Z from re-upping for another collaboration with R. Kelly in the form of 2004’s Unfinished Business, an album of outtakes and leftovers from The Best Of Both Worlds sessions liberated from the dusty shelves of Def Jam/Jive after Kelly’s appearance at Jay-Z’s farewell concert got an unexpectedly enthusiastic response and Kelly bounced back from scandal to post strong sales for his 2003 hit, Chocolate Factory. Considering the events that led to Unfinished Business being forced on a skeptical public, more appropriate album titles would have been Because We’re Stubborn, Not Learning From Our Mistakes or, to borrow a song title from The Best Of Both Worlds that could double as the mission statement for this misbegotten project, Get This Money. It would be wrong to call Unfinished Business a greedy cash-in. That’d be giving it too much credit. No, it’s a greedy cash-in of a greedy cash-in, at least one giant step removed from anything resembling emotional investment.
“We Got Em Goin’” is a shameless rip-off of “N Da Club,” while “The Return” and “The Return (Remix)” offer two variations on the same limp Slick Rick knock-off, the second of which actually features Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh. It’s a testament to how paltry and bankrupt Unfinished Business is that it asks fans to pay inflated record prices for a skimpy 11 tracks, one of which is a remix.
The profound apathy behind how the project was haphazardly assembled is reflected by song titles suspiciously similar to tracks on The Best Of Both Worlds. Instead of “Take You Home With Me A.K.A. Body,” we’re favored with the altogether different “She’s Coming Home With Me.” And instead of “Break Up To Make Up,” we’re treated to “Break Up (That’s All We Do).” Kelly and Jay-Z’s commitment to originality extended only to ensuring that the titles on Unfinished Business aren’t exactly the same as those on The Best Of Both Worlds. Unfinished Business is an arbitrary sequel to a movie fans only thought they wanted to see. No, it’s once again even less than that; it’s more like a faux-sequel cobbled together from scenes that were deleted from the first film for obvious reasons.
Yet astonishingly, the worst was yet to come. Jay-Z and R. Kelly decided to embark on a “Best Of Both Worlds” tour in an effort to promote their half-assed sampler platter of lukewarm leftovers that proved disastrous from the first show, when Kelly had the questionable judgment to feature a skit that attempted to find the lighter side of the whole child-pornography controversy. The response was arctic, and the skit was abandoned, but friction between Jay-Z and R. Kelly’s camp escalated until one dramatic evening on October 29, 2004, when R. Kelly informed the audience at Madison Square Garden that men were pointing guns at him and stormed off the stage. Kelly attempted to return to the stage after getting the go-ahead from security, but was intercepted en route by Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith, a member of Jay-Z’s entourage, who pepper-sprayed Kelly. A resourceful Jay-Z called upon some of his famous friends in the audience to help him finish out the concert while Kelly was taken to the hospital. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to smuggle a gun into Madison Square Garden, then get close enough to the stage that a performer could see the phantom gun in a vast sea of darkness and tens of thousands of onlookers. It’s entirely possible that the guns that caused Kelly to flee the stage existed only in his paranoid, fame-ravaged mind.
The tour was over, and with it, Jay-Z and R. Kelly’s strange, fraught, commerce-dictated quasi-alliance. A union that brought out the worst in both men had grown increasingly impossible until neither could go on. Jay-Z finished out the tour and never looked back. R. Kelly ended up suing Jay-Z and his production company for $75 million for breach of contract. Jay-Z countersued. The two eventually settled out of court. It was a fitting end to an ugly chapter in both men’s lives.
Given the mercenary nature of this ill-fated union of convenience, it’s fitting that the collaboration kicked off with a video of Jay-Z in court defending himself against a hostile world intent on his destruction, and ended with Jay-Z facing off in court with a man he once saw as an important collaborator (if not a personal friend, or a friend at all). On “Guilty Until Proven Innocent,” Jay-Z prepares himself for warfare with an army of external threats. For all his chess-player savvy and cold-blooded business acumen, Jay-Z didn’t seem to realize that some of the most perilous threats he faced came from the dude singing the hook on the song, his own hubris, and an ego so monstrous, it seemed convinced the world would welcome the fruit of this fraught union, no matter how soulless or forgettable it might be.
The Best Of Both Worlds
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure
Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Failure