A choir of chants and crunchy acoustic guitars strike the listener’s ears. Mumbles of the words bloody murder come out the mouth of Shawn Carter, the rapper known as JAY-Z, who turned his life’s troubles into a billion-dollar empire. Kanye West, the GRAMMY-winning rapper and producer, sings the lyrics, the paper read “Murder, Black-on-Black murder, in a peculiarly higher pitch. The atmosphere is urgent, dire even – uncommon for an album where it seemed the duo’s mission statement was to flaunt how luxurious their lives were.
After nine tracks of opulent flex bars over a carousel of ostentatious beats, the opening notes of “Murder To Excellence” off the duo’s 2011 collaborative record Watch The Throne signal a crucial shift in tone on the album, one that demands the listener’s undivided attention – and its lyrics and themes resonate now more than ever, even after the record recently celebrated its tenth anniversary.
Jay-Z and Kanye West run-in in Soho, 2013 – Alo Ceballos/FilmMagic/Getty Images
In the years following the song’s 2011 release, the United States saw intense public reckonings over festering issues of systemic racism, police brutality, white nationalism and Black suffering. And it’s not to say that the song predicted these events, but moreso, that it spotlighted these issues before they became more of a focused national concern. The duo’s lyrics are also particularly interested in an issue that tends to go underreported and ignored amid the mix of those other hot-button topics: Black-on-Black crime.
And it’s the song’s approach to tackling these themes and its structure that keeps it applicable in a contemporary context. It is transparently divided into two sections: “Murder” and “Excellence.”
Multiple lyrics punctuate the importance of the “Murder” portion of this song. Whether it’s Kanye rapping about hearing mothers cry over the death of their children, and the amount of homicides in Chicago surpassing the amount of soldiers killed in Iraq, or Jay rapping about friendly fire coming from “the same team” and celebrating his “post-demise,” these are unpleasant lines with a daunting sense of truth attached to them. They paint a harrowing image of Black suffering in a manner that doesn’t shy away from the difficulty that persists by simply existing in Black skin.
Jay-Z and Kanye West perform Watch The Throne in Washington, D.C., 2011 – Kyle Gustafson/For The Washington Post via Getty Images
Toward the end of this section, the main drum beat stops, bringing the sparse tribal background drums to the front and putting a spotlight on Kanye’s lyrics. As the mic is passed off to Jay’s last verse of “Murder,” Kid Cudi’s vocal cameo of haunting hums highlights the urgency and gravity in tone of this particular song. This is not Jay rapping about how many Hublots he owns, or Kanye talking about pulling up in his other Benz, but rather, the duo speaking on issues of crime and violence that they were once intimately familiar with – all while the circumstances of their success have inherently distanced them from it.
And for them, their success doesn’t mean they can completely neglect those ongoing traumas in their respective hometowns. It means they have the unique opportunity to bring these issues to light on a national scale.
Piano chords, a beat breakdown and a reverse chop of the choir singing from the first half of the song, introduce us to “Excellence.” Kanye and Jay slow down the urgency presented in “Murder” to reflect and speak on the opposite side of this crime-riddled suffering presented initially – one that implies their experiences with Black excellence is not as glamorous as it seems.
“Only spot a few Blacks the higher I go, uh… That ain’t enough, we gonna need a million more, Kick in the door,” Jay remarks toward the end of his verse in “Excellence.” The genesis of Jay’s entire second-half verse is that he’s made it – he is a living example of Black excellence and success through the American Dream. But, his personal success isn’t enough to be satisfied. He can’t be content with his own success if he’s not able celebrate it at the top floor with others who look like him, or who have lived through similar experiences as him. And all these years later, he’s continued to make the effort to set his own people up for success – Jay recently appointed Troy Datcher as CEO of The Parent Company, making him the first Black CEO of a cannabis company.
Kanye West and Jay-Z launch TIDAL streaming service in 2015 – Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images
“What’s the life expectancy for Black guys? The system’s working effectively, that’s why,” Kanye points out in his verse, which highlights the real issue plaguing the Black community – systemic racism influenced by a falsely-designed political economy. While the earlier part of the song presents Black-on-Black crime on the ground level as a dire situation, Kanye spends his second-half verse reflecting on the Black experience at the macro level, poking around at the reason why so many of his people need to resort to crime and violence to survive in the United States. And after a tumultuous run of years where Kanye entangled himself with American politics, publicly congregating at the White House with former President Donald Trump and even running for the executive office in the 2020 election, it seems he’s back to thinking more critically about issues of Black struggle. On the unreleased “Jesus Lord” off of his presumed DONDA record, he circles back to the subject of Chicago gang violence that haunts his hometown.
In splitting this song into two halves and telling separate stories of the Black experience, it underscores the shared, but ultimately rare perspectives Jay and Kanye have as immensely successful Black artists in the music industry. These issues are presented as tangibly tragic and disheartening – the duo have made it so far in their own careers, yet the new demographic of individuals that surround them don’t respect the two. At the same time, Jay’s and Kanye’s success leaves them too far removed from the ground level crime that persists in their hometowns.
Their ultimate message and solution: Black unity. No more tearing each other down to get ahead when the system itself already discriminates against them all without bias. Kick in the door at the top, and communal Black excellence – something Kanye and Jay have experienced as a select few – is possible.