As a rapper, Jay-Z has grown less vital every year since 2003's The Black Album. But instead of skidding into career exile, he has continued to expand his fanbase. Hova's popularity, in fact, soars higher all the time. Why? How?
The man delights in self-marketing. He's addicted to his own celebrity. And like a true business, man, he expertly identifies emerging markets. It's why he collaborated with Linkin Park. It's why he has high-society luncheons with Gwyneth Paltrow. And it's why he and his protégé, Kanye West — who joins him Tuesday at the Sprint Center on their Watch the Throne tour — have lately been pandering to the indie-rock crowd. In honor of Tuesday's show, we've traced a timeline documenting Hova and Yeezy's descent into blind hipster posturing.
2004: Jay-Z enters the waters tepidly, telling interviewers how much he adores the Killers' schmaltzy but very safe soon-to-be prom staple "Mr. Brightside."
2005: Jay-Z recognizes the new, unfortunate trend of white music critics fetishizing Southern hip-hop, and he capitalizes on it, collaborating with UGK and Young Jeezy on the Internet hit "Get Throwed." Meanwhile, West holes up in a studio with Jon Brion to create his avant-garde masterpiece, Late Registration. He cites M.I.A., Franz Ferdinand and Portishead as primary influences.
2006: West's popularity among white liberal-arts grads takes a dive after he snubs Justice at the 2006 MTV European Music Awards. But he's able to regain some style points by collaborating with perennial It rapper Ghostface Killah on "Back Like That (remix)." Jay-Z's Kingdom Come, on which he enlists Coldplay's Chris Martin for a noirish cut called "Beach Chair," is nevertheless roundly maligned.
2007: On the mixtape Can't Tell Me Nothing, Yeezy raps over Peter Bjorn and John's "Young Folks" and Thom Yorke's "The Eraser." Graduation, a proper LP that West releases later that year, reworks Can, Steely Dan and Daft Punk hits to catchy effect.
2008: Jay-Z begins wearing wide-rimmed glasses in public. West shaves his head, sporting a faux hawk, and begins dressing in ironic suits. He goes rogue on 808s & Heartbreak, an incoherent tirade against his ex-fiancée that's set to overwrought Gary Numan keyboard music. In the fall, West appears on the cover of The Fader, the lifestyle magazine of choice for dive-bar MacBook DJs.
2009: Jay-Z's The Blueprint 3 arrives, full of fifth-rate Italo disco impersonations and references to Tribeca lofts and highbrow art. Much of The Blueprint 3 sounds like an aborted companion piece to MGMT's Oracular Spectacular. Yet Jay-Z loudly trumpets that his favorite bands are the psych-folk quartet Grizzly Bear and Southern-rock cocksmen Kings of Leon. Somewhere in here, Kanye writes a blog post about the Decemberists.
2010: West channels his coke-binging mania into the prog epic My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 70 minutes of King Crimson samples, orchestral interludes, Talkbox flourishes and American Apparel references. Indie It boy Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) contributes a warped version of his song "Woods," which is about building a whiskey still.
2011: West befriends alt-comic Aziz Ansari. Watch the Throne, West and Jay-Z's much ballyhooed collaborative effort, finally arrives. It contains a fucking Cassius sample.
Last month: Jay-Z draws fire for selling T-shirts that profit from the Occupy Wall Street movement. Kanye catches heat after arriving at the Zuccotti Park demonstrations in New York wearing a $355 shirt. Have they at last flown too close to the sun?