Hip-hop for nerds: "Otis"

(Ed. Herein, I attempt to break down a current favorite of mine, “Otis” by Jay-Z and Kanye West, in terms familiar and interesting to nerds, specifically of the nerd and/or comedy persuasion.)

“Otis” is a song arranged and performed by two best pals, Jay-Z and Kanye West. It opens with a sample of Otis Redding (hence the title) singing “Try a little tenderness”. Opening with a sample like this tells us two things:

  • Misters Z and West enjoy the music of Mr. Redding enough that they were compelled to include it in their own music.
  • The gentlemen are also well connected and affluent, as not just everyone can afford to sample a legend like Redding in their music

A digression: sampling in hip-hop is one of its key characteristics and is of particular interest to nerds. It is a way that we can connect, through “nerding out” with the artist and find what it is that they respect and listen to. It is also a bit of a recursive structure; “Otis” samples Otis, Otis borrowed from gospel and blues, blues and gospel borrowed from traditional songs, etc. Finally, sampling is a recombinant form; in “Otis”, there is a verbatim sample in the opening bars, but the sample devolves to a looped-beat in the middle of the song and a mere sound-effect at the end of the song.

As Misters Z and West enter the song proper, the rappers trade verses about their affluence (“New watch alert, Hublot’s / Or the big face Rollie I got two of those”), the recursive (again, nerdy) deception they use to evade the papperazzi (“They ain’t see me ‘cuz I pulled up in my other Benz / Last week I was in my other other Benz”), a conflicting verse about how they would seek the paparazzi out (“Photo shoot fresh, looking like wealth / I’m ‘bout to call the paparazzi on myself”), more boasting of their affluence and skill (“Couture level flow, it’s never going on sale / Luxury rap, the Hermes of verses”), and such.

This song features a video, so we wouldn’t be properly doing a nerd dissection of it if we were to neglect that. It opens with our heroes approaching a Maybach sedan with a saw and a blow torch. Following a “car modification montage”, it appears the doors have been removed from the car and the front end of the car has been placed on the back, and vice versa. Another display of affluence, with perhaps a touch of hipster irony thrown in.

The video follows with various shots of our heroes rapping and driving the Maybach through an abandoned dock or airfield. Our heroes are in the front seat of the car and there are four models in the back seat, one seated precariously atop the one in the middle as our heroes make dangerous-looking manuvers in the car. At one point it appears they will lose a model through the door-less side of the car. At multiple points, it appears the boobs of the models might fight free of their loose fitting shirt. It should be noted that the appearance of a possible free boob could be considered quite progressive for a hip-hop music video.

The Maybach is, in my opinion, the most difficult to interpret signal the song and video send. Are we to understand that Misters Z and West are so affluent they can afford to put down six figures on the purchase and massively impractical modification of a high-end luxury car? Perhaps they had a spare one laying around and felt it would be a better use to destroy it than to leave it around. Or, perhaps this was a vehicle for a clever tax deduction?

Mr. West's CPA: You're going to owe a lot of tax on this purchase of your other-other Benz, 'Ye.

Mr. West: What if I were to use it in a music video for the purposes of promoting my upcoming album?

Mr. West's CPA: Well then you could depreciate it at 50% this year and 25% for the next two years, but you're still going to owe a lot.

Mr. West: If I were to take it to a chop shop and have them put the ass-end of the car on the front and turn the doors into wings, could I depreciate it faster?

Mr. West's CPA: throw some models in the back seat, and it *just might work*!

(Ed. as it turns out, the vehicle was to be auctioned and the proceeds donated to charity)

The other enigma of the video is the presence of comedian Aziz Ansari. Mr. Ansari has documented (Ed. hilariously) his friendship with Mr. West. Thus it is not shocking to see him appear in the video. He appears for only an instant, and his appearance marks the absence of the models in the rest of the video. Perhaps, we are to believe, Mr. Ansari is the pumpkin that the models turn into after some deadline has passed for Misters Z and West.

Despite, or perhaps because, of its mysteries, I find “Otis” is a fantastic piece of hip-hop production. The samples is well chosen and deconstructed, the verses are interesting (if mentally unchallenging), and the video is engaging to watch. I would easily rank it amongst the top songs of recent memory, were I one to make lists of top songs.

Adam Keys @therealadam