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This Is the Music Television We Need

A new British documentary on JAY-Z and Kanye gives necessary colour to two of this century’s most important artists.
Ryan Bassil
London, GB
Image via Channel 4

Music television comes in a few forms. Some are necessary, others less so or indeed not at all.

For example:

  • Feature length documentaries, exploring and bring awareness to a subject (necessary and important);
  • Fun chat shows such as Never Mind the Buzzcocks (good as light entertainment but not imperative for the greater cultural good of the television watching public);
  • Filming every semi-to-popular band at a festival (unnecessary, colossal waste of money).


Of course, there are also programmes that slide somewhere between these three loose themes – The Big List type countdowns, literal music video television, Jools Holland, magazine shows, soon-to-be-revamped TRL etc. These all have their own cultural relevance, so for the sake of simplicity let's keep them separate and say the music documentary represents the pinnacle of music television while televising an early afternoon slot from Declan McKenna is the nadir. These are the poles of judgement.


There's a point here beyond wanting the BBC to fund a feature length film about Glastonbury over slinging 100 different sets on iPlayer, which is the fact that Channel 4 (a British public-service television broadcaster) last night aired a British-made music documentary about rap. Public Enemies: JAY-Z vs Kanye aims to bring a supposedly bitter rivalry to light. It mostly fails at this – primarily because it's easy to imagine the so-called beef being a one-sided affair: one where Kanye West hurls insults at JAY-Z who then brushes them off his hand-embroidered shoulder; but also because there is no source footage that suggests otherwise.

However, although the documentary fails to deliver on its promise, it excels in giving colour to its subjects. Yes, some of this comes in the form of wishy-washy anecdotes from teachers who remember a "cute, smiling kid" behind rose-tinted, steam-ridden glasses; and yes, there is the archetypal origin-story inclusion of home video footage. But between the narration and source interviews, the documentary paints a bigger picture around two of music's most visible stars, how they oppose one another, what they represent. On the one side: a drug dealer from Brooklyn who became worth $160 million, known as JAY-Z; on the other, a middle-class kid from Chicago called Kanye West who places art over money.


Without spoiling the documentary, JAY-Z and Kanye West's career arcs and upbringings speak to wider themes of race and wealth in the United States. Some of these propositions may already be apparent to fans (and non fans!) of either artist. The release of 4:44 and its themes around black entrepreneurship prompted many a think piece, while Kanye West has never been shy about getting overtly political. But this is a documentary, another medium, and as such provides a different insight – one that brings together interviews, footage and various characters to create something that can't be read on paper.

Public Enemies showcases the following things: an original demo tape from Kanye West, aged 19; JAY-Z rapping, also a similar age; interviews with early collaborators; anecdotes about how JAY-Z tried to shelve Kanye's career, and how Kanye went behind his back. What it doesn't include is original interviews with anyone close to either artist – which is telling of how famous both Kanye and JAY-Z have becoeme, and how hard to access for those beyond their inner circles. The film's original motivation to tell the story of Kanye West and JAY-Z's supposed falling out also misses out some important structural components – specifically news from around the Yeezus tour, where Kanye would neglect to mention JAY-Z's name in live performances.

Watch Desus & Mero share their unfiltered thoughts on 'Public Enemies' on VICELAND:


The documentary triumphs however by presenting the honest story behind each artist. In a media climate where West is prominently seen as a megalomaniac superstar, it's important for the average person to understand the narrative that led him toward that point. An hour-long documentary on public television is the best way to do this. The same also goes for JAY-Z: the average British person also knows little about him beyond the fact he's married to Beyonce. Public Enemies presents two independent artists who have pushed their work into two opposing but no less important and impressive corners.

If all of this sounds like an advert for Channel 4, as though their trousers have been pulled down and we're nudging them toward climax, it is the opposite. This should be a reflection of what can be possible with music television when money is put into it; a diss track toward programmes like 50 Best Songs About Love that have so often taken up scheduling calendars instead of documentaries. Bring us more, please. Bless us with consistent shows sitting somewhere between Dazed's Music Nation , this documentary, everything we do on and films like Amy. Do it for life, for the culture.

You can find Ryan on Twitter.

'Public Enemies' is available on-demand on Channel 4.