Why the 'Public Enemies: JAY-Z vs Kanye West' Documentary Was a Disappointment

We watched that so, hopefully, you don’t have to go through that.
By · in Music 

It’s been hard to avoid the ongoing JAY-Z vs Kanye West feud. There’s little need to go over the barbs sent back-and-forth that culminated in lyrics dedicated to West on 4:44. So, when news of a documentary exploring the fractured relationship between the two was announced, we were, understandably, looking forward to what would be unearthed. And then we saw the documentary, which aired in the UK last night on Channel 4. It was a let-down.

The main source of unease was one of simple mislabelling. While the title of the documentary was Public Enemies: JAY-Z vs Kanye West, the documentary was more of a retelling of the pair’s individual life stories than it was any kind of deep dive into the feud its self. Of course we know that shows need a hook in order to grab viewers — but, in this case, the gap between how the programme was sold and what it actually turned out to be was too great to ignore.

First, the documentary takes over 17 minutes (nearly half of its 40 minute run time) to get to the point where JAY-Z and Kanye’s paths first cross, instead giving us a truncated biography of each rapper. And these are well trodden stories: JAY-Z the bright kid eventually turned to drug dealing before using his entrepreneurial skills and talents as a rapper to both launch Roc-a-Fella and become an artist in his own right. Then there’s Kanye, the solidly middle class producer who eventually become the world’s biggest rapper despite no-one (including JAY-Z) believing he could do it.

“The documentary was more of a retelling of the two’s life tales than it was a deep dive into why the two had a feud.”

It’s not so much that these aren’t interesting stories in themselves, just that — as a set up — you waste valuable time on information that people already know and which, in some cases, have been dealt with more thoroughly by other venues and outlets. For Kanye’s story and an insight into his thought process, there was a Vulture piece by Rembert Browne last year that delves into what Ye has in common with both Martin Luther King Jr. and Donald Trump. For JAY-Z, there are even more profiles, but one that springs to mind immediately is the New York Times piece by Zadie Smith.

That’s not to say that the documentary is devoid of any value. There’s vintage footage of a 19 year-old Jay, an interview with his school teacher, and the pretty fascinating tale of how this picture came to be. For Kanye, there’s a previously unheard song from his first ever group State of Mind. The latter is an interesting look into just how well developed Kanye has always been as a producer, crafting a track at 15 that sounded like it could’ve easily belonged on the radio in terms of production values.  But, while interesting, the small amounts of new information just aren’t enough to redeem the documentary as a whole.

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The most interesting elements of Public Enemies are the things left unsaid. It’s telling, for example, that the vast majority of West’s childhood friends appear in this documentary and are all on non-speaking terms with the rapper. The only people they can get to speak about JAY-Z’s past are his childhood teacher and Clark Kent, who is unfailingly positive. In contrast, West’s old friends were close enough to be able to tell personal stories — like rapping his “Through The Wire” lyrics down the phone — and express seemingly legitimate concern for someone they miss having in their lives. In fact, it seems like the reason Jay’s older friends are so quiet while Kanye’s are so willing to speak up would make interesting topic in itself — but it isn’t explicitly dealt with here, instead venturing into the world of conjecture, analysing the lyrics of old songs, and having journalists tell us information that we will already know, presumably in an attempt to pad out the running time.

“The reason why Jay’s older friends are so quiet and West’s older friends so loud would’ve been an interesting topic in itself, but it isn’t explicitly dealt with during this documentary.”

Our summary? If you’re somehow both unacquainted with both JAY-Z and West but yet are so invested in their recent feud that you want to watch a documentary about it, then this is the show for you. Everyone else? Give this a miss.

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