One of my favourite songs from recent years is the Jay-Z and Kanye collaboration “Otis” from the joint album, Watch the Throne. In short, the song is disgusting with almost universally positive reviews.* But you know how it go: you do something that works and everyone imitates it. In fact, there has been a falsehood perpetuated over the last few years in hip-hop that success can be measured as proportionate to level of hatred one receives, but the truth is more intuitive: success is directly proportionate to how many people jock, dick-ride, emulate and straight-up copy you. “Imitation is the highest form of flattery,” after all. And imitators there have been, all taking the song’s slick beat and dropping tight lyrics about their own exploits. Four such imitators are noteworthy enough to me to warrant mention and I want to rate them and see how they stack up against the original.
So first, the original…
1. Otis by Jay-Z and Kanye West
Best Lines: ” I guess I got my swagger back.”
“Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive.”
“Everything’s for sale; I got five passports, I’m never goin to jail.”
“Build your fences, we diggin’ tunnls,” etc… (near every line in the song is a best line)
Worst Lines: N/A
Fuck, what can I say about this song that hasn’t already been said about a finger in your ass while getting a blowjob? Amazing! The wordplay is playful, clever and tight and it’s an unapologetic celebration of everything that’s wrong with the world. In fact, the only legit criticism I have ever heard levied at this song came from my friend, Adriana who lamented that the homage to excess, vice and privilege was completely un-ironic and thus an unwitting display of aberrant values. For this view I have some sympathy, but only to a point because my appreciation of the song is more contingent on what it meant to me and not what it meant to Jay and Ye.
This song is gonna serve as the control, if I may be so bold as to potentially misuse scientific language for the purposes of a “for fun” blog post. Gonna rate it on the scientifically-approved scale of 10.
Now for the challengers…
2. Otis (Remix) by Busta Rhymes & DMX
Best Lines: “”Two niggaz reppin’ the ‘R’ -X and X!!”
“Don’t worry bout what condition I’m in, you cats can’t survive half the places I been.”
Anytime DMX growls like a dog.
Worst Lines: “DON’T. TALK. BACK. When your father’s talkin’ to you!”
This version fucks with me. At the outset I thought to myself, “OH NOES, poor Kanye and Jay are gonna get murdered on their own track.” It was a reasonable assumption; on top of the fact that neither Busta or DMX are slouches on the mic, both have achieved mainstream success and arguably even icon status throughout their careers. And, in the case of DMX, everyone loves a comeback. But somehow this version…fails to deliver, and I’m not even 100% sure why. Even the wack rhymes aren’t that bad.
Some observations though: DMX is definitely the stronger MC on the track but that has less to do with him being “better” than Busta in any absolute sense. Rather, I think it has more to do with the fact that Busta seems to be gearing his delivery to sound more like DMX, menacing and violent. Don’t get me wrong, Busta can be legitimately threatening, but nobody does it like DMX and when you are going back and forth with him on a track it only accentuates how much better he is than you at it. I would have preferred Busta to deliver his rhymes in his more rapid, staccato style with heavily accentuated breaks followed by near-immediate, seamless re-immersion into rapid, staccato delivery (See What’s Happenin’, Fire, Thank-You, etc.).
Also, I don’t like the heavy use of sound effects on the track. I’m not saying it’s bad but it just doesn’t appeal to me personally.
3. Otis Freestyle by Cassidy feat. Jag
Best Lines: “Scream at me if you need the trees, or the ‘white bitch’ (COCAINE) -I work the morning and the night shift.”
“In Philly I’m a willy/wheelie like a bike trick,”
“I’m from a ‘get shot in the face’ hood,”
“Larsiny we in this bitch now -niggas need to leave, apply pressure to a nigga neck -he don’t need to breathe,” etc..
Worst Lines: N/A
Straight-up: this version is ill and it probably comes the closest to eclipsing the Jay/Kanye original. Why? Well it’s a solid track with no wack rhymes for one. And while I think Cassidy clearly shines brighter than Jag, the latter is no slouch either. Rather his more subtly delivered punchlines serve to compliment and offset Cassidy’s often crude hilarity. The two have a definite rapport which I where I think they outdo Kanye and Jay, as their back and forth is seamless like Ghostface and Raekwon. For the uninitiated, that’s lofty praise.
On a separate note, I have become something of a fan of Cassidy in recent years, and that’s in spite of the fact that my tastes in music have changed and matured. While I listen to less and less music promoting criminality and violence I can’t help but smile when I hear Cass’ well-wrought punchlines about cooking up dope, killing people, etc. And it’s that same cleverness which really elevates this track.
The sad reality is that because neither Cassidy or Jag have the profile and stardom of Jay and Kanye, this track never got the exposure it deserved outside of the internet. Still from a technical perspective, it’s pretty unfuckwithable.
4. Otis Freestyle by Justin Bieber
Best Lines: “Pull up on my enemies, see if they remember me, soon as they remember me, I wipe away they memory.”
“Ridin’ in a all-black Benz, with the all-black rims, and we lookin at some 10s through our all-black lenses.”
“Get it done abundantly, she wants to get up under me, I swear that I got hundred these cause baby I’m a money tree, so be my little honey, be my little bitty bunny, I got honeys all up on me -baby I just get it dunny.”
Worst Lines: “Started playin’ drums when I was only 2, now I kick it in Japan -Kung Fu!”
“I thanked Jesus at the awards, I’m never goin to hell, call me Zack Morris I’m savin ya by the bell.”
“My girls says I’m perfect … I think she is perfectly perfectly perfect.”
There is so much right with this version that it’s a damn shame some of the lyrics are so wack. Out of all the challengers, JB is in the best position to cut a track in the same spirit of opulence, stardom and fabulous wealth as the original. And so he does, even quoting Kanye’s line, “Can’t you see the private jets flying over you?” But the problems are of a more technical nature: Pubescent white-boy delivery notwithstanding, Justin seems to be good at emulating great rap but his verses and delivery seem a bit robotic and overly MCish. He tries to cram too many multi-syllabic words in as a seeming cover for not feeling comfortable enough in his own rhyming skin to just flow on the track. Overall, this version has a a “Hey, look what I can do” vibe rather than the “Shut-up and listen while I break it down for you real quick” vibe I would prefer and which would be better suited to the tone he is aiming for.
I love this version and I respect his effort, but I think JB needs to spend more time developing his rap voice to the level of his singing voice before he can be a serious contender in the rap game.
5. Otis (Remix) by Papoose
Best Lines: “Actin like you fly -STOP, Imma tell you like they told Joe Pesci, go get your motherfuckin’ shinebox!”
“There’s no tomorrow, throw a hollow, all the haters know the motto, cop a mother-lode of bottles, tell the waiter hold the sparkles…”
“You fickle, you couldn’t hustle a nickel out a dimespot.”
“I serve my beef with shells like a fuckin’ taco.”
“Make my Bed in the Stuy -I sleep in y’all streets.”
Worst Lines: “I live in a condo big as Kilimanjaro.”
“I don’t even know the vowels, I-O-U, gener-AL like Colin Powell,”
Once again, so much right with this track that it pains me to see so many missteps. From a technical perspective, this is the kind of delivery Bieber should be aspiring to right now, but from Papoose, a seasoned MC known for lyricism, I think he coulda done better. Like JB, there is way too many instances of ostentatious muli-syllabic rhymes which just seem extraneous. And while there are some great punchlines (I absolutely love the Joe Pesci/Goodfellas reference) on the whole it wasn’t consistently amusing enough like Cassidy’s raps to take me forget that he’s rapping a lot of negative, crime-related shit.
I will give Pap credit though, he does wax conscious in certain parts, like when he tells young girls, “You don’t need implants to get your body all stern, if you just eat right your ass will be more firm.” Actually he spends a few consecutive bars toward the end of the track trying to “teach the younger generation,” going so far as to lament that young black girls, possibly taught to be ashamed of their blackness, seek perms to achieve a more white aesthetic. That’s my interpretation anyways, but I gotta give him props because he shows real honesty and pretty skillfully walks the line between conscious and preachy.
One more similarity between this version and the JB version is that it’s a solo track. While I’m not necessarily against that, I don’t think it’s any accident that the two highest-ranking versions of the song I have here are duets. It’s a BIG beat and if you’re gonna attack it solo you gotta bring it.
I hope you enjoyed my critique of these tracks and that it has instilled a similar appreciation of the original song and all of its spin-offs in you.
*By “universal” I simply mean that I hadn’t seen a single bad review of it in my thorough and exhaustive search on google where I didn’t look past the first page.
4 responses to “Hall of Otis”
Initially I think my lack of familiarity with both Cassidy and Jag was the reason why I didn’t comment on their version. I don’t feel I have anything too authoritative to say. Also, I was hungry when I wrote the initial comment, but wanted to post it before eating a late dinner. 😛
I like this version, and overall I agree that it’s tight. Something very subtle that I noticed is that there are a couple of instances of stop and start/ dropping the beat and there are a few times when I feel like the transitions are a bit disjointed. It’s not as pronounced as Common’s verse in “Get Em High” for example, but that was the comparison that came to mind. Also, this isn’t a technical note, but the end where he talks shit and refers to Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall really made me laugh.
And for my latest share, I was perusing some of your old posts and the pic of the Ninja Turtle book about the environment reminded me of something:
Ugh I meant to leave this as a reply to your comment, not as a new comment, but I can’t go back and change that. Speaking of disjointed. 😛
First of all, thanks for the shoutout/ link to my post. 🙂 Now, let’s get down to bizness:
My initial reluctance with this track, which I never properly articulated before, is the nature of the sample. I’m a big Otis Redding fan, and “Try A Little Tenderness” is such a beautiful song that expresses what I find to be a very pure sentiment, and I felt like the un-ironic homage to excess cheapened that. Also, I like when a sample is well picked not only for its sound, but also for the meaning behind it, ideally with a link to the new content presented. For example, ”Gold Digger” imitates/ flips Ray Charles’ ode to a woman who lends him money, and Mos Def samples Aretha singing about a love she finds hard to resist like just like his love for Ms. Fat Booty. This is a personal preference though, and I wouldn’t demand it universally, but it’s an aspect of the song that grated on me from the beginning and contributed to my skepticism. It felt lazy and unintentional on Kanye’s part, and I feel like he can do better than that.
I’m not a fan of Busta and DMX’s version at all. Like you mentioned, I think it’s the sound effects that bug me and also DMX is so hard that I think it lacks the fun/ playful vibe of the song; not that a freestyle is meant to reproduce, but it’s just not my style. P.S. you’re welcome for bringing your attention to Busta’s “Thank You.” (One shoutout was not enough for me. To quote Busta: “gimme some more” 😛 )
I liked Bieb’s Zack Morris line. It made me laugh, and made me think of Kanye’s line, “Too many Urkels on ya team that’s why ya Winslooooow” from “Dark Fantasy.” Innocuous, nostalgic, and A-okay in my books.
I definitely echo your sentiments about Papoose’s version, especially re: the Joe Pesci line and the non-preachy commentary.
Despite my skepticism, this post did indeed instill an increased appreciation for the track and its incarnations, so kudos. 🙂
Hmmm, interesting that the disparity between the Jay/Kanye subject matter and the original Otis Redding subject matter irked you. I would make the argument that there’s a wonderful subversion going on there. But to each their own.
Did you have any thoughts on the Cassidy/Jag version? That’s my fave outside the original. If not, no worries it just seemed odd that you didn’t have an opinion on that.
And yes, I rely heavily on you to put me onto sick joints so keep em comin. 😛