Pop Vs. The Underground: Community Wins (Jay-Z + Eminem Vs. Kweli + Common Edition)

Choosing to be a great artist is an investment. It’s an investment in time and passion and sweat – all poured into captured performances. Because greatness is achieved in the audience’s reactions and remembrances.

You can choose more than one type of audience to invest in as an artist. 

It comes with tradeoffs. 

Some financial, others social – but they’re ALL communally related, and that means all community-building, socially-networking, friendly-supportive people could benefit from thinking on this.

My friend David referenced Jay-Z and Eminem’s “Moment of Clarity” the other day. It immediately took me back to 2003. This wasn’t the first time I remembered thinking about pop-audience vs. underground-audience and the artist-audience service model, but it was a moment I’ve never let go of. 

It starts with a Jay-Z line, which felt like a real diss to an underground rap fan in 2003,

If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 ‘mill – I ain’t been rhyming like Common since
When your cents got that much in common
And you been hustin’ since your inception
F*** perception! Go with what makes cents.

The best disses always have a sting of truth in them. 

I loved Kweli in ‘03. I loved Common too. But if I turned around to a random kid in a college lecture and asked who either of them were, odds are I’d have gotten a blank stare. 

Such is loving the underground. The artist and the audience love each other back. Even when money and status is in short supply. 

Jay-Z, by even dropping their names into the verse, is showing he’s got love for the underground too. It’s just that he also loved being popular, more. He loved making money, more. Extra corporate rock whore vibes. Extra, “F*** pride. It only hurts, it never helps” vibes. 

Kweli responded to the diss not long after on “Ghetto Show,” which featured Common too, 

If lyrics sold, then truth be told
I’d probably be just as rich and famous as Jay-Z
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like common sense
Next best thing I do a record with Common Sense
Cause it’s the music, the blues, it’s the jazz, it’s acoustics,
Soul, Rock and Roll, the hip-hop that we producin’, yea

As of 2024, all these artists are still out there doing their thing. 

You know what’s bigger than any of these two songs, or either of these disses?

The music. 

Kweli saw it in the moment. 

I respect being popular. I respect getting paid. But I respect building community the most. 

Jay-Z’s line has some hurt in it. Kweli’s line has some “Say what you will, it’s bigger than all of us” wisdom in it. Man do I feel that these days. 

Invest in your artistry. Invest in your community. And, thank the gods, disses will always be smaller than the scene. So brush that stuff off your shoulder. Focus on the next best thing.