Chapter 3 – “After They’ve Seen Paree”: The Mastery of Form

Chapter 3 centers on the album’s most controversial single—cut number 3, “Niggas in Paris”—moving from a textual analysis to a contextual one. The chapter is titled “‘After they’ve seen Paree’: The Mastery of Form” and examines the original luxury rap track itself—a posttranscendent escape scene featuring the two Black millionaires gallivanting around the city of light.

The chapter situates “NIP” in its historical context focusing on the 1919 tune, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?),” which was recorded for Pathé in March of the same year by James Reese Europe and his 369th US Infantry “Hell Fighters” Band. The lyrics tell a fitting story for the famed African American military band freshly returned from Paris and their deployment in World War I. While ostensibly about any enlisted man returning from Europe to the family farm, in the Hell Fighters’ up-tempo and syncopated interpretation, African American histories of slave plantation labor and the lingering question of racial equality loom large.

Listen at 1:45 for an interpolation of the blackface minstrel tune “Zip Coon” (aka “Turkey in the Straw”) before the vocals enter: “How ya gonna keep ’em down on the farm / After they’ve seen Paree?”

Notably, “NIP” is a Grammy-winning single that name-drops artifacts of European haute couture like they were “going on sale,” is at the heart of the album and its strategy of critical excess. The chapter thus spends time digging into the racially fraught references and performed paradoxes linking, for instance, the luxury fashion house Maison Margiela to the 1960s-era Hanna Barbera cartoon, Magilla Gorilla. As one commentator put it in a piece for Slate, “‘Niggas in Paris’ is the most popular piece of Western culture to ever feature the word nigga so prominently” and “is so pungently evocative because with it, Jay and Kanye proudly place the barbarians (‘niggas’) not merely within the palace gates (‘Paris’), but high up on the social ladder.”


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