Dweez was among those teenagers bumping + grinding to Hot Karl at Bling Bling in 2001.
“So, ya know, growing up in Los Angeles you see hundreds of thousands of people come here try to be an actor or actress, and I don’t know, maybe one of them make it? And the thing is they don’t tell people that they failed. They come up with a whole story in their head—people are only hired because they’re related to someone, or this person held me down—truth is, man, you just didn’t make it.”
—Hot Karl, “Just Like Me & You” (Ft. Betty Elms) from the album The Great Escape
Rarely do we read memoirs of great collapse. Epic defeat. Disappointment. Those stories get drowned out in favor of the vaguely inspirational. For a major publisher to release your memoir, it follows that you’re famous enough for it to sell. In order to be famous, things generally have to go you way for a minute.
The almost-famous or marginally-well-known don’t go on book tours–unless, that is, their books are fantastically well conceived and dexterously executed, their stories too absurd to be a work of fiction. When Jensen Karp sat down to pen a memoir about his aborted rap career, I wonder how wholly he appreciated the challenge he was undertaking. The chance that the awkward, Calabasas-born, self-proclaimed Jewish Jay-Z could flip his failure into publishing gold were about as slim as Jimmy Iovine offering him a six-figure rap deal over salmon.
With anyone else at the helm, Kanye West Owes Me $300 would have gone horribly awry. The chapters’ central stories revolve around names like Suge Knight, Sugar Ray, Tyrese, Sisqó, Fred Durst, Missy Elliot, 50 Cent, RZA, Pink, Mya, and will.i.am. When listed out like that, these names could be fodder for a badly star tourist map for Midwesterners on a three-day swing through Hollywood. Adding to the degree of difficulty in Jensen’s memoir maneuver is the need to contextualize the litany of homophobic and racially insensitive lyrics, many of which were first delivered on-the-spot via landline (along with the invention of his fecalpheliac nom de plume) for the defunct rap freestyle show Roll Call.
To wage war with his demons, Karp resurrects the spirit of Hot Karl with the added experience of a man who’s lived an entire suburb’s worth of atmospheric highs and molten lows. With his own brand of John Fante-esque self-glorification and self-deprecation, Karp begs you to hate him then beats you to the punch. He brags about his rap battle heroics one instant, then points out the absurdity of his even being involved the next. Trading bravado for bravery, He goes as far as roasting himself by including his own admittedly cringe-inducing lyrics in full form.
Yet something that so easily could have read like a real life version of Malibu’s Most Wanted becomes a workshop in comedic tone and timing. An ongoing, inter-textual joke pitting suspect Grammy-recognized artists (Sisqó) against indisputable musical greats (Bob Marley) is woven through the text beside the retelling of events like when Karp’s mother complains about how silly she feels having to dress up as Nelly for a performance gag and he responds by asking her to imagine how the original St. Lunatic himself must feel everyday.
Anecdotes featuring any of the aforementioned celebrities could have easily replaced Kanye as the title-leading tale but I won’t spoil any of them here. Karp possess an unteachable rhythmic wit, surely sharpened during his time as Hot Karl, that skewers his own pop-culture sensibilities, rewarding readers with anecdotes so toothsome it wouldn’t matter if they were true or fabrications.
Over a decade has passed since Karp was last Karl. In reliving his reign as rap’s great white hype, the struggle between the two voices erupts on less-opportune occasions. Streams of what can be best described as real life (breakups, cancer, divorce, disorders) don’t find their way into his memoir with the same fluidity as punch lines laced with pop-culture references did his lyrics.
Just as early 2000s rap albums were plagued with an unspoken set of criteria about kinds of songs that necessitated inclusion (a banger for the clubs, a jam for the ladies, a cut for the posse), Karp’s memoir contains some unnecessary check listing prevalent in the business of books. There’s no foul in drafting out the great downfall, family strife, interior turmoil, and ended relationships but like insisting a summer action movie have a trite love story, it’s usually better to edit out. In Kanye Owes Me $300, the digressions too often interrupt what’s an otherwise singular, absurdist tone.
I have no doubt that many of these passages are dear to Karp as catharsis and resolution. They may have even occurred exactly like they read: hiccups of reality in an otherwise unreal series of events. Yet, it’s in the DNA of memoir as form to crop and adjust the window of memory to better serve the reader peering into it. Already coming in a little on the longer side for memoir at 320 pages, chopping a few of these passages could have kept the tone unified and trimmed down the manuscript to showcase the best stuff.
But Should You Read It?
Hot Karl did not become Eminem. No spoiler there. In one sense, Karp’s career as a rapper was a great failure, especially after all the money and talent invested into him. This book is the unparalleled chance to sit courtside and watch a Cinderella home team blow a double-digit lead they never realized they had. To say its rare in the world of music memoirs is an understatement on par with Leicester City winning the English Premier League this year. This is a 1 out of 5,000 kind of book. Not just because there are at least 5,000 other rappers out there with their own almost famous stories to tell but because it is almost impossible for one of them to be able to turn around a dozen years later and have the bravery to tell the heartbreaking fable with such lighthearted humility.
For the most part, Karp exhibits a lot of restraint to fill these pages with excuses and finger pointing. Everyone has a sob story. Not everyone has a story about a million-dollar album called Your Housekeeper Hates You that never saw the light of day.
The silver lining to rap’s greatest air ball story is that it worked better as a book all along.
Page numbers are taken from Kanye West Owes Me $300: And Other True Stories from a White Rapper Who Almost Made It Big, 2016, Crown Archetype. That was the edition reviewed.