"Big Brother" is a song by American hip-hop artist Kanye West. It was released on his 2007 studio album, Graduation. The song was produced by Atlanta record producer DJ Toomp. "Big Brother" is a tribute by Kanye dedicated to Jay-Z, containing lyrics that discuss the ups and downs of their friendship. The song received very positive reviews from music critics, who praised West's lyricism and storytelling ability. Though not released as a single, "Big Brother" managed to enter and peak at number nineteen on the U.S. Billboard Bubbling Under R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart.
"Big Brother" was written by Kanye West while the music was produced by Atlanta record producer DJ Toomp. It stands as the sole track on the entire album not to have production by West. Kanye wrote the song as a tribute to Jay-Z, whom he feels so close to as a friend that he sees him as a brother. The song's hook and concept was conceived while West was riding an elevator. Kanye West's cousin, G.O.O.D. Music soul singer Tony Williams, recalled that Jay-Z himself became quite emotional when West played "Big Brother" for him in the studio for the very first time. When asked of his opinion of the song, Jay-Z responded that he thought it was "brilliantly written" and that it was Kanye's best song since "Jesus Walks" as far as structure and emotion.Digital radio station BBC Radio 1Xtra hosted an exclusive "Audience With Kanye West" on August 14, 2007 at the BBC Radio Music Theatre, where West guided a specially selected audience through his third studio album Graduation. It was there that Kanye claimed that he felt that "Big Brother" is his strongest ever lyrically, career defining record.
While making an appearance on DJ Tim Westwood's radio show on August 18, 2007, Kanye played a preview of "Big Brother" alongside "Champion," the second song on the track-listing of Graduation. "Big Brother" in its entirety was first unveiled at a secret concert West held with Rihanna before an audience of over one thousand fans and invited guests during his trip to the United Kingdom. The concert took place on August 20, 2007 at the Westminster Central Hall in London, England. West went on to play a snippet of "Big Brother" while hosting an album listening session for Graduation on August 28, 2007 at the New World Stages in New York City. In an interview with Blender, R&B singer-songwriter The-Dream said that he was set to sing on the remix of "Big Brother", but the song never materialized.
"Big Brother" is a mid-tempo hip-hop song. It is set in the time signature of common time, with a moderate tempo of beats per minute. The song opens with West's voice uttering the words, "Stadium status...", backed by string arrangements, pounding drums, a distorted guitar riff and soft piano keys. Kanye then begins reciting the chorus of "Big Brother" in a rhythmic, half-sung manner, followed by him rapping its smooth, melodic verses. Approximately half-way through its first verse, the song suddenly adopts synthesizer sounds which replicate the melody of the string section. During West's second delivery of the chorus of "Big Brother", after the end of its first verse, the song incorporates more musical aspects, including handclaps, percussion, and a bassline. Throughout the song, the pacing of West's rapping varies, from swift raps typical of hip-hop music to a slower style reminiscent of spoken word.
The lyrics of "Big Brother" possess an honest, heartfelt examination of the complexities that encompass West's relationship with Jay-Z. The narrative song chronicles Kanye's life at Roc-A-Fella Records and his journey over the years with Jay-Z; from being a bashful fan, to producing his classic The Blueprint, and finally the present day. In the song, West dually discusses both his love and admiration towards Jay-Z as well as his envy and resentment towards him, equating their relationship to that of a sibling rivalry. As the song nears its conclusion, Kanye impels listeners to let the people that they admire know by altering its chorus: "My big brother was Big's brother/So here's a few words from ya kid brother/If you admire somebody you should go head and tell 'em/People never get the flowers while they can still smell 'em". Kanye also uses the chorus of "Big Brother" as a subsidiary dedication to his former mentor No I.D., who first taught him how to produce music.
"Big Brother" received strong reviews from music critics and was widely regarded as the best song on Graduation lyrically. Hillary Crosley of Billboard gave the "Big Brother" a favorable review in which she claimed that it "has lyrics introspective enough to make fans cry." Brett Johnson from USA Today called the song captivating. Del Cowie from Exclaim! stated that the track was stellar while The Chicago Tribune writer Greg Kot declared that with it, "West is at his best." Making note of its "classic hip-hop storytelling framework" and the "raw style" of West's rapping, Dave Heaton from PopMatters cited "Big Brother" as one of the tracks on the album that gave off a "timeless hip-hop feeling." Similarly, Dan Aquilante of New York Post wrote that the song is "where West demonstrates his real talent as a raconteur."The Observer reviewer Ben Thompson listed "Big Brother" as one of the five best tracks on Graduation.The Guardian music critic Dorian Lynskey remarked that the song, "intertwines admiration and envy with fascinating honesty." A year later, a columnist for The Guardian included the track within a "Readers Recommend" column that discussed hero worship, writing, "Kanye West demonstrates more self-awareness in his thoughtful tribute to his brother-in-spirit, Jay-Z, exploring the complications of their fan-idol relationship, which grows trickier as the two become peers." Nathan Rabin, while writing a review of Watch the Throne for The A.V. Club, retrospectively asserted that West's performance within "Big Brother" possessed "a sincerity that bordered on embarrassing." Likewise, Gregg LaGambina, from the same publication, described the tribute as "awkward introspection." Citing it as the standout track of Graduation, Shannon Barbour from About.com listed "Big Brother" as one of the four best songs off the album and regarded it as "perhaps [West's] greatest exercise in humility." She also commended Kanye for showing Jay-Z the kind of love that she believes hip-hop too commonly reserves for posthumous tributes.
Although it was not released as a single, "Big Brother" managed to enter and peak at number nineteen on the U.S. Billboard Bubbling Under R&B/Hip-Hop Singles chart, which acts as a twenty-five song extension to the U.S. Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, for the issue date of September 22, 2007.
West premiered "Big Brother" before an audience of over one thousand fans and invited guests during an intimate show with Rihanna that took place at Westminster Central Hall in London, England on August 20, 2007. He was backed by a twenty-one piece all-female string section, background vocalists, a keyboardist and his tour DJ A-Trak. The guests were greeted by staff members wearing graduation outfits and mortarboards in reference to the title of West's third studio album Graduation. At the end of the show, ticker tape reading Touch the Sky fell from the ceiling.
Kanye next performed "Big Brother" on August 25 at a concert promoting higher education sponsored by his charity foundation. On September 11, 2007, West provided a live rendition of the song on BET's 106 & Park, where Jay-Z himself made a surprise appearance at the end to perform the song "Encore" with him. The duo repeated this performance during West's set at JAM'N 94.5's annual concert. The "Big Brother/"Encore" rendition was recorded live and included in The Graduate, a collaborative mixtape made by hi hop producers Mick Boogie, Terry Urban and 9th Wonder and hosted by West. Assisted by back-up singers, a full orchestra and DJ Reflex, Kanye performed "Big Brother" at the GM Place in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada on October 17. West gave a live performance of the song at the Plymouth Pavilions on November 28, 2007. Kanye played "Big Brother" at the SECC in Glasgow, Scotland December 4. West performed the song live at The O2 Arena in London, England on November 22, 2007.
"Big Brother" has been covered and remixed by numerous other hip-hop artists. Freekey Zekey, a member of the Harlem-based rap group The Diplomats, used the instrumental of "Big Brother" to create his own song. Like West, he reflects on the ups and downs of his friendship with Cam'ron. Rolling Stone quipped, "Isn't it amazing how a good (jacked) Kanye West beat can turn a sixth-string Dipset mumbler into a guy who sounds like he knows what he's doing? Hip-hop duo Tha Dogg Pound did a freestyle over "Big Brother" entitled "Half A Mil Freestyle". The two later included the song as the first track on their Full Circle: Gangsta Grillz mixtape under the new title "Half A Million." Former Shady Records artist Bobby Creekwater rapped and released a song containing lyrics dedicated to Eminem using the "Big Brother" instrumental. In the song, Bobby explains how he got signed, what his relationship with Eminem and his labelmates was like, and where he stood within his record label Interscope Records. During a sold-out show at the High Noon Saloon held on March 19, 2012 with fellow underground rappers P.O.S, Astronautalis, and spoken word artist Dessa, Madison rap artist F. Stokes performed his own version of "Big Brother." Stokes dedicated the song's lyrics to his good friend P.O.S. The A.V. Club concert reviewer Joel Shanahan complimented the cover, writing, "While the notion admittedly seemed really cheesy at first, it was somehow more convincing coming from a heartfelt rapper like Stokes." Killa BH recorded a parody of "Big Brother" entitled "Foldger's Brother" with Joe Budden in place of Jay-Z. The track was featured in Budden's critically acclaimed mixtape Mood Muzik 3: For Better or for Worse. Inspired by the song, R&B singer Lil' Mo created a female version of "Big Brother" in the form of "Big Sister", an answer song in which she expresses her admiration and appreciation for her mentor Missy Elliott.
Information taken from Graduation liner notes.