So here is the president of the United States, enjoying canapés and small talk at Daniel, chef Daniel Boulud’s gourmet restaurant just off Park Avenue, with the right touch of upscale-whorehouse decor and enough Alice Waters in the kitchen to make it the place where every Wall Street guy takes his wife on bonus night. The drill for tonight is two fund-raisers at Daniel, to be followed by an even more intimate sit-down dinner at Spike Lee’s house, before the motorcade heads uptown to the Apollo, in Harlem, where Barack Obama once lived in a ratty student apartment, less than 50 blocks but light-years away from the perfumed dining room where he is answering questions and posing for pictures and name-checking Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow. I get my chance to ask him the question of the moment, the question that everyone who has bought the album or spent $150 on a concert ticket wants answered. “I have a question I want to ask you, Mr. President,” I venture, once I catch his attention.
“Sure,” the president says.
“Kanye or Jay-Z?”
The president smiles. “Jay-Z,” he says, as if the answer should be obvious. When it comes to the most meaningful pop-cultural divide of the moment, the question of whether you prefer Kanye West or Jay-Z—the top two hip-hop artists in the world, who recently joined forces for a national mega-tour called Watch the Throne—Barack Obama is clearly a Jay-Z guy. Jay-Z is about control. Jay-Z is about success. He’s a natural-born leader. He is married to Beyoncé Knowles, the gorgeous, sugar-spun R&B star who recently joined with Michelle Obama in a public campaign against the epidemic of childhood obesity. Together, Jay and Beyoncé are worth something close to $1 billion. Jay-Z fills arenas and enunciates clearly—unlike Kanye West, who jumps onstage and interrupts during award ceremonies, cries on talk shows, and jets off to Rome to apprentice with the House of Fendi. Besides, the president’s smile says, we are at a fund-raiser in New York, which is Jay-Z’s hometown.
“Although I like Kanye,” Obama continues, with an easy smile. “He’s a Chicago guy. Smart. He’s very talented.” He is displaying his larger awareness of the question, looking relaxed, cerebral but friendly, alive to the moment, waiting for me to get to the heart of the matter.
“Even though you called him a jackass?,” I ask.
“He is a jackass,” Obama says, in his likable and perfectly balanced modern-professorial voice. “But he’s talented.”