This summer we were faced with two of the biggest Rap releases in years, and despite the intimate connection that exists between their creators, the two albums contained two very different political messages. Magna Carta Holy Grail was Jay Z’s not-so-humble brag that a black man can rewrite the rules (of the RIAA) in America. On the other hand, Kanye West’s Yeezus was a reminder that white hegemony is still the law of the land. Looking at the careers and personal experiences of both men, these contradictions are not all that surprising; while Jay has internalized the morals of corporatism, gaining himself entrance into some very exclusive circles of power, ‘Ye has spent most of his career defying the powers that be, earning himself critical acclaim but continued exclusion. Although neither man represents anyone other than himself, both of their situations hold implications for Hip Hop culture at-large, with respect to its relationship to the mainstream.
Elite media corporations set the agenda in this country. In other words, they create the framework in which the more inclusive, mainstream media operates in disseminating information and representing cultural values. The owners, executives, and managers of these institutions act to uphold the status quo and preserve their interests at all times. Not surprisingly, these people are overwhelmingly old, white, upper-class males. Every once in a while the mainstream is bucked by some subcultural phenomenon, which refuses to operate within the established framework. Logically, the elite media has two choices in how to address this situation: (1) ignore it, or (2) co-opt it. For example, after the Civil Rights era demanded a more “liberal” America, TV and movie executives were compelled to hire more black actors. However, the framework in which these actors were portrayed was only a subtle change from the outright racism displayed in the years previous.
The most obvious example of a subversive subculture forcing itself into the general public’s consciousness over the past few decades is Hip Hop. After generations of marginalization, urban youth – particularly black and latino – began setting the foundation for a new means to communicate their thoughts, feelings, values, and style. The strongest element of the culture, its music, continued to operate on the margins throughout most of the “Golden Age”, up until the media realized they could no longer afford to marginalize the culture. Some would argue that once profit-oriented music labels entered the scene, the fertile breeding ground for good rappers, and thus Hip Hop as a creative culture, disappeared. Most people misunderstand this criticism; it isn’t about whether or not Rap can be profited from in the form of a commodity, but rather who has control – and how much – over the production of that commodity. Rap has entered the mainstream, no doubt, but is it still representative of Hip Hop ideals when its created by corporate executives and used as a point of credibility among U.S. Presidents? More importantly, does it have any room to grow?
The irony of Jay Z’s “New Rules” is that, under the surface, there is absolutely nothing new here. Jay has long been a part of the Establishment, which has this tendency to make rules that serve the interests of those already within the Establishment. Sure, a huge corporation bought a million records before the album even dropped, but that is what we call “old privilege”, not “new rules”. Let me know when an artist like Killer Mike gets Samsung to shell out for a million records pre-release, let alone has the RIAA rewriting rules just to appease him.
To make matters worse, MCHG was whole-heartedly uninspiring. From a critical standpoint it didn’t even register. It felt like an album of filler, with no purpose other than making a never-before-seen business deal, worth its weight in publicity gold. Not that Jay has ever been one to deny his focus on furthering his business interests, but this was the most openly he’s ever put the sale before the substance.
Jay Z is representative of the fact that getting in bed with the powers that be obviously has its benifits. Still, these individual benefits do very little for the culture as a whole, and end up doing far more damage than not.
Hip Hop culture, at its core, is antagonistic towards official policy. One writer described it best in the mid 90's when he said, “wherever hierarchies, establishments, or categories form, it moves in and, like the wind that scatters Sibyl’s leaves, shuffles the order.” This was on full display in the 80’s and early 90’s by black nationalists, producers who never failed to sample another artist’s sound, and the many others who communicated – in English, but not the King’s English – the everyday happenings around the 'hood'. Whether you liked it or not, the producers of the culture were in primary control. As Hip Hop has become mainstream, this has completely changed.
In socio-political terms, there are two types of Hip Hop: Gangsta Rap and Conscious Rap. Gangsta Rap exploded on the scene during the late 80’s, and contains messages concerning the accumulation of wealth, sexual conquests, and misogyny, while thoroughly rejecting the uplifting images of blacks portrayed by the media. In other words, it’s American, through-and-through. Conscious Rap, on the other hand, is concerned with “Knowledge of Self”, as an individual as well as a member of a disenfranchised population. This is, to put it lightly, very un-American, and poses a direct threat to the interests of white hegemony. As the elite media institutions began to involve themselves in the business of promoting and distributing Hip Hop culture, conscious forms began to be marginalized while the popularity of Gangsta Rap absolutely soared.
There are many reasons why these institutions are hostile to Conscious Rap, but none of them have to do with profitability. In 1990, Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet sold 1 million records in its first week while going on to receive critical acclaim. This album is considered a turning point in the mainstream appeal of Hip Hop, in spite of its seemingly anti-white message. The argument that conscious Rap isn’t profitable completely ignores all the evidence that says otherwise, not just from a bygone era, but even today. Gangsta Rap was the chosen exploit of the elite media because it fits nicely within the accepted framework of viewing black communities and it's much easier to replicate. As an added bonus, it supports consumerism and excess to the fullest.
In My Dark Twisted Fantasy, we heard a side of Kanye that had clearly been bubbling just below the surface for the past few years. Although his music has always contained socio-political themes, he’d never taken such an adversarial stance against the problems in society, and Hip Hop in particular. Still, this fact was almost universally overlooked, possibly because MDTF was also the most sonically plush Hip Hop album we’ve ever heard. Side-stepping that problem this time around, Yeezus sheds all the grandiose pretense that was so characteristic of MDTF. This is obvious with respect to the production and lyrics, which are raw and unchained in every sense of the words, but we also see it during his early performances of "New Slaves". Rather than allow fancy visuals to take any attention, whatsoever, off of his message, Yeezy elected to turn-off the lights and just stand there in all black, spitting out lines like, “used to only be NIGGAS, now everybody playin’,” sans facial expression.
Another interesting characteristic of Yeezus is its context in terms of commodification. For one, there was no album cover or artwork, but it also lacked any conventional promotion; no single, no billboards, no institutionally-accepted forms of advertising. Instead, ‘Ye just projected “New Slaves” onto the side of a building, without even having the decency to ask permission. The fact it couldn’t be pre-ordered says a lot as well. All of this served to illustrate an important point: white capitalism has undermined Hip Hop culture, and 'Ye ain't feelin' it anymore.
In a recent interview, Nipsey Hussle rhetorically asked, “Is Complex a magazine that has love for the culture?...Do you guys even like Hip Hop?” I thought this was interesting for three reasons: (1) Someone from Complex wrote a response to that question, which partly inspired me to write this, (2) it’s at least the second instance of boss-like behavior from Nipsey in the last month, and (3) Complex is the perfect example of bourgeois values in the dissemination of Hip Hop culture.
I realize this criticism seems extremely ironic coming from a site like Rap Genius, but it shouldn't. Rap Genius, at it's core, is all about slow reading and critical interpretation of Hip Hop music. It also gives artists the opportunity to take direct control of their commodity, which is a crucial step towards preserving the culture.
Will Hip Hop survive? Is this just a huge overreaction? Only time will tell, but if history is any indication, Rap music is currently dragging the culture down the path to irrelevance. For anyone who says they love Hip Hop, this should be a wake-up call. If nothing else, at least prepare yourself for its demise. For artists, this is a chance to defy history, and do what was always the goal in Hip Hop: Find a little self-determination.
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