While 2012 brought us some of Kanye’s best verses since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, helping to erase the painful memory of 2011’s Watch the Throne, it also brought us some of his most despicable, insidious lines:
“You know white people: get money don’t spend it/Or maybe they, get money buy a business/I’d rather buy 80 gold chains and go ig’nant/I know Spike Lee gone kill me, but let me finish!/Blame it on the pigment…“
“I’m living 3 dreams: Biggie Smalls, Dr. King, Rodney King!”
– “New God Flow”
In both of these songs, Kanye uses the fact of his blackness to elide the fact of his immense wealth. It is easy to dismiss these lyrics as further evidence of Kanye’s allegedly increasing arrogance, but I would like to situate these lyrics into the history of rappers collectively downplaying their socioeconomic status via their race, and then argue that rap itself has supplanted race as what Walter Benn Michaels calls a “technology of mystification.”
All artists hustle. The necessity of the hustle is probably most brutally demonstrated by buskers. Unaided by advertisements, art agents or authority, they take their art directly to their audiences. Even when they are privileged enough to have a home to return to at the end of a long day, the relationship between their art and their audiences is still both highly intimate and highly saturated with the pressure to perform. In that indeterminate interval between the start of a performance and its imminent end via the arrival of a train or the disinterest of the audience or the arrival of the police (!), the artist must press forward, performing as if all conditions are ideal. The artists who fold to such external forces are hobbyists. The artists who don’t are hustlers.
As rap commercially bloomed in the late 80s and later flourished in the 90s, its origins in the inherent struggle of inner-city life eventually became its grand narrative. In other words, the struggle became a double signifier indicating actual life in the ghetto and life trying to make it in a genre that didn’t quite exist yet. As the genre grew even further, both in terms of the number of practicing artists in the field and wider cultural impact, the second meaning of the struggle started to trump the first, eventually colonizing it almost completely (A strong example of an attempt to capitalize off of this shift in meaning is SBK Records’ publishing of a fake autobiography for Vanilla Ice). The gradual result of this shift in meaning was the idea that all rappers are hustlers.
The problem with this notion of all rappers as hustlers is that it just isn’t true. The Jay-Z of 1992, a young kid from Marcy Projects trying to sell drugs to survive, faces very different problems than the Jay-Z of 2013, a media mogul, entrepreneur and renowned entertainer. Mediated by years of success, established credibility and the enabling triple threat of money, power and privilege, the Jay-Z of 2013 can overwhelmingly drown out the external factors that increase the pressure to perform. Even better, he can make audiences come to him. He may chant “all black everything,” but he’ll never be a Black Swan.
Similarly, despite a strange fascination with ballerinas, the Kanye West of 2013 is even less likely to become a Black Swan. Not only is he far from the streets, as indicated by his position on “the throne,” but he was never very proximal to them in the first place: he had a middle class upbringing. In other words, there is no College Dropout without the resources to attend college in the first place. In the end, the idea of the rapper as a hustler regardless of socioeconomic past or present is what enables Kanye to downplay his current and originary socioeconomic statuses and emphasize his race above all else. This is problematic.
In his review of the book Who Cares About the White Working Class, Walter Benn Michaels makes the case that both right-wing and left-wing approaches to race facilitate neoliberal practices. Crucially, he writes:
…one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucially and specious fellowship with rich white people; one of the great uses of anti-racism is to make poor black people feel a crucial equally and specious relationship with rich black people.”
Given these uses of race by both racists and anti-racists alike, Michaels contends that race is a “technology of mystification.” His particular interest is how race problematically erases differential class experiences between members of the same race . I am also interested in this, but I’d like to take his argument a little further. My contention is that while rappers use race as a technology of mystification (And demystification. See “Mr. Nigga,” by Mos Def.), through this idea of the universal hustler, rap itself has become a technology of mystification. Furthermore, when it comes to downplaying class, rap has replaced race as the preferred tool.
Rethinking the Bottom
Though I started with Kanye, this isn’t an indictment of him. This is an indictment of the practice of rap and how that practice neglects the people at the bottom. “Started From the Bottom,” the new single by Drake is a good recent example. The song gives a brief and morose history of Drake’s ascension to the top, emphasizing the distance traveled from “the bottom.” The song is interesting and I actually like its mood and its brevity, but “the bottom” as used in the song casually glosses over the particularities of Drake’s fairly interesting life story, and rehashes the trite and mystifying narrative of the rapper as hustler. Drake is able to get away with such careless use of “the bottom” solely because of how rap is currently practiced.
Yelawolf’s song “Growin’ Up The Gutter” offers a nice contrast. In the third verse, we get a story about ascending from the dregs, but for the rest of the song, especially in the chorus, “the gutter” (the struggle), isn’t just used figuratively. It refers to an actual site of struggle, a locality where people are truly hanging on for dear life, not just being stressed or annoyed. This is responsible rap.
To clarify, this is not an attempt to ask rappers to “keep it real.” The argument for realism and authenticity in rap is a stupid notion that can only stifle creativity and silence interesting stories. In fact, some of my favorite rappers – MF DOOM, RiFF RaFF, Danny Brown, Azealia Banks, Royce Da 5’9″ – say absurdly fictional things. My ultimate concern regards the people whose experiences rap claims to represent and empathize with, including rappers themselves. In a world where rap is increasingly the most powerful form of representation for both the people at the bottom and at the top , for everyone’s sake, “the struggle,” can’t just be some empty metaphor for trying to be successful. It absolutely has to mean something beyond, “Life ain’t easy.” Until it does, we’re going to continue to have some of the most talented artists of the day rapping some of the most inane lyrics of all time. Now that was an indictment.