On All About the Beat , Kanye West and Aesthetics

All About the Beat - John McWhorter

Kanye West’s recent album Yeezus has all the elements of hip-hop that John McWhorter rails against in his polemic book All About the Beat: it’s loud, it’s infectious (not in the good way, in my opinion) and despite Kanye West’s claims to the contrary, it is very media friendly. Furthermore, it explicitly claims to be radical and revolutionary in terms of content, in terms of form and in terms of production (how it was produced as well as who is was produced by). For John McWhorter these characteristics of hip-hop are precisely what make it politically inert, hence the book’s subtitle and thesis: “Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America.”

Quite honestly, I agree with this thesis: if Black America is to be saved – economically, socially, politically, existentially – hip-hop seems ill-equipped to be our sole savior. I could certainly see it playing a role, but given who it appeals to (not all Black people like hip-hop and the ones who do aren’t necessarily politically coherent) and how it appeals to us (through highly mediated networks of capital, cultural legibility, availability and taste), it would seem rather naive to attribute to hip-hop as a genre/practice/way-of-life too much revolutionary potential.

But the point of this post isn’t to agree with McWhorter’s thesis. In fact, I want to do exactly the opposite. Of interest to me is how McWhorter goes about building his argument, specifically his use of conservative ideas about the “truth” of the Civil Rights Movement and the “superficiality” of aestheticizing politics. By unveiling his sly conservatism I not only want to show how he misrepresents what hip-hop and its defenders claim to be doing, but I more crucially want to demonstrate that the politics of depth – a common conservative technique – is really just a way of depoliticizing and subsequently dismissing the political nature of surfaces.

Staying on the Surface

The central claim of All About the Beat is clear in the following statement: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake” (18). McWhorter frames this claim as an unveiling of hip-hop’s actual mission, a revealing of its true politics. It’s a clever move because McWhorter knows exactly how most defenders of hip-hop will respond to this statement: “No, hip-hop has a reason for dissing authority!” This outcry would then be followed by proof that hip-hop has a reason for dissing authority in the form of an argument for depth, for meaning. This would entail citing “conscious” artists then dissecting their lyrics to demonstrate a political consciousness. Expecting this move, McWhorter would then either dispute their lyrics if the lyrics are ambiguous/vague or ask “What have they done for the community?” If the artist has undeniably politicized lyrics and a clear history of helping the community, McWhorter resorts to his trump card: “Well, most people don’t listen to that anyway” (75). Finally, if the song is popular, he resorts to his ultimate ace in the hole: “It is just a sequence of words that sounds good, especially when seasoned with rhythm” (67). Translation: music is just music, nothing else, nothing more.

This is the actual structure of the book: Chapter 1 asserts that hip-hop artists don’t practice politics; Chapter 2 then says the ones who think they do (conscious artists) actually don’t; Chapters 3 and 4 then claim that even if they did, it wouldn’t matter because no one listens to them and these politics are incongruous with accepted or successful political practice; finally Chapter 5 says that hip-hop is “just music” and music can’t be political anyway. ”

I’ve outlined this argument because all of its possible moves are solely enabled by its original proposition: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake.” While this statement appears to be just a claim, a provocation to be proved or disproved, it is actually a judgment, a valuation of how politics should be practiced. Depicted with its politics on its face, that judgment would would look like this: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake and that is not an acceptable form of politics because it is aesthetic and aesthetics aren’t political.” McWhorter is not not just dismissing hip-hop’s alleged politics; he’s upholding his own. This technique and the politics it preserves are notoriously conservative, but we can avoid getting duped by remaining on the surface, by not assessing hip-hop in terms of depth.

A Reluctant Defense of Yeezus

Yeezus is an awful album. If my luck persists, I will never have to listen to it again. But beyond how it sounds, I think it’s more interesting to think about what Yeezus was trying to do. As I understand it, Yeezus is Kanye’s polemic against the various forces that have kept him provincialized within hip-hop and “black culture.” According to Kanye, throughout his career and even before it, he has attempted to push into other worlds – visual art, fashion, design, film, rapping, singing – and been met with opposition, disdain, ridicule and the like. We’ll call it “hate” for short.

This has some merit. Since College Dropout, Kanye’s attempts to open new doors have frequently been resisted by bizarrely zealous doormen, despite his artistic versatility and his earnestness. Of course, Kanye isn’t one to make a quiet entrance: he has always been loud and obnoxious. And no doorman likes an unpleasant visitor. But the force of the resistance to Kanye has often not been equivalent to the force he came with: while he’s knocked with only a brash smile and a loud voice, he’s been met with armed guards and German shepherds. Just look at the infamous Taylor Swift incident. What should have been just another silly moment at an already silly award show – the VMAs are such a joke – genuinely became his stigma. It’s strange: people actually despise the guy for possibly his most innocuous statement.

Meta yeezus SummaryAfter a career filled with these obstacles, Kanye finally confronted them headfirst. Forgoing the wit and cynical distance of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, on Yeezus he simply yelps, summoning a vast collective of producers and writers from within hip-hop and beyond to transform that yelp into a breathless, 40 minute-long scream. Throughout Yeezus we hear Kanye rearticulate why he’s so upset, literally shouting out (at) hate in the form of corporations, racists, classists, sidechicks, clothing companies, critics and so on. No stone is left is unturned: he addresses Haters as a collective.

Kanye tries to connect his screams to historical and ongoing screams for respect, self-dignity and opportunities, but if you listen closely – and I did – the screams don’t overlap too much. In a joke I wrote earlier this summer, I talked about how his song “Blood on the Leaves” uses apartheid as a metaphor for relationship conflicts. This kind of poor interlocking of disparate narratives occurs all across the album. Kanye actually thinks that his inability to push into new markets and new women and new houses in the Hamptons is akin to a Civil Rights struggle. It isn’t. It absolutely isn’t. Kanye West is a multi-millionaire with profitable stakes in various industries and he enjoys a level of privilege, comfort and luxury that is unmatched by most black people and most people in general. Quite simply, his haters are his haters; his struggle is literally mostly his struggle..

But it is a struggle nonetheless. In his dismissal of hip-hop, John McWhorter doesn’t offer the opportunity to recognize such struggles or even interrogate why people connect them to larger struggles. At the end of Chapter 4, his treatise on “real struggles” (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement), he writes, “Of course racism is still around. But in deciding what is possible today, black people must do their grandparents the courtesy of remembering what America was like in the old days. In this, black people will also do themselves a courtesy, in working from what is constructive and positive about our times. Smoking out one more indication that racism is still alive in subliminal ways must be less interesting to us than coping, dealing, building ” (139).

McWhorter’s reference to grandparents is telling. In this quote and the previously mentioned quote in which he states the thesis of his book, authority is essential. Because the atrocities that energized the Civil Rights Movement are “over,” black people must quietly “respect” the ones who experienced those atrocities and never make connections. Since nothing can be more unfathomable than the experiences of Black Americans before the 60s, no correlations should ever even be posited. This has a scary logic. Sure, being profiled at Barneys is certainly not akin to being beaten for simply existing and that’s just fact, honestly. But the way McWhorter articulates his point is insidiously programmed to preclude all grievances, even bad ones. To solely focus on the positive, as he asks us to, is to suppress the possibility of rage or a politics of rage that can emerge from it. Stated otherwise: McWhorter is saying, “Stop complaining!” This sounds very familiar to me.

Jacques Ranciere gives us further insight: “If there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being, you begin by not seeing him as the bearer of politicity, by not understanding what he says, by not hearing what issues from his mouth as discourse.” (Dissenus 38). The call to “stop complaining” is precisely such a denial of recognition. Kanye’s politics is a bad politics because it is self-centered and unreflexive. But it is a politics nonetheless. As bad a song as “New Slaves” is (politically) it is still a political utterance.  McWhorter denies a politics for an entire discourse, an entire field of thought and action. My concern is not just this act of denial and the masses who are affected by it, but how it works. In order to depoliticize hip-hop and subordinate it to a dubious historical narrative (authority), McWhorter must tacitly ignore the politics that hip-hop wears on its surface, the politics that are built into its aesthetics. And it’s bizarre that he constantly brings up the Civil Rights Movement, but he never thinks about its own aesthetics. It is not a coincidence that marchers and demonstrators often wore their “Sunday Best” and chanted church hymns rather than singing Elvis songs and wearing their pajamas.

Resurfacing: Fucking the Police

The phrase “fuck the police” has a cherished position in hip-hop, from N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police” to Lil Wayne’s “Mrs. Officer” to MellowHype’s “Fuck Tha Police” to B. Dolan’s “Film the Police.” Though the specifics of each song matter, I’m not going to go into them. What I want to point out is how ill-equipped McWhorter’s ideas are for interrogating why “fuck the police” has circulated within hip-hop for so long. Although believers in the Illuminati,  backpackers and label executives probably think otherwise, hip-hop is aggressively decentralized. There is no apparatus keeping “fuck the police” alive. People are saying it for a reason. And I don’t mean that in a deep way; I mentioned “Mrs. Officer” for a reason – It is literally a song about fucking a female police officer.

But there is a reason why “fuck the police” is so bolted to hip-hop in particular. Even if it has become something that hip-hop fans just say willy nilly, without provocation, performing it as police officers dutifully stand by the stage at a mega-concert, there is a reason why hip-hop fans say it, but Taylor Swift fans don’t. Stated differently, there’s a reason why there’s rap songs against stop and frisk and not country songs or indie rock songs or even R&B songs.

And my grand point is that McWhorter could never account for that reason. For him, aesthetics never matter because they can’t matter because he doesn’t want them to matter because if they do matter he’ll actually have to listen to a Kanye album and think beyond his constricted, constricting, conservative definition of politics. For McWhorter music must remain “just” music because if it turns out to be anything else, the world might become a lot less simpler than he pretends it to be.

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Rap is the New Race: How The Hustle Obscures the Struggle

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…

– “Clique”

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.”

Hustle Blood

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.

"Runaway" Single Artwork

“Runaway” Single Artwork

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.

Obsolete Technology

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.

Further Reading

Nostalgia Holds Hip-Hop Back