Marc Lynch

Jay-Z’s Hegemony in the Age of Kanye

Jay-Z’s Hegemony in the Age of Kanye

"I seen people abuse power, use power, misuse and then lose power/Power to the people at last, it’s a new hour/Now we all ain’t gon’ be American Idols/But you can least grab a camera, shoot a viral/Huh? Take the power in your own hands." 

— Kanye West, evaluating (presumably) the Egyptian revolution in the Power remix 

Watch the Throne by Jay-Z and Kanye West may not prove to be the enduring hip hop classic that many people expected when news of the project leaked. But the album itself is hardly the point. Watch the Throne represents a fascinating gambit in the consolidation and extension of Jay-Z’s hegemony over the hip hop world, and in Kanye’s rehabilitation of his image following a catastrophic collapse in his global standing. How they did it offers important lessons for how the United States can handle its own changing position within a turbulent world.

Two years ago, I wrote a series of essays using Jay-Z as a window into international relations theory. They ended up provoking an astonishing outpour of debate, dissent, and commentary across the blogosphere. I recorded what remains to this day my all-time favorite radio appearance. And it landed me in an unforgettable, if short-lived, rap beef with Game himself. My basic argument was that Jay-Z handled his hegemonic position by exercising restraint, declining to engage in most provocations in order to avoid being trapped in endless, pointless battles. Jay-Z battling the Game would have risked being dragged down into combating an endless and costly insurgency with little real upside. Better for the hegemon to show restraint, be self-confident, and to carefully nurture a resilient alliance structure to underpin leadership.

Blueprint 3, released shortly afterward, largely vindicated that analysis. The opening track pointedly dismissed his beefs ("I ain’t talking about gossip, ain’t talking about Game") in favor of addressing "real" issues ("let’s talk about the future, we’ve just seen the dream as predicted by Martin Luther, you could choose ta sit in front of your computer posing with guns, shooting YouTube up, or you could come with me to the White House"). "Run This Town" asked everyone to "pledge allegiance" to his label Roc Nation. "Already Home," breezily dismissed all of his would-be challengers as not in his league and "only excited when they mentioning Shawn" and taking them to task for not carrying their share of the burden ("I taught ‘em about fish scale they want me to fish for them/They want me to catch clean, then cook up a dish for them"). D.O.A. did take the rising generation to task for singing too much with Auto-Tune and generally being soft, and took a few shots at competing power centers ("send this one to the mixtape Weezy"). But overall, the album was a self-confident, knowing blueprint for hegemonic restraint.

The structure of the balance of power in the rap world continued to evolve towards multipolarity over the last two years, if not an actual hegemonic transition, in the midst of a serious financial crisis afflicting the entire industry — a situation not unfamiliar to the White House. The relentless rise of southern rap mirrors the economic and political rise of Asia. What had once been a marginal, derivative, and largely dismissed regional genre has risen to be a legitimate contender for hegemony. Lil Wayne and his Young Money label racked up success after success alongside older southern powers like T.I. and newcomers like B.o.B. The West Coast, like Europe, has declined significantly since its old great power days. Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg still do their thing, but rarely have a major impact anymore (RIP Nate Dogg, by the way); Detox remains an urban legend, and we’ll see if Game’s new RED album does better. 50 Cent, a great power only a few years ago, has largely collapsed — Russia, perhaps? Eminem returned strong after a long struggle with depression to make the ferociously brilliant Recovery album; but like, say, India or Brazil he has always been a powerhouse in his own world, neither influencing nor affected by the wider field.

In short, the environment facing Jay-Z over the last two years was turbulent and challenging, and he could not simply assume continued hegemony despite his track record or skills. Rap’s center of gravity was being pulled relentlessly away from its New York roots, taking on a more southern and more international feel. The entire industry faced a massive financial crisis, as the internet and market fragmentation continued to contribute to the steady collapse of the business model for albums and record companies. What is more, there was every reason to view Jay-Z himself as a declining power. While a Jay-Z album could still dominate the rap space as completely as the U.S. military could dominate any global battlespace, that dominance rested on deteriorating foundations. Jay-Z should have seen his skills declining at the age of 41 (yeah, he’s 10 months younger than me – and for what it’s worth I think his rhymes are better than ever). He could hardly avoid being distracted by the competing pulls of running Def Jam or Roc Nation, and the comforts of marriage to the divine Beyoncé.

Watch the Throne then can be seen as a shrewd move to institutionalize Jay-Z’s hegemony before feeling the effects of likely decline in a rapidly shifting and potentially hostile environment, through more robust partnerships and a fully-realized new alliance system. The key moves came years earlier: Jay-Z allowing Kanye to produce Blueprint 3 instead of trying to destroy him after his 2007 diss track "Big Brother"; his signing of key rising stars to Roc Nation and Kanye’s doing the same at GOOD Music (especially reaching beyond his comfort zone to bring the incredible Pusha T on board after the breakup of the Clipse — Turkey, perhaps, given the religion issue?); his participation on Kanye’s brilliant GOOD Friday series of free online downloads and on Kanye’s remarkable comeback album My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy; and then finally Watch the Throne.

It’s actually hard to say, and ultimately may not matter, whether Jay-Z or Kanye West is the architect of this new alliance. Kanye had become a lightning rod for political attacks after his post-Katrina outburst during a live telethon that "George Bush doesn’t care about black people," and then had struggled with his mother’s death. Kanye’s reputation had been shattered in September 2009 by his drunken display at the Video Music Awards where he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to declare that the award should have gone to Beyoncé instead. "Imma let you finish" became a national punch line and he suffered massive ridicule even on South Park. There have been few public gaffes of such magnitude in the entertainment world, and amidst much whispering about his alleged drinking problems and erratic personality many doubted whether Kanye could ever recover. This was a reputational collapse on a par with what the Bush administration did to America’s standing in the world. (How ironic, then, that Bush described Kanye’s Katrina outburst as the lowest moment of his Presidency.)

How Kanye brought himself back to the top has some intriguing lessons for public diplomacy. He didn’t rely on one big speech to apologize, try to respond to every critic, or retreat into a shell. As someone who thinks that internet has a transformative impact on world politics, I find it fitting that Kanye’s return from his lowest days relied on innovative internet activism (paging Alec Ross). I’m referring partly to Kanye’s hallucinogenic Twitter feed and online video interviews, but mainly to the GOOD Friday series of free music releases. It should be no surprise that he turned to the internet to seize control of his own image. The hip hop industry has been transformed by the internet, obviously. Unauthorized leaks have wiped out album sales, while most of the new generation of young rappers have built their careers on free mixtapes released online — it’s hard to believe that J.Cole, for instance, is practically a hip hop legend already without yet even releasing his first studio album.

Even in that context, it is almost impossible to exaggerate how good the GOOD Friday releases were. For months, Kanye release a world-class new track free over the internet every Friday. The Good Friday releases featured a wide range of artists, casting a big tent which signaled broad global support. They featured Jay-Z himself, signaling support from the top of the system. They showcased the prize acquisition for Kanye’s GOOD label, the lyrical monster Pusha T, signaling a strong new alliance. They featured hot young artists such as J. Cole, Big Sean, and Cyhi Da Prince, socializing the best of the new generation of rising powers into their alliance system rather than fading away or jealously circling the wagons. And by giving it away free over months, they generated buzz and had far more impact than if they had just released it in one album. Like Warren Ellis with his amazing online comic book Freakangels, Kanye proved that giving top quality material away for free could actually be good business (a lesson, by the way, for academics and their publishers). By the time the albums came out, Kanye’s misdeeds had faded in the collective memory in favor of the immense goodwill generated through this exceptional feat of public diplomacy.

Jay-Z and Kanye therefore solidified their place on the throne not by crushing their rivals but by inspiring them to be their best as part of a team, through creative use of the internet for public diplomacy, and by working within rather than trying to dictate new norms. They recognized that "no one man should have all that power." Jay-Z was willing to "lead from behind" and share the spotlight in order to build a broad and effective coalition. This approach to leadership encouraged others to step up and share the burden, even when he could have easily dominated on his own. Like the U.S. did for NATO in Libya, he and Kanye contributed unique assets (the ability to command public attention, tracks from the best producers like Swizz Beatz and Pete Rock, their own skills). And it worked. Potential competitors clamored to get in to this new order rather than bashing it from afar, while the attractiveness of the partnership pushed those invited to join to step up their game and perform at their peak.

Jay-Z also demonstrated the maturity and self-confidence to avoid demanding credit or singling out weaker players for abuse. Sure, he continues to send out warnings to smaller powers, but he is usually careful not to name names and to keep his messages broad. He complains "I’m just so offended, how am I even mentioned by all these f***ing beginners", but he concludes not with a threat but with a weary shake of the head: "all these little bi***es, too big for their britches, burning their little bridges… f***ing ridiculous." It’s not his fault if they destroy themselves — like Obama eyeing Qaddafi, Mubarak or Assad, it’s really up to them to decide whether they will choose their next steps poorly. And he loves to flaunt his wealth and status — indeed, such displays are part of how he signals his hegemonic standing. But if "planking on a million" can be humble, then this is a strategy of humility.

Watch the Throne therefore should not be judged as an album, but rather as a move in this savvy strategy of institutionalizing hegemony in the face of potential decline. Kanye and Jay-Z’s alliance offers a new blueprint for managing decline in a turbulent world from which international relations scholars and American foreign policy practitioners alike should learn. And if political scientists don’t want to take lessons from hip hop artists, then allow me to give the last word to Cyhi Da Prince: "my haters got PhDs, y’all just some major haters with some math minors."

Addendum and Commentary:

– Spencer Ackerman warns that we should not just watch the throne, but instead keep an eye on the rising power of the periphery.

– Lil Wayne goes directly at Jay-Z – how should the Jay-Z/Kanye alliance deal with a challenge from a serious peer competitor?

– Game renews attack with "Uncle Otis" – did Jay-Z’s restraint embolden challenger because of absence of consequences for defiance?