Debating Jay-Z’s Hegemony
Yesterday’s post on Jay-Z and American hegemony has generated some great commentary, which deserves a follow-up post of its own. I’ll update as new contributions come in. Spencer Ackerman: the argument needs to treat Jay’s Auto-Tune assault — the most salient cultural offering from Jay this year, and possibly on all of his forthcoming record ...
Yesterday's post on Jay-Z and American hegemony has generated some great commentary, which deserves a follow-up post of its own. I'll update as new contributions come in.
the argument needs to treat Jay's Auto-Tune assault -- the most salient cultural offering from Jay this year, and possibly on all of his forthcoming record -- as a portal into the hegemony issue. The ubiquity of Auto-Tune is a curious phenomenon for a hegemon whose dominance predates it. Embracing it or acquiescing to it might appear a conspicuous bid for relevance, exposing a vulnerability, but attacking it provokes a backlash precisely because of its ubiquity. Who will you alienate? Labelmate and premier protege Kanye West? At the same time, Auto-Tune's ubiquity affords a temptin opportunity to Jay-Z. Is the pitch-correcting software an overextended paper tiger? Will the people rally behind the standard of the man who finally slays the tinny-voiced beast?
Yesterday’s post on Jay-Z and American hegemony has generated some great commentary, which deserves a follow-up post of its own. I’ll update as new contributions come in.
the argument needs to treat Jay’s Auto-Tune assault — the most salient cultural offering from Jay this year, and possibly on all of his forthcoming record — as a portal into the hegemony issue. The ubiquity of Auto-Tune is a curious phenomenon for a hegemon whose dominance predates it. Embracing it or acquiescing to it might appear a conspicuous bid for relevance, exposing a vulnerability, but attacking it provokes a backlash precisely because of its ubiquity. Who will you alienate? Labelmate and premier protege Kanye West? At the same time, Auto-Tune’s ubiquity affords a temptin opportunity to Jay-Z. Is the pitch-correcting software an overextended paper tiger? Will the people rally behind the standard of the man who finally slays the tinny-voiced beast?
So it’s telling that Jay-Z’s response was not only to attack Auto-Tune, but to declare it dead. He unfurled his Mission Accomplished banner at the moment of invasion. That revealed a point that needs to be central to Marc’s argument: as a hegemon, Jay-Z is not a status quo power. He’s a counterrevolutionary actor. "I might wear black for a year straight/ I might bring back Versace shades," Jay-Z says, daring others to disobey. The substance of his attack was to complain that Auto-Tune is an illegitimate artistic move. As I contended way back when, this is an uncomfortable argument from authenticity. And it creates a potential hinge moment for Jay-Z’s hegemony. Rappers who use Auto-Tune after "D.O.A." will be unavoidably challenging Jay-Z. Seen through this lens, The Game isn’t the point — he’s a symptom of a problem Jay-Z has created for himself. It won’t be responding to Game that digs Jay into the sandbox. He’s already in the sandbox. Responding to Game will exacerbate the problem, not create it.
Reflecting the conventional wisdom, Metal Lungies made the point when ‘Death of Auto-Tune’ came out, "When Jay-Z speaks up, hip-hop listens. Expect copycat rappers (the majority of rappers) to fall back on Auto-Tune from now on." Maybe. Hip-hop has received ‘D.O.A.’ favorably so far. But it’s too early to tell whether that’s the predicted rally-round-the-flag effect of new Jay music (post-Kingdom Come that is) or whether Jay has indeed liberated hip-hop from Auto-Tune. The objective circumstances make that latter outcome less likely. What happens when Tha Carter 4 or Tha Carter 3 Pt. II or whatever Wayne’s calling it comes out? What will the next Kanye single sound like? The grumblings are there: Joe Budden’ ‘D.O.A.’ freestyle got attention for its alleged attack on Method Man, but Budden growls about unnamed veteran rappers, "the only thing they want to kill is fucking Auto-Tune." That’s a swipe at Jay from the perspective of another raw east-coast rapper — one who’s taken shots at Jay-Z in the past for not rapping with enough heart — suggesting that we may be seeing early signs of an anti-Hov bandwagoning effect.
One caveat, as I mentioned above, is that Jay-Z is already skilled at disarming insurgent attacks. ("For all you other cats taking shots at Jigga/ you only get half a bar/ Fuck y’all n*****") Another is that the Game is a poor champion of his own interests, let alone others’ — he sees that the right move is to try to cleave the Auto-Tune-loving Kanye from Jay-Z, but publicly insults Kanye’s girlfriend — and so it’s hard to see disgruntled rappers rallying under his banner. But we’ve learned to look not at the attack, but at the broader circumstances that made it possible. And there the ground is unfavorable for even a durable hegemon. The right question isn’t what Jay-Z should do about the Game. It’s how can Jay-Z extricate himself from the message behind his right-now-phenomenally-successful-single before it ends up diminishing the potency of his hegemony.
Despite my West Coast roots, I’m rooting for the "superpower" Jay-Z over the "insurgent" The Game. In counterinsurgency terms, I guess that’s kind of like a Sunni insurgent joining the Sons of Iraq.
That may be the modern realist’s advice, but I’d imagine that Kissingerian Realist would advise Jay-Z to identify and strengthen potential third-party agents against The Game. That way, if a conflict becomes necessary, it can be a proxy conflict, thus limiting Jay-Z’s vulnerability. And given Jay-Z’s hegemonic role in the hip-hop world, there are plenty of talented rappers who’d happily take up his battles in return for his eventual favor.
The question is, how to strengthen them vis-a-vis The Game? If one of Jay-Z’s lieutenants is really going to be able to distract The Game, he’ll need to launch a pretty spectacular attack. Jay-Z can likely equip him to do so: There’s probably plenty of embarrassing moments in The Game’s past, and may even be some weakly committed individuals in his entourage, for a well-funded, well-staffed operation like Jay-Z’s.
The problem with this sort of strategy, as we’ve seen before, is that if the battle turns against the proxy, then the benefactor often has to step in directly, but is now faced with an opponent with some battle training and more than a bit of momentum.
In declaring that “Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) is the closest thing to a hegemon which the rap world has known for a long time,” I think that your biggest flaw is narrowing your metric to the musical rather than viewing it as a question of overall cultural market penetration, thus confining your entire analysis. Remember Jay-Z’s own advice (via Kanye): “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man.” The Forbes list is described as based on “collated earnings from music and lifestyle ventures” but does not calculate the pervasiveness of an artist’s influence on all that we say and do in American life. I would nominate 50 Cent as a potential leader of the pack. Sure Jay-Z has it down for the music business itself – a small but important player in the broader public sector. But recall, if you will, the episode of Cribs in which 50 opened his refrigerator door to reveal that it was filled with Vitaminwater, in which he was an early investor before Coca-Cola bought its parent company. Fifty, like so many others, gave their heart to the music industry while cleaning up in other realms, thus influencing us even in ways unseen to the naked eyes and ears. If you broaden the aperture to total power and domination beyond a single market, Jay-Z might not be the hegemon at all. And actually, Beyoncé herself may be the real winner…
One thing worth noting is that even when restraint can be identified as the best strategy, it’s often emotionally difficult to choose this path. When someone comes after you, you get angry. You want to respond in an intelligent and effective manner, yes, but there’s also a desire to do something that will make you feel better. And lashing out as per the Ledeen Doctrine (”Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business”) often can achieve that goal. And of course there’s a risk that members of Jay-Z’s camp who urge a policy of restraint will be accused of actively harboring pro-Game sympathies or otherwise failing to manifest a sufficient degree of loyalty.
My co-blogger at FP.com’s Shadow Government, Christian Brose:
I’m inclined to agree with you on the advice, but I don’t know if I’d call it the realist’s prescription. That, I’d think, would be either to preemptively destroy the Game before he becomes a great power or seek to accommodate his rise and balance his power. You’re suggesting more of a smart anti-AQ strategy – do your damage decisively but quietly while avoiding making the problems worse by inflating the appeal of the very set of ideas you are trying to combat, ideas that are themselves inherently weak and limited. Also, aside from his recent acquisition of so much soft power, his hard power coin is seriously declining. I mean, the guy peaked at the Black Album. Perhaps this tells us something about how a great power should manage its relative decline – focus less on retaining a core capacity that is waning and focus more on broadening your portfolio so as to ensure more lasting influence through different channels.
Zach Baron in the Village Voice,
What Jay-Z/Game feud, you ask? Listen to this, and then this, and then have a moment of silence for the Game’s career. And a slightly shorter one for Jay’s, which will survive, though what he’s doing right now talking about the Game is anyone’s guess. Nobody is winning here.
More as they come in…. including maybe, just maybe, a response from a very special reader…
… and more:
Chris Good at the Atlantic:
As hip-hop’s closest thing to a hegemon since the (not so) Cold War between rap superpowers Biggie and Tupac, Jay-Z faces the same problem that’s confronted the USA since the Soviet Union collapsed: as a hegemon, how do you respond to sniping from lesser powers? Being on top increases the number of attackers and, as Lynch notes, decreases the marginal utility of hitting back. If Jay-Z (or the U.S.) hits back at every hater with hate missiles his own, he exhausts resources, elevates The Game to his level, and lends publicity to his opponent. If the hegemon responds, it must do so in away that preserves alliances and its own structural power.
It’s a microcosm of America’s geopolitical situation.
The Game, in this equation, stands in aptly as Ahmadinejad or Hugo Chavez–a lyrically talented but erratic firebrand, prone to fighting words. (Compare The Game’s dis track to Chavez’s 2006 U.N. speech.) Obama has started off, seemingly, on a good foot with Chavez, despite the past, and Ahmadinejad has been busy. Jay-Z and The Game, however, have flirted with criticism before.
Lynch says Jay-Z is working behind the scenes to make sure his alliance structure is in order, taking a cue from the realist line of IR thinking. That seems to be the path our superpower nation is on now, with an administration that professes coalition building as a mode of anticipating and dealing with conflict.
What’s relevant about the analogy is that Obama has spent considerable energy forging good relationships so far, so that not even a typical middle-power-level adversary like Chavez will go after him. But he will probably, at some point, have to decide whether to respond when someone like The Game takes a shot. Like Hova, Obama can do some damage in a battle–witness his debates and speeches vs. John McCain.
Obama foundered in the eyes of some when Iran cracked down on protesters and accused the U.S. of meddling. They wanted to see him take out the big rhetorical stick and whack the Iranian regime with the full force of his linguistic skill. The next time a world leader provokes Obama, he’ll likely face the same pressure to use his skills as the undisputed king of freestyle–but he, like Jay-Z, will probably begin with coalition building and restraint.
Alarming News, a conservative blogger from Brooklyn:
In the world of hip-hop, if Jay is America, The Game is Bolivia. Remember? They elected a farmer who promised to be "a nightmare for America". I laughed at it then, I laugh at it now. So, no, America shouldn’t lash out at Bolivia. It does us no good, they mean nothing to us. But should we contend with powers that seek to hurt us and can do more than just give us lip? I say yes. Us being on top should not preclude us from ending the "careers" of those who seek to harm us. Jay-Z rapped "don’t be the next contestant on the summer jam screen" as a warning to those who would take their shots at him. Don’t be the next dictator we find hiding in a ditch? Doesn’t have the same ring to it but the concept is the same.
Lynch uses Jay-Z’s now-reconciled feud with Nas as an example of the unintended and unexpected consequences of escalation. But my immediate thought on reading the piece was to an incident from the early 90s that illustrates even more clearly the dangers of retaliation, even when the balance of forces is overwhelmingly in the great power’s favor. I’m thinking of KRS-One’s legendary bumrush of a PM Dawn set at the Sound Factory.
For context, at the time, KRS represented, if not hegemony, then a sort of untouchable authority that came from the "global commons" normative rule set he forcefully articulated, combined with rock-solid street cred. KRS had made a name for himself with the ultimate battle rap, South Bronx, and his first record was filled with slice-of-life vignettes from BDP’s very real origins as a street-level, warzone militia. But in the aftermath of the shooting death of DJ Scott LaRock, KRS quickly pivoted from his South Bronx realist roots to espouse idealist values of non-violence and humanism.
Now, even after the shift, KRS continued to enjoy enormous respect for being a bad boy who could break necks but chose not to. In other words, there was a very clear recognition that his respect for the global governance system he advocated for was a matter of self-restraint. But there was also a certain tension to the newfound "teacher" status. The problem quickly became, to paraphrase Madeleine Albright’s remark to Colin Powell, What good was BDP’s rep for breaking necks if they could never use it?
As this brilliantly entertaining Kenny Parker interview demonstrates, the actual PM Dawn incident was the culmination of a series of real and perceived slights from rappers other than PM Dawn, disses that KRS had chosen to ignore. But when, following this period of self-restraint, even PM Dawn had the temerity to test, it really left KRS with no choice but to respond. The entire interview is worth a read, because it exemplifies the risk of escalation inherent in even the most initially limited response. The incident also demonstrates the wildcard element introduced by unpredictable coalition partners — anyone familiar with BDP, by the way, won’t have any trouble figuring out who started throwing knots — and the uncontrollable factor represented by the media battlefield, which can impact the strategic outcome of the war as much if not more than the actual fighting.
For KRS, the incident had a decidedly mixed outcome. It certainly restored the credibility of his deterrent power by reminding folks that rap has real-world consequences. But by very flagrantly and visibly flouting the non-violent rule set with which he had become associated, KRS damaged the legitimacy of his preferred role of hip hop philosopher.
The conventional wisdom in these posts is to compare Jay-Z to a declining hegemonic power seeking to manage its decline and retain influence as long as possible. Specifically, Jay-Z’s song "Death of Auto-tune (D.O.A.)" is seen as his way to shape the hip-hop arena in which he will have a more limited influence going forward.
Lynch advises Jay-Z to use a mixture of soft power and proxy conflict to defeat his adversaries to avoid exposing his increasing weakness as the primary actor in hip-hop.
However, I see this Jay-Z/Auto-tune debate differently.
Here, Jay-Z has taken the position used to such great effect by Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential campaign (with Auto-tuning standing in for the Bush Doctrine). Jay-Z has forcefully come out against something that – while popular for a bit – was surely unsustainable as a creative force in music.
Just as Obama did while running as the anti-Bush foreign policy candidate, Jay-Z has made himself the face of the anti-auto tune movement and will surely get credit for its imminent demise.
Meanwhile, many tenets of the Bush Doctrine were being phased out or had already been eliminated by the time the general election rolled around. Obama has reaped the rewards (more internationally than domestically) of the end of the Bush Doctrine even though many of Bush’s policies would have been phased out with or without Obama.
Both Jay-Z and Barack Obama shrewdly pounced at the right moment to announce the death of a trend/policy that had already worn out its welcome. For Obama, it helped propel him to leader of the free world. For Jay-Z, it may help cement his status as leader of the hip hop world.
PS: To add an IR dimension to this post, I just want to point out the uber-realism of Kanye West. When Auto-Tune was big, he jumped in with both feet. However, sensing the historical moment in hip-hop affairs, Kanye has now aligned himself with Jay-Z and declared Jay’s new album (which West executive produced) an "auto-tune free zone".
Also see short comments at New York Magazine, Michael Dunn at Middle East Institute, neuroscience blogger dfPLC ("the emotional response is the wrong one")…. FamousDC, Beats and Bombs… Keep ’em coming! If nothing else, thanks to all this discussion Google may now forever link me to Jay-Z, Nas and the Game…
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark
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