Conceit at the Top of Hip-Hop; or, Kanye West doesn’t care about black people
Gangsta rap drew attention to the pressing issue of African American poverty, Kanye West draws attention to himself.
Conceit at the Top of Hip-Hop
by Noah Gataveckas
It seems like aeons ago when Ice Cube spoke:
I don’t want to see no dancin’, I’m
Sick of that shit – listen to hit! ‘Cause
Y’all ever look and see another brotha on the
Video, tryin’ to outdance each other? 
Really it was only 1990. Now here we are, 20 years later in an age where acts like T-Pain and the Black Eyed Peas are considered “hip” by most young people and top 40 countdowns around the world. Hip-hop, it seems, has regressed to its pre-1990s identity. Can you recall what this was like? Vanilla Ice, MC Hammer, Tag Team, Marky Mark & the Funky Bunch, etc. Videos of anonymous fools dancing in parking garages, and dopey rappers repeating catchphrases hypnotically, often advertising the very title of the song you were listening to. The genre of ‘dance rap’ was a predominant manifestation of what “hip-hop” or “rap” meant in the common vernacular of 1989 or so. And it looked like this creatively bankrupt trend might prevail unabated to the end of time, until gangstas, circa 1992 and 1993 – thank god for gangstas! – pulled a drive-by and murdered them niggas.
Dr. Dre  and his cohort proved that you could make classic party (read: dance) music whilst retaining a measure of realness. Who could doubt the sincerity of a former member of NWA, who hailed from the same city of Compton as the aforementioned uber-gangsta Ice Cube? Meanwhile, over in New York, Notorious BIG  and Nas  brought the streets like never before, with a level of poetry and vividness that took hip-hop to a new level. Even intelligent backpackers like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest could not depict the gritty reality of working-class America that was made the subject of BIG and Nas’ narratives. They took us on crime sprees, shootings, through drug dens and prison courtyards, into the gutters and margins of society; that is, into the heart of poverty and despair that is the legacy of colonial Capitalism. In other words, BIG and Nas (and any other rapper, for that matter, who made ‘realness’ or ‘representing the streets’, etc., a key aspect of their identity) possessed a political and ethical significance that was sorely lacked in hip-hop’s previous manifestation. Suddenly “Whoomp! There it is” was irrelevant: sure, it would continue to get spins at office parties, gyms, and chain restaurants, but for hip-hop heads - real hip-hop heads – the future had arrived in a new form, hitherto unfathomed by the minds of middle-class white America. Here, in all its horror, was their worst nightmare come alive! All hail your new gangstarapper overlord!
In other words, the role of the gangstarapper is to act as a reminder of the traumatic Real of poverty (which is, of course, is the soil that grows crime ) that is normally repressed in ‘proper’ society. He (or she) stands for the victims of colonial Capitalism in its late, technocratic, ‘multicultural’ manifestation: not those who are directly persecuted by racist laws, but those who have to inevitably grow up as a victim of historical circumstances that have systematically robbed the African-American community of any wealth they might have accumulated over the last 300 years. He (or she) stands for the fact that: although African-Americans are now ‘free’ to ‘chase’ the ‘American dream’, their ‘competition’ has been given a massive head start, such that the system naturally perpetuates the initial disadvantage that has been perpetrated against them. Although the gangstarapper represents a certain ‘criminal’ element within society, is he or she not only taking his or her reparations in a unjust world? Is not the gangstarapper, at the very least, a subject of political and ethical deliberation due to his or her decision to occupy the guise of the ‘gangsta’, which stands in stark contradiction to the prevailing notions of state and morality? In the figure of the ‘gangstarapper’, we – that is, subjects of postcolonial capitalist society – get the inverted form of our own ethical and political hypocrisy.
But what has become of our messiah, whose sermon on the mic would provide the enlightenment we so sorely need? Don’t get me wrong, good gangsta rap is still being made , but it seems to have gone back underground. The mainstream has rejected it for the infantile thrills of syncopated dance routines to songs that would make Hammer seem insightful and original. MTV videoflows abound with competitive dance-offs and rappers plugging ‘gangsta’ brand names in an effort to outsell the Home Shopping Network. Perhaps it has been since 50 Cent downgraded the notion of ‘gangsta’ into a function of actually getting shot, that audiences have not been able to tolerate the notion that one can rap about things that are Real without having actually had a bullet enter one’s flesh. (Consider the rapper MF Grimm, who was shot 11 (!) times and now must do his MCing from a wheelchair: can you be any more Real?) But nobody today even listens to 50 Cent. He, like the rest of gangstarap, seems to have been pushed to the side to make way for the return (from the dead) of dance rap, which is infecting the countryside like a zombie epidemic. Ice Cube must be rolling in his… erm…
How are the heavyweights of hip-hop reacting to this trend, which threatens, not only the hearts and minds of young Americans everywhere, but the legacies of the great gangstarappers themselves? Dr. Dre bides his time, working on his album about the planets, clearly preoccupied with other things besides the wackness of what passes for popular contemporary hip-hop. Since Jay-Z retired he hasn’t been the same: a decent guest verse here or there, but nothing near the microphone domination that he exhibited on The Blueprint and The Black Album. It seems he’s ceded the spotlight to allow Kanye West, his heir apparent in both sound and ego, to fill it with his own phatasmagoria of mutilated soul samples, vocoder hooks, rhymes about clothing companies , bizarre tweets, and shutter shades. If Kanye West is the biggest thing in hip-hop right now, then we might begin to understand how hip-hop has lost its claim to represent anything bearing a remote resemblance to ‘keeping it Real’…
There was no more acclaimed a record in 2010 than Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Hipster barometer Pitchfork, known at least for a minimal shred of snarkiness, awarded it a perfect 10.0 and subsequently named it Album of the Year. Is it Kanye’s best work? I recognize that it is his most fully realized, and it is true that it is a culmination of all his past sounds, but let’s face the facts: Kanye West is not a good MC. His flow is “nice”  – that is to say, not awesome, excellent, amazing, powerful, astounding, profound, gifted, prescient, knowledgable, intelligent, etc. – merely “nice”, and that’s at the best of times. He is worse here than he was on The College Dropout and Late Registration, where he at least had to prove that he was competent on the microphone. Fantasy, meanwhile, has him at his least essential, making enviable those who possess copies of the record with only other MCs or even no one rapping in his place. Besides the fact that his rhymes are amateur, unfocused, shallow, etc., if one truly listens to the lyrics one soon finds that he has nothing important to say. He says a lot about himself, but to be sure, this is nothing important. Especially when other issues, such as the American political establishment’s relation to the African-American community, could be addressed in a way that, due to the scope of Kanye’s celebrity, would have an actual effect on the social relations of contemporary America. In other words: why doesn’t Kanye West care about black people?
Strange twist of irony or legitimate criticism? Let’s consider what Kanye has to say on a track off his new album, “Gorgeous”, where he states:
“As long as I’m in Polos they think they got me
but they would try to crack me if they ever saw a black me” 
What we have here is a classic case of Slavoj Zizek’s definition of ideology as it is reformulated for postmodern late Capitalism: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it” . In other words, Kanye West knows that he is not representing what it means to be ‘black in America’ or ‘keeping it real’, but still, he is doing it. To explain this he adopts stances of mysticism (“Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion?”), indifference (“I got way to many blues for any more bad news”), and celebrity crankiness (“at the airport they check all through my bag and tell me that it’s random”; “they got me sitting in fucking coach”), not to mention cynicism (“I don’t really give a fuck about it at all”) and his trademark pathological narcissism (“If I ever wasn’t the greatest nigga then I must have missed it”). The one thing he doesn’t explain is why, at a point in his career where he has the fame and power to do something truly creative and unique, he opts to perpetuate the status quo. His vocoder-laced club anthems synthesize seamlessly with the latest Katy Perry and Chris Brown products, and his rhymes about his penis (“Runaway”), money (“So Appalled”), and his boorishness (“Monster”) keep in line with the usual subject matter that is treated in brainwashing apparatuses like top 40 countdowns and music video feeds. The closest he comes to addressing anything remotely Real – besides vague declarations like “Niggas goin through real shit, man, they outta work” – is the final track “Who Will Survive in America?”, which literally just takes a whole Gil Scott-Heron song called “Comment # 1”  and plays it overtop of Kanye’s beat, not even syncopating in a way that is totally congruent. Is it laziness? Indifference? Or perhaps we have simply caught Kanye in the act of misrecognition: while most people will neither survive nor flourish in America, Kanye doesn’t have to worry about it at all. Whereas he is in a position to help his brothers and sisters survive this gauntlet called 21st century America, instead he remains content to play the role of the spoiled celebrity whose biggest concern is his own bourgeois comfort.
Contrast this to Big Boi, whose Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty was also released in 2010 and named the fourth best record of that year by Pitchfork. On the track “Daddy Fat Sax”, Big Boi asks:
And who you votin for, Republican or Democratic?
Don’t say it doesn’t matter because that’s how they stole the last one
Assassin’s bullet might be waitin’ for Obama
Do you think they’ll have a brother before Billy’s baby mama? 
The last line, of course, is referring to Hillary Clinton. Here we already have two levels of political discourse: first, Big Boi challenges us to dare to take politics seriously, as something which is the cause of why people are not surviving in America; second, he recognizes the racial factors that complicate this situation. Not only are people not surviving in America, but a disproportionate amount of black people are not surviving, ending up dead or in jail. Later in “Fo Yo Sorrows”, Big Boi goes on to offer a description of what seems to be the problem with political discourse today:
Why are 75 percent of our youth reading magazines?
‘Cause they used to fantasy, and that’s what they do to dream
Call it fiction addiction ’cause the truth is a heavy thing
Remember when the levee scream, made the folks evacuate,
Yeah, I’m still speaking about it ’cause New Orleans ain’t clean 
Big Boi gives us a good example of how a rapper can continue to keep it Real while, at the same time, producing tracks that are undoubtedly funky and preeminently danceable. What’s more, his analysis of “fiction addiction” is an apt description of the way that ideological “false” consciousness perpetuates itself in today’s society: instead of tricking people about the fundamental unjustness of American society, the media simply bombards them with all sorts of misinformation, such that one no longer seems to care whether America is unjust or not. All that comes to matter is the disposable fix afforded by the culture industry, which “consumers of cultural commodities” continue to chase even though it is “recognized as false” . So even if Big Boi’s music isn’t always this intellectually engaging or insightful, it stands heads and shoulders above all the other hip-hop out there that can hardly get over the celebration of the spectacle as the ultimate frontier of culture in late Capitalism. Kanye West would do well to follow his lead.
Saying that Kanye West – and not just Kanye West, but all the other hip-hop acts that are like him – should strive for greater Realism does not mean that he should start rapping about guns and dealing drugs all of a sudden. Besides coming off false, this sort of territory would be best left to those that have grown up with greater experience in the occupation of hustling. What Kanye West should aim to do is to use his current star power to highlight the contradictions of capitalism as such. Instead of apologizing for saying that George W. Bush does not care about black people, he should have stuck to his guns and dared to say more. That is: not only does the American political class not care about the plight of black Americans (when has it ever cared, without being provoked by massive riots and demonstrations?), but that it depends on marginal populations in its own country to provide a pool for cheap labour. In other words, not only is the prevalence of poverty within the Afro-American community due to historical circumstances, but it actually plays a structural role within the American economy as it currently operates. There is a vested interest not to let certain population rise far above the poverty level, lest employers might have to start paying workers what they’re actually worth: thus the system perpetuates poverty in the black community, for the benefit of securing profits for the owners of industries. This is just one example of what West could have addressed. In doing so, he could have changed the game entirely: if West made it an issue to actually address the way in which the black community is exploited under the conditions of 21st century American capitalism, then he could have made a positive difference in the lives of millions of Americans. At the very least, if he were to choose to talk about this or any other issue of comparable importance at least as often as political topics slipped into Big Boi’s raps, then it could no longer be said that he had reneged on the MC’s oath to always ‘keep it Real’. However, until this day occurs, Kanye must be grouped with those other bubblegum rap acts whose sole purpose in the cultural lexicon is mystification: from one’s self, from one’s people, and from the fundamentally exploitative social conditions that the black population are forced to live under in modern day America.
For more writing by Noah Gataveckas, visit his blog, Civilized Discontent.
 See The Chronic by Dr. Dre. Death Row Records, 1992.
 See Ready to Die by Notorious BIG. Bad Boy Records, 1994.
 See Illmatic by Nas. Columbia Records, 1994.
 J. G. Murphy writes “of the 1.3 million criminal offenders handled each day by some of the United Statescorrectional system, the vast majority (80 per cent on some estimates) are members of the lowest 15 per cent income level–that per cent which is below the ‘poverty level’ as defined by the Social Security Administration. Unless one wants to embrace the belief that all these people are poor because they are bad, it might be well to reconsider… that many of them are ‘bad’ because they are poor.” See “Marxism and Retribution”, in A Reader on Punishment (Eds. Anthony Duff and David Garland), p. 60. New York: Oxford University Press.
 See Hell Hath no Fury by Clipse. Arista Records, 2006; Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… Part II by Raekwon. EMI Records, 2009.
 So sacrilegious: “Praises due to the most high, Allah / Praises due to the most fly, Prada”. From “So Appalled” by Kanye West. Track 7 on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Roc-a-fella Records, 2010.
 “what the hell do I know? I’m just a Chi-town nigga with a nice flow”. From “Dark Fantasy” by Kanye West. Track 1 on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Roc-a-fella Records, 2010.
 “Gorgeous” by Kanye West. Track 2 on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Roc-a-fella Records, 2010.
 See “Comment #1″ by Gil Scott-Heren. Track 1.d on Small Talk at 125th and Lenox. Flying Dutchman Productions, Ltd., 1970.
 “Daddy Fat Sax” by Big Boi. Track 2 on Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty. Def Jam, 2010.
 “Fo Yo Sorrows” by Big Boi. Track 11 on