Sunday, 28 August 2011

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 combatting 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 afterwards, 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 Autotune 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...
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Marc Lynch @'FP' 

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