Tuesday, October 11, 2011
down with the king
This is too damn much. Russell Simmons: “Kanye has been a big supporter spiritually for this movement, and he just, he has to stand with the people. He's not—the politics of it, he doesn't want to make a statement, didn't want to do any media.”
Of course it's a lie. Except maybe that Kanye doesn't give a shit about the politics of OWS, or else he'd understand that just showing up is making a political statement. Of course he knew he'd “do media” if he went down there. Looks like Simmons called in a marker, if Kanye's sourpuss face is telling me anything. So Kanye goes down there with all the noblesse oblige he can summon. Later Simmons tweets, “I love how sweet and tolerant he was to the crowd." Thanks, Kanye, for tolerating poverty. I know it's hard.
Truth is, I don't think this appearance does much of anything: the occupation doesn't need spokesmodels or theme songs, and they wouldn't be hitting up Kanye if they did. The bracing wtf of a mega-rich hip hop producer showing up to a 99% rally is only the very tip of a Petermann Glacier-sized iceberg of contradictions.
Nobody expects ideological consistency from Kanye. The man has made a lucrative business out of pointing out his own hypocrisies. They are the core of Watch the Throne, which struck me from the beginning as a weird statement in 2011: an orgy of private jets, couture, other other Benzes, and, once again, somehow, diamonds, released on the cusp of new and improved austerity policies, the beginning of the double dip, increased unemployment, food riots, sovereign debt crises, and so on and so on and so on. Maybe Kanye's at the occupation to atone for that album. Where on last year's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, once in a while the socially-conscious Kanye would break through the usual narcissistic hurricane (“I treat the cash the way the government treats AIDS / I won't be satisfied until all my n****s get it, get it?”), the new one is only ever about how fucking great it is to be as rich as Kanye and Jay. Greater than you can ever imagine. Greater than they could ever tell. So, so great.
How great? Look at the central metaphor. They're kings. Hip hop royalty, in the short line of self-anointed kings that runs from Run DMC forward, through Biggie to Jay. Though they seem to question the category in the first song (“What's a man to a king? / What's a king to a God? / What's a God to a non-believer?”), the rest of the album is the longest bit of wanking on sovereignty since Carl Schmitt. The requisite social commentary song—Kanye's gotta have one, Jay not so much—is basically an edict that royal subjects please stop murdering each other, since black-on-black violence is like the holocaust. Yeah, somebody thought that thought. Out loud, on tape.
But this is the trick of hip hop sovereignty, isn't it? It's a postmodern version of the medieval problem of the king's two bodies. One body divine and everlasting, and one of this world. These sovereigns are so far above the fray that they think, in a lyric so incredibly half assed only Kanye could have written it, that they're “gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars / [...] we gonna take this whole thing to Mars.” But they also have a deep and pressing need to let you know that they're still a part of the everyday struggles that formed them. Run DMC knew enough about staying close to the ground to dress down and surround themselves with a crew. Kanye's version of this, or the part that he thinks makes him relatable, is to write issue songs about NPR headlines. And you get the sense that listening to NPR really actually bums him out. Authenticity rules in hip hop, now as ever, even if it's Kanye's authentic superficiality.
Jay's a little more thoughtful on the sovereignty question. As always, autobiography is his only mode, and he seems to model his own story on that other, quintessentially American Jay: Gatsby. And it's a story Hova rolls out to any audience he can find.
So what if he made $400 million dollars last year—he's in every important respect just like us. He needs to be, since this is how hip hop sovereignty works. Anyone can rise if they're talented and shrewd like Jay. I can't actually begrudge the man his giant pile of money. Way back on “Izzo” he told me why he's doing it: “Industry is shady, it needs to be taken over / [...] Pay us like you owe us for all those years that you hoed us.” (Kanye takes this a step further when he “collaborates” with the whitest guy in the music industry, then piles so much synthesizer on top of him that I could have sung his part and no one would have been the wiser. No difference, Pitchfork still gave the record a 10.) I've got no problem with reparations as a recording policy. On Throne, Jay tells me, in a line that will last longer than most of the record, “Not bad, huh, for some immigrants? / Build your fences, we digging tunnels / Can't you see we gettin money up under you?” This is the Jay I know and love. Jay as the charming hustler, the Clyde Barrow, Jay as the guy who despite everything you've seen makes you believe he can shake up the record industry. He coexists uneasily with that other Jay, the one who writes fake populist garbage like “Empire State of Mind,” an ode to a city he presumably once lived in but now only sees from the window of his private jet; a song filled with all the penetrating insight into local folkways of a Bloomberg-approved tourist brochure.
That's the thing about the two bodies of the sovereign. Its current-day version is on Fox News every hour of the day: it's fake populism plus financial power. It's the very thing that OWS is trying to slowly, painstakingly, and through sheer necessity, make impossible. And so what happens when, his two bodies pulled apart, the king has to choose one?