Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hip Hop Will Eat Itself: Why Kanye West's "Monster" is The Only New Rap Video Worth Watching or Why Nicki Minaj Matters

     Let's face it, hip hop is undead.  Long ago, in that multicultural utopia of Native Tongue, The Beastie Boys and nostalgic backpacks rattling with spraypaint canisters (i.e. the 90s), Method Man warned us, "cash moves everything thing around me," and he meant it.  Hip hop has always known precisely what sarcophagus it was sleeping in.  From RUN DMC's odes to Adidas to Erik B and Rakim getting "paid in full" to EPMD's endless discussion of their "business," rap has always purported to be about the real which, in this galaxy, means the reality of capitalism, or what blogger K-Punk (aka Mark Fisher) has called capitalist realism.

     Sure, we liberals love to clamor about "real" hip hop.  We love to roll down the windows of our Subarus and blast The Roots, Mos Def or Common.  We can wax academic about the "underground" aesthetic of MF Doom or the lyrical wizardry of Aesop Rock or Sage Francis.  We can play the most obscure dubstep at our next wine and cheese party.   But, really, to paraphrase Das Racist, this is all a little like going to see DJ Spooky mix beats on his Ipad at the MoMA:

     But fuck all that clever shit.  If you want to get the vitals on hip hop and on America in general, take a real close look at the most important rap video in years, Kanye's "Monster":

 The rapper as aristocratic vampire/serial killer, secluded away in a narcissistic bubble of luxury and "conspicuous consumption," being cannibalized by the very fans he's cannibalizing; the rapper as both hyper-consumer and racialized commodity.  We gaze into Jay-Z's shades and see only ourselves gazing back.

     Both the song and the video "Monster" are an apocalypse.  They should shatter any liberal delusions about the "soul" of hip hop saving us from the woes of late capitalism.  They should expose the not-so-hidden truth of the pervasive bling aesthetic:  the "tip drill" is a driller killer.

With "Monster," Amercian rap emerges from the tomb of the last decade - from 9/11, the "war on terror," Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, Katrina, the Haitian earthquake and the resounding non-event of the Obama presidency - and now recognizes itself as an agent of oppression rather than a voice of the oppressed.  Kanye and Jay-Z are slick American Psychos -à la Patrick Bateman:  suit by Logsdail, sunglasses by Luis Vuitton, shoes by Dolce.  The rapper has reached the pinnacle of elitist Western postmodernity where, as Fukuyama has argued, history is finished or as Kanya raps, "I'm living the future so my present is the past/ My presence is the present.  Kiss my ass."  The rapper as sovereign power, he "does whatever he wants" and "whatever he wants" is a "cool" a priori.

     Of course, this position of supreme and absolute power is a curious one for black musicians.  When Kanye or Jay-Z play at the Patrick Bateman bloodsport of killing white women they simultaneously embody that age old stereotype of the black male rapist, an image conjured up most acutely when Kanye toys with Kate Moss-looking corpses like so many marionettes.  But, at the very outset, the video seems to flip the script on this stereotype, giving us an image of a "lynched" Vogue model, swinging from a chain.  Like so much gonzo pornography, then, "Monster" resurrects racist sexual stereotypes but only to suggest the ultimate interchangeability of roles within these scenarios. 

     With this superficiality in mind, we can safely say that the "monster" being reanimated here is precisely that of multiculturalism. "Monster" is Mr. Hyde to the Dr. Jekyll of diversity.  What we see here is the other face of that Janus head that is tolerance chic.  This is the negative print of that happy "post-racial" circle jerk we all had a couple of years ago when for a brief moment we allowed ourselves to forget (and what a privilege it is to be forgetful) that we ARE global fascism.  You see, for this video, race indeed doesn't matter, but then again, nothing matters except for the "profits."  Indeed, Kanye's first verse here intentionally teeters on complete incoherence precisely because he needn't be bothered to make sense.  Whatever he does is cool regardless of content.  And what's cooler than ice cold?  Undead.  He has become production/consumption machine, which, as Rob Latham suggests, is quite often both cyborg and vampire, and thus as Kayne tells us "I'm a motherfucking monster" his voice goes robotic.   

     For that very reason, however, the real star of this video is neither Kanye nor Jay-Z, but Nicki Minaj who, much like this video, is a high water mark for contemporary, late capitalist hip hop.  It's no mistake that the "bad bitch from Sri Lanka" sitting in the "Tonka" with Minaj is probably M.I.A.  If M.I.A. rejects the hypersexualized image of the female hip hop artist, if she "don't want to be that fake, but you can do it" then Minaj has indeed gone ahead done it:

Global Hip Hop BFFs

Let's strike right at that romantic liberal love affair with M.I.A and just fucking say it:  while M.I.A. turns revolution into fashion, perhaps Minaj turns fashion into revolution.  More troubling than M.I.A.'s sexy, but at times quite vacuous, appropriation of the Tamil Tigers is Minaj's full-on embrace of Barbie-Land objectification.  To hijack some critical race theory from Fred Moten, Minaj is precisely the commodity that speaks.  Like that doll of E.T.A. Hoffman's "The Sandman," Minaj's delivery both here and in her other performances evokes the unsettling uncanniness of an inanimate object come to life (skip to 2:40 to save yourself the true horrors of the rest of the track):

Her delivery is schizoid, a sort of controlled and cacophonous madness, a disciplined artificiality completely captured in the "Monster" video by the S/M scenario in which she disciplines her "self."

     So, like Jay-Z and Kanye, Minaj is selling herself.  She "starves her Barbie" to "feed her pockets cheesecake."  However, Minaj surpasses Jay-Z and Kanye in this respect because there is no Dr. Jekyll to her Ms. Hyde.  That is to say, there is no "human being" who transforms into the "monster" who is Minaj.  The Minaj here who tortures "Barbie" is herself a monster.  Note that Minaj raps in two different voices - her signature Barbie squeak and a sort of ODB-meets-Lon Chaney growl - both of which evoke an artifice.  And I'll let you, dear reader, make the connections here regarding race and gender.  The point is that Minaj isn't merely fake.  She is fakeness personified.  Which is something very different something perhaps slightly more subversive.  She is to hip hop misogyny what Liabach was to liberal fascism:


     Like so much else, it all comes down to the political potentials of nihilism.  Personally, I'm skeptical of the realism at work in "Monster," and for all its creepy crawlies, this video is still, ultimately, capitalist realism.  If the penultimate nihilist, Minaj, and the penultimate optimist, M.I.A., are riding in the same fantastical Willy Wonka Tonka truck, where exactly is said truck heading?  Is it just circling the same block located in some metropolitan global north, bumping the same Diplo beat until the gas runs out and maybe dropping just enough references to "third world issues" to satisfy our liberal appetite and distract us from the monotony of bloodshed?                             

1 comment:

  1. what about MIA's vicki leekz mixtape? though i do agree about her turning revolution into fashion, i am not ready to give up on her yet.