When one of my favorite bloggers, Marc Lynch, talks one of my great loves, hip-hop, my ears naturally perk up. However, while he is characteristically insightful, I think he misses a few key nuances in his analysis of the hegemonic Jay-Z.
Hova is clearly the most powerful man in hip-hop today, but his power is wasting, like Pentagon assets unsuited for future battles. Even though he is the most famous, wealthy and, as the former head of Def-Jam, powerful rapper, he was never the regarded as the best or most authentic rapper. Without soft power there is no longevity in the game, which is why Jay had to quickly come out of retirement. He was unable to create a legacy that would last when he was gone. Thus, his power play on Nas was an attempt to shore up his weakest front, his street cred. Unfortunately, Nas murdered him on “Ether,” and Jay’s eventual co-option of Nas into Def-Jam was using strength in one area to make up for weakness in another.
So Jay is a hegemon, but with weak soft power, who must rely on an super abundance of hard power. This analysis ignores that Jay’s success is itself a form of soft power, especially in an industry that constantly name checks girls, cars and chains. Every rapper wants to be in Jay’s position, even if many of them think they are better rappers. Similarly, even when America’s global influence reached a low point with Bush’s disregard for the international community causing a backlash, the proof of its material dominance was attractive enough that its economic model was still spreading.
It is important to note that rap beef is not zero sum; many battles are never decided decisively and both rappers benefit. In some way a good feud is akin to international competition, because as unless one party scorches the earth (see 50 Cent versus Ja-Rule) both parties benefit from the increased publicity. However, if the relationship is too asymmetric then it becomes parasitic rather than mutualistic. The Game is like North Korea: contained and blustering, but the consequences of an attack are unknown and catatrophic. Just as North Korea is being treated like a nuisance rather than a real threat, Jay-Z has nothing to gain from a direct attack. Ezra Klein explores the possibility of a proxy attack on the Game, but why poke the bee’s nest? Jay could just as easily reach out to the Game and have him recanting everything by next week, while seemingly staying above the fray.
I tend to agree with Spencer Ackerman that the attack on Auto-tune is the real Hova power move. However, I think he misses that the delicate balance struck here. The biggest conflict in rap today is between the “Hip-hop is dead” faction, based mostly in New York and featuring rappers who peaked in the mid-90s (no offense meant to luminaries like Nas and Ghostface, but Wu-Tang and Illmatic are over fifteen years old), and those who feel slighted because this overlooks the dynamic Southern hip-hop scene. Even though Jay is a New York rapper, he is too big to alienate a whole swath of potential record buyers, and so he finds a middle path. Auto-tune is ubiquitous, so even if it is associated with (marginally*) Southern rapper T-Pain, attacking it won’t spark a regional backlash. Further, by associating auto-tune with ringtone rappers, the soft power equivalent of Haiti, Hova positions auto-tune as method of selling-out. Since Jay-Z has everything except for soft power, this attack on auto-tune should be viewed as an attempt to reassert his own authenticity in a world of sell-out auto-tune rappers.
Even better, by having auto-tune loving Kayne produce the album, including the song “Death of Auto-Tune,” Jigga insulates himself from backlash. Clearly if you want to be less authentic than the Hove, be his guest (Kayne is probably too far gone for street cred at this point), but he made himself clear. This akin to Obama’s tough stance on Israeli settlements, another grab at credibility, while having Hillary and Rahm around to ensure that his tough love to Israel isn’t misconstrued by Jewish-Americans.
*T-Pain is from Florida, which is inarguably the asshole of the rap world. All rap that comes out of Florida is a turd.