A Hip-Hop Aesthetic

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You will be aware that Kanye West is a controversial figure. His solo career began in 2002 with a crash: after falling asleep at the wheel on his return from the studio at 4am, he drove head-on into another vehicle, breaking the driver’s legs. Two weeks later he chronicled this experience and his subsequent reconstructive surgery in his first single, ‘Through the Wire’ which, in typical Kanye style, gloriously bent and distorted a soulful Chaka Khan sample:

Through the fi-re, to the lim-it to the wall,

For a chance to be with you

I’d gladly risk it all-ll

The narrative is classic Kanye: from struggle overcome springs success. The accompanying music video, awarded Video of the Year at the 2004 Source awards, begins with a Michael Jackson-esque introduction, proudly declaring that West ‘recorded this song with his mouth still wired shut… // …so the world could feel his pain!’ ‘They can’t stop me from rapping, can they?’, his verse began.

It is interesting to consider for a moment who ‘they’ might be – Doctors? Lawyers? Divine forces? Record execs? But through his skilful semantic and audial reworking of the soul canon, Kanye simply moves past this: the point is evident enough. What matters is the struggle and the apparently manifest inevitability of West’s success. In his later 2005 release, ‘Hey Mama’, he turned, as he often has, to the totemic figure of his mother Donda to illustrate poignantly this wider point:

I said mommy I’ma love you till you don’t hurt no more,

And when I’m older, you ain’t gotta work no more,

And I’ma get you that mansion that we couldn’t afford.

Here, West builds on a notion of struggle that is integral to many genres of African-American music. Fans of soul group the Spinners, for instance, will recall their 1975 single ‘Sadie’, which tells the story of a mother who works to raise her children with compassion and resilience through poverty and all ‘the things / this troubled world can bring.’ Unlike Donda, though, Sadie never gets her mansion: now dead, she lives on to transcend the material forces of deprivation through love alone:

Ain’t it funny

That in the end

It’s not money,

It’s just the lo-ve you gave us all.

For both artists then, in a typically Christian sense, love conquers all. Yet while for West this love is to some extent coterminous with material success, for the Spinners, the two are very much opposites. In ‘He’ll Never Love You Like I Do’ (1974), for instance, the ‘diamond rings’ and ‘social rating’ of the singer’s love-rival can only serve to emphasise that

He won’t love you,

He can’t love you,

He’ll never love you, ba-by, like I do…

Between the Spinners’ classic soul and Kanye’s 21st century hip-hop lies a major transformation in the understanding of struggle within different genres of African-American music, one with wide-ranging psychological and aesthetic implications. The pivot-point for this transformation is gangster rap:  much like soul, this genre is rooted in black urban ghettos, significant material deprivation and fierce police brutality; an additional focus on blaxploitation-style gangsterism serves both to emphasise this deprivation and create agency. Thus, in Nas’ Illmatic (1994) the rapper spins tales of violent encounters, ambushes, drug deals and police stitch-ups, the streets constantly awash with an arsenal of weaponry. ‘N.Y. State of Mind’ exploits the cliché: ‘The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps.’ To survive, Nas must learn to mirror his environment:

I never sleep, ‘cause sleep is the cousin of death.

(I ain’t the type of brother made for you to start testing)

The ethos of struggle in soul music was by no means confined to love and spirituality – think of the biting political and socio-economic critiques of ‘Strange Fruit’, or Gil Scott-Heron’s Winter in America (1974). With gangster rap, however, the civil rights ethos (‘A Change is Gonna Come’) begins to give way to a less objective and more individualised critique, which artistically exploits and gives voice to the particular insecurity of ghetto living. The kind of competitive isolation found in urban contexts is ingrained into the music through battle rap, which embodies the notion that a wordsmith stands alone with only their lyrics to protect them. As the rapper Guru threatened ‘another fake jack’ on Gang Starr’s ‘Moment of Truth’ (1998):

You got no hand skills, there’s no security to save ya’,

No pager, no celly, no drop-top Benzy,

I came to bring your phony hip-hop to an ending   

Naturally enough, these myriad threats and constant sense of tension – mirroring the complex and multi-dimensional nature of systematic racism – have degrading effects. Willie D, on the Geto Boys’ ‘Mind Playing Tricks on Me’ (1991), is proud to declare, ‘I live by the sword’. As a consequence:

I take my boys everywhere I go

because I’m paranoid

But what is paranoia in this context? What does it mean to be paranoid – to suffer fearful distortions – in a world where the threats are many and complex? Gangsterism is a constant state of precarious accumulation, where every act of power-building opens you up to a new threat:

But late at night, something ain’t right –

I feel I’m being tailed by the same sucker’s headlights.

Is it that fool that I ran off the block?

Or is it that n**** last week that I shot?

Under these pressures, the threat comes also from within, as Scarface admits ‘havin’ fatal thoughts of su-i-cide.’ Bushwick Bill reflects on this state of self-sabotage and forlorn isolation:

I had a woman down with me,

But to me it seemed like she was down to get me.

She helped me out in this shit –

But to me, she was just another bitch!

Now she’s back with her mother;

Now I’m realizing that I love her;

Now I’m feeling lonely:

My mind is playing tricks on me.

Nas’ gangster rap ‘realism’ might seem to suggest that paranoia is a response to objective material conditions. In reality, however, most of those conditions – ghettoization, police brutality, economic exclusion, gang violence – were already prominent in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when they bred a very different musical response. Thus, while paranoia is rooted in objectivities, its essential quality is that it evades them and operates primarily within the psychological sphere. The wide influence of gangster rap across contemporary black musics has consequently enabled the export of this paranoid tendency to a variety of ‘underground’ genres, even where the underlying objective conditions are more or less different from late ‘80s New York. Drug use – another underground fascination – provides an interesting parallel: drugs are at once both a symptom of deprivation and a means of escape. No wonder weed smoke features so prominently in rap’s more utopian moments, for instance on 2Pac and Nas’ ‘Thugz Mansion’ (2002):

A place where death doesn’t reside,

Just thugs who collide –

Not to start beef but spark trees,

No cops rollin’ by.

Yet like paranoia itself, drugs can ultimately have a corrosive effect on the mind, fuelling anxiety and thereby weakening the user. UK hip-hop rapper Fliptrix captures this powerfully on the Four Owls’ ‘Control’ (2015):

These voices in my mind are here to

Whisper and I can’t hide ‘em,

I try my best to fight ‘em

Then I end up feeling violent…

Is it weed that made me like this

Or am I just like it?

Returning to Kanye’s promise of an easy life for Donda, we can clearly see the emergence – driven in great part by gangster rap – of a single-minded desire to build, work and accumulate wealth and power and thereby escape the physical, metaphorical and psychological limitations of the ghetto. Of course, socially ‘conscious’ communitarian messaging remains prominent in hop-hop, alongside a soulful emphasis on peace and ‘education’. Yet the balance has undoubtedly shifted towards what might now be termed ‘hustle culture’, reflecting not only the criminalised origins of gangsterism, but also the broader free-market individualism increasingly prominent in American policy and society from the ‘80s onwards. Throw in a healthy dose of masculine insecurity and pursuit of status, and we are some way to understanding the roots of hip-hop paranoia.

Naturally, accumulation is a self-reinforcing mechanism: you build, then to protect what you already have, you build some more. As Guru puts it on ‘Moment of Truth’:

There ain’t nobody to trust,

It’s like sabotage, it’s got me ready to bust.

But I can’t jeopardise, what I have done up to this point,

So I’ma get more guys, to help me run the whole joint.

Cultivate, multiply, motivate or else we’ll die!

Building is a particularly powerful image in hip-hop because it promises permanence and security, a kind of physical antidote to the fire-strewn blocks of Harlem. The problem is, as Guru recognises, ‘when you’re shining, some chumps’ll wanna dull ya’, and the more you build, the greater the target, not only for black ‘biters’ but so too for the forces of white America which hate to see a black man on top. Accumulation can be a lonely mountain indeed, which at its logical conclusion has produced albums like 2Pac’s Me Against the World or Wiley’s entirely self-produced 100% Publishing.

There is nothing new in itself about the accumulatory impulse: consider James Brown, ‘the hardest-working man in show-business’, or Motown’s hit-making empire. In many ways, the difference is one of scale: sure, James Brown was successful, but he could never dream of the wealth, industry control and mainstream recognition that just a handful of hip-hop artists and moguls – Jay-Z, Puff Daddy, Dr. Dre – have been able to achieve today. This leads to the counter-intuitive conclusion that hip-hop’s paranoid fascination arises not only as a consequence of the accumulatory mindset, but also from the unique and unprecedented nature of hip-hop’s success. Hip-hop may not have radically altered the condition of all African-Americans, but it has certainly created individuals to act as living proof of the ‘create/multiply’ model’s success.

It is Kanye, perhaps more than any other, who embodies the immense commercial and critical status available to some black artists. He also epitomises the ideology of struggle overcome, and bears perhaps more eloquently than any other the scars obtained in reaching such a position. Kanye could not save Donda, who died from complications following cosmetic surgery in Los Angeles in 2007, aged 58. Meanwhile, car crashes continue to haunt his music. In ‘No More Parties in LA’ (2016), West drives drunkenly around the city from blow-out to blow-out, begging his wife Kim:

No more parties in L.A.,

Please, baby, no more parties in L.A.

West’s voice is so desperate it almost sounds as if he wants a crash: that at least would set him free from this lifestyle. But then isn’t Kanye in control? Aren’t he and his wife the progenitors – and beneficiaries – of the very celebrity complex he seeks escape from? In his verse, Kanye wonders exactly ‘how I got here in the first place’ – ‘here’ being an A-lister with a taste for Louis Vuitton and high-class prostitutes. But ‘here’ is also a place of fear and paranoia, where Kanye must bat away threats, real and imagined, from malign seducers and ‘best friends’ with ‘selfish intents’. In these circumstances, what is a renegade rapper to do?

Ride around with a bulletproof car and some tints?

Every agent I know – know – I – hate – agents,

I’m too black, I’m too vocal, I’m too flagrant.

Here is the crux: being black, vocal and flagrant is simultaneously the source of Kanye’s power and his vulnerability. That and money, which it enables him to obtain. So, on he goes, crescendoing to the end:

Get money (money, money, money)!

Big, big money (money, money, money)!

Sure, you can’t protect yourself forever just by building up, up, up, but you have to try. Only:

Please, baby, no more parties in L.A.

You may not sympathise with Kanye’s predicament, but it is difficult to dispute his artistic mastery. At the core of his appeal is an exquisite ability to sit atop both poles of power and destruction, and to show himself there, teetering on the edge. After all, this is a man who redefined hip-hop in the 21st century and seemingly achieved everything the rap ethos has ever idealised; at the other end of the spectrum lies obsessive press attention, a series of well-publicised mental illnesses, Donda’s death and a recent divorce. Somehow West brings this all together, threatening constantly to evaporate in a swirl of messianic fervour or lapse into full mental breakdown. The key to this balance is paranoia.

This unique confluence of oppression, ‘hustle culture’, and qualified success makes paranoia a core constituent of the hip-hop ethos. Moreover, as West shows, paranoia should be considered a strength not a weakness, a deliberate aesthetic. Although a product of desperate realities and itself an insidious mental threat, in the hands of lyricists and producers paranoia becomes a tool of finely-tuned chaos, a way to bitingly and incisively portray the systemic effects of racism and self-reflexively critique the notion of black success. In core hip-hop terminology, paranoia is a state of knowledge, a means of elevation. As Gang Starr said: ‘We all must meet our moment of truth.’ If so, it’s better to be prepared.