Just as the human riches of the American blacks are despised and treated as criminal, monetary riches will never make them completely acceptable in America’s alienated society: individual wealth will only make a rich nigger because blacks as a whole must represent poverty in a society of hierarchized wealth. Every witness noted the cry proclaiming the global significance of the uprising: “This is a black revolution and we want the world to know it!” Freedom Now is the password of all the revolutions of history, but now for the first time the problem is not to overcome scarcity, but to master material abundance according to new principles. Mastering abundance is not just changing the way it is shared out, but totally reorienting it. This is the first step of a vast, all-embracing struggle.
— Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
You know white people get money, don’t spend it
Or maybe they get money, buy a business
I’d rather buy 80 gold chains and go ign’ant
I know Spike Lee gon’ kill me, but let me finish.
— Kanye West, “Clique”
RICK ROSS’s story is old news to any fan of hip-hop at this point, but I’ll reiterate: taking his name from the legendary Los Angeles coke dealer Freeway Ricky Ross, the rap superstar created a fictional life for himself as a Miami drug kingpin. By 2008, that narrative had helped Ross earn vast popularity, along with the money rap superstardom brings. Unfortunately for Ross, in 2008, the Smoking Gun blog published evidence that the rapper’s allegiances once belonged to the other side of the law: the self-styled Teflon Don turned out to be a former Florida corrections officer, policing the types of criminals he claimed to have been.
For hip-hop purists who pride the genre with a kind of sociological verisimilitude, this incident should have ended Ross’s career. But that wasn’t really how things turned out. Since the revelation, Ross has gone on to continued success — and even more outlandish fantasies. Earlier this year he released his sixth LP, Mastermind. The album includes a track titled “The Devil Is a Lie,” featuring rap’s uber-capitalist and prototypical dealer-cum-rap mogul, Jay-Z. It’s a chance for Ross to spin a yarn of incredible excess: he moves dope across borders in luxury cars dusty with coke residue; his mistress walks around in shoes that cost as much as one of those cars; his wealth approaches an Arab sheik’s opulence; he blows $500k on a weekend in Bordeaux. Rather than retreating, the former corrections officer has found success by embracing a garish cartoon version of wealth. His outing as a fake has only empowered him to be even more inauthentic, and he takes every advantage the position affords him. Put simply, Rick Ross no longer even purports to traffic in the business of reality; he deals only in bald-faced fantasy.
For critics of mainstream hip-hop like DJ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, whose “How Hip-Hop Failed Black America” ran in Vulture earlier this year, this detachment from the socioeconomic realities of black life is exactly the problem with contemporary rap. Questlove critiques the fantasy of conspicuous consumption as an exclusionary practice that rejects what he thinks should be hip-hop’s primary mode: faith to the facts of black life.
In his formulation of rap as a window onto black “reality,” or a genre with a certain social responsibility, Questlove is doubly amiss. For one, his definition of black reality relies to a distressing degree on economic hardship, as if blackness and lack were interchangeable terms. His insistence on socioeconomic reality unwittingly bolsters a mode of representation that too readily reduces blackness to negation. (This mode is exemplified by the deluge of essays in the wake of Michael Brown’s death, which are happy to articulate the tragedy of blackness in America but unwilling or unable to account for its vibrancy, or its improbable persistence, or the way it has managed to so permeate American culture.) Unfortunately, Questlove falls into this representation trap when he indicts rappers for their elaborate fantasies of unattainable luxury, while pining for a golden age in which hip-hop was “devoted to reflecting the experiences of real people and, through that reflection, challenging the power structure that produces inequality and disenfranchisement.” But who’s to say that contemporary, popular hip-hop is not invested in challenging this power structure, albeit in a much different fashion?
I think Questlove fails to appreciate that contemporary hip-hop’s penchant for fantasy isn’t just about mindless consumption. He overlooks the possibility that popular rap’s investment in fantasies of conspicuous consumption might produce unique knowledge about black people’s place within global capital’s structure. Arch-capitalists like Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Rick Ross are speaking to something more than just wanton luxury — something that can’t be expressed through faithful reproduction of “reality.” Instead, they use fantasy not only to articulate how capital structures black life, but also to challenge the duty to represent lack within that structure.
Paying more attention to how these rappers talk about black wealth and accumulation, we can understand hip-hop’s obsession with conspicuous consumption as performing an intervention: In dislodging blackness from its symbolic position as representation of lack, an enthusiastic embrace of commodity allows rappers to interrogate the nature of a society that systematically condemns blacks to poverty. “Realism” is precisely what this strain of hip-hop wants to avoid, and therefore is instructive not in describing our contemporary moment, but in possible alternatives to it.
The discourse on hip-hop’s realist tendencies is an old one and is entangled with debates about black authenticity. Critics like Tricia Rose, Imani Perry, Adam Bradley, and Jeff Chang have been parsing rap’s relationship to black “reality” for more than 20 years now, posing the question of whether or not, or to what extent, we can consider hip-hop to be a form of ethnic testimony reflecting black socioeconomic experience. Unfortunately, many of these analyses ignore the diverse strands of sound, concept, and content that comprise the “hip-hop tradition,” shrinking the music down to an artificial core or golden age. Questlove gives us a prime example: Run-DMC’s socially conscious concern for the struggle makes the cut, but Ace Hood’s dream of waking up in a Bugatti isn’t as true to the golden age as Questlove would like.
So the thrust of a book like Rose’s 2008 Hip Hop Wars, for example, goes something like this: if only rappers rediscovered the spirit of hip-hop’s golden age, we could anchor the genre as it slides toward more inauthentic and irresponsible commercial modes of representation. Thus, a question that should be taken as the beginning of an investigation into such modes — Can hip-hop be a realist expression of black life? — gets a reductive answer: of course hip-hop is a realist expression of black life.
The operative assumption of such criticism is that “real” or “ideal” hip-hop is a set of transparent sociological texts whose chief characteristic is a non-ironic verisimilitude. If you listen hard enough to the right music you’ll catch black America’s pulse in your ears. For thinkers like Questlove, then, contemporary rap music’s obsession with capital and commodities is a betrayal of hip-hop tradition and the black community from which it hails. In their eyes, Ace Hood’s dream is irresponsible because it fails to represent the socioeconomic reality of African-American life.
This framework, and its attendant condemnation of conspicuous consumption, has the eminent cultural critic Paul Gilroy as its standard bearer. Since his 1987 classic There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, Gilroy has insisted that black music is “created inside and in opposition to the capitalist system of racial exploitation and domination […].” In other words, black music is antithetical to capitalist social logic, which once treated (and still treats) black bodies as fungible commodities. In opposition to commodification and the conformity it entails, Gilroy posits an “affirmation of particularity” that links black music with the life of black community.
For Gilroy, then, black music’s embrace of transnational capital’s excess serves to exclude it from black communities. It’s a betrayal in which music loses whatever oppositional, critical, or utopian qualities it might have possessed, becoming instead “antipolitical and assertively immoral consumption.”
Gilroy’s use of the word “inside,” however, contradicts the idea of a black culture that operates in total defiance of capitalism. How can something internal to capitalist social logic only ever operate as that logic’s antithesis? The gap between Gilroy’s language and his blanket condemnation of contemporary popular culture points to a blind spot in his theorizing: he either seems unable to conceptualize a black music that wrestles with the actual experience of life under neoliberalism, or unwilling to give up the dyad — a hegemonic global capital on one side, and an oppositional black culture on the other — that’s been crucial to his work.
That stance seems especially naive when we consider that, as Jeff Chang lays out in his history of the genre Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, hip-hop found itself implicated in global capital from the earliest stages of its history. As rappers, ad men, and corporate executives courted each other in the 1980s, they collaborated to construct the post-white “urban” culture that is today’s global lingua franca. (If you have any doubt of that, peek Francois Hollande’s use of “Niggas in Paris” in a 2012 campaign ad.) Chang’s history suggests that any inquiry into hip-hop’s modes of representation and its status vis-à-vis global capital must deal with the contradiction that forms the genre’s true heart, or at least the heart of a certain strain: the dual longing for a socially conscious anti-capitalist message and self-aggrandizement through hyper-capitalist excess (which is really an expression of a desired competence). This is about the desire to be in opposition balanced against the desire for material comforts too often denied.
In this light, an artist like Ross’s obsession with fantasies of capitalist competence becomes more interesting. We might view his fictions as the expression of a mind simultaneously suspicious of global capital and enamored of the comforts it can bestow — comforts historically denied to black communities through opaque processes.
His song “The Devil Is a Lie” provides an apt case study. Juxtaposing Ross’s brash fantasy — concerned only with the imagined details of material comforts unimaginable to the majority of blacks, Ross included — with Jay-Z’s baking soda–dusted rise to wealth, the Kevin Erondu–produced track announces that Ross has doubled down on his commitment to excess. But it also hints at the tensions operating beneath mainstream rap’s simplistic surface.
From the top, there’s the imposing sense of too much, a gilded wall of discordant sound and colliding voices. Gene Williams’s distended wail, sampled off the 1970 track “Don’t Let Your Love Fade Away,” arrives couched between horns but doesn’t last long before it’s upstaged by a second wail, a woman’s this time, and the two sing back and forth to each other like separated lovers shouting over all the noise. Ross sings a love song of sorts, too, but to himself: he ad-libs between nearly every line of his verses, tossing off silly woos and ahs, imitating the sound of a car’s engine, pretending to chomp on hot wings — the effect is a bit like hearing a demented preacher provide his own choir. Ross is ensconced in his own world, pretending to reap what he imagines would be the benefits of a successful career in the dope game.
Ross’s verses here are, above all, celebratory. This isn’t a song about the hustle — Ross’s music is about the life of a boss sheltered from dope dealing’s depravities. You won’t hear him rap, as Freddie Gibbs does on the excellent 2014 Madlib-collaboration “Thuggin’,” about selling dope to a family member who might have otherwise traded sexual favors for it. This is a song, like many of Ross’s songs, about a world awash in green, in which money explains and excuses everything and the virtue of amassing a fortune is self-explanatory. Drug-addled geekers left in the dope game’s wake don’t exist in this world, at least not from the executive heights Ross occupies. While “Thuggin’” winds up as a critique of slinging’s effect on black communities from a rapper least expected to deliver such criticism, there’s no indication that Ross even conceives of dope dealing as a social act. He’s a consummate neoliberal for whom all that matters is his self and his material success — the Maybachs, the trips to Bordeaux, the considerable paunch.
Jay-Z’s verse complicates matters. His rise from Brooklyn street corners to Midtown Manhattan boardrooms is the stuff of legend, hip-hop’s own alarming version of the American Dream as it was never intended, one we’re all intimate with because every guest turn he gives these days is a reiteration of his own legend. His verse on “Devil” is no different, but this time it comes with an air of defensiveness. Battered after a year when his support for the Barclays Center in Brooklyn roused cries of gentrification, and his partnership with Barney’s New York continued despite reports that the store routinely profiled black customers, Jay-Z found people unwilling to let money redeem his investments’ social impact. Even Harry Belafonte laid into the guy, signaling that something about Jay’s public perception had gone wrong. The fantasy of accumulation ran headlong into the reality of complicity in social ills. So this verse finds Jay-Z defending his investments, spinning his wealth as a symbolic victory for all black people. As he put it in an interview: “My presence is charity. Just who I am. Just like Obama’s is. Obama provides hope. Whether he does anything, the hope that he provides for a nation […] is enough.” It’s this kind of hope Jay-Z tries to convey on “Devil,” insisting triumphantly that black life can’t and shouldn’t be reduced to grinding poverty.
As silly as that statement seems, I want to take it seriously in the context of “Devil,” paying notice to the tension between Jay’s verse and Ross’s asocial fantasy, the dream of absolution from lack that Ross constructs, and the discomfort Jay voices at the roles black men are expected to play in black society. Listen to Jay:
Devil want these niggas hate they own kind
Gotta be Illuminati if a nigga shine
Oh, we can’t be a nigga if a nigga rich?
Oh, we gotta be the devil, that’s some nigga shit
You seen what I did to the stop and frisk
Brooklyn on the Barney’s like we own the bitch
It’s easy to dismiss the assertion that Jay’s deal with Barney’s lets blacks vicariously take part in Jay’s success, or erases the store’s history of racial profiling, because such thinking is an extension of Jay’s charity comments. Insofar as the verse and interview both assume that one man’s prosperity equates to broad-based social justice, they’re both wrongheaded. But what’s really crucial here is Jay’s skepticism at the current spectrum of black representation. The central question of both this verse and the interview seems to be: What to do in a world where, as Debord says, a wealthy black man is still just a “rich nigger,” an impossible figure, an anomaly in a society where the black body is the necessary shorthand for symbolic and structural lack within our economy? What to do when not only white people but also some black people find this lack indispensible, when the presence of a black body that signals anything other than poverty and loss becomes devilish? I think Jay-Z and Ross are wondering how one fantasizes oneself out of the duty to represent lack and into another, alien social space using consumption as the backdrop, while also investigating the workings of the structure that constructs blackness as poverty. It’s like Ross says at the top of the track — “They think this shit comes from outer space or something.”
Ross’s and Jay’s response is to dwell in the strangeness of black wealth. Fantasy blows the idea of wealth and accumulation up to widescreen, cartoonish proportions so rappers can poke fun at the duty to represent either lack or its flipside, responsible black artistic consciousness. To paraphrase Meshell Ndegeocello, hip-hop makes black wealth grotesque, irresponsible, garish, a niggafied and future shocked version of black America unrecognizable to both itself and white people — and that radically unrecognizable quality is precisely the point. Think about the Kanye verse quoted earlier: above all his wealth is improper, a case of bad taste, bad money management, and bad representation, alien to both a buttoned-down (yet delusional) white capitalism and that great gatekeeper of black artistic conscience, Spike Lee. He’s the bad child who intentionally learned the wrong lesson, who takes neoliberalism’s faith in accumulation at face value, but only to dramatize the almost extraterrestrial nature of any black representation that doesn’t harp on tragedy or make a pathos-laden play for white audience’s hearts.His 80 gold chains become an expression of the drive toward ignorance — willed ignorance of the roles blacks are supposed to play in America, and of the positive/negative dichotomy that too often dominates discussion of black representation and of the structured behaviors bequeathed to us via neoliberalism. Kanye demonstrates that the fantasy of accumulation’s garishness — and the ugliness with which rappers come by both their fictional and literal money — is the engine that powers rap’s critique of capitalism.
Think about the way Jay constantly draws parallels between his drug dealings and business concerns, for example. He never attempts to transcend or forget, only to point to the continuity between the drug trade and corporate capital. There’s a subtle irony present here in the sense that the dealings happening on street corners and corporate boardrooms are of a piece, part of the same economy, one as ugly and mercenary as the other. Jay casts the drug game as a monstrous version of the American Dream that’s very much a reality for millions. It’s not clear how stable this irony actually is, but Jay-Z has enough of a social-conscious streak — think about “Murder to Excellence,” off of Watch the Throne — that I suspect he is at least aware of the critique he poses, even if he seemingly contradicts himself with his cheerleading for accumulation.
But then that contradiction is exactly the point, isn’t it? It’s not exactly hypocrisy, but an expression of confusion. Jay-Z outs himself as the compromised subject, aware of his place in a structure of inequity but not able to relinquish his fantasy of plenty — even if it does have tragic effects. In confessing to his compromised status, Jay insists that Questlove’s realist approach to black music isn’t enough to understand how capital has shaped both black life and what others understand that life to be, or how capital’s hold remains as strong as it is despite black people’s experience of systemic disenfranchisement. These are questions thinkers like Questlove haven’t quite figured out how to address.
 Darker than Blue: On the Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture, p. 16.
Ismail Muhammad is a PhD student in the English Department at UC Berkeley.