Donald Trump is the greatest Rapper of all time. He’s the G.O.A.T. precisely because he doesn’t even have to rap. “Well, how then is he a rapper? It says here in Webster’s…” I don’t mean to be a tease. And please don’t assume I’m suggesting that he’s a rapper chiefly due to his misogyny or his nasty language. But, to move forward, let’s go back a bit…
Last summer, I started having a recurring dream. One of those discharges of the unconscious that ooze out even into your waking life the next morning. It was like I was a teenager again, watching music videos on MTV or Fuse. Most of the Top 40 hits of course are hip-hop, and I’m absent-mindedly watching while doing homework. Suddenly, I realize there’s been a change of light in the room, like the sun washed over by clouds. On the TV, the music bumps along; the Rappers remain the same but the mood seems more ominous. The swear words haven’t been edited out now, and I had never really realized how many there were in this song. Next I realize something’s really wrong, because now everything’s a curse. And it’s not just cussing, but a kind of mocking, demonic profanity you would imagine coming out of the possessed. There’s some kind of Rap crew on, Can’t tell if there’s three or ten of them, but their faces all seem interchangeable, or rather they’re literally fusing together. Then there’s just one figure left—a white male, his face in extreme close up, with gleaming eyes and ravenous jowls. There’s blood coming out of the mouth, eyes, wherever; at first just a trickle but then gushing spurts. He’s still spewing profanity, but the cusses aren’t familiar words; it’s like hearing some hellish secret language. The kind of speech heard only in nightmares. The kind you pretend not to understand the next day. What I could tell you about this bad dream of a rapper is: He’s rich, He gets Bitches, He’ll fuck your momma and laugh at you. But that’s not why I’m paralyzed with fear. He starts coming out of the TV and…
I never made it past that point. After I realized where I was, I’d laugh. It was Trump! Jesus. I need to take a break from the news. I tried to chill by telling myself the whole thing was a bad recollection of that subtly racist Gorillaz video, you know, “Feel Good Inc.”, where the ginormous Black Men on the TV screen function as the Final Bosses of some dystopia, or something. I’d laugh, but inside I was still a bit shaken. I had to go outside, to see if he was out there, to get rid of this god-awful feeling. I looked around, looked into the eyes of people I passed on the street and told myself, See, nowhere. I kept having the dream until I didn’t, and then I forgot about it, but a part of me realized now that he was everywhere.
The image was gone, but something had changed. 2016 was a good year for rap music. I listened to my fair share, and tried to branch out more into the underground. I enjoyed a lot, but only in the moment. As songs wormed their way into my ear, they’d be on repeat in my head, but I couldn’t remember any of the words proper. I started having these songs on an obsessive internal loop but with all the real words replaced by obscenities. Horrible thoughts—images that shocked me—filled my mind, gyrating on the beats of the songs. I thought I was losing it, and around me the world wasn’t looking much healthier. My friends were singing along to “I made that bitch faamous” and the Donald had just clinched the Republican nomination.
Rap is now indisputably the aural drug of choice in mainline American culture, and it’s long since been reshaped in the image of that culture. Black rappers now make their music at least in part, for white audiences. I’m aware, though, my reading of our moment is necessarily colored by my sociodemographic status as a white male millennial. Caveat emptor: these results not guaranteed.
“Drivin’ Benzes with no benefits/ Not bad, huh, for some immigrants?” That’s Jay-Z in “Otis.” It’s a perfect summation of two (defining) traits in hip-hop since the late 80s. The rap game’s often been made out to be a rags-to-riches endeavor colored by America’s racial history. Hip hop triumphalism rests on the undeniable truth that, only forty years after Jim Crow, young black males have become the secret idols of millions of white teenagers, and make millions of dollars in the process. From a place of humiliation, blacks have, at least in the realm of pop culture, become incontestable champions. And before anyone criticizes the rampant, eventually toxic braggadocio in hip-hop one must grasp its origin, per Jay-Z, “If you escaped what I escaped/You’d be in Paris getting’ fucked up too.” That truth, though, ends up being nicely aligned with the bottom line of neoliberalism: there’s not much difference between the neighborhood-dealer-turned-millionaire-rapper and the go-it-alone philosophy of zero sum capitalism. The best Rappers, Jay-Z being among them, talk up a communal sense of racial pride at individual success; more often all the glory goes to Self.
The rise of hip hop solipsism coincided with the turn away from the original local scenes that defined the culture back in the day. When hip hop was a neighborhood thing, it was easy to keep it real. But once rappers began to live larger, success became the marker of authenticity. The only way to be real as a rapper was to become a Rapper—a figure idolized by masses, in the magazines, and gone from the ghetto. Where you came from (and all those who didn’t Make It) were contemptible, even if one had to exploit that past to get over and cash in on the white audience.
What did whites get out of mainline rap? As they became the target audience, hip hop (with its pornographic violence and misogyny) trafficked in titillation and ego-ing off. I.e., I, as a sixteen-year old white boy, can viscerally exercise my ego with fantasies of fucking bitches and blowing away the otha’ niggas. But, for real for real, blowing away niggas?
As these fantasies get more inauthentic, the listener is confronted with glaring contradictions. An adult might say, okay, how does any of this apply to my life? But popular music isn’t about maturity or considered judgments. What happens, I believe, is the music is taken more and more casually while fantasies find their way ever deeper into the psyche. The narcissism of the Rapper works on the listener, amping up an egotism of the voyeur. The listener desires the Fame, Celebrity, and Riches possessed by the Rapper; the listener identifies with the Rapper. Yet, as in all voyeurism, the object of desire remains forever untouchable even though it’s always there, right before the eyes. What kind of damage might that inflict upon the soul?
Americans grow up addicted to popular culture. What consolation does such a culture offer to those of us who can’t help but compare our lives to the Rappers we think we love? And that question gallops inevitably to another: In a country that is by any objective measure doing reasonably well, why is everybody so desperate? “Like a fat elephant drowning in a sea of loneliness”[I]? On the real side of globalization, there may be plenty of reasons but, at the risk of self-disclosure, I’ll suggest it’s because we were sold an alternative, impossible version of the American dream. What’d it used to be? For your life to be better off than that of your parents? Well, I’ll allow prospects there seem grim. But, in the secret depths of our hearts, my generation also believed in an alt-American Dream: that all men are endowed with an inalienable right to Money Weed and Bitches.
In the future, all political and intellectual debate will be settled by means of Rap Battle. How else to describe the last year’s election? Pundits and politicians tried to logically refute Trump’s willful contradictions. As 11/8 showed, this approach didn’t compute. Hillary Clinton, the High Priestess of Wonk, debunked Trump’s politics in all three debates. Afterwards, America seemed to agree that Clinton had articulated more sensible positions. For millions of Americans, however, the ballot had already been cast. Clinton got bum-rushed by something totally new.
The primary debates were the primal scene here. We watched the Republican dinosaurs, minds ravaged by Tea Party-ism but still locked on the conventions of political debate, get destroyed by Trump’s put-downs and Fuck-you’s. They were washed away by nothing less than the wave of the future. It’s no accident dick size became an issue. To be clear, the Democratic Party is by no means a vector for high political discourse. It too has long been dabbling in the aestheticization of politics that burst forth so dramatically this election. Since the days of Reagan, though, the Republican Party has been nearer the cutting edge of voyeur culture.
Kanye West, long famous for his concert-ending “rants,” said shortly after the election that if he had voted, it would have been for Donald Trump. His audience predictably booed him down. Their hands, apparently, were clean. Kanye, surprised by the reaction (!), went on to justify his endorsement: Trump “was very futuristic.” Days later, Kanye was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. I suppose revelations of the future may be deeply disconcerting. Humans are only able to navigate everyday experience through moral and intellectual frameworks founded on past certainties. If we see like visionaries, stripped of traditions, the present and future must seem terrifying.
Kanye seems to be one who should have useful insight into our Rapper-in-Chief. Arguably, Kanye’s promise to run for election in 2020 offers the closest parallel for the spectacle of Trump. But his career has other uses too. A glance at his past can’t help but take in the history of hip hop’s integration into a diseased culture.
Kanye’s the asshole we love to hate, or more hysterically love to love to hate. He dramatically displays the monstrous heights of our culture’s egotism. Unlike lesser (more stable?) Rappers, he’s resisted the quietism favored by “Now-that’s-what-I-call-music” marketers. He’s repackaged the culture’s rotting syntax to more or less his own ends. The culture industry rarely deigns to take a black artist seriously. Kanye’s exploited this and occasionally slipped things past the under-watchful guards. Kanye’s all about radical acceleration of the culture’s development. He crowns himself as the “voice of our generation,” and those comfortable with the status-quo will smirk. Closer to the truth is that he’s probably the voice of the next generation, or the one after that.
Future historians may very well mark the passing of Donda West as a turning-point in the history of American civilization. The death of Kanye’s mother (in a botched plastic surgery paid for by Kanye) was a life-event that would transform his work, sending ripples through the larger culture. Kanye came of age as an indisputable master of his medium at that medium’s creative peak. His innovations (sped-up soul samples) defined a personal style, yet his work up ‘til Graduation is best comprehended as classic hip-hop’s swan song. (Forgive me if I pitch a question to hip-hop heads: after Late Registration, what more could be done for Old School?) Accordingly, Graduation, was less revelatory. If Kanye’s life had gone differently, avoiding grotesque Oedipal tragedy, he might have ended up, after another decade of serviceable albums, retiring as one of his medium’s all-time greats. When his mother died, though, what he became was an inconsolable, permanent revolutionary.
Early in his career Kanye’s egotism had its artful charm. He was one of those few celebrities in each era who lend credence to equations between fame and meritocracy. His ambition was unique—expansive in a way that exposed the meanness of other Rappers’ skinny dreams. His egotism was total: nothing was acceptable but to be the best, and the best of all time at that. But just as it all was finally happening, Kanye was blindsided. What could be a more poignant rebuttal of celebrity culture than that it should become the instrument which kills your mother?
Kanye had the drive, like all great artists, to convert his personal wound into world-historical dilemmas. The crisis of his art-life would, in turn, provide templates for other Rappers. If Late Registration was the peak of his Golden Age, Dark Fantasy killed that age while simultaneously posing riddles about “What’s Next?” The track “Runaway” didn’t just evoke the disintegration of Kanye’s identity, it admitted the radical bankruptcy of hip hop’s a priori egotism. Dark Fantasy exploded in our heads. For an aural equivalent, I think it makes sense to invoke the way “Like a Rolling Stone” shattered chains of the past. Our post-millennial rush, however, wasn’t quite as emancipatory. The future may have been wide open, but we knew we were implicated in Kanye’s crime. Us faceless millions, accustomed to a lifetime of watching, could only stand back and hope the change brought hope.
That moment of possibility is where our story, of where we are now, began. In a way our decade’s been the hangover of the last. Dark Fantasy culminates with the desperate cry: “Who will survive in America?” In the moment of radical freedom, of truly authentic choice (especially for audiences), we failed to summon our nerve. We slid back three steps, and down four, and our hearts were hardened. We treated Obama as a lame-duck even before his re-election, as Rappers trod a post-modern industrial wasteland of minor-key beats and irony. Kanye’s Yeezus was the psychotic negation of a diseased ego, and the Young-Thug/Fetty Wap era was shortly to come.
To get the feel of our time, try a document of another Rapper–the music video for “Only” by Nicki Minaj. Created by one Jeff Osborne (no relation), the video features cartoon versions of Minaj, Drake, and Lil Wayne as Nazi and religious figures surrounded by processions of tanks and soldiers. They rap out their brags and insults to a joyless Fascist crowd. The video met with instant condemnation, but it wasn’t clear if anyone really gave it a second thought. Truth is, it was a video fans dare not reflect on, since we’re all implicated in such radical self-scrutiny. We think we enjoy listening to the latest Drake or Lil Wayne collaboration, but at the end of the day, in the secret place we go when we sleep, what role have these figures taken in our imaginations other than that of brownshirts, dictating our thoughts, wishes and hidden desires? They demanded so much of us; we expected something in return; our hearts died each year a little more in the waiting. The cycle churned on, we received so little in return, until one year we demanded that it become real.
One of the most watched YouTube Channels during the 2016 redid the Presidential debates in the form of rap battle. (The channel was the brainchild of Jon Cozart, an aspiring, well-mannered YouTube musician.) I was tuned into this by a good friend and fellow Hillary-supporter who enjoyed sexily singing along and strutting her stuff when Hillary’s YouTube imago boasts “All hail the Female in 2016.” I laughed so I didn’t have to cry, and was careful not to play the spoilsport. Beyond the advantage given to Hillary by Cozart (Millennials are by nature lukewarm liberals), it was eerie how this show seemed much more real than the proceedings we’d all watched a night or two before. Maybe I was just wowed by the novelty, but for a moment I thought I sussed the spirit of our time, and times to come. With no center left to hold, memes may now be the best tool we have in gauging the pulse of the American people. The steady growth of a cancerous popular culture has infected our civic institutions. Instead of rejecting the false promises of that culture, we’ve let it metastasize, right into the corridors of Washington.
Accordingly, Trump won the rap election. He simultaneously ushered in the future and cashed in all its chips. Hillary, representative of an earlier (more innocent?) stage in junk politics, could do nothing more than quote statistics and grin sheepishly. The Rapper model of politician rules on the Right now, but you can be sure Democrats are trying to figure out how to trump Trump. Most likely, they won’t corral a star (A- or B-list) but settle for the celebrification of their own favored pols. There’s a problem, though, with Rapper and Celebrity liberal spokespeople—the moment they open their mouths, they seem pedestrian. But outside help may be necessary. The grammar of political discourse has been changed and presentation must adapt as well. Most likely, the Democratic Party will roll with the punches. Warren/Streep 2020, anyone?
Dona Nobis Pacem
“When the artist’s persona becomes the totality of their art, assassination becomes the only possible method of criticism.” –Valeria Solanas.
Donald Trump is a black hole from which no meaning can escape. Why have the Left’s best-aimed attacks on Trump only backfired? Trump is like an infernal whirlwind that sucks all who object into his game. Under his moon, it’s almost impossible to resist the impulse to go for ad hominem attacks. Alarmed by Trump, artists and show people have pounced like never before, but Trump’s strength seems undiminished. In response to his spew, there’s been an outpouring of denunciation. And those attacks keep coming. It’s like resisters believe we’re one shot away from a magic bullet that will put him down once and for all. But Trump is the death which can know no further death. The only effective talkback is to diss the culture of zombified ego he incarnates.
Pop-culture critiques of Trump haven’t worked because propaganda (even if propaganda on the “right side of history”) won’t do. It took me a while before I got the subtext of Trump’s own messaging. I once thought Trump’s “MAGA” was just a talking-point, signifying nothing except “I alone can fix it.” As I wrote in my piece on Trump’s evangelicals, though, there’s a deeper meaning to his ploys. His campaign slogan could have been: “God is dead.”
I suspect the best ripostes from artists and citizens will be affirmations of Life. Not that I’d pretend to have even begun to figure out the mess we’re in. Maybe those Poets who are the unacknowledged legislators of the world can help. I’m talking, or course, about Poets with a capital P (not propagandists). They must teach us how to become spiritual antitheses of Rappers with a capital R.
To give the lie to celebrity culture I’m guessing we must reassert the value of private life, our private lives which we’ve crafted outside the insane norm. This entails risk, for we’ve been comfortable with celeb-mongering so long we may secretly fear an honest appraisal of ourselves would confirm Trumpery. But to fight the power, I’m pretty sure each of us must reclaim his/her own poetic side.
Course that’s all about the deeper state of our resistance (and our nation). In the meantime let’s get out to the Town Halls and push those pols up against the Wall!
 The standout phrase from the 2016 Todd Solondz film Weiner Dog