Institutionalized: The Love Affair Between Hip-Hop and Capitalism

I believe that hip hop fundamentally is an extremely capitalist and anti-socialist medium, and it is paradoxically fascinating that rap is considered the voice of the oppressed when it is so clearly in love with the oppressing influence of capital.

It is no coincidence that rap’s worship of wealth, women and success have led the medium to idolize Donald Trump right up until the moment of his Presidency. You don’t get to praise Lucifer until he achieves the throne, and then act like he’s betrayed you. Donald Trump, in the pages of hip hop lyricism, would be considered a mythical hero by an alien race observing the history of that lyricism up through the 90s.

Why? Well, because rap is in love with capitalism. Simon Reynolds wrote: “To ‘get real’ is to confront a state-of-nature where dog eats dog, where you’re either a winner or a loser, and where most will be losers”.

The relationship between rap and capital is summarized by the subtitle of Reza Negarestani’s impossible theory-fiction: ‘complicity with anonymous materials’.

Capitalism destroys blackness, and yet capital is the only path for black people to better themselves. This is the essence of Jay-Z’s 4:44, and its fixation upon black business as the salvation of black America. Yet, isn’t this just the same American Dream optimism peddled by white racist conservatives? Capital shatters the lives of all those around you, yet you alone, the rapper, The Star, are to overcome all the shattered fragments, batting aside the glass pieces with bars and verbal acuity, ascending ever upward as the community remains destroyed.

What else can be done? It is the crisis of capitalism – achieve your dream, even though millions of others will fail in theirs. How many thousands of hungry young black men die each day reading their Soundcloud analytics figures, grinding their teeth and holding back tears as they see, day after day, that the stars have not chosen them?

“Hustle, grind, never sleep”. The mottos of the rap world are identical to the most insane mottos of corporate capitalism. Rapper Cupcakke Tweets: “If you’re feet ain’t hurting, you ain’t working hard enough.” Puff Daddy Tweets: “If you’re not motivating me, praying for me, loving me, or trying to get money with me… You’re a distraction.”

Puff Daddy is the richest rapper of all time. His philosophy has worked. And yet, his philosophy is vampire capitalism. All surplus value is directed toward him – that is the law and rule of his corporeal existence.

Rapper Killer Mike poses a fascinating alternative – focus on arming black folk with firearms and investing in black banking. Create concentrated centers of black capital and thus create black power outside of white institutions. And when there is violence on the streets? Arm yourself. This essentially amounts to a black libertarianism. Black people, indeed, if they had invested in Bitcoin between 2010 and 2014, would now find themselves in a rather powerful position.

Black banking is an attempt at achieving the goals of cryptocurrency – a life boat from the sinking of the stock market and the vanishing of the Wall Street bull beneath acidic shores. Killer Mike is, for all intents and purposes, a libertarian ‘pan-Africanist gangster rapper’. His survivalism, individualism and emphasis on alternative modes of community resources strike to the heart of even such figures as Alex Jones, though clearly Mike is more serious and represents the light-version of Jones’ shadow-dweller.

Of course, Killer Mike is also a Christian. Mike, like Cornel West, like Nina Turner, is a believer in God’s grace despite the blood and soil of this world, which is the domain of Satan. Satan is the prince of this world – and yet accumulating Satanic power is the only way to break free from poverty. Wealth, capital, is the serpent – it is wise, it creates opportunity. So we chase it – knowing it will destroy most of us. We all, us dutiful slaves, believe that we will be the exception, the one who is saved, the single sperm who reaches the egg, the single thread that weaves the needle.

All those who invite violence, from antifa to white supremacists, believe the same thing – they believe that violence, the way of the serpent, can save them. It may save some. It saved Cornel West, in Charlottesville, when he directly credited antifa for saving himself and dozens of church activists from being swamped by Neo-Nazis thugs. Violence also saved the world when it destroyed the Nazis in World War II, and black titans of the intellect such as W.E.B. DuBois argued that black Americans had to swallow their concerns about racism for the time being to win the war against Nazi Germany.

Speak to the serpent – this is the motto of this world, of accruing wealth, of having a bag and being able to reach into it for self-worth and application of the individual will. It’s a compromise we must make. Each time we fill our gas tanks, purchase clothing, purchase food – you get the point. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.

And yet, there exists nothing outside of capitalism. Though this world is of Satan, we are in this world. Can one, as Melville suggested, live ‘in’ this world without being ‘of’ it? Can one consume and be a capitalist and yet maintain the divinity beyond it all? We certainly hope so. Because in practice, we are all capitalists.

Cosmic fatalism surrounds us here, like a misty cloud, we see that there is no exit – only the promise of doing better within the brutal circle we have.

The career of Kendrick Lamar is itself a plummeting into this cosmic fatalism. On To Pimp A Butterfly, songs like “Instituionalized” lament the inability for Kendrick to uplift his friends out of their self-destructive mindsets. No matter how much jewelry and gold circles the widening gyre, they cannot change themselves. In DAMN, this feeling becomes the essence of the whole album – you cannot change who you are. Is it wickedness alone that condemns black America, a Demiurge beyond our control, or rather weakness, a simple inability to become more than we are and transcend our own nature? You may decide, but neither option leaves revolution as a tangible response. Black Americans are institutionalized by their own self-hatred, their own misbegotten lack of generational wealth, and a civilization that charges onward into digital fragmentation, unconcerned with their suffering. Nick Land wrote that the Civil Rights movement was the ‘New Testament’ of black history in America. The Old Testament was slavery, the civil war, the slave cry of ‘let my people go’. Black history, then, closely aligns to the arc of human history in frightening and sublime ways – the New Testament, the possibility of grace, has descended like the crucified savior upon a cross and crown of thorn. And yet, the possibility of grace remains unfelt, and the world remains as it was despite the empty tomb. A miracle has occurred, and yet nothing has changed. Such is the true panic and hatred of this world, the recognition that not even grace can stop the wheel and change its ways.

The pessimistic Kendrick, then, is the most truthful. His intimate knowledge of suffering and the stubbornness of man must make his own life something of a hell – to possess ultimate cultural power and yet zero political force is an institutionalization of its own. The paragon of the race has achieved his dream – and yet his people are not free, and may never become free.

Writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates, beloved darlings of ‘neoliberal but woke’ white liberals, write about racism as if it were a torrential downpour, a force of karmic Godhood, the Godhand turned against the beings dark like the moon, and like soil. His writings amount to a great lamentation of an unstoppable force. He knows the body is fragile, and cannot protect itself, and yet there is no soul, so there is no possibility for resurrection, or hope. Coates incarnates the Old Testament wounds of the black church with none of its theology. He is the ultimate pessimist and is a voice of trauma alone.

II.

Perhaps, in rap history, there has been no lie louder than Chance the Rapper’s bar: “I do not talk to the serpent.” This false holy boy attitude is something that Kendrick Lamar, a person who is actually wise, could never hold onto.

Chance presents naivety, Lamar presents wisdom. Lamar acknowledges that “I got dark, I got evil that rot inside my DNA”. Chance, meanwhile, makes pretense to a false nostalgia, with his baby-mumble voice and flow, the infinite childhood of a dumb young boy in awe of a church choir, who has never grown out of that joy and understood the world as it is.

Lil Yachty, likewise, was much maligned by old-head archetype Joe Budden for suggesting that he’s always happy, or that depression is never something he sees fit to put into his music. Lil Yachty’s album flopped, because of his pristine corporate image. Yachty is a perfect figure for fake-woke neoliberals – his album cover features the poor sodden masses of social justice, all the oppressed and non-conventional bodies and identities presented alongside mediocre and vanilla music, and a gentle heaping of Sprite and other corporate endorsements.

Credit: XXL

Vince Staples, perhaps the most intelligent and no-nonsense rapper in the game right now, also endorses Sprite. But Staples make no pretense to any higher goal. In all his interviews, he says that he only wants to earn money to buy his mother a house and keep his family happy and paid. Nothing more, nothing less. He is a voice of stoicism and simplicity in a time of overworked false glamour. He ‘keeps it real’. Of course, in keeping it real, he acknowledges the same cosmic fatalism that leads Kendrick Lamar to dismiss the dream of revolution. Neither men are are here to change karma. They’re just here to speak what they see.

On the contrary, Lil Uzi Vert and xxxtentacion, in the vein of Lil Yachty, present total falsehoods. Uzi, who has stapled his own head on camera and claimed to sell his soul to Lucifer, is in reality not much more than a fame-hungry nobody who bit the autone-crooning style of another rapper, Trippie Redd. Lil Uzi Vert is so popular because he is a nobody who admits he only started rapping to get popular. There is no love for the medium, there is only the craving for power and fame. He is a ruthless capitalist who steals styles and pretends to be something more original than he actually is just to cultivate a brand. Lil Uzi Vert, in his own words:

“My homie at my high school used to rap, and he got all the attention, so I’m like ‘I can rap too.'” -HOT 97 interview, February 2016

Then there is is xxxtentacion, who truly is a pathetic figure. Accused of ruthless domestic assault by his then-pregnant girlfriend, delivering levels of corn in freestyles straight out of edgelord hell, embodying a fake depth that manifests in high-school level sad poetry (if I’m being generous) and accumulating enormous hype off of lo-fi scream-punk hip hop and then releasing a trash sadboy album that is shorter than it will take most people to read this article, xxx is a total flop, a mirror reflection of the shallowness of our own ‘dark, diseased’ minds, that really have nothing inside them. Nothing profound to say, no new sound – just smoke and mirrors.

The newest and perhaps last famous Soundcloud rapper is a 16-year-old named Lil Pump, who has never spit a bar in his life, and will likely die of a lean-induced coma by age 30, leaving behind nothing but a trail of piss, sizzurp and mass delirium.

Lil Wayne, arguably one of the greatest rappers of all time, in a league all his own, is 40 years old and suffering comas from his lean consumption, and unable to release his last record because he signed a deal that screwed him and chained him indefinitely to Birdman, another ruthless capitalist, but one without talent, without scruples, a scumbag of the lowest order. Wayne’s fate is in his hands, which he rubs together menacingly like the Lord of the Flies.

III.

Is rap dead? No, but the ability to rap clearly is. Even when you have rappers who spit absolute fire, like Joyner Lucas or Montana of 300, there is nothing new under the sun. There is nothing new to express. There is either tortured hyper-syllabilistic insane lyricism that ultimately says absolutely nothing, a linguistic monument to an inflated ego, or a rehashing of the misery of black poverty, gang life, the ‘real’ that sits at the foundation of racist capitalist terror.

Drake, the most popular rapper, encapsulates the mainstream of rap quite flawlessly. He is a boring individual who has put R&B and dancehall ahead of bars, slowly sublimating the genre of rap into a more melodic, boring, repetitive mode of music. That type of rap, that is more singing than rap, is only on the rise.

The stereotype is that women love it. The marketing idea is that women love the melodic music, the club songs. And yet, when it comes to misogyny, rap as a whole gets a free pass. God help you if you make a sexist film or a sexist novel – but a sexist R&B banger that calls women every name in the book and denounces them as material sluts worthy of no love? That gets the club moving.

Of course, this is bad news for the current strand of feminism, which narrow-mindedly has sought to assign all negative influence in the world to the ‘father culture’. Toxic masculinity, the way of men, is considered the root of aggression, competition, brutality and evil. And yet, rappers are some of the most sexually attractive men alive. They are open about their participation in this evil – that’s what ‘getting real’ is about: understanding that women are hoes, aren’t worth shit, and it’s time to sleep with them and leave them. Men’s rights activists are maligned, even though they share the worldview of hip-hop. They just lack the aesthetics.

These ‘problematic’ bangers go over extraordinary well with women. Why? Because these hyper-masculine traits are actually attractive. Modern feminists play a cynical game: they want all men to be meek, polite, passive gentlemen, but nobody actually values those men when it’s time to have fun. That’s when it’s time to bring out Young Thug and Lil Wayne. And Young Thug and Lil Wayne! If you think you have heard the most disgusting anatomical language about women possible, their records will utterly floor you. But women fuck it with heavy. Why? Hyper-masculinity is selected for, not against.

This is all a big problem for the narrowest version of feminism, which casts masculinity as oppressive and bad, and femininity as compassionate and good. When it comes down to it, many women are glad to have men who break the rules and are vicious hyper-realist capitalist go-getters. The contradictions amount rather obviously to anyone paying attention.

IV.

Hip-hop, like all beautiful art, amounts to a sinister contradiction that appears to be the voice of an authentic oppression, and it is, and yet its lifeblood depends on complicity with that very same oppression. What is the proper response? To answer that question is the same as to ask what we should do in response to the paradox of evil in the world. it can’t be solved. It’s just worth understanding what the medium is: a lamentation of one’s own poisoned soul.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *