Toward a Reading of Post-Kanye Hip-Hop
The rise of swagger and the increasing irrelevance of haters
The past decade has seen the meteoric rise of a new subject position in the hip-hop world: the swaggerer. Whether with underground lights like Lil B or more mainstream artists like Kanye West, you may have noticed a strange insistence on the authenticity of the artists’ swagger. The stock has reached such a point that Jay-Z’s opening line for the first single off the highly anticipated Watch the Throne collaboration with Kanye is simply: “I invented swag.”
Swagger is not new to hip-hop but has always been exterior to it. It recalls ’70s rockers, ’20s gangsters, pirates and Shakespearean vagabonds. The connotations are all, one might say, very white. But it is a very particular kind of whiteness — one which is very aware of itself and makes an explicit performance of its own economic or legal disenfranchisement. The particularity of swagger’s performance lies in its combination of material signifiers of wealth, particularly designer-brand clothing or jewelry, with bodily gestures or attitudes of defiance, as in the strut or the sneer. The coincidence of this performative particularity and historical connotation differentiates swagger from other, similar concepts (militancy, for instance, or hedonistic consumerism) and allows for its redeployment in new contexts.
Hip-hop’s appropriation of swagger, however, is fraught. If one of hip-hop’s most important myths — that its bootstraps/entrepreneurial possibilities — requires a believable performance of economic insufficiency to be convincing, then swagger gives the hip-hop lexicon an incredibly desirable tool. But because swagger’s whiteness must be incorporated into a black cultural form, it’s loaded with the potential for sabotage.
Kanye’s unparalleled success in instrumentalizing swagger has come precisely through his alertness to this danger. His aesthetic and public personae so successfully court and deny whiteness that the potential issues with swagger become negligible. By finally unlocking the potential of swagger, he has put himself in a position to fundamentally alter the genre’s episteme, ushering in a generation of rappers who (perhaps unconsciously) recognize the structural deficit in hip-hop he has articulated and attempt (also probably unconsciously) to rectify it. This is post-Kanye hip-hop.
Hip-hop, like all genres, is a self-replicating system — something inhuman, like capital, corporations, or nations. A genre doesn’t function as a genre unless it establishes the conditions of its own replication. In other words, genre is more than the coordination of certain aesthetic points; it is the mill into which the grist of labor (of producers, consumers, aesthetics, and so on) is fed in order to generate more of itself.
To be recognizable as such, genres are always already structured by a regime of interpretation — a metanarrative: not any specific narrative but a means of verifying whether particular narratives fall within the genre’s purview. A metanarrative is clearest in the way certain interpretations are privileged. For example, the 1990s Scream trilogy ironized the horror film’s metanarrative, articulating the genre’s “rules” without displacing or canceling them.
Kanye has recast hip-hop’s metanarrative, changing the way we recognize what hip-hop is by forcing a rethinking of one of its fundamental antagonists: the hater. Tracks as early as the Notorious B.I.G.’s 1997 “Playa Haters” organized hip-hop around the contention between the player — the rapper’s persona — and the hater, an abstract individualized negativity constructed as a mirror of the player’s narcissism. By repudiating the hater, the rapper can validate himself. But for Kanye, the hater is not someone to be struggled against. Because of Kanye’s success in importing swagger, with its powerful capacity to perform disenfranchisement, the hater, who serves primarily as a hysterical critic of the authenticity of this kind of performance, is defanged. The hater need not be an effective antagonist to create value for the protagonist.
Instead of simply finding another nay-saying stereotype to do battle with to prove his authenticity, Kanye parades the haters’ defeat around, like Achilles desecrating Hector’s corpse. Kanye’s chosen method of desecration, though, is more like a perverse valorization: Because of his more or less complete inoculation on charges of whiteness or richness (thanks to a complex mixture of publicized statements, aesthetic innovations, and relations to the field of contemporary hip-hop), the haters’ attempt to attack his authenticity on those grounds not only fails but actually makes Kanye seem more authentic.
The Yeezian view of the structure of hip-hop is one in which the productive antagonism between artist and hater has been supplanted by a more benign form of exploitation, typified by the “I <3 Haters” meme. For Kanye, it means maintaining haters as a class of producers whose weapons are aimed at players to aggrandize his own swagger. Unlike the previous incarnations of haters — and not just “fuck the haters” but also “love your haters” or “haters are motivation,” all of which shared an orientation toward them — “I <3 Haters” abjures the haters’ agency. Shifting the hater out of the antagonistic episteme without replacing him allows the pretense that hip-hip doesn’t require a structural antagonism. When “we’re all in this together,” well, being radicalized becomes a bit passé. What Kanye’s hip-hop does, then, is very different from proletarianization; it is, in fact, more analogous to a making middle class.
In a post about the libidinal economy of haters, Nico Fulgencio wonders whether “taken in another context, couldn’t [Kanye’s I <3 Haters] just as well be a sincere and almost Christ-like manner of speaking?” My immediate response is to say, no, and fuck Kanye.
Because Kanye’s “Christ-like” apologetics happen only after he has instrumentalized swagger and altered the internal structure of hip-hop, they are less like benevolent expressions among neighbors and more like contemporary forms of charity. What Nico so deftly analyzes in the troll-hater struggle — the haters’ production of schadenfreude is conditioned by trolls who use them to create fame value — turns out to be precisely what Kanye obviates: namely, that haters need to be trolled to become a source of value. Post-Kanye is precisely the absence of that need.
With Kanye’s intervention in hip-hop, the hater becomes little more than a useful ontological fact, a sort of natural resource with no epistemological weight. This can be seen most clearly in the artists who operate under the umbrella of influence his fame provides. Cher Lloyd’s “Swagger Jagger” offers a particularly good example. While her haters are undeniably real — as Nico notes, the official Youtube page for her song has overwhelmingly more “dislikes” than “likes” — she in no sense considers them serious opponents. They don’t even provide motivation; they simply exist, produce value unintentionally, are abstractly addressed. There isn’t any schadenfreude going on, because there simply aren’t two agents. Haters have been absolved of their agency, and one doesn’t go about taking pleasure in the pain of rocks.
The No Good Advice blog’s post on “Swagger Jagger” falls into the same trap that Nico’s defense of Kanye does: It neglects the way the “difficult generational gap in U.S. hip-hop” plays out at the level of genre. This is particularly true when No Good Advice points up the similarities between Cher Lloyd and Mick Jagger to make a dig at “rockist authenticity.” The identification of rockists as a subgroup of haters is on point, but the failure to acknowledge the newly compromised condition of the hater makes that identification useless in understanding the song’s dynamics. If the critics Lloyd targets are so musically illiterate as to consider the song — whose musical roots are so obvious as to be almost physically painful in the “My Darling Clementine” chorus — “an irritating novelty,” then they aren’t people who could threaten her artistic credibility; they are people who overtly don’t give a damn about music. Haters no longer police the essence of a genre. The very composition of rockists as a class makes their criticism irrelevant.
The GZA line “First of all, whose your A&R / A mountain climber who plays an electric guitar,” (from “Protect Ya Neck”) or the Jay-Z line “Industry shady it need to be taken over” (from “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”) aren’t irrelevant, however. The music industry, like most industries, is still largely by and for straight white men, and it would be stupid to claim that it wasn’t. But conditions have changed. Twenty years later, that same A&R rep is almost certainly listening to Gaga while climbing the rock wall at the gym, or smiling and tapping along when he hears Arcade Fire leaking out of his son’s room. Maybe he even turns on Rihanna’s S&M to hide the sounds of the internet porn he’s watching when he’s masturbating while his kids are home. The point being that while rockist authenticity he may crave, he’s sure as fuck not going to let that stand in the way of his profit, and he knows as well as anyone else that deep down he might be a hater, but so what? And isn’t that, in a very real way, a good thing?
This is where swagger as a sort of labor is necessary to understand this turn in hip-hop. At its very core, swagger is a strut, or a sneer; it is fabric hung from your frame just so, or stones and chains. It is a performative gesture, an etching of the body in the world. Following Evan Calder Williams, it is a performance of a very particular kind of dispossession, an affective position that codes for no resolution and whose only outlet is a form of explosive violence. Swagger is, that is to say, both the schematization of Kanye’s hip-hop and the precondition of a riot. And swagger is precisely the performance of this disenfranchisement as if it could be otherwise, as if this position could produce, have effects.
To swagger is to perform — to make of one’s body a sign, an affective condition (which, to be clear, I mean in a sense much closer to “material conditions” than “one’s feelings”) — as though it could possibly be productive. To labor is always to perform: to transmute one’s body into labor-power, a productive process, the creation of consumer objects or services and surplus-value — as though labor itself were outside the regime of production. Both swagger and labor are, in the end, a mystification, a falsifying of origin. It is only the swagger jacker/jagger, or the scab, whose material demystification of this individualism brings about the proper return to real order of things.
To turn back, as I’m sure I will again and again, to Soulja Boy’s “hop up out the bed / turn my swag on / took a look in the mirror, said what’s up / yeah, I’m gettin’ money, oh;” it is precisely the garbling of language here, the accident of ambiguity that this lyrical construction creates, that points through the impasse of labor/swagger vs. rage/swagger. Is Soulja Boy here describing a situation in which he looks in the mirror, swag turned on, and gets money? Or one in which he looks in the mirror, swagged turned on, and says to himself, “I’m getting money?”
It absolutely does not matter. Soulja Boy is a figure who quite literally gets money by saying “get money.” There is no gap. To reach the point where the word and the thing are one and the same — or, more precisely, where there is no differentiation between performance and action — one must simply turn one’s swag on.
Ben Gabriel is an unemployed college graduate and sometime political activist. He blogs at Uninterpretative.