Marc Lynch comes through with another international affairs lesson taught through the prism of Shawn Carter's career. This time, he contends that Watch The Throne is an attempt to bolster Jay-Z's hegemonic position in an era of decline through yoking it to the power of Kanye, especially as Kanye himself becomes a network, establishing G.O.O.D. Music the way Jay created the Roc. Marc calls it a "savvy strategy of institutionalizing hegemony in the face of potential decline."
His bottom-line position isn't wrong. But his focus is askew. If the establishment of the network is the crucial factor here -- and I think we can agree that it's at the very least barometrically significant -- then looking at the central figure is a mistake. We need to look at the periphery, the actors invited to join the network, to test the value added by the coalition. As Marc will surely agree, given his contentions about the role of social media and al-Jazeera during the Arab Spring, international power is hardly evenly distributed -- but more of it resides at the bottom of the ladder than the top likes to admit; and if the top doesn't diversify, it's liable to get Hosni'd, Gadhafi'd, or Ben Ali'd.
That's why he shouldn't be looking at Watch The Throne. He should be studying "Trouble On My Mind," Pusha's collaboration with Tyler, The Creator.
The shining gem in the G.O.O.D. franchise is Pusha T, Marc very correctly observes, the "lyrical monster" whose incorporation into the fold signaled that G.O.O.D. was a "strong new alliance." On the strength of three incredible (one classic) Clipse albums and four classic Re-Up Gang mixtapes (I include Road To Till The Casket Drops, which is slept-on and sick), Pusha is the most undervalued stock in rap music. Geopolitically, he's Brazil: all his fundamentals are strong and likely to get stronger.
Pusha T, like most savvy rappers throughout history, was already part of several powerful camps before aligning with G.O.O.D. and Roc Nation by default: the Neptunes, his own Re-Up Gang and his own Play Clothes clothing line. (I own a very nice PC dress shirt.) And if Jay is looking to bolster his hegemony by drawing Kanye (closer) into his orbit; and Kanye is trying to build a durable franchise for himself by drawing Push into his own; then look at how Pusha isn't content to simply bandwagon with just that already-mighty coalition. When interviewed by BootlegKev, Pusha introduces himself as "one half of the Clipse, Re-Up Gang forever, newest signee to G.O.O.D. Music," quite the significant order of operations. His excellent Fear of God mixtape didn't just have Kanye on it, it threw lots in with Rick Ross of the "Untouchable Maybach Empire" -- a.k.a. the Shanghai Cooperation Organization of hip hop -- and even rap music's fallen giant, 50 Cent.
But his most significant empire-building move is a song called "Trouble On My Mind." Pusha brings along Tyler, The Creator, the lyrical backbone of the Odd Future phenomenon -- the L.A. youth crew that's basically rap music's Sex Pistols. (Obligatory Kelefa Sanneh link.) Rap has an ambivalent relationship with Odd Future: you're more likely to find OFWGKTA disses on mainstream rap blogs than praise, prompting Odd Future to launch preemptive strikes at tastemaker blogs like 2Dopeboyz.
Pusha doesn't just embrace Odd Future by working with Tyler, The Creator. He spends his video adapting his style to theirs, throwing eggs at dudes on the street, skateboarding in force while Tyler picks up an aged white hooker, and destroying liquor stores and hotel rooms with Golf Wang graffiti. In return, Tyler gets to live Pusha's life for a minute, watching excitedly as two chicks make out for their amusement beside Pusha's car. If there's any doubt, it's Push in the drivers' seat, even though the driving force on the track is all Tyler.
Just like that, Pusha is in his own Jay-Z role, co-signing for the leader of a coalition on the rise while the rest of the rap world waits to see if Odd Future has any staying power before making any decisive moves. He explains his strategy in a Village Voice interview this week:
Damn man, those kids are really just on their own shit! I have a soft spot for people who just find their own cult followings. The biggest era for music for me was the Master P/No Limit era, the Suave House/Tony Draper thing. Just all of that independent, okay, it's not really moving or making a lot of noise where I'm from, but if you go a few states over it's like the biggest thing in the world and these guys run their own show. And Odd Future give me that feeling on an Internet level. To see their shows and how many kids are out there and the Free Earl campaign and all of that—it makes you feel like you're a little bit not in-tuned! I'm looking at the shows and like, Damn, you guys are so into it, where was I at?
You read that and you think: does the power really reside with Jay-Z? In a world where an entire region is aflame because of the self-immolation of a faceless fruit vendor... you get the idea. Objectively speaking, yes, Jay-Z is a billionaire, and he's making the very savvy move to incorporate artists further down the food chain to bolster his power. (You might say that Watch The Throne represents a step toward Jay building himself a creative vertical.) But that's the point: the source of that power is found at the bottom.
A rising, middle-tier power like Pusha has the backing of a dude who has the backing of Jay-Z, two supremely important cultural and financial forces. The conventional power play would be to make G.O.O.D. and Roc Nation the new locus of Pusha's brand. Instead, Pusha makes the savvier choice to have it both ways: alignment with G.O.O.D. and extending a hand outward (and, in a sense, upward) to OFWGKTA.
And that shows how power works today, in hip hop as in geopolitics: massive diffusion. It's not just that Pusha can pursue Jay-Z's strategy, it's that Jay can pursue Pusha's strategy, without much regard for the comparative power imbalances.
Geopolitics will be a lagging indicator. Objectively, the U.S. can go through a huge economic disruption and still be orders of magnitude more powerful than its nearest rival. China's $10 trillion economy is second to our $14 trillion economy; it spent $91.5 billion on its military last year, less than one-fifth of what we spend annually, excluding the costs of the Iraq & Afghanistan wars; and that was after jacking their defense spending up by 12.7 percent while ours stayed kinda-sorta-flat. (The Continuing Resolution makes it complicated to explain just how much the U.S. spent on defense in fiscal 2011.)
We don't really have much to fear any time soon from rivals, in other words. But if the U.S. is smart, it'll follow Jay-Z's strategy, and enmesh itself in new institutions that will preserve its current power decades down the line, to hedge against its eclipse or relative decline in the future. And when assessing the savviest avenues for alignment, the U.S. could do a lot worse than looking to the places where the formerly disenfranchised are taking the reigns -- objectively strong regional players like Egypt or Libya. To watch the throne, in a durable way, watch what Brazil's doing.