In Praise of Assholes

A critique of Kanye, 50, and the whole hip-hop circus

Kanye West and 50 Cent are the two biggest drama queens to hit pop music since Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop, and that's not a bad thing. Hip-hop, still the voice of young black America, is only going to get louder and prouder as it goes along, if only because that demographic's voice is so hushed elsewhere. Barack Obama's campaign manager claims his candidate's currently muted voice is due to his belief that America isn't ready for a fire-breathing black man, and our nation's prisons and graveyards are full of the proof. But nature abhorring a vacuum, Kanye and 50 have rushed in to fill the void in that last safe space for such characters. A sister I know once told me she had no respect for a black man who wasn't arrogant. Maybe the advent of Mr. West and Mr. Cent warms her heart; maybe not. Regardless, there is, of course, that bothersome question: loud and proud and arrogant in the name of what? Wealth, fame, and gossip? Hmmm. While traveling about the country speaking in the 19th Century, Sojourner Truth, our beloved godmother of "The Struggle," used to sell post cards of herself, rationalizing her enterprise thus: "I use the shadow to support the substance."

These are the days when we ask whether there's anything but shade being served up as black popular culture. With respect to West's new Graduation and 50's new Curtis, one could easily come to feel that hype is being sold to support hype, so please don't believe the hype. But as Melville, another 19th-century godparent of truth, set forth in The Confidence Man, America is nothing if not a land where hustlers, grifters, con artists, and slicksters grease the wheel of populism, where the shadow often is the substance and where even those who've come to peddle the righteous truth realize they need to get some hustle up in their game. On a recent PBS report about Europe's love-hate relationship with America, a bizarre sidebar took us into the studio apartment of two French rappers of Arabic descent. Dudes wore fat gold chains, shined diamond grills, and gushed repeatedly about how they viewed both American MCs and Herr Bush as idols because their "game was so tight," repeatedly and ferociously invoking that phrase. They believe the hype, conflating Bushology and blingology as the new-model American dream. Cent has also spoken admiringly of Herr Bush's aggression. Real knows real.

West and Cent are both now as well-known for inciting beef as for recording and performing. You could think they both make records just to sell hype as opposed to the other way around, but they're also both formidable, state-of-the-art, 20th-century pop tunesmiths who take the job of writing delectable hits as seriously as any Brill or Motown scrivener ever did. One old-school hip-hop maven recently lamented that she can't believe she lives in a world where "Kanye is even a factor," largely because he can't really rap. Cent she loves, reminding those of us less titillated that the man does have charms to stir the distaff breast. But although it's true that West will probably never end up on anybody's list of even the 100 greatest MCs of all time, he's clearly got an exceptional ear for hooks, both musical and lyrical. Furthermore, he's got stuff to say that isn't the standard fare, stuff that still has undeniable mass-ass appeal. He also has a unique personality — that combined with moxie will still get you somewhere in this country.

West and Cent share are two of the most unrepentantly obnoxious figures in American pop culture since Cheney and Rumsfeld. The difference between them being that West is loud, bratty, and obnoxious but seemingly harmless while Cent is laconic, bratty, and obnoxious but genuinely sinister. His now-legendary Hot 97 interview, calmly warning a histrionic, hyperventilating Cam'ron about the dangers of his mouth writing checks his ass couldn't cash was as surgical, chilling, and devastating a threat as you've heard since Pacino played Corleone. But somewhere during 2005's The Massacre, Cent realized he didn't have to make records for gangsters, wanksters, or even guys anymore, that he could just be the lone N.Y. kingpin who made records strictly for the ladies. Those with truly savage breasts and literal cojones would have to find their high-testosterone hip-hop elsewhere — Cent could care less for your love anymore. Certainly not after cashing in those Glaceau stock options; if hip-hop is now more defined by the corporate game than the street game, that lucrative little coup just might be the definitive hip-hop act of 2007.

After all, brothers like West and Cent can sell hype to support hype and thus generate as much personal wealth as many African nations can with all the diamonds, gold, and titanium in their sovereign ground. African-American entertainment is our DeBeers, our Nokia, our Lockheed — the only bloodsucking industry we (symbolically, at least) got and likely the only nation-state (figuratively, at least) we'll ever have as well. Meaning that in some perverse Black Nationalist way, you have to admire the loot Cent, Combs, Simmons, and Carter have hustled out of corporate America by wearing little more than their well-hyped shadows. Meanwhile, back in the real jungle, real Africans — Rwandans, no less — are slaughtering one another to corner the market on the colombite-tantalite-laced mud (known as coltan) that keeps your cell phone ringing. West and Cent may indeed be assholes, but they're symbolic assholes who remind us that American Darwinism has produced a species of Negro male who can now exploit his fetishized vernacular aura as profitably as multinational corporations can the minerals in your whole damned ancestral homeland. Cent will never win the NAACP Image Award he deserves for this achievement, mainly because that lot's more interested in "burying" the word nigga or "redeeming" Michael Vick's dog-strangling ass than applauding or even analyzing it.

Oh yes, BTW, FYI, Cent and West both have new albums out. Of course, West's previous effort, 2005's Late Registration, belongs in the pantheon of superlative hip-hop albums, despite his being a mere step or three above Combs in the "least enchanting rhymers of all time" category. To his credit, though, he's far wittier than Diddy, with reams of jokes and edgy one-liners ("I'm the Malcolm X of fly/Buy any jeans necessary") and something like a social conscience too — see his blood-diamond confessions on Registration's "Diamonds From Sierra Leone." What he lacks in ferocious flow he makes up for in plaintive verbal harassment — he's kinda like the guy who will beg his way into your panties if he has to, the one who will simply not shut up or back off until your ears give him the equivalent of sympathy punani. He's the Rodney Dangerfield of rap, in other words, and fortunately for us, what he lacks in MC finesse, he makes up for in musical panache. Registration had a jillion snappy ideas about what a hip-hop song could be — from showtunes to power ballads, from symphonic airs to Curtis Mayfield elegies — and mucho ear candy to burn. West proved he knew a ripe, juicy hook when he stole, borrowed, or chipmunked one, and he knew how to attach himself to it like a writhing, self-aggrandizing barnacle to boot. Graduation builds on this formula, even if this time around, his lyric conceits prove less galvanizing than his purely musical snatches.

Let's take "Drunk and Hot Girls," for starters. Ostensibly Graduation's "Gold Digger," its similarly breezy girl-bashing never achieves the deadpan hilarity of that Registration highlight because, like too many other moments this time, West presumes our sympathy for his rock-star pain — here, specifically, the downside of being entangled with intoxicated hotties. (The track does, however, prove he can mire himself in lounge music as seedy as any Tom Waits has trawled in.) The folly of his pathos, though, reaches its nadir on "Big Brother," a song about how much he loves and owes his big bruh Jay-Z and how little love and respect lil' bruh Kanye feels he gets in return. Not exactly Cain and Abel drama here.

Now, if there's anything both Kanye and 50 both want and will never, ever have, it's the genuine Vito Corleone-Muhammad Ali love and respect Shawn Carter has out here on these streets, a love I never truly appreciated until around December 4 of last year, when I was on Harlem's 145th Street A-train platform and overheard a young sister, about 17 or so, tell her homegirl she was on her way home to bake a birthday cake, like she always did for her "big brother" Jayhova. Both these guys could give away every dime they make from now until perdition to homeless orphans and not get that kind of unabashed 'hood love in return. Of all the things Carter has that other high-rolling hip-hop brothers might covet, the thing they covet the most can't be bought or sold: his "big man on campus" affability. In recognition of this lack, West and Cent take an opposite tack, seeing how far they can push straight-faced arrogance as an icebreaker, if not a virtue.

When West's braggadocio turns whiny, Graduation proves why he's so easy to loathe but also why he's so easy to applaud as the most genuinely confessional MC in hip-hop today. (Some would say "narcissistic," but c'mon, this is hip-hop, not emo, yo.) On "The Glory," he congratulates himself for raising the thematic bar in hip-hop and also for buying clothes with haute logos. On "Everything I Am," he congratulates himself for not being more gangsta, notes the number of caskets in Chicago last year (600), and speaks up for the down-and-out brother in the 'hood who can't even get the church to give his depression the time of day. And grating bouts of narcissism aside, Graduation contains killer pieces of production: "Stronger" uses Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" to practically revive Eurodisco, while "Champion" snarkily snatches its hook from Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne" and allows West to declare how much he's an idol for the kids, if not the ages.

For Cent's part, he and his Curtis coproducers continue to perfect a style of lean, sleek, bubbly, robo-industrial hip-hop that nearly qualifies as a modern form of visual design, each track the equivalent to watching a Maserati roll off the assembly line. We're talking a form as sleek, dark, and aerodynamic in form as a Mirage fighter — one that allows Cent to shadily blend and disappear into the music like a grinning, evil Cheshire cat and thus maintain his Zen profile as the anti-Kanye: the least excitable prime-time rapper this side of Snoop. An extremely limited thematic palette of sex, money, and dissing still wets his whistle, even if, on "Straight to the Bank," he reminds us that he's so rich he doesn't have to rap anymore. But even if you have no ears for his lyrical swagger (I don't have much), no one can say he makes indifferent, lazy albums. Curtis is stuffed with tightly wound, 21st-century pop songwriting, full of that invisible craft and flow that renders a thing eminently listenable even if it's gratuitously raunchy, politically reprehensible, and sexually retrograde. America wouldn't be America if pro-capitalist assholes and con men couldn't run roughshod over the body politic, and the day there's no room for two full-time careerist drama queens like West and Cent will be the day the revolution comes, the day of al-Kebulan, the Taliban, the tsunami, the asteroid, the omega, man.

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