“Neckties” vs. “Warlords”: Yeezy and HOVA’s contesting masculinities
So, in my earlier post about Jay-Z’s DOA, I argued that he was defending a more traditional ghetto-hetero-black masculinity against Kanye’s Autotuned insurgency into hip-hop and its canon of “proper” masculinities. Kanye’s LMFAO “Paranoid” remix (Youtube below) makes it clear that Yeezy and HOVA are having an extended debate about the boundaries of hip-hop masculinity.* What we have here is what political theorist Cynthia Enloe would describe as a contest between “neckties” (institutionally-sanctioned bourgeois white-collar masculinity) and “warlords” (working-class, often overtly violent).** In her article “Updating the Gendered Empire: Where are the women in occupied Afghanistan and Iraq?”, Enloe identifies Hamed Karzai as a “necktie” who is dukeing it out with various Afghan warlords; at stake is not just political power and political/literal capital, but what counts as “proper” Afghani masculinity. Similarly, the 2008 US presidential election can be read as a contest between “neckties” (Obama) and “warlords” (Joe the Plumber, pit bulls in lipstick). The same debate has now reached mainstream American hip-hop: Kanye is a necktie, and Jay-Z is a warlord.
The following analysis assumes my previous posts on this topic, so for further explanation, look at the older posts.
In the “Paranoid” remix, West takes up DOA’s equation of “skinny jeans” and commercial success, and argues, via a Jamie Fox reference, as follows: “They said that drum machines ain’t got no soul…Yeah my jeans is tight, and my hos is white/and they play my song in the club every night…Blame it on the blues/but don’t blame it on the au-au-au-au-au-Autotune”. All this is rapped over a nu-rave mix.
So West is articulating a masculinity that views technology as neither alienating (soulless) nor feminizing (tight jeans do not prevent one from snagging what might – albeit in a totally racist way – be seen as the most desirable women), but as a source of power and success. Technology (specifically Autotune, but also Roland’s lineup of synths) is nothing to be “paranoid” about. It is as though West poses the refrain’s question “Why are you so paranoid?” directly to DOA’s MC (i.e., Jay-Z): Why are you so paranoid about Autotune, anyway?
West would like us to know that he is Mr. Mainstream And Ubiquitous. Insofar as whiteness is the ubiquitious norm (cf Richard Dyer), does this line tie into West’s identifications with whiteness in “Swagga Like Us”? While DOA decries market success as a symptom of feminized inauthenticity, West dominates the marketplace, and he wants us to know it. As any “necktie” technocrat knows, computers and market share/appeal are quite compatible with heteromasculinity and even machismo. In addition to his realignment of technology and commodification with masculinity, West also plays around with and attempts to disarm other “rockist” attitudes Jay-Z espouses in DOA. Now, on the one hand, the claim “drum machines ain’t got no soul” could be a version of the standard and cliched notion that the use of synthesizers indicates (a) an inability to play ‘real’ instruments and/or (b) lack of “real” emotional or intellectual depth. On the other, and perhaps more interesting, hand, the claim could be positing that drum machines aren’t “black,” or at least not part of the African-American musical tradition (soul:African-American music::soul food: African-American culinary tradition). This seems like a really odd claim to make, given the role of the 808 in the origin of hip-hop, and the 303 and the 909 in house and techno (which were also invented by black men). West argues for the continuity between 808s/Autotune and more canonical forms of African-American music by referencing the Bessie Smith’s “Blame it on the Blues”. Although his music might not sound like stereotypically “black” music, just as his black masculinity might not fit the gangsta-thug “warlord” image all too common in mainstream hip hop, West tries to re-shape our tired and reified notions of what black music and black masculinity are (he is likely not without an agenda here…more on this in a later post).
HOVA represents (in both the active and passive voice sense of the verb) a more traditional hip-hop hypermasculinity: baggy pants, macho toughness, overt concern with heterosexuality, ghetto/working-class (see my previous DOA post). West represents a newer, decidedly middle-class black masculinity who fetishizes a different category of commodities as a means to articulate this identity (Marc Jacobs and Jil Sander rather than Maybachs and the Yankees). In the end, it seems that the conflict between these two masculinities really is one of class. West performs a more “refined,” intellectualized masculinity highly concerned with aesthetic taste, whereas Jay-Z performs a rougher, grittier, streetwise masculinity highly concerned with authenticity.
West’s attempts to articulate a more mainstream, indeed bourgeois black masculinity take place in a media landscape dominated by another skinny, intellectual, technology-addicted middle-class black man (Obama, duh). I could be wrong, but maybe we’re finally getting a critical mass of images of black men that don’t conform to the “gangsta” or “thug” images that have dominated US media and driven record sales for the last two decades? In other words, might white Americans be finally realizing the shocking fact that not all black people are the same? I’m probably being too optimistic here.