Saturday, January 20, 2007

Jeff Chang on Jay-Z in The Nation

A very incisive piece by Jeff Chang, author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation and the zentronix blog, on the career trajectory of Jay-Z, Jay-Hova--"his transformation from street hustler to high-end brand name" and how he helped found "what advertisers now call the 'urban aspirational' market." At its origins, Chang notes, it appeared to many that rap was the new counterculture--although rappers were pretty clear about it being also, or maybe mostly, business. By now, it's big, big bizness. Now, he observes,
"Corporate media's massive economies of scale favor a drastically limited scope of rap archetypes that, not coincidentally, traffic primarily in stereotypes of black sexuality and criminality. Labels make fewer signings, so there are fewer "types" to represent. Furthermore, those signings tend to fill old boxes: the party girl in furs and stiletto heels, the gunslinger at odds with rivals and cops, the crack dealer on the corner."

Within these constraints, says Chang, maybe the "crack rappers" like the Clipse, T.I., and Young Jeezy are the new counterculture:
"This music, which is being pushed by global corporate conglomerates, sells a myth of street life that makes crack production a metaphor for the new economy.

Amid war, post-Katrina unrest and, especially, expanding joblessness, the small-time hustlers of crack rap provide a strange kind of comfort. In a "free-agent nation" where fortysomethings routinely find themselves pink-slip obsolescent and twentysomethings are encouraged to prepare themselves for an insecure occupational future by becoming their own brands, perhaps crack rappers--whose desire for the good life is matched by the insecure certainty of the kitchen-and-corner struggle--have become the new countercultural heroes. Of course, this counterculture too comes with its illusions...The tragedies of crack rap are the stories never told, the fallen bodies never counted."

On the other side of the new economy, Jay-Z's partner Beyoncé shills for Walmart.

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