Tuesday, January 25, 2011

How can one man have so much power?

OK, I'll be the first to offer a content post. The first day of class, despite a SNAFU with the syllabus copying, we were able to look at a clip of violent media, Kanye's "Monster" video:

I remember the first time I heard "Monster," driving along 280 in late September, listening to Hot 97, taking pleasure in my proximity to NYC. The infectious yet low-fi hook gave the track an aura of legitimacy and disaffectedness (a trait growing in popularity), and Nicki Minaj's verse was some sort of schizophrenic female version of a more-violent Busta Rhymes. I liked it.

Then while I visited my family in Louisiana for Christmas, I sought out the leaked video. It starts out with a shot of a hanging model. As in from the neck hanging. And then Kanye, it his rationalface, poses a few corpses of more dead ladies, giving Cee-Lo Green's Ladykiller moniker an outright challenge for the title. Jay-Z shows up next like Aleister Crowley on Wall Street, but black, and rhymes "conscience" with "monster." It seems that Mr. Carter has done a few things to be ashamed of, such as vampirism and potentially necromancy. Finally, Nick Minaj re-enacts at least two or so Freudian case studies, dressed as both a little girl with pink hair and a dominatrix, and then tortures herself, while keeping the loud persona with the dominatrix and the sweet persona with the little girl. If nothing else, we might revisit this video when we get to the Buffy section of the course (which will be under the heading "transgression"). Somewhere between all of that, Kanye reappears with a severed lady-head and an "aw shucks" attitude. Everybody knows he's a motherfucking monster, indeed.

So Kanye and Jay-Z and Nicki seem to imply that they're fairly monstrous due to their success and influence and power (vis Kanye's album). It's a fun fantasy, sure. The megalomaniacal businessman cum artist who... does what exactly? Stores dead models? Eats entrails? All while making dope beats?

This video seems to also throw the "rap-is-misogynistic" criticism back to pundits. Not only do the rappers call women bitches, but they also murder them and use their corpses to decorate their overpriced apartments in Tribeca. So should we take Kanye and posse's video as a satire via exaggeration? Wouldn't that just cloud the fact that rap, no matter how much we like it, still has a great deal of woman-hating to go around.

However we "read" the video, one thing is evident: it's much more fun to believe that the bad guys are lovable rapper millionaires like Jay-Z and Kanye and Nicki Minaj than the people with the real power of violence. They're creating an imaginary world to make their lyrics matter because no matter how clever and shocking their words seem to be, the braggadoccio of "I'm rich and a libertine to boot" became a cliché of hip-hop about twenty years ago and, in an America of social media and financial depression, is becoming less and less relevant.


  1. I would disagree pretty strongly that this song and video are in some way a reaction to the perception of rap as violent or misogynistic. There are a few elements here and there that play with misogyny in rap as a specific issue in itself, such as Jay-Z's piece, but generally the violence in the video and lyrics is not directed as any sort of reaction towards that perception, simply because it is there for an entirely different artistic purpose.
    Throughout the video, both lyrically and visually, a single theme is explored over and over, from several points of view. From Kanye's chorus, to Jay-Z's ultra-violent yet detached verse, to Minaj's killer dominatrix scene, the many points of view throw line after line linking success in the rap industry to the concept of (a missing) genuine emotional fulfillment. In this video, the dead bodies and zombies create a disturbance in the viewer that is linked directly to the trappings of success.
    Let's take a look at Kanye's first chorus for an example. Kanye's lyrics:
    "Gossip gossip
    N-ggas just stop it
    Everybody know (I’m a muthaf-cking monster)
    I’ma need to see your f-cking hands at the concert
    I’ma need to see your f-cking hands at the concert
    Profit profit, n-gga I got it
    Everybody know I’m a muthaf-cking monster
    I’ma need to see your f-cking hands at the concert
    I’ma need to see your f-cking hands-"

    Despite the controversy over the video as a whole for its apparent violence against women, Kanye's first contribution to the piece doesn't actually contain any violence against women at all. It does contain a monster, though, and surprisingly it's not Kanye. In the video, in an homage to George Romero (See these 80 seconds for the classic 1968 scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NTu4HV-5dYA#t=5m38s), Kanye's production visually casts his fanbase as the monsters. What makes him a monster, according to this chorus, isn't his actions but the gossip of others and his ability to pull in profits, i.e. the effects of his success. Additionally, the video has already flipped viewer expectations by linking the trappings of success (profits, the desire of women) with a visually disturbing representation of the negative aspects (predatory bloodlust, gossip of others, and harassment) and emphasizes it with a rather brilliant repetition of "I’ma need to see your f-cking hands at the concert", which in the video delivers both the physical exhaustion of pleasing

  2. of pleasing a fanbase and the emotional repugnancy at calling out for more of what is destroying you.

    The video takes a more diquieting turn in Kanye's following verse, which shows him in bed with apparently dead models. However unlike Jay-Z's verse (a topic for some other time) Kanye doesn't brag about killing models, and instead takes the moment to talk more about the effects of fame. Twice he makes puns about being in bed with dead women("Best living or dead hands down huh?"..."ain't nobody cold as this"), but in both cases the line is actually talking about his own success. However, it should be noted that this verse is definitely not a clichéd hip hop celebration of success and bravado. Kanye's video actively rejects, well, this crap: (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yRme0C2pmI#t=0m48s). In 'Monster', Kanye says that he "Bought the chain that always gave me back pain" but that he was "f-ckin' up my money" so he had to instead "act sane". He complains about other hardships of success- his work is unrewarding and "bogus", he gets in arguments with people close to him over money, and he feels a dissociation from self from being a public figure (he references himself in the second and third-person in this verse). He also brings up the pressure of public interest- "What you gonna do now?" is answered with an exasperated and glitched "Whatever-whatever I wanna do, gosh it's cool now." The visual cues show Kanye as over-burdened and haunted by the monstrous public clawing to get into his house. Given the interpretation that Kanye's verse is about the pressure and negative effects of fame, it's easier to see the role the dead women play here. Like the chain, the profits, and the freedom of success, the models in bed with him are symbols of the trappings of fame. Is this misogynistic? Probably, but that's missing the point. The visual cues of physical death serve to unleash a disturbance in the viewer that Kanye wants to use to shake up the perception of his success as a good thing. Furthermore, their dead bodies serve as a reminder that even when alive, the women around Kanye are possibly gorgeous, but are empty. This is later expressed by Jay-Z: "LOVE I dont get enough of it
    all I get is these vampires and blood suckers." Jay-Z and Kanye are both surrounded by sexual objects that can't offer emotional satisfaction- a concept that is well-represented by sexualized dead bodies.

    PS. Is there a way to post full posts instead of long comments?

  3. Re: Krieg

    Great analysis of the lyrics, especially with identifying how his fanbase "made" Kanye a monster. For the most part, there is no "violence" towards women in Kanye's lyrics, except the lines "I put the p-ssy in a sarcophagus / Now she claiming I bruise her esophagus." The first there is at least foreboding if anatomically improbable, and the second is a fairly clear representation of sexual violence. Nevertheless, his presentation at as a whole does imply that the public monstrously targets him as a villain.

    I agree, Kanye and co. probably weren't trying to make a statement about perceived misogyny in rap or, for that matter, women in general. But I'm not concerned so much with Kanye's intentions but in the fact that it has created so much controversy among listeners/viewers. The imagery clearly touches a nerve--both for people offended by the video and for apologists.

    As for the bravado--maybe not in Kanye's verse, but I think it would be hard to argue that Nicki Minaj's lyrics are not just that. She's a monster and she has nice things. If you think she's fake, so what, she's rich. Perhaps I'm not giving her lyrics enough attention, but they're not nearly as complex as your reading of Kanye. That's not to say that it's a bad verse (it's probably the "most fun" of the three, in an extravagant show of subjectivity), but goes back to my final point about fantasy--which I'm honestly more interested in anyway. The video creates a world that relegitimizes Nicki Minaj's Cash Money style ode to her riches and wildness. And the visual images of dominance/submission during her verse certainly complicate her words (in the way of the power erotics of success and money, the creation of the infantile Nicki as rookie millionaire, etc). In any case, for me, the video works best in imagining a world where success and notoriety translate to zombie raising, necrophilia, and other occult activities. I also like to image the rappers thinking, "Well, they thought we were bad when we sold albums that included the words "fuck" and "nigga," what if we also lugged around severed heads and dead broads?"

    P.S. Only class members are allowed to post full posts. If you are a student enrolled in the course, please email me, so that I can give you an invite. If you are not in this class, thanks for the contribution, and keep commenting!

  4. While I have no doubt that the badassery was a factor in the graphic visuals, I would take a closer look at Minaj's lyrics. Some of them just don't make sense in a straight "I'm a monster, fear me" context. For one example, take the lyric "OK first things I'll eat your brains/Then I'mma start rocking gold teeth and fangs." Aside from the point that gold is significantly softer than tooth enamel, it doesn't make sense for Minaj to "first" eat brains, and then second to upgrade her teeth. However, in the context provided earlier by Kanye, Minaj's dominatrix persona might be interpreted as the monster that arrives along with success, fueled by vice, wealth, and public pressure. Wouldn't it make sense for a manifestation of hip-hop notoriety and excess to first eat your brains, and second begin altering your appearance with grills, Italian shoes and hairdressers? After all, that's "what a monster do." (Or is expected to do.)
    Of note in this explanation is that Minaj (real name Onika Tanya Maraj-Nicki Minaj is primarily a character, not a person) is playing both the dominatrix and the Barbie. Thus the visuals of the video play well with an interpretation that depends on the Dominatrix character as merely one persona that arrives (in a purple "monster" car, no less) to dominate a rising star's image or behavior. Secondly, her lyric "And if I'm fake I ain't notice cause my money ain't," is extremely incongruous with the tone set by Kanye, Jay-Z, and the video thus far. Kanye specifically rejects the fake lifestyle, and Jay-Z's character calls for a "massacre" to end the "fake f-cks" all around him.
    Instead of taking Minaj's lyric here as an actual representation of the intent of the piece, we should take a look at the restrained Barbie character's later protestation: "Forget barbie f-ck nicki she’s fake" in which she rejects both her own pink-wigged persona AND the Minaj dominatrix. Minaj (as a performer and lyricist, not the dominatrix character) exposes all the bragging of the first half of the verse as fake, and, in the last, screamed line of the complete verse, genuinely monstrous. What's also interesting here is the Barbie character's earlier interactions with the dominatrix: "So let me get this straight wait I'm the rookie? But my features and my shows ten times your pay/ 50K for a verse no album out" To me, this sounds like the protestations of a promising rising star such as Minaj in a confrontation with the concept of established hip-hop star behaviors. To see why, first take a note of Minaj's published rejection of more typical female rap stardom: (Second quote: http://www.vibe.com/posts/nicki-minaj-friends-cover-vibe-magazine). Why, one might ask, would an artist who doesn't

  5. who doesn't want to represent sex dress as a dominatrix inspiring "WHAT a ASSSSSSS!" commentary? Well, she's playing a character. A monstrous one, who represents what Nicki might, or could have, or fears she will, become. Minaj knows that her Barbie character subverts typical sex appeal imagery (hopefully we can accept this without diving too deeply into the race issue) and is successful- 50K a verse with no album out successful- but it's running into conflict with "the Queen conquerer" who, despite the fact that Barbie claims the 50K, brags that she is "hotter than a Middle Eastern climate" and who has "money so tall my Barbie's gotta climb it." These seem like references to a personal struggle- the lure of using hotness or sexuality to draw wealth that wouldn't be a benefit, but a personal hazard because it's associated with the dominatrix, not the Barbie. To return to the original lyric, "50K for a verse no album out" we should take a close look at the video as Barbie says that line. At this moment, Barbie's mouth words the full line, but the voice switches to the dominatrix's voice at "no album out" and the dominatrix bursts into the frame at this moment too. First, this establishes that the dominatrix is both inside of Barbie's mind and is working to usurp her, and secondly works to make "no album out" into a clever wordplay. Barbie's intentions with the line is to establish her own credibility- she's pulling in lucrative deals even though she's barely even hit the business yet. But the dom's theft of the line spins it a different way- it's an expression of accusatory self-doubt that, by attacking Barbie's credibility, enforces the notion that she should submit to the dominatrix's greater (in the most obvious ways) aggressiveness, and plays to the Dominatrix's strength of being already established as a persona in hip-hop.
    It's certainly a fantasy- I mean, look at the album name- but it's definitely not one that, in my opinion, legitimizes the phony braggadocio of other hip-hop artists. I also argue that the fantasy allows a translation of notoriety into haunting physical demons, but I believe this isn't done primarily to express a "isn't this cool" feeling, but is played straight to use the shock of violence or taboo as a message about fame. In fact, this straight message is almost more impactful and respectful than the "we're too numb/too cool to care about the implications of violence" vibe that many have attributed to the video, and which certainly has been done a thousand times before by people less artistically talented as Kanye.

    I'll send you an email.


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