Thursday, August 28, 2008

Jeezy's "My President Is Black" - The Best "Conscious" Rap Song of The Decade

As I write this post, The Recession has already leaked. Only having heard the singles so far, I'm not quite sure what to expect. It may be very good (like his last two albums) or very bad - "Put On" is horribly overrated in my view and "Crazy World" and "Vacation" are mediocre at best. But I do know that there is at least one indisputable classic on the disc - namely, "My President Is Black." There hasn't been much substantive said in the rap blogosphere about the song, but what little criticism has been written has come down on Jeezy for weaving his typical materialist boasts into a song that's ostensibly about politics. Impose Magazine complains that the song has "little to do with the election," and asks, "is this really how far music has skewed from a political vehicle of the people?" Honorable Media likes it well enough, but says the song could use more substance and isn't really about politics at all - rather, it's just "a pretty typical Jeezy song with a few allusions to Obama." And commenter Peru on XXL puts it best when he writes, "how you gonna rap on such a conscious topic as a black president and still be talkin that dope shit and materialistic shit???" Of course, such complaints are to be expected from a song where Jeezy talks about the color of his (would-be) President and his Lambo in the same breath, and seems to actually suggest that when Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream, it was of rappers stunting in expensive cars on roads bearing his name. But there's a problem underlying the criticisms of "My President Is Black," one that I think goes to the heart of the backpacker/crack rapper divide.

You'll recall that Peru asks how Jeezy's still going to talk that "materialistic shit" when he's ostensibly rapping on "such a conscious topic as a black president." The implication being that there's a conscious, political realm, where we talk about stuff like electing black presidents, stopping the violence, improving our attitudes towards women, and the like, and a material realm, where we talk about more earthly stuff like car ownership (especially luxury car ownership), footwear, wealth, and maybe even our kids' back-to-school shopping, as Jeezy does in the beginning of his second verse. And further, that any intermingling or attempted synthesis of the two is roughly tantamount to getting up in the middle of a revivalist church service and screaming about your favorite sex position. The two don't meet, and it's almost blasphemous to mix them up. What I want to suggest is that you don't have to be a Marxist, or even a registered Democrat for that matter, to realize that this dichotomy is a little unsound - that the material and the political do meet and are often one and the same. Why does Jeezy, or Nas (who we'll get to shortly), or anyone for that matter want a black President? Certainly there'd be great symbolic value in electing Obama. The pride the black community would feel in seeing one of its own elected President (and I think the song captures this beautifully) is a good thing in and of itself; there's also the oft-made argument that Obama would displace people like Jeezy and Nas as role models for young black men, leading them to shoot for law school rather than street glory, put down their basketball shoes and pick up school books, etc. But there's also a very real sense out there that a black President would advance black interests in ways that our 43 white Presidents didn't, and a 44th one wouldn't. This is what Jeezy is driving at when, in a brilliant mixture of the sacred (Obama) and the profane (Lambo), says his President is black and his Lambo is blue. In part, it's an oddly touching way to say how proud he'd be to have a black President - that is, he's just as proud of that as he is of the fact that he owns a Lambo. But it's also a declaration that race and politics and car ownership are intimately related, and an implicit claim that a black President would open the doors to prosperity for more blacks besides himself. Now, whether that's true or not remains to be seen (I doubt it), but it's a hell of a lot more substantive than Nas's gooey remix of the "Yes We Can" videos. There are a couple lines in the song that bear closer analysis in this light.

Be all you can be - now don't that sound like some dumb shit?

Throughout his career, Jeezy's placed a ton of emphasis on hard work and personal responsibility. The message was always the same - work really, really hard at selling crack, and you too can afford to put a tiny hidden camera in the peach on your Lambo's Georgia license plate. Knowing what we do about the real-world economics of crack selling, Jeezy's motivational raps always came off a little Creflo Dollar-esque, exhilirating though they may have been. Jeezy may have attained success by means of hard work, but he also got really lucky. So when you hear Jeezy say "be all you can be" on "My President is Black," you expect him to go off on one of his motivational rants - only to be taken aback when he essentially admits in a pithy eight words that everything he's been saying the past five years is "dumb shit," that there are structural impediments to material success in inner cities (e.g. "momma ain't at home, my daddy stil in jail") that even the most motivated of dealers will usually fail to overcome. It's one of the more stunning lines you'll hear in a rap song all year.

Stuntin on Martin Luther
feeling just like a King
Guess this is what he meant when he said that he had a dream!

When I first heard this song I was shocked that Jeezy would have the gumption to equate MLK's dream with the opportunity to flaunt his Lambo through the heart of black Atlanta. But maybe this shock stems from a misreading of MLK himself. Not to ascribe more historical knowledge to Jeezy than he probably has, but people tend to forget that when MLK got shot in Memphis, he was there to march not for desegregated lunch counters, but for better pay for Memphis's garbagemen, and that he spent the last year of his life - when he wasn't blasting what he saw as an imperialist war of aggression in Vietnam - leading what he called the Poor People's Campaign, the main plank of which was an "Economic Bill of Rights" that would, among other things, have guaranteed both a national income floor and employment to anyone willing and able to work. Not exactly mainstream stuff. By the end of his career, MLK was a deeply unpopular figure in even center-left circles, and it's safe to say that in today's political climate, he'd be far more marginalized. So if anything, Jeezy's being subversively honest when he connects the "I Have A Dream" speech - probably the most universally ballyhooed piece of American rhetoric since the Gettysburg Address - to his own wealth.

Something remains to be said of Nas. Coming off the disaster of Untitled and the powderpuffery of "Black President" (have blander words ever been rapped than "on a positive side, I think Obama provides hope and challenges minds"?), he contributes a decent verse here. But whereas Jeezy offers a synthesis of sorts between politics and domestic economics, Nas doesn't really see the link, and is content to discursively alternate between the two, from rims as big as Hulk Hogan's arms to Obama advocacy. Or rather, he does see a link, but it's the wrong one:

Had to hit the streets, try to flip some keys
So a nigga won't go broke
Then they put us in jail, now a nigga can't go vote
So I spend dough, all these hoes is trippin
She ain't a politician, she's a poleitician

For Nas (unless I'm reading too much into that last 'so,'), consumption is a sort of release of his trammeled political energies. Denied the opportunity to participate in politics, he participates in the lesser sphere of the market instead, where he doesn't encounter politicians, but rather, pole-iticians (worst line of Nas's life, by the way). Besides being patently dishonest - Nas wouldn't buy flashy shit and fuck with strippers if he could only vote? - it's guilty of the same false high/low dichotomy that animates Jeezy's critics. Buying stuff, that is, having the wherewithal to do so, isn't a lesser substitute for political participation; it's one of the very purposes of political participation. Jeezy gets this; Nas doesn't.

I did say above that Nas's verse is decent, and despite his typically confused and vacuous politics, that is the case. Like all of his recent guest appearances, he does come off with one killer line. On Success, of course, it was "google earth Nas, I got flats on other continents" - a classic case of upstaging a guy on his own song by doing what he does (namely, bragging about all the shit he can afford) better than he can, or can anymore at least. Here, Nas lays claim to Jeezy's "I'm The Motherfuckin' Realest" Man In Rap title:

For years, there's been some prize horses in this stable
Just two albums in, I'm the realest nigga on this label

It's a great line - not least because the guy whose song he's guesting on happens to also be on Nas's label. But, just as Nas isn't actually anywhere near as rich as Jay, he's not anywhere near as real as Jeezy. This is a guy who's reinvented himself about twenty times in his career, and not for reasons of artistic expression - more for, "hmm, what persona change/publicity stunt should I pull today to sell records" reasons. In his current reincarnation, he's a "conscious" rapper who devotes whole songs to convincing the two people in the world who both listen to Nas and watch Fox News that watching Fox News probably isn't such a good use of their time - a guy who appears on CNN in his provocative 'Nigger' t-shirt and spouts retarded urban legends about the imminent loss of black voting rights, frightening millions of people, when if he only clicked off of Google Earth and Googled the Voting Rights Act for a couple minutes, he'd know better. At this point in his once brilliant career, Nas is as far from real as they come. So while it's a great line, it falls flat because it's just so blatantly untrue.

Click here to download 'My President is Black.'


Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

"So while it's a great line, it falls flat because it's just so blatantly untrue."

this is rap, just about none of what is said is true. interesting point about nas's (nas'? i can never tell) spending habits, though i would say he doesn't feel consumption is lesser at all, just another alternative.

i totally agree with you about "put on."

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't say Untitled was a disaster, but it was definitely disappointing.

And I don't think Nas has so many personas to sell records. In the 90s he was just trying to fit in and the street poet thing would've got real tired real quick

Renato Pagnani said...

My beef with Obama rap is why the hell does it always have these faux-patriotic, militant beats which suck balls?

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