Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Watch the Throne Review, Part 1: Spectacle and Speculation



spectacle mid-14c.,
1. "specially prepared or arranged display," from O.Fr. spectacle,
2. from L. spectaculum "a show, spectacle,"
3. from spectare "to view, watch,"
4. frequentative form of specere "to look at,"
5. from PIE *spek- "to observe" (see scope (1)).

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speculation late 14c.,
1. "contemplation, consideration," from O.Fr. speculation, 
2. from specere "to look at, view" (see scope (1)). 
3. Disparaging sense of "mere conjecture" is recorded from 1570s. 
a. Meaning "buying and selling in search of profit from rise and fall of market value" is recorded from 1774; short form spec is attested from 1794.

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In a recent blog post reviewing Watch the Throne at MostlyJunkFood.com, the author "slenst" brings up two rich yet contentious points:  that the majority of what is marketed as hip hop today is conditioned by it’s relationship to “hype,” and that the cultural legitimacy of hip hop as a source of creative vitality is being devalued by its relation to economic utility.

What I want to do is push this argument further.

I propose that it is not only hip hop, but our entire ideological paradigm that is conditioned by “hype," including serious domains of human existence such as financial markets.  This is especially true in the sense of political economy, or rather, how the value of anything is regulated and determined in our society.

The nature of "hype" as it functions in both hip hop and financial markets is two-fold.  "Hype" consists of both spectacle and speculation---spectacle in the sense of anticipation that builds towards an artificial climactic event, such as a big box office movie release, and speculation in the sense of the future value assigned to such an event, such as it’s estimated box office market value.

I use movies as an example because American cinema in particular has a track record of producing multi-million dollar mindless blockbusters that exclude the existence of most films of substance making it into mainstream theaters.

Aside from movies and hip hop, we have entire economies of exchange who’s value is determined by spectacle and speculation---which is just another way of describing the short-term financialization and corporate marketing of everything in our contemporary lives, from the technology we use on a daily basis to the cultural identities we align ourselves with.  (For more on technological obsolescence and the marketing of identity, see my post on Cher Lloyd and Proletarianization.)

What "slenst" appears worried about is the reduction of the value and meaning of hip hop to this artificial and gimmicky economy of hype. For the most part I have to agree with him.  There is a real danger in falling pray to this logic of late capitalism, as evidenced by the 2008 financial crisis and the popping of the American housing bubble--a careless market that was essentially "hyped" up with no solid foundations on which to stand on.

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‎"What you alter in the remembering has yet a reality, known or not." The Road, Cormac McCarthy


But in contrast to the liquidation of hip hop’s cultural legitimacy/longevity through short-term spectacle, speculaction, and marketing, an equally present danger lies in foreclosing hip hop’s dynamic of possibility by declaring that “hip hop is dead,” or by distinguishing between “good” and “bad” hip hop.

To nostalgize upon hip hop’s so-called golden era(s) is to ignore the fact that the foundation of the culture functions through it’s perpetual flux of influences, both high and low, and prematurely forecloses on the possibility of genuine exchange between social strata (i.e. Kanye's line in Otis: “sophisticated ignorance, write my verses in cursive.”).

Hip hop is problematic. Nothing about it is “given” or should be taken as such.  But the fact that it is problematic is also what makes it resilient, adaptable, and able to evolve.

Hip hop is no doubt different than it was in the 80’s, 90’s and even early 2000’s. But this is the inherent nature of music, and of all things in themselves.  Distinguishable forms arise and subside like tides in an ocean, but the momentum of the currents remain, shaping the environment and itself being shaped by the changing milieu.

If we were to extend this metaphor to hip hop as a cultural force, it can only really be seen as a wave of influence that conditions and is itself conditioned by larger forces---such as the political, economic, and social climate.

What is most important to keep note of is the overall momentum of the historical milieu as a whole, and to record the ways in which it builds upon itself like a tsunami that never quite reaches its destination.  Hip hop may never be as it once was, but that’s not to say that it’s effects can’t still be felt, seen, or touched.

What is at stake today is shaping hip hop into a culture of literacy and ideational production, as opposed to a culture of material consumption and spectacle.   


Hip hop fans, whether of the commercial or underground sway, more than ever need to “do the knowledge” and stop accepting what’s given to them as just being given.   To see hip hop for what it is and to anticipate where it’s going, we need a memory of where it came from.  On top of that, it is imperative to realize that this memory in itself is far from absolute and subject to change, both retroactively and during the context of it’s own time.

This is the reason I love websites such as rapgenius.com, where through an economy of contribution users analyze, interpret and give meaning to hip-hop lyricism through critiquing it as poetry.  The future of hip hop as a culture and a way of life depends on communities (as opposed to commodities) of exchange such as this.

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Part 2 of this review offers an in-depth analysis of how Kanye West and Jay-Z's album Watch the Throne juggles the tension between speculation, spectacle, and expanding the "scope" of hip-hop through a return to it's roots in sampling.

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Photo Credits

Père Ubu, "Society of the Spectacle" August 3, 2007 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

Katrina. Tuliao, "Philippine Stock Market Board" July 30, 2008 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

iammeltron, "Hip Hop Sucks" May 5, 2006 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution.

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