The What 03 On “The Battle of the Sexes” in Hip-Hop

Welcome to “The What.” The ongoing goal of this column is to think through the ways in which hip-hop “functions” in our present milieu: as a genre, discourse, and touchstone for examinations of our life + times, from taste and representation to race and class. In this way, “The What” seeks to document the aesthetics and teleology of hip-hop as it presently reveals itself. Such dialogues may be about how hip-hop got here and where it is going, but it also might tell us how we got here and where we are going. Email me here.

Paragraph 1, wherein the matter of “the gasp” arises. This essay begins with an obvious claim: hip-hop has misogyny trouble. This essay seeks not to deconstruct such a claim, but rather to work within its limits. This essay seeks to retain the existing taxonomy in order to mine increased complexity within it. Now let’s continue this essay with a less obvious claim: hip-hop has body issues. Examine the black body of the male rapper: It poses. It bulges. It glistens. It bares itself in order to bear itself. The black male body lacks power. In the nimble hands of the rapper, it molds itself. It seeks power in the forms of muscles, chains, tattoos, weapons, gang iconography, etc. The black male rapper disrobes. He wants to show us that he is there, that he exists. But it is an act. He = act. He performs maleness, masculinity. He appears in the guise of seeming hyper-masculinity as if to bandage the lack. But underneath lies the wound of non-being, non-meaning. The black male rapper bares himself to bare himself. The black male rapper is the contemporary crisis of masculinity. “Masculinity” escapes the black male rapper right as he grasps it. It enacts itself in other guises, in other racialized, even lesbian and/or female guises. Masculinity, it can be said, has identity issues. What do I mean? Take, for instance, the music video for Pixie Lott’s “What Do You Take Me For,” which features Pusha T — specifically, Pixie’s gasp, which embodies an entire spectrum of male-female relations. On the one hand, this gasp is the gasp of pity and fear. Pusha’s masculinity in his act of cursing (“Two tears in a bucket, fuck it”) shocks and awes a terrified Pixie to such a degree that he must (literally) be muted. Pusha is to be feared. Pixie is to be pitied. Pixie’s fear, here, plays into a long historiography of the taboo relationship between the black male and the white female. On the other hand, this gasp signifies the falsity and ephemeral nature of masculinity. It is not immanent to the black male body. Rather, it exists from without. It must be enacted through actions, which often tellingly drift into ventriloquism (when Pusha “makes it rain,” he is simply performing). It is made not born. Masculinity giveth and taketh away. In this act of “the gasp,” we see the battle of the sexes in the form of a game, what we might call a game of appropriation, in which the prize is masculinity. It is through such a lens that I wish to analyze “masculinity” and “misogyny” as it relates to and informs contemporary hip-hop.

“Drake seeks to turn her will-power into his will-to-power.”

Paragraph 2, wherein we contemplate the violent anxieties of the black male rapper. Young Jeezy’s song “White Girl,” on which he is joined by his seemingly short-lived but recently resurfaced rap group USDA, sheds further light on this game of appropriation. On the one hand, the music video plays like a pantomime of the tropes of black male faux-masculinity. Tatts. Check. Bling. Check. Stacks. Check. The transcendental-ness of these signifiers of masculinity is revealed in the representation of women. The ultimate marker of masculinity is heterosexuality. As such, straight, sexualized women circulate to dissipate the homoeroticism of the grouped black males, whom the women are shown desiring. “White Girl” is noteworthy for taking the objectification of women to its furthest limit: the women literally become objects. In this case, the white women represent cocaine: “You know we keep that white girl, Christina Aguilera/ My jewelry too loud, baby girl I can’t hear ya/ I need about 50 if them bricks is the topic/ They know we run the streets, man them boys better stop it.” This track subverts women at every step, connecting the whiteness of their skin to the color of the drug in order to then circulate them among men in the same manner as prostitution. Here, the black male rapper literally appropriates masculinity in the aestheticization, commodification, and circulation of women. A few years later, Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane would echo such a style of appropriation on their severely misogynistic track, “Steady Mobbin’.” Weezy raps, “But I can fuck your girl and make her nut for me/ Then slut for me, then kill for me, then steal for me/ And of course it’ll be your cash/ Then I’ll murder that bitch and send her body back to your ass.” More a sonic boom than an echo, the contours of appropriation explode and multiply. Even through rivalry, males bond at the expense of women. Here, “expense” could be re-phrased as “abjection” — that is, the making of something foreign, something between an object and a subject. The male wrenches the female body of every modicum of masculinity as it is rendered alternative, Other, dead. Such a rendering, such a wrenching points toward deep-seated anxieties about the tenuous attachment of masculinity to the male body and its increasing attachment to non-male bodies.

Paragraph 3, wherein we take a short detour to investigate the failed desires of the white female rapper (of the moment). What the male finds anxiety-provoking, the female finds desire-provoking. That is, when masculinity escapes the male grasp, the female pounces in an attempt to appropriate said masculinity for herself. However, such a task is fraught with obstacles. Enter Kreayshawn. Her bio tells us that you can find her smoking blunts, rocking mics, and pumping (?!) swag, when she is not repping for the “White Girl Mob,” featuring her “sister” Vanessa “V-Nasty” Reece. You likely know her from her music video “Gucci Gucci” (26.5 million views and counting), her verbal attack on Rick Ross for being “faker” than fake, and her affiliation with Lil B and Odd Future. Let us analyze these three pieces of the Kreayshawn puzzle. The thesis of “Gucci Gucci” is simple enough: Kreayshawn is realer than real. “Gucci Gucci, Louis Louis, Fendi Fendi, Prada/ Basic bitches wear that shit so I don’t even bother.” In their place, we see and hear an eclectic ensemble, featuring black girl hair cut and color, a Chicago Blackhawks (read: Native Indian) medallion, East Indian jewelry, “So posh, nails fierce with the gold gloss,” and a college-campus ready “baggie full of Adderalls” (read: an appeal to the desirable tumblering teen white girl demo). What we see, in other words, is a pantomime — no different really in form than the “White Girl” video or in spirit than the performance art of parole-officer-turned-hustler Rick Ross — an explicit performance of appropriation fit for the cultural logic of our multinational/ethnic capitalistic times. Yet Kreayshawn refuses to call a spade a spade, an act an act. She defends her misogynistic rhetoric as “less harsh and more funny” because she is a girl. She defines herself as an “occasional” not “raging”(!) lesbian. But the perverted logic of these defenses acts only to undermine itself. Kreayshawn fails to see the power of performance to, among other things, deconstruct black/white, male/female, rich/poor, straight/queer, real/fake binaries. Instead of employing her performance to deconstruct “masculinity” and reveal the dissociation of masculinity from the male body, instead of taking her performance to its feminist limits, she resorts to fraternizing with black men and spitting racist & misogynistic bars (“See them other chicken heads? They don’t never leave the coop”). As a result, instead of a remarkable line like “I got the swag and it’s pumping out my ovaries” connoting emancipation and freedom for frequently ignored and abjected identities, it upholds a normative (straight black male) masculinity, which a term like “swag” wholly and utterly signifies, at the expense of black and/or queer bodies. In Kreayshawn, we glimpse the promise of an appropriated “female masculinity” that is not (yet) fulfilled.

“The male wrenches the female body of every modicum of masculinity as it is rendered alternative, Other, dead.”

Paragraph 4, wherein we return to our regularly scheduled program to examine the coming out of the “sissy.” The promise glimpsed in Kreayshawn reemerges in the personhood of the “sissy.” The sissy is the outcast. He is the feminine or effeminate male. He troubles notions of male/female, hetero/homo, and masculine/feminine. In this way, the sissy pushes epistemology to its limits. The sissy is the metrosexual and the decadent dandy, the cross-dresser and the drag queen. The sissy is the male rapper? Peep this description of Drake by The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica (one of the finest voice in hip-hop criticism today): Drake’s success is “a reminder of so many of the victories hip-hop has won in the last couple of decades: the right to be decadent, sure, but also the right to reimagine any style of music, the right to be emotionally complicated, the right to be unusual.” While Kanye West certainly opened the door to a new type of MC, an MC not afraid to explore his own neuroses in an explicit self-consciously emotional and heartfelt qua “soft” manner, it is Drake, as Caramanica writes, that is “turning stranger, and earlier in his career, far more quickly than [Kanye] did, making it safe for others to follow.” To read between the lines, and take this description from form to content (which is the primary topic of this essay), the sissy rapper, if you will, is re-imagining and thereby softening rap’s once hostile relationship to homosexuals and women. Let us proceed by focusing on this latter category. Take the exceptional first verse from Drake’s “Make Me Proud,” which features Nicki Minaj, off his new album Take Care. He begins by describing his love object as far from simply an object or as someone immanent to her situation. Rather, he describes her as transcendent, as “a woman with a future and a past.” Drake imagines her transcendence, her future as founded on a number of (both fulfilling and emancipating) projects: “And I love it when your hair still/ Wet cause you just took a shower/ Running on a treadmill and only eating salad/ Sound so smart like you graduated college/ Like you went to Yale but you probably went to Howard/ Knowing you, weekend in Miami trying to study by the pool/ Couple things due but you always get it done.” Here, we have one of the most thoughtful, encouraging, and loving descriptions of the opposite sex ever written in rap music. Drake seeks not to appropriate his love object (“They want you in their life as a wife”), but rather frees her to envision her own situation, her own actions and projects, and above all her own future. The sissy recognizes the power of women: “Pussy run everything, fuck that noise.”

Paragraph 5, wherein we arrive inexorably at the heart of the matter of the battle of the sexes, by complicating it. The reception to Drake’s Take Care has centered on its emotionality. Hua Hsu (of Grantland) writes that Take Care is “about how a rapper might approach an enduring problem of art: how to convey depth without seeming melodramatic, how to triumph in a way that isn’t wholly alienating.” Hsu’s piece (along with others) is superb at analyzing the affect of Drake’s art, but what is missing from such criticism is a look at the effect of Drake’s affect. Better is Doc Zeus’ piece (at Passion of the Weiss): “Drake wields his ‘emotions’ less as a way to speak to a higher truth, more as a tool to elicit cheap sympathy for his inability to connect with women/people/society because of his massive wealth and fame.” I would take this reading a step further: Drake’s affect qua anxiety often materializes as a sort of violence-towards qua appropriation-of women. At the beginning of Drake’s hook from Lil Wayne’s “She Will” (off Wayne’s Tha Carter IV), for example, he squeezes the stripper to see if “it’s real” and then imagines that they could take off, but this relationship soon turns violent in Drake’s final repeated words: “she will.” Here, the raison d’être emerges: a desire to will her, to own and appropriate her very freedom. An initial refrain of “maybe she will” becomes “she will.” This change in emphasis implies a violent shifting of agency, as the women transforms from a subject to an object, her very being canceled out. Drake seeks to turn her will-power into his will-to-power. The reason? Drake is “hyper-masculine”: he is the “realest [nigga] in the fucking game,” and she desires “the money and the power and fame.” Women litter a Drake album. They are most often bitches and hoes, and very often nameless and faceless. Take, the pornstars on Take Care’s “Lord Knows” (featuring Rick Ross): “To all these women that think like men with the same intentions/ Talking strippers and models that try to gain attention/ Even a couple pornstars that I’m ashamed to mention.” These pornstars only exist in relation to Drake. They are reduced to affect. They are less than human. They = shame. If “Make Me Proud” represents Drake at his best, too often we find him at his worst. These latter moments occur when his anxiety transforms into violence, when his desire to be and feel masculine comes at the expense of women, when the battle of the sexes becomes an opportunity for misogyny, when his solipsism comes at the expense of truly recognizing the opposite sex, when he forgets to take care.

“The black male rapper is the contemporary crisis of masculinity.”

Conclusion, wherein having arrived a long way down, we contemplate one last thing.This essay ends, as it began, with an obvious claim: much ink has been spilled concerning hip-hop and its misogyny trouble. However, a number of recent hip-hop artists have paved the way for a reappraisal of misogyny in hip-hop. The time of simple exegesis has passed; we don’t need yet another account of how hip-hop is violent or misogynistic or is killing the world’s youth. Although notions like misogyny, masculinity, etc. need to be understood, what matters today is how productive these concepts are. Using such epistemological tools, I have attempted to argue that normative categories are being disrupted. Likewise, using less familiar categories, such as sissiness, I have attempted to demonstrate that the emergences of new identities are testing and adding to our epistemological tool bag. It is such emergences that I believe today’s hip-hop criticism must engage with. Specifically, I believe we need to look in hip-hop for, what French feminist scholar Simone de Beauvoir termed, reciprocity. She defined reciprocity as a mode of relating by which we recognize others as equal freedoms in the world. Today, such relations extend to authenticity, race, gender, class, sexuality, etc. The battle of the sexes, both in the world in general and in hip-hop specifically, is not a priori; it is not a given. The ossification of particular power structures that have been perpetuated over time only makes it seem like this opposition is the case. The contemporary crisis in masculinity represents one major crack in this hardened structure. As women compete with men for space in the world of hip-hop, appropriating a “female masculinity” for themselves and thereby challenging the long-held ideal of “good (black hetero male) masculinity,” we must look for and identify reciprocal relations. Only, then, can we catch a glimpse of the future of hip-hop, a future in which the battle of the sexes becomes a battle by the sexes, for the sexes.

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