Marc Lynch’s IR-theory explication of the objective circumstances underpinning the Game’s recent assault on Jay-Z is among the best blog posts you’ll read. Ever. And yet neither Marc nor the people linking him put sufficient stress on a key turn in the argument, one that speaks directly to Marc’s point about the binds of hegemony.
So, long story short: Marc identifies Jay-Z as the rap world’s hegemon, a fairly uncontroversial point, and notes that the Game’s attack on him tempts Jay-Z into an asymmetric miasma at which Hov has minimal competency. (Marc caveats that latter point, but I would further add that the first and third verses of "Takeover" refute it.) His counsel is that discretion is the better part of valor here, as Jay-Z has more to lose by engaging Game than Game has to lose by actually losing a battle. Better still to work "behind the scenes to maintain his own alliance structure and to prevent any defections over to the Game’s camp." But Marc breezes past the Game’s potential motivations for provoking the assault, and they have implications for the structure here:
Second, D.O.A., the first single off of Blueprint 3, attacked a whole generation of rappers using the Autotune program to sing (including such great powers as Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, and Kanye West as well as the hapless T-Pain). Taken together, that might add up to a growing resentment which could be exploited.
And then Marc dismisses that concern, writing "the timing is odd for a ‘power transition’ narrative." But here’s where the argument needs to treat Jay’s Auto-Tune assault — the most salient cultural offering from Jay this year, and possibly on all of his forthcoming record — as a portal into the hegemony issue. The ubiquity of Auto-Tune is a curious phenomenon for a hegemon whose dominance predates it. Embracing it or acquiescing to it might appear a conspicuous bid for relevance, exposing a vulnerability, but attacking it provokes a backlash precisely because of its ubiquity. Who will you alienate? Labelmate and premier protege Kanye West? At the same time, Auto-Tune’s ubiquity affords a temptin opportunity to Jay-Z. Is the pitch-correcting software an overextended paper tiger? Will the people rally behind the standard of the man who finally slays the tinny-voiced beast?
So it’s telling that Jay-Z’s response was not only to attack Auto-Tune, but to declare it dead. He unfurled his Mission Accomplished banner at the moment of invasion. That revealed a point that needs to be central to Marc’s argument: as a hegemon, Jay-Z is not a status quo power. He’s a counterrevolutionary actor. "I might wear black for a year straight/ I might bring back Versace shades," Jay-Z says, daring others to disobey. The substance of his attack was to complain that Auto-Tune is an illegitimate artistic move. As I contended way back when, this is an uncomfortable argument from authenticity. And it creates a potential hinge moment for Jay-Z’s hegemony. Rappers who use Auto-Tune after "D.O.A." will be unavoidably challenging Jay-Z. Seen through this lens, The Game isn’t the point — he’s a symptom of a problem Jay-Z has created for himself. It won’t be responding to Game that digs Jay into the sandbox. He’s already in the sandbox. Responding to Game will exacerbate the problem, not create it.
Reflecting the conventional wisdom, Metal Lungies made the point when ‘Death of Auto-Tune’ came out, "When Jay-Z speaks up, hip-hop listens. Expect copycat rappers (the majority of rappers) to fall back on Auto-Tune from now on." Maybe. Hip-hop has received ‘D.O.A.’ favorably so far. But it’s too early to tell whether that’s the predicted rally-round-the-flag effect of new Jay music (post-Kingdom Come that is) or whether Jay has indeed liberated hip-hop from Auto-Tune. The objective circumstances make that latter outcome less likely. What happens when Tha Carter 4 or Tha Carter 3 Pt. II or whatever Wayne’s calling it comes out? What will the next Kanye single sound like? The grumblings are there: Joe Budden’ ‘D.O.A.’ freestyle got attention for its alleged attack on Method Man, but Budden growls about unnamed veteran rappers, "the only thing they want to kill is fucking Auto-Tune." That’s a swipe at Jay from the perspective of another raw east-coast rapper — one who’s taken shots at Jay-Z in the past for not rapping with enough heart — suggesting that we may be seeing early signs of an anti-Hov bandwagoning effect.
One caveat, as I mentioned above, is that Jay-Z is already skilled at disarming insurgent attacks. ("For all you other cats taking shots at Jigga/ you only get half a bar/ Fuck y’all n*****") Another is that the Game is a poor champion of his own interests, let alone others’ — he sees that the right move is to try to cleave the Auto-Tune-loving Kanye from Jay-Z, but publicly insults Kanye’s girlfriend — and so it’s hard to see disgruntled rappers rallying under his banner. But we’ve learned to look not at the attack, but at the broader circumstances that made it possible. And there the ground is unfavorable for even a durable hegemon. The right question isn’t what Jay-Z should do about the Game. It’s how can Jay-Z extricate himself from the message behind his right-now-phenomenally-successful-single before it ends up diminishing the potency of his hegemony.