Jay-Z vs. The Game, Music, & Foreign Policy Power Tactics

I came across this story recently, and thought it quite clever and interesting.  In addition to the original post by the author Marc Lynch, there is a feature on the story from today’s Morning Edition page on NPR.org.  Basically he compares foreign policy conflicts to rap feuds.  He has a compelling argument too.

After reading the story below, you can have a little more fun with it by listening to this older commentary by music critic Steven Ivory.  This clip is from 2004 but it’s relevant he touches on Kim Jong Il and how to avoid a nuclear war with North Korea if our president takes him out for a good time.

Enjoy!

Jay-Z vs the Game: Lessons for the American Primacy Debate

by, Marc Lynch of ForeignPolicy.com

Late last week, the Los Angeles rapper the Game launched a blistering attack against the legendary New York blogger rapper :>) Jay-Z.   At a series of European shows, the Game led crowds in cheers of “F*** Jay-Z” and “Old Ass N*****”, and at one point went into an obsenity laced (but rather wickedly funny) rampage against Jay-Z’s fiance’ (wife?) Beyonce.  Over the weekend, he released “I’m So Wavy [Too Hardcore to be a Jay-Z]” an inconsistent but catchy attack on Jay-Z (note: all links are to songs which are almost certainly NSFW and which you might find offensive; you’ve been warned).  When I started feeding this stuff to my friend Spencer Ackerman last week, his first take was that “the countdown to the end of the Game’s career starts today.” Mine, me being a professor of international relations, was to start thinking about how this could be turned into a story about the nature of hegemony and the debate over the exercise of American power.  (That, and how I could waste time that I should be spending on real work.)

See, Jay-Z (Shawn Carter) is the closest thing to a hegemon which the rap world has known for a long time.  He’s #1 on the Forbes list of the top earning rappers.  He has an unimpeachable reputation, both artistic and commercial, and has produced some of the all-time best (and best-selling) hip hop albums including standouts Reasonable Doubt, The Blueprint and the Black Album.  He spent several successful years as the CEO of Def Jam Records before buying out his contract a few months ago to release his new album on his own label.  And he’s got Beyonce.  Nobody, but nobody, in the hip hop world has his combination of hard power and soft power.  If there be hegemony, then this is it.  Heck, when he tried to retire after the Black Album, he found himself dragged back into the game (shades of America’s inward turn during the Clinton years?). 

 But the limits on his ability to use this power recalls the debates about U.S. primacy.  Should he use this power to its fullest extent, as neo-conservatives would advise, imposing his will to reshape the world, forcing others to adapt to his values and leadership?  Or should he fear a backlash against the unilateral use of power, as realists such as my colleague Steve Walt or liberals such as John Ikenberry would warn, and instead exercise self-restraint?  

 The changes in Jay-Z’s approach over the years suggest that he recognizes the realist and liberal logic… but is sorely tempted by the neo-conservative impulse. Back when he was younger, Jay-Z was a merciless, ruthless killer in the “beefs” which define hip hop politics.  He never would have gotten to the top without that.  But since then he’s changed his style and has instead largely chosen to stand above the fray.   As Jay-Z got older and more powerful, the marginal benefits of such battles declined and the costs increased even as the number of would-be rivals escalated.  Just as the U.S. attracts resentment and rhetorical anti-Americanism simply by virtue of being on top, so did Jay-Z attract a disproportionate number of attackers.   “I got beefs with like a hundred children” he bragged/complained on one track. 

His ability to respond actually declined as his power and enemies list grew, though. As a young 50 Cent spat at him (twisting one of Jay’s own famous lines), “if I shoot you I’m famous, if you shoot me you’re brainless.”  He’s generally avoided getting embroiled in beefs since reaching the top, only occasionally and briefly hitting back at provocations from rising contenders like 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, and others.  Responding to every challenge does not become a hegemon. Indeed, it would be counter-productive and exhausting, and would likely trigger even greater resentment among other rising rappers.  Better as hegemon to rise above the fray and accept the sniping of the less powerful while reaping the rewards of a status quo which he dominates and profits from excessively. And that’s what happened:  his wealth, status, and structural power rose inexorably despite the potshots and abuse and unmet challenges — indeed, the only real hit he’s taken was self-inflicted, the critical shrug given to the middling “Kingdom Come” album.

 When he learnt this lesson might also offer insights into how great powers in IR learn.  He changed his style after his most famous beef, and the only one which he lost:  his battle with the Queensbridge legend Nas.   The reasons for his loss are instructive.  Jay-Z launched what Nas later described as a “sneak attack” at a time when the latter’s mother was ailing. Why?  Because Nas was at the time recognized widely as the king of NYC rap, and Jay-Z (the rising power) saw that only by knocking off the king could he seize the crown for himself.   A few brief skirmishes — a Jay-Z freestyle mentioning Nas, the first “Stillmatic” response from Nas — then led to the full blast of “The Takeover”.   Rather than fold, Nas hit back with the instant legend “Ether”.  It went back and forth, and then, crucially, Jay-Z misplayed his hand. In “Super Ugly”, about 2 minutes in to a pretty good track, he escalated to a crude personal revelation about his sexual exploits with the mother of Nas’s child — prompting Jay’s mother to call in to a radio station to complain and forcing Jay to apologize.  The lesson:  just because you’ve got an ace card doesn’t mean you should play it… better to keep it in reserve, for fear of triggering a backlash. 

 But what happened next is even more interesting.  The beef actually helped both:  it lit a fire under Nas, who renewed his career, while Jay-Z continued to ascend to his current position (with the Black Album probably still standing as the pinnacle). Jay-Z acknowledged his defeat (on Blueprint 2) and learned lessons from it (while taking a few last shots, and claiming credit for reviging his rival’s career (“I gave you life when n**** had forgotten you MC’d”).  Nas opted to settle the beef, reconcile, and sign on with Def Jam Records — where he became one of Jay’s leading and most valuable artists.   In a world of unipolarity, both win through co-optation, reconciliation between enemies, and the demonstration that the gains of cooperation outweigh the gains of resistance.  

 Which brings us back to the Game.  The Game (Jayceon Taylor) is a wildly erratic, brilliantly talented L.A. gangsta rapper, a protege of Dr. Dre who started off with 50 Cent and G-Unit.  After an ugly break with them, he unleashed a barrage of brutal attacks on G-Unit and 50 Cent culminating in an epic 300 bars freestyle.  The Game clearly won the battle on its merits, but 50 Cent’s career continued relatively unharmed (he was #1 on last year’s Forbes list before being displaced by Jay-Z this year, though his reputation as a rapper has declined significantly after some mediocre albums and a humiliating defeat in a public showdown over album sales at the hands of Kanye West, of all people).  Meanwhile, the Game established himself as a solid solo act.  In that  war between a rising power and a upper-echelon middle power, both ultimately benefited.   

 Jay-Z is a bit different, given his hegemonic status and the absence of a prior relationship. The Game has always had a particularly odd, passive-aggressive relationship with Jay-Z.  His first hit “Westside Story” contained a line about not driving Maybachs (Jay’s signature car) which everyone took as a diss.  The Game panicked, and spliced into the title track of his debut album “The Documentary” a radio interview explaining that he had meant it as a shot against Ja Rule (everyone’s favorite hip hop punching bag) and that he “never takes shots at legends, that’s just not something I do.” Yeah, right.  Over the next few years, he would routinely go out of his way to say that he was not dissing Jay-Z even when it sounded like he was (“before you call this a diss, and you make Hova pissed, why would I do that, when I’m just the new cat, that was taught if a n****take shots to shoot back, defending his yard, yeah standing his ground, I’m sayin if you gonna retire then hand me the crown.”)  Think of him as a rising middle power (#13 on the Forbes list, down there with Young Jeezy, he helpfully explains on I’m So Wavy) eyeing the king, ambitious and a bit resentful, and looking for an opening.  

 So what prompted him to finally cross the line and attack Jay-Z?  There doesn’t seem to be anything in the public record to speak of — the proximate cause was a throwaway line in a Jay-Z freestyle which didn’t even attack him (“I ain’t talkin’ about THE GAME”).  His ego has always been there, and the Jay-Z obsession (in “360” earlier this year, he memorably rapped over Jay’s Million and One beat “I’m the king and you better respect it, all I need is Beyonce and a Roc-a-Fella necklace”).  Maybe he really just wants to test himself (he says on his Twitter feed “I ALWAYS FELT I WAS GOOD ENUFF 2 GO BAR 4 BAR @ JAY IN A “LYRICAL BEEF”), the way rising powers do.  Or maybe he just is hoping for publicity… wouldn’t be the first. But none of that explains the timing, even if it might account for the attack itself.  So let’s go with the IR analogies for a moment.

 The Game’s own account suggests that he saw vulnerability in Jay-Z’s over-extension.  First, supposedly Jay-Z got Chris Brown blackballed from the BET Video Awards by threatening to stay home if he performed.  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. Maybe he calculated that now was the moment to strike, and that the rest of the middle powers will ally with him to topple the tyrant.  

 But still, the timing is odd for a “power transition” narrative, given that Jay-Z is set to release his new Blueprint 3 album in September and has done a whole series of verses with other leading rappers in recent years (including Nas, Lil Wayne, and T.I.) which is to hip hop as “alliances” are to International Relations.  He may be old, but hardly looks like a declining power…. although perhaps Game simply detects weakness in Jay-Z’s age.  After all, he tweeted at one point that he “really don’t hate jay’s old music, but this new sh!t is convalescent home elevator music.” He clearly understands the extent of Jay-Z’s structural power, daring a long list of influential DJs to play I’m So Wavy.  

 So what does Jay-Z do?  If he hits back hard in public, the Game will gain in publicity even if he loses… the classic problem of a great power confronted by a smaller annoying challenger.   And given his demonstrated skills and talent, and his track record against G-Unit, the Game may well score some points.  At the least, it would bring Jay-Z down to his level — bogging him down in an asymmetric war negating the hegemon’s primary advantages.   If Jay-Z tries to use his structural power to kill Game’s career (block him from releasing albums or booking tour dates or appearing at the Grammy Awards), it could be seen as a wimpy and pathetic operation — especially since it would be exposed on Twitter and the hip hop blogs. 

 The Realist advice?  His best hope is probably to sit back and let the Game self-destruct, something of which he’s quite capable  (he’s already backing away from the hit on Beyonce) — while working behind the scenes to maintain his own alliance structure and to prevent any defections over to the Game’s camp.  And it seems that thus far, that’s exactly what he’s doing. We’ll see if that’s a winning strategy…. or if he’s just biding his time getting ready for a counter-attack.   Either way, I’ve succeeded in wasting a lot of time so… mission accomplished!

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Shhhh, Where are the Right Wing Tyrants?

Ed Rollins says President Obama was right to authorize the rescue attempt for a freighter captain held by pirates.

I like Ed Rollins because he always keeps it real regardless of political affiliations.  Which is why I have to give it to him for his praise of President Obama in handling the Somali pirate crisis and saving the life of a ship’s captain. 

Where the hell are Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and the likes on this matter?  I can’t hear them at all.  I’m certain they would rather things gone awry regardless of the captain’s ultimate fate since it would give them fodder to spill their hate filled rage against the man. 

Instead of the praise they should offer as Americans… all we have is silence!

Message to the GOP

Giving Up on God
By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, November 19, 2008; 12:00 AM

 

As Republicans sort out the reasons for their defeat, they likely will overlook or dismiss the gorilla in the pulpit.

Three little letters, great big problem: G-O-D.

I’m bathing in holy water as I type.

To be more specific, the evangelical, right-wing, oogedy-boogedy branch of the GOP is what ails the erstwhile conservative party and will continue to afflict and marginalize its constituents if reckoning doesn’t soon cometh.

Simply put: Armband religion is killing the Republican Party. And, the truth — as long as we’re setting ourselves free — is that if one were to eavesdrop on private conversations among the party intelligentsia, one would hear precisely that.

The choir has become absurdly off-key, and many Republicans know it.

But they need those votes!

So it has been for the Grand Old Party since the 1980s or so, as it has become increasingly beholden to an element that used to be relegated to wooden crates on street corners.

Short break as writer ties blindfold and smokes her last cigarette.

Which is to say, the GOP has surrendered its high ground to its lowest brows. In the process, the party has alienated its non-base constituents, including other people of faith (those who prefer a more private approach to worship), as well as secularists and conservative-leaning Democrats who otherwise might be tempted to cross the aisle.

Here’s the deal, ‘pubbies: Howard Dean was right.

It isn’t that culture doesn’t matter. It does. But preaching to the choir produces no converts. And shifting demographics suggest that the Republican Party — and conservatism with it — eventually will die out unless religion is returned to the privacy of one’s heart where it belongs.

Religious conservatives become defensive at any suggestion that they’ve had something to do with the GOP’s erosion. And, though the recent Democratic sweep can be attributed in large part to a referendum on Bush and the failing economy, three long-term trends identified by Emory University’s Alan Abramowitz have been devastating to the Republican Party: increasing racial diversity, declining marriage rates and changes in religious beliefs.

Suffice it to say, the Republican Party is largely comprised of white, married Christians. Anyone watching the two conventions last summer can’t have missed the stark differences: One party was brimming with energy, youth and diversity; the other felt like an annual Depends sales meeting.

With the exception of Miss Alaska, of course.

Even Sarah Palin has blamed Bush policies for the GOP loss. She’s not entirely wrong, but she’s also part of the problem. Her recent conjecture about whether to run for president in 2012 (does anyone really doubt she will?) speaks for itself:

“I’m like, okay, God, if there is an open door for me somewhere, this is what I always pray, I’m like, don’t let me miss the open door. Show me where the open door is…. And if there is an open door in (20)12 or four years later, and if it’s something that is going to be good for my family, for my state, for my nation, an opportunity for me, then I’ll plow through that door.”

Let’s do pray that God shows Alaska’s governor the door.

Meanwhile, it isn’t necessary to evict the Creator from the public square, surrender Judeo-Christian values or diminish the value of faith in America. Belief in something greater than oneself has much to recommend it, including most of the world’s architectural treasures, our universities and even our founding documents.

But, like it or not, we are a diverse nation, no longer predominantly white and Christian. The change Barack Obama promised has already occurred, which is why he won.

Among Jewish voters, 78 percent went for Obama. Sixty-six percent of under-30 voters did likewise. Forty-five percent of voters ages 18-29 are Democrats compared to just 26 percent Republican; in 2000, party affiliation was split almost evenly.

The young will get older, of course. Most eventually will marry, and some will become their parents. But nonwhites won’t get whiter. And the nonreligious won’t get religion through external conversion. It doesn’t work that way.

Given those facts, the future of the GOP looks dim and dimmer if it stays the present course. Either the Republican Party needs a new base — or the nation may need a new party.

Kathleen Parker’s e-mail address is kparker@kparker.com.

Commentary from Nafees A. Sayed – by way of CNN.com

Harvard University student Nafees Syed says both candidates should reach out to Muslims in the U.S.

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (CNN) — During this election, we have seen the spectacle of two presidential candidates fighting over one voter while snubbing an entire segment of the American population worthy of their attention.

We in the Muslim-American community look wistfully at people like Joe the Plumber, wishing that we too could be courted for our vote by the presidential candidates.

At the same time, we look gratefully at figures like former Secretary of State Colin Powell, who reassure us that there is hope for greater acceptance of Muslim-Americans.

Over time, we grew to expect standoffish treatment from the Republican Party. Almost a decade ago, many Muslims, my parents included, supported President Bush for his humble foreign policy stances, strong family values and reaching out to the Muslim-American community.

Things have obviously changed since September 11, 2001, and we have grown used to anti-Muslim rhetoric from Republican candidates. We have run like refugees to the Democratic Party, only to find reluctant tolerance and hope that we will go somewhere else.

American civil rights activist and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “[The American Negro] simply wishes it possible to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly on his face.”

Over a century later, I and many other Muslim-Americans feel the same, hoping that we can be accepted in America as both Muslims and Americans.

As a college student voting in my first presidential election, I have been inspired by Barack Obama’s call for change. My campus is full of Obama posters, and several of my classmates have taken time off to work for his campaign.

There is no doubt Obama has the Harvard vote, but my vote will not be cast as enthusiastically as others.

This campaign means to me what it means for my classmates. In the next few years, the economy and American foreign policy will affect my generation unlike any other, and those concerns are the primary influences on my vote.

However, as a Muslim-American, I see some issues as more personal. I don’t blame Obama for clarifying that he isn’t a Muslim; if someone misidentified my religion, I would likewise point out the facts, especially if it was part of a larger smear campaign. However, as the first Muslim Congressman Keith Ellison stated, “A lot of us are waiting for him to say that there’s nothing wrong with being a Muslim, by the way.”

Indeed, Obama’s responses to accusations that he is Muslim should be more than just denial; they should be a condemnation of the prejudices that lace such accusations.

When I discuss this issue with fellow Muslim-Americans, especially ones who have dedicated significant time to his campaign, I immediately hear that he’s just doing what he needs to do to win.

I respond skeptically to these arguments. Is it really politically necessary for Obama to avoid visiting mosques — something that President Bush has dared to do — while rallying support from churches and synagogues? Doesn’t his careful distance from the Muslim-American community contradict his message of unity?

Still, others, my parents included, advise that it is best that we as Muslim-Americans avoid marring his campaign with our visible support at a time when any connection with Muslims would jeopardize his chances of winning. They reason that we have to politically isolate ourselves for the better candidate to win, a sacrifice we should make for our country.

I am unwilling to feign political apathy. All I want is for one of the candidates to assure me and the American public that “Muslim” and “American” are not mutually exclusive terms.

Colin Powell’s recent interview with Tom Brokaw has left me with some hope. He highlights the flaw in the question of Obama’s religion with the answer, “he is not a Muslim; he’s a Christian. … But the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer’s no, that’s not America.”

To prove his point, Gen. Powell recounted the story of Purple Heart- and Bronze Star-winning Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, an American soldier in Iraq who sacrificed his life for his country. He represents a Muslim-American community that is dedicated to its country and worthy of the presidential candidates’ attention and respect.

It is a tribute to Gen. Powell’s own dedication to his country that he would take note of the treatment of Muslim-Americans during the elections.

Thanks, Gen. Powell. You said the words that Muslim-Americans around the country were waiting to hear.

BB&G Special Column Feature – Sylvester Brown

I pulled this column from the St. Louis Post Dispatch.  Sylvester Brown owned and operated a newspaper called “Take Five.”  It was the best source of local news this city has ever seen.  Unfortunately the paper went under.  Now Sylvester writes three times per week for the only mainstream newspaper in the city.  I have always enjoyed his pieces – and in this case he saved me the brain energy to express some of these thought.  The media is clearly NOT doing their job on the Palin thing.