How will Obama's presidency change hip-hop?

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Feb. 26 2009 6:50 AM

Stompin' in My Air Force One

How will Obama's presidency change hip-hop?

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The predicament doesn't just apply to rabble-rousers like Dead Prez. There is something inherently radical about hip-hop, period, a genre in which the historically voiceless command the microphone and, from the repurposed DJ equipment of hip-hop's South Bronx infancy to the artist-owned labels of today, the means of production. Obama's rise might weaken the position of those less explicitly political MCs, for instance, who rap about the allure of the drug trade in neighborhoods low on viable careers, or those whose gangsta tales make an implicit point about the conditions that create gangstas in the first place. Even an unabashedly crass commercialist like 50 Cent casts his boasts of alpha-male domination as a socioeconomic symptom: "Some say I'm gangsta, some say I'm crazy—if you ask me, I say I'm what the 'hood made me." Going forward, there may be less patience for this line of thinking. Our president overcame the disadvantages of growing up black and fatherless—what's your excuse?

This raises another point, about Obama the role model. For years, America's most visible black heroes have been athletes and entertainers; commentators have observed that Obama's place in the mainstream imagination was prepared for him by people like Arthur Ashe, Sydney Poitier, Tiger Woods, and Will Smith. We can add to this list Jay-Z, probably the most iconic hip-hop role model of all time. Indeed, the two men form a mutual appreciation society: Jay-Z has called himself "the Barack of rhymers"; Obama appropriated Jay's shoulder-brush maneuver on the stump and gave him choice inauguration seats.

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Their affinity goes deeper. Among Jay-Z's masterstrokes is that he never tried to rewrite the rules of the game beyond the one that said a black man couldn't win. While he takes pains to portray his success as, at bottom, a racial coup, he's never been interested in dismantling the status quo so much as infiltrating and mastering it. This is a fair description of what Obama did, too—with one crucial exception. For Jay-Z, the fact that he got rich as a businessman constitutes its own rebellion. Obama, though, is a former community organizer who chose public service over private-sector paychecks. His example might open up new sorts of narratives in hip-hop, ones where power isn't a synonym for wealth.

In this regard, T.I.'s 2008 CD, Paper Trail, might be the first proper album of the Obama age. It is a work of personal reckoning well-suited for the "new era of responsibility," the bipolar chronicle of a gangsta passionately defending and critiquing the choices that have brought hard times upon him. (T.I. will be headed to jail this year for amassing a small ballistics stockpile.) "Your values is in disarray, prioritizing horribly," he raps, "unhappy with the riches 'cause you're piss-poor morally." This might mark the first time that moral shortcoming has been invoked in a diss rhyme—and the line gains heft when you imagine T.I. aiming it not just at competitors but at himself. More recently, the flamboyantly boorish Cam'ron released a charmingly downsized single, "I Hate My Job," which imagines the daily frustrations of an office girl with dreams of a nursing career and an ex-con trying to re-enter the workforce. At a basic level, Obama—and, to be sure, the recession—has put social awareness into vogue, and if he helps to foreclose a certain radicalism in hip-hop, these examples suggest a new style of political engagement, distinct from the long-marginalized sermons of so-called conscious rap.

What changes would Obama himself like to see? In campaign-trail interviews, he said he could do with less materialism, misogyny, and N-words in the music, even as he recognized the complex circumstances that foster those preoccupations. Talking about rap, he often sounds like the hip homeroom teacher affectionately telling his students to stand up straight. In one of Obama's most widely circulated quotes about hip-hop, he offered a gentle sartorial admonishment: "Brothers should pull their pants up." On the score of materialism and misogyny, his wish might come true. Getting natural-waist jeans into heavy rotation on BET? Well, fixing the economy might be easier.

Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.

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