A book about Jay-Z & Kanye West’s death dance for capitalism…

Watch the Throne

“Usually you have this much taste, you European

That’s the end of that way of thinking, nigga, never again”


“Sophisticated ignorance, write my curses in cursive”



Watch the Throne is a self-avowed “luxury rap” album centered on Eurocentric conceptions of nobility, artistry, and haute couture.  This book, Critical Excess, performs a close reading of the sonic and social commentary on this 2011 album, examining how it alternately imagines and critiques the mutually reinforcing ideas of Europe, nobility, old money, art, and their standard bearer, whiteness.

Reading the album alongside Black critical theory and work on the prophetic nature of music, this book argues that through their performance of “Black excellence, opulence, decadence,” Jay-Z and Kanye West poured gas on the white resentment of the Obama presidency—a resentment that would ultimately spill over into public life, make audible the dog whistling of the Far Right, and embolden white supremacists to come out from under their rocks. 

Ultimately, Rollefson argues, Jay-Z and Kanye West’s performance of swaggering “critical excess” on Watch the Throne exceeds the limits of conspicuous consumption and heralds the final stage of late capitalism—“the New Gilded Age.” 

* * *


Critical Excess offers a much-awaited and outstanding meditation on hip-hop’s drive to imagine the end(s) of racial capitalism. From Fanon to Black gospel, from Magilla Gorilla to Afrodiasporas, Rollefson tracks the iconoclasms of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, detailing how the record not only anticipated the explosive national and international racial politics of the late 2010s but came to be deeply implicated in their emergence. It is electrifying to see W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, and Achille Mbembe sit in the company of Jay, Ye, and Mos Def – and wince not. I simply cannot wait to teach with this book.”

Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Princeton University, Classics — author of Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League (Penguin Random House) and Divine Institutions: Religions and Community in the Middle Roman Republic (Princeton University Press).

* * *

“J. Griffith Rollefson delivers a fresh and necessary revisitation to Watch the Throne in time for the pivotal album’s 10th anniversary. Rollefson’s analysis is wide-ranging and deep-probing, offering an intersectional framework for understanding Watch the Throne as a significant case study of engaging hip hop’s tethering to globalization, commercialism, and racial performance.”

Regina N. Bradley, Kennesaw State University, English and African Diaspora Studies — author of Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South (University of North Carolina Press).

* * *

“Rollefson does a solid job of establishing that Watch the Throne was mostly received as a tasteless flaunting of wealth, then presses that reception and offers something far more compelling and rooted in deep histories of double—and triple—meanings in Black arts and cultures. The argument becomes particularly timely in the way Rollefson ties the album’s performance to the contemporary political moment on both sides of the Atlantic.

Justin D. Burton, Rider University, Music — author of Posthuman Rap (Oxford University Press) and editor of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music (Oxford University Press.

* * *

“This is an excellent book with a highly original thesis and thorough theoretical analyses of the album and its related themes. Rollefson has a flair for prose that is at once academic and performative.”

Justin A. Williams, University of Bristol, Music — author of Rhymin’ and Stealin’: Musical Borrowing in Hip-Hop (University of Michigan Press) and editor of The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop (Cambridge University Press).

* * *

* * *

subhuman > human < superhuman

* * *

“I’m ridin’ dirty, tryna get filthy”


“Here it is that the comedy verges to tragedy. The first minor note is struck, all unconsciously, by those worthy souls in whom consciousness of high descent brings burning desire to spread the gift abroad,—the obligation of nobility to the ignoble. Such sense of duty assumes two things: a real possession of the heritage and its frank appreciation by the humble-born. So long, then, as humble black folk, voluble with thanks, receive barrels of old clothes from lordly and generous whites, there is much mental peace and moral satisfaction.

But when the black man begins to dispute the white man’s title to certain alleged bequests of the Fathers in wage and position, authority and training; and when his attitude toward charity is sullen anger rather than humble jollity;

when he insists on his human right to swagger and swear and waste,—then the spell is suddenly broken.”

* * *

-W. E. B. Du Bois, “The Souls of White Folk,” chapter 2 of Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (1920)

Music is prophecy. Its styles and economic organization are ahead of the rest of society because it explores, much faster than material reality can, the entire range of possibilities in a given code. It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose itself and regulate the order of things; it is not only the image of things, but the transcending of the everyday, the herald of the future.

For this reason musicians, even when officially recognized, are dangerous, disturbing, and subversive; for this reason it is impossible to separate their history from that of repression and surveillance.”

-Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (1977/1985)

“These effects at the level of style and aesthetics suggest affirmative ways in which profound social dislocation and rupture can be managed and perhaps contested in the cultural arena. Let us imagine these hip-hop principles as a blueprint for social resistance and affirmation: create sustaining narratives, accumulate them, layer, embellish, and transform them.

However, be also prepared for rupture, find pleasure in it, in fact, plan on social rupture. When these ruptures occur, use them in creative ways that will prepare you for a future in which survival will demand a sudden shift in ground tactics.

-Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994)

the companion playlist

the album playlist

J. Griffith Rollefson is professor of music at University College Cork, National University of Ireland.  

Rollefson is the author of Flip The Script: European Hip Hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality, (winner of the Society for Ethnomusicology’s Ruth Stone Book Prize), founding co-editor of the journal Global Hip Hop Studies (with University of Cape Town’s Adam Haupt), and Principal Investigator of the five-year, €2m European Research Council initiative CIPHER: Hip Hop Interpellation, which is mapping hip hop knowledge flows on six continents (2019-2024). 

His research has been recognized by the European Commission, ACLS, AMS, SEM, Volkswagen Stiftung, DAAD, Enterprise Ireland, and British Academy, and is published in Black Music Research JournalAmerican Music, Twentieth-Century Music, Popular Music and Society, Journal of World Popular Music, and in the edited volumes Hip Hop in Europe (LIT Verlag), Native Tongues: An African Hip Hop Reader (Africa World Press), The Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Studies (OUP), Interpretation (Paraguay Press), Made in Ireland: Studies in Popular Music (Routledge), the forthcoming Global Hiphopography (Palgrave Macmillan), and elsewhere. 

For more information on Griff’s work, please visit https://europeanhiphop.org/ and to get involved in CIPHER, please submit a gem of hip hop knowledge at https://globalcipher.org/, check out www.ucc.ie/cipher, and follow @GlobalCipher on Twitter and Instagram.

A Video Introduction to the Book (from the SMI Summer Lecture Series)

Who did those ill fronts on the book cover? https://www.gabrielurist.com/