J. Griffith Rollefson, University of Michigan Press, 2021
A book about Jay-Z & Kanye West’s death dance for capitalism…
Watch the Throne
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.”
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“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).
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“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).
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“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.
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“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).
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A Video Introduction to the Book (from the SMI Summer Lecture Series)