Introduction – Death Dance for Capitalism: Watch the Throne as Prophetic Critique

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)

Jay Z and Kanye West’s 2011 Watch the Throne is a self-avowed “luxury rap” album centered on Eurocentric constructions of nobility, artistry, and race. Notably, it is also an album about the excess associated with royalty. In this book, I perform a close reading of the album’s sonic and social commentary while placing it in its social, cultural, and political contexts across the Black Atlantic. In particular, I examine how the album alternately performs and critiques the mutually reinforcing ideas of Europe, nobility, old money, artistry, and their standard bearer, whiteness.

In 1920 W. E. B. Du Bois wrote of this very network of white privilege in “The Souls of White Folk,” chapter 2 of his Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil. “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.”

It is in the connections between Jay and Ye’s boastful luxury rap to this 100-year-old premonition of “swagger” that this book finds its raison d’être.

In this study, I argue that this system of racial privilege that has undergirded the global capitalist economy for the past 400 years is now in its death throes—that Black swagger has revealed the racial underpinnings of capitalism and broken the spell of capitalist hegemony. More specifically, I suggest that if we listen closely to this “dangerous, disturbing, and subversive” album we can hear, as Jacques Attali put it, that it “makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible, that will impose itself and regulate the order of things.” While much remains unclear at this time of global precarity, tumult, and realignment, I argue with certainty that Jay and Ye’s Obama-era album—and its well-publicized fallout—can be shown to “herald the future.”

It prophesies nothing less than the end of capitalism.

Watch the Throne is capitalism’s death dance.

In this book, I show how Jay and Ye seem to accede to Eurocentric signifiers of Kultur, but through a strategy that I dub “critical excess,” performatively exceed the logics of Europe, nobility, and artistry and break “the spell” of white supremacy. Articulating the Black Atlantic, postcolonial, and critical theory of Du Bois, Houston Baker, Frantz Fanon, Tricia Rose, Paul Gilroy, Daphne Brooks, Fred Moten, Stuart Hall, Cedric Robinson, and Kimberlé Crenshaw to Jacques Attali’s theorizations about the prophetic nature of music in his Noise: The Political Economy of Music, I argue that the album brings the idea of Europe to its logical conclusion and heralds the final stage of late capitalism—our current one-percenter era…

“the New Gilded Age.”

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