Rap Criticism and the Figure of the Hater
One cliche of music criticism, especially by old-school rock critics, is the idea of hip hop as simply a bottomless pit of hollow bling-ish materialism. I was reminded of this by reading some archived Robert Christgau reviews for Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. The “Dean of Rock Critics” is particularly set on this view, using it to advance his general argument about the decline of rock music (something I’m not going to quibble with).
Defenders of hip hop make the fallacious argument that an opposition exists between soulless material rap and “conscious” political hip hop that contains the seeds of revolution. This argument is wishful thinking for left-leaning music critics. Most rappers are materialist and those that are political are either wishy-washy “We are the World” types recording advertisements for Gap Third World debt relief campaigns or raving conspiracy theorists rapping about CIA crack sales, 9/11 Loose Change, the Illuminati, and UFOs.
Rather, rap’s true conflict takes place within the zone of the material. On one side, the groupie-having, Cristal-spilling, Bentley with spinners driving player. On the other, the “stone cold player hater” who is forever trying to stop the player’s “shine.” The conflict between the player and the hater is a historically under-examined aspect of rap music criticism.
Rappers are forever spitting into the wind to banish the “hater.” He is, to paraphrase Marx, a specter haunting the VIP section of the club. The rapper is forever threatening physical violence to the hater, accusing the hater of jealousy, and complaining about the hater’s influence among the “streets.” As much as the player-rapper proclaims his dominance in all fields of material (financial, cultural, sexual), the presence of the hater causes the player deep anxiety. The video for Nas’ song “Hate Me Now” depicts the rapper as Jesus being scourged by stone-throwing haters, and The Game continues the religious analogy by rapping that he is “hated on so much, Passion of Christ need a sequel.”
The hater is, with rare exceptions, undefined–an amorphous entity that hangs back beyond the field of vision like a monster in a pretentious indie horror film. All we know of the hater is that he (it is always a he) is unjustly jealous of the player’s success, forever defaming him, and is also engaged in a process of hyping and rivalry.
The most famous hater is the Madd Rapper, a parody constructed by (then) Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy Entertainment who is, well, always angry at the player and hating on him. The Madd Rapper lives at home with his mother and makes “grimey” music that he constantly proclaims is of a higher quality than that of famous rappers. The Madd Rapper corresponds roughly to the stereotype of the pretentious indie rapper, but we cannot take this as a good model for the hater. Most rappers are not afraid of haters because they are more high-brow. So why does the hater cause the rapper such fear?
There is one song that expliticly takes the perspective of the hater–Dipset member J.R. Writer’s song “Grill ‘Em.” Here we see the “hater” as an aspiring player who is disadvantaged in all aspects–cut off in the parking lot, overcharged and harassed by the bouncer, banned from the VIP, and forced to “show ID.” The hater lacks wealth, status, female companionship, and fly gear. He is, to quote Giorgio Agamben–homo sacer, a nonentity who can be abused with impunity.
The hater reacts to this discrimination by becoming a “stone cold player hater,” an malevolent figure who is willing to damage the player’s expensive shoes (“put a scuff in ya Bathing Apes”), foil the player’s attempts at seduction, and display extreme animosity towards everyone by “grilling” them (staring at them in a harsh and hostile manner). In the second verse of the song, J.R. Writer’s hater even triggers physical violence when his anger at being looked down upon by the player.
In this context, the hater is a radical populist who hates the elitist player and is willing to do whatever it takes to destroy him. The anxiety of the player comes from the knowledge that the “stone cold player hater” is capable of doing so. The players fear a mass of the player hater proletariat storming the barricades en masse and hanging them from the laces of their Nike Air Forces. The fear of the hater is the fear of the unwashed masses, united by their hatred of the Cristal-popping elite.
Yet there is more to the hater than a simple class conflict. In Hustle and Flow, the aspiring rapper D’Jay turns to violence after a big name rapper drunkenly flushes D’Jay’s demo tape down the toilet. The rapper had previously agreed to listen to D’Jay’s tape–the objective of the movie’s quest narrative. D’Jay beats the rapper to a pulp and shoots a member of his entourage in the shoulder. After going to jail, D’Jay’s fame rises when word spreads of his feat of violence.
So we can also see the hater as a kind of reflection of the rapper’s earlier self–at a moment when the rapper had not yet hit it big. The rapper fears the hater because the hater is a part of him–and he knows that the hater has the power to humiliate him and piggyback off of the rapper’s popularity. This is why the rapper never addresses the hater by name. The rapper, in his paranoia, imagines the hater to be everywhere–and is also too cowardly to pick a fight that he knows he may lose. It is easier to rant about phantom haters than confront one. Rappers will only engage in “beefs” with other rappers, just as a nobleman would refuse a duel with a peasant. To engage in the battle would only lower their social standing and boost the challenger’s–and there is the risk of loss and humiliation.