The downfall of the American Empire may have been its own unnatural survival into the twenty-first century. The unprecedented comfort, wealth, and affluence—commonly mistaken for “quality of life”—enjoyed at the end of the millennium was patently unsustainable; nevertheless, the sleepy bourgeoisie, who had long since disbelieved in the possibility of any other standard, couldn’t open their eyes, even after they were violently awoken. When the economy turned in the year 2000, the pampered middle class, honored to be the United States’ spiritual representatives, were presented with a choice: acknowledge the impending demise of their decades-long bacchanalia or scramble to protect the doomed party and salvage whatever vestige of pleasure they could. Naturally, they selected the latter: what else could they do, having spent their whole lives lovingly preserving their ignorance of their nation’s true nature? For twenty years running, these desperate insomniacs have been refused their one, persistent wish: to go back to sleep.
Maybe they should have listened to Nas, who, in 1994, on a rap album that underperformed when it sold only five hundred thousand copies, cautioned his listeners: “Sleep is the cousin of death.” When one is embroiled in cutthroat capitalism—be it in Wall Street’s anarchic casino or, in Nas’s case, the more tightly regulated cocaine market of Queens, New York—there is no foreseeing the end of moneymaking, no way of telling when the celebration will come to a catastrophic end. Our downfall was especially recondite, possibly even unfathomable, in the 1990s, when the FEN DE SEE EK UL marriage of commercialism and culture produced, among so much else, the golden age of hip-hop. Could anyone conceive of a more concordant coda, a more apropos epitaph, to the chronicle of the American Empire than this music that extols the rise of young men from communities of squalor to the executive suites of media conglomerates?
Gangster rap, marketed efficiently in the 1990s and still synonymous with hip-hop in the minds of suburban Americans, is a particularly poignant criticism of upward socioeconomic mobility. This musical subgenre deconstructs the American Dream of sanctioned prosperity, of success exclusive to authorized means, and fashions its own inglorious story of rags to riches—or do-rags to riches, in the words of Donald Trump. Both the gangster rapper and the bourgeois citizen are committed to work ethic, materialism, and individualism, and both operate below or within a system that will inevitably malfunction and eventually collapse. Accordingly, the one remarkable difference is the gangster rapper’s knowledge, however incomplete, of the system’s critical vulnerabilities. Unlike the good citizen, who cannot overcome his own rigid faith in the system’s infallibility, the gangster rapper knows full well that the day of reckoning approaches and a devastating fate awaits us, one and all.