Game Theory.

Maybe you have heard that rappers Jay-Z and The Game are involved in a dispute of sorts. Maybe you have heard that The Game said some rather unkind things about Jay-Z’s pop star wife, Beyonce. And maybe, over the years, you have grown weary of hearing about any and all hip-hop beefs.

But have you thought about the implications of a response from Jay-Z, the so-called “closest thing to a hegemon which the rap world has known for a long time,” in terms of an international relations perspective?

Mark Lynch at Foreign Policy* has:

But the limits on his ability to use this power recalls the debates about U.S. primacy. Should he use this power to its fullest extent, as neo-conservatives would advise, imposing his will to reshape the world, forcing others to adapt to his values and leadership? Or should he fear a backlash against the unilateral use of power, as realists such as my colleague Steve Walt or liberals such as John Ikenberry would warn, and instead exercise self-restraint?

The changes in Jay-Z’s approach over the years suggest that he recognizes the realist and liberal logic … but is sorely tempted by the neo-conservative impulse. Back when he was younger, Jay-Z was a merciless, ruthless killer in the “beefs” which define hip hop politics. He never would have gotten to the top without that. But since then he’s changed his style and has instead largely chosen to stand above the fray. As Jay-Z got older and more powerful, the marginal benefits of such battles declined and the costs increased even as the number of would-be rivals escalated. Just as the U.S. attracts resentment and rhetorical anti-Americanism simply by virtue of being on top, so did Jay-Z attract a disproportionate number of attackers. “I got beefs with like a hundred children” he bragged/complained on one track.

Actually, Jay-Z sort of addressed how he might handle conflicts with lesser talents in the future. Let’s refer back to “Dig A Hole” from his forgettable comeback album, Kingdom Come:

You let that man hype you to go against your idol/Knowing good and goddamn well this what I do/Think I’m in the office, I lost my grind/That’s how kids become orphans, you lost your mind?/I keep my enemies close/I give ’em enough rope/They put themselves in the air/I just kick away the chair …

… Hov gon’ get you, I ain’t forget your little disrespect/No Hov, daddy gone spank your for that shit you said/It’s hard to do, when you got nothing to prove/Everbody know you better, you in a lose lose/Even if you win, ultimately you lose/Real niggas like, “why Hov talkin to dude?”

Of course, Jay was talking to former Roc-A-Fella mates Damon Dash and Cam’ron. However, The Game fits neatly into that narrative.

The important exception: no one has ever attacked Jay, or Beyonce for that matter, in this way. Cam’ron, the one rapper who seemed best suited for that style of fight, broached the subject of Beyonce in one forgettable Jay-Z diss track – “You Gotta Love It” – but backed off in the end. Even Nas didn’t resort to that line of attack in “Ether.”

That’s what makes this beef all the more different. Sometimes, self-restraint doesn’t go quite far enough. And any dude – myself included – who has had to defend the honor of his girlfriend or wife in front of a crowd knows all about the dilemma facing Jay-Z.

Noted foreign policy expert and hip-hop scholar Matt Yglesias explains:

One thing worth noting is that even when restraint can be identified as the best strategy, it’s often emotionally difficult to choose this path. When someone comes after you, you get angry. You want to respond in an intelligent and effective manner, yes, but there’s also a desire to do something that will make you feel better. And lashing out as per the Ledeen Doctrine (”Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business”) often can achieve that goal. And of course there’s a risk that members of Jay-Z’s camp who urge a policy of restraint will be accused of actively harboring pro-Game sympathies or otherwise failing to manifest a sufficient degree of loyalty.

This seems true. It’s one thing to call Jay old, say his skills are eroding or to ridicule him for wearing sandals and jeans. But it’s quite another to imply his wife regularly had sex with, say, Bruce Bowen, Dikembe Mutombo and Erick Dampier.

That would make me, were I her husband, righteously pissed. Not that he would dare to detail her possible sexual exploits with other men, specifically a number of NBA players. But that he would punctuate those claims by saying, and I quote, “I mean my b–h dont slang p—y like that.” (Certainly, you all can fill in the blanks)

And as obtuse and temperamental as The Game might be, he is certainly a capable challenger if we learned anything from his long-running feud with 50 Cent and G-Unit. He might seem a tempting target for Jay-Z, an overmatched contender who stepped up a bit too much in class.

But Lynch advises Jay-Z to not be lured by the low-hanging fruit:

His best hope is probably to sit back and let the Game self-destruct, something of which he’s quite capable (he’s already backing away from the hit on Beyonce) — while working behind the scenes to maintain his own alliance structure and to prevent any defections over to the Game’s camp. And it seems that thus far, that’s exactly what he’s doing.

Might Jay-Z handle this himself, just in time for the September release of Blueprint 3? Might he let it pass without another word? Or might he dispatch a subordinate, someone from the Young Gunz perhaps, and let them do his dirty work?

Actually, that’s more than plausible. In the past, Jay has even hinted at a preferring the use of Dick Cheney-like secret (character) assassination program, warning foes that “I’ll never make the news again/my man will shoot you” in La La La (Excuse Me Again).

Either way, you have to figure The Game** might have overreached this time. It’s vaguely reminiscent of Georgia’s mostly unprompted military attack of South Ossetia last August. Russia came back with a massive amount of heat.

Or, to bring it back to the street – because that’s really where hip-hop beefs belong – The Game seems to have written a check that his ass can’t cash.
* Reading Mark Lynch’s post about this beef reminded me that the best writing about hip hop often doesn’t come from hip-hop media outlets anymore. It makes me sad all over again when I think about the demise of Vibe.
** It’s very tough to hear The Game passionately use the word “nigger” in front of a crowd of eagerly responsive fans in Madrid. Not in Spain, yo. Please not in Spain.
(x-posted at False Hustle)


Joel Anderson —blackink —  writes about sports, politics, crime, courts, and other issues far beyond his competence at BuzzFeed. He has worked at media outlets in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Atlanta and contributed to a number of publications, including The Root and The American Prospect, among many others.
  • Grump

    This post should be designated as “Hip Hop on a Higher Level”.
    Good job!

  • dilettante

    The End is here.

    If FP uses hip hop beefs to illustrate realpolitik, does this redraw he line on when ‘slang’ is used to patronize/confine black people?

  • I always thought the co-optation of Nas was a bit of genius. It granted Nas new legitimacy and added to Jay’s not-inconsiderable status as a kingmaker.

    But I appreciate FP’s realist stance —– recognizing that Jay’s influence has limits. I’m trying to think of what a neoconservative rap career would look like. Puffy, maybe?

  • Lol. good points. Comparing 50 to some contemporary rogue state seems like a stretch because places like North Korea and Iran have practical objectives behind their madness (you could argue that there’s nothing mad about Iran’s quest for nukes other than a desire for leverage and regional superiority).

    Like you said: what does 50 want other than just fucking shit up? He’s sort of like…Zimbwabwe, an isolated country of limited means that still manages to be a major headache.