Though it may not make much sense to you, Vic Mensa is really mad right now that you’re distracting him from counting his money, and he kind of wants to fight you about it. That’s the impression he gives at least in his video for U Mad, directed by Grant Singer (who’s on something of a roll right now) and featuring Kanye West, riot police, a bull, and a large group of young men who seem to share his generally angry stance toward everything.
There’s always been a place for aggression in hip hop, but for the most part it’s been pushed to the margins since the height of early ’90s L.A. gangsta rap. Street riots just don’t appeal to the average consumer the way that bottle service does, and club-oriented hip hop has –with the complicated exception of Eminem– dominated the urban charts for the past 20 years. Unadulterated aggression just doesn’t sell as well as party tracks -even the mid-2000s gangsta rap revival was epitomized by a track called In Da Club. Vic doesn’t seem to particularly care, though, and U Mad sees him taking his place among a series of young rappers who are coordinating their brands with the imagery of hyper-masculine fight music.
U Mad is only the latest example of this. Between Kanye West’s aggressively masculine BRIT Awards performance and Kendrick Lamar’s all-male To Pimp A Butterfly artwork, hip hop seems to be trending towards a new form of sexism, less objectifying and more deliberately exclusionary. Women aren’t being put down and objectified –they’re simply being forced out of the picture all-together. What’s left is a sense of aggressive brotherhood that orients its power away from solipsistic self-aggrandizement and outward towards a direct confrontation with the viewer. For the first time in awhile, I’m watching a mainstream hip hop video that doesn’t include my gaze in the glorification of its protagonist –instead it turns its protagonist’s gaze on me in an alienating act of aggressive confrontation. Vic wants to fight, and first and foremost he wants to fight me. I relate more to the riot squad that he’s fighting than I do to the squad of angry young men who are standing at his back.
In some ways, this feels exploitative. The ‘mob of angry black men’ is one of America’s uglier racial tropes, and to use that as a vehicle for a song about making fun of other people’s sneakers seems like a nasty act of self-objectification. At the same time, though, it’s powerful imagery. Race aside for a minute, it’s intimidating to see a large group of muscular men pushing each other and mean-mugging me. If this were real life I would be very much afraid. The racial element, especially in relation to its current American political context, only enhances the experience: Vic & co. are mad at me, they have every right to be mad at me, and I should probably listen to them.
Of course this is all just a power move. It’s not about what I experience on a personal gut level: it’s about how I experience Vic Mensa and Kanye West. The intimidation I experience translates into Vic Mensa’s and Kanye West’s ability to intimidate me. It’s still their video, and the extras are still only there to support them –they’re not much better off than the average objectified video girl–. The only difference is that their eyes aren’t directed on Vic Mensa and Kanye: they’re directed at me.
That, even if it’s ultimately all the same thing, makes a world of difference in terms of my critical experience. I don’t walk away thinking about how awesome Vic Mensa is because everything around him seems to confirm his awesomeness. I think about how intimidating he is because of his participation in a larger intimidating force. He’s not the swaged-out center of the universe: he’s the head of a squad that will, if they decide that my Trues aren’t true, beat the shit out of me. Even if his squad’s intent doesn’t make sense to me, or him, or anybody, he’s still a part of it, and I’m not.
Maybe that’s problematic on Vic and Kanye’s part. Given the sensitivity of the current American political situation, it’s undeniably exploitative and probably irresponsible to promote your personal brand by filming a group of black men clashing with a group of armed riot police. But I think it speaks well for a genre that might finally be getting tired of crass materialism and sexist objectification. It’s not just about sex and clubs and self-glorification anymore. There’s something out there worth fighting for, and even though that something isn’t quite clear, it might be enough right now just to fight for it.