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Chris Richards, the Washington Post’s pop music critic, saw the incident as indicative of a larger conundrum for Obama.
“It seems like [the White House] is in a difficult position, because the hip-hop community has supported the president, but when he shows support back, it opens him up to criticism,” he said. “It’s a tightrope act, and they’re still figuring that one out.”
The Obama administration is not the first to have a tenuous relationship with hip-hop. In 1992, then-candidate Bill Clinton responded to racially controversial comments by the female rapper Sister Souljah by implying that the musician’s views were comparable to those of white supremacist David Duke.
While some in the hip-hop community were disappointed at Clinton’s reaction, the “Sister Souljah moment” was also seen as a way for Clinton to curry favor with white voters uncomfortable with liberal elements of the Democratic base.
That same year, Ice T’s band Body Count released its self-titled album with the single “Cop Killer,” drawing the ire of Vice President Dan Quayle and Tipper Gore and helping to usher in the creation of the “Parental Advisory” labels that still adorn albums covers.
And West was certainly not the only rapper to take shots at Bush for his handling of Hurricane Katrina — New Orleans rapper Lil Wayne closed his massively popular 2006 “Dedication 2” mixtape with “Georgia ... Bush,” a song which not-so-subtly suggests the government may have been behind the damage to the city.
Despite these flare-ups, Jay-Z may be at the helm of a new era in relations between hip-hop and Washington. Richards and Reeves both pointed to the role of the hip-hop community in the 2008 election.
Obama’s body man, Reggie Love, reportedly added some hip-hop tracks to the candidate’s iPod. During an event in North Carolina, Obama even seemed to some to reference the Jay-Z song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” in response to criticism from primary rival Hillary Clinton.
“What helped solidify Obama with the next generation was his popularity with hip-hop,” Reeves said. “It showed that the generation that helped get him elected thought about race and power differently than their parents.”
But it is that move toward mainstream influence that remains the major difference between the two poles occupied by Jay-Z and West.
On the one hand, there’s Jay-Z, the reformed street hustler turned business deal-maker who now moves with the biggest power broker in all the land. “Jay-Z’s no longer a gangsta rapper, he’s a corporate figure who raps,” Reeves said. “Everyone loves the underdog who overcomes, and Jay-Z represents that. But he’s now about as cuddly as anything in pop culture.”
And on the other hand there’s West, the iconoclastic loudmouth, eager to break into the corridors of power but appearing to lack the impulse control necessary to achieve his ambitions.
“Washington is a place where cooperation helps you succeed in a lot of ways, and Kanye doesn’t seem to care about anything but his art and what he wants to say,” Richards said. “There are no Kanye Wests in Washington. That kind of character doesn’t really exist here.”