don't bless this mess

Let’s Not Do This Again

Photo: Jerod Harris/Getty Images

2022 was destined to be a train wreck. Last December’s COVID spike expressed the extent to which our guardrails were coming loose, and the arduous trek to the midterm elections weaponized the roiling ideological schisms of the decade, ramping up the heat on demonizing queer art and gender expression, denigrating women’s bodies, and dramatically overstating details about inner-city violence. Political power was up for grabs, and culture wars designed to curry favor with contentious, divided constituencies tainted every inch of public life.

The underlying theme of the year’s big conflicts was people gleefully abandoning their better judgment, heeding impulses to subvert audience expectations and court controversy. Rihanna fans were surprised to hear that Johnny Depp would walk in her Savage X Fenty Show Vol. 4 after his and Amber Heard’s defamation trial got memed across the internet and provided a playbook for the next high-profile celebrity case to turn into gossip fodder. Katy Perry, whose 2017 Witness rollout was an exhausting public display of her every liberal political impulse, stumped for Rick Caruso, the former-Republican real-estate billionaire who lost a bid for mayor of Los Angeles after promising to flood the streets with new LAPD officers. People piled onto the girlfriend of late Philadelphia rapper PnB Rock, deciding that she had put him in danger after posting a pic to Instagram of the Roscoe’s where he was killed, but it was later revealed that the suspects were already there when the couple arrived. We’ve spoken at various points this year about the effects of an overwhelming feeling of uncertainty on music, about the profound anxiety animating albums from Kendrick Lamar and SZA, about how everyone from Post Malone to Thom Yorke is writing songs about paranoia and depression. It’s equally important to observe how musicians and their supporters grappled with an era of tumultuous news outside of the records, how everyone navigated the minefield of grief and beef the year turned into, and the darker pathways our bad habits can lead us.

The hail of millionaire and billionaire tantrums we weathered this year made being online feel like living in close proximity to a filthy factory, bad vibes trickling into the public square like runoff, as they do whenever the man who bought Twitter uses his lordship over the service to avenge his personal slights. The standoff between Nicki Minaj and Cardi B evolved into a connected universe of rifts between artists and fandoms that was difficult to keep up with as it snowballed to include Latto and JT of City Girls. The tension felt like fallout from the many years when hip-hop had room for only one or maybe two very successful women. Spite dragged everyone down. Fans turned into foot soldiers; harsh tactics were employed. Awfulness — ageist jabs, body-shaming, and death threats — flourished. Classic diss records did not, though the cocky Cardi performance in GloRilla’s “Tomorrow 2” is the kind of show you can give only when you’re keenly aware of exactly how many people hate you. To be fair, Nicki collecting talented women from both sides of the Atlantic for the remix to her No. 1 hit “Super Freaky Girl” is the same kind of gesture of interregional solidarity as the New York–Memphis connection of “Tomorrow 2.” But if these camps legitimately cared about creating a united front, they wouldn’t have allowed shit that seemed solvable through phone calls to spill into public discourse. There was just a lot of attention to be gained from getting rowdy. And people don’t know what to do about the influx of successful women in rap except to be witheringly critical.

At the root of every dispute, particularly the infighting about space in Grammy rap categories, is the reality that nobody is all that accustomed to seeing 20-something women dominate airplay the way they have in this decade, and few have had to contend with a 40-year-old mom topping charts with a twerk anthem. That’s what’s going on when the new class is deemed disposable and its predecessors are called “washed up,” right? Why is Hitmaka — the producer formerly known as the rapper Yung Berg, who compared his stroke game to a Michael Vick pass in his debut single, “Sexy Lady,” and went on to co-produce copious Ty Dolla $ign and Jeremih bedroom jams — suddenly a stickler for bars and a critic of music that centers sexuality?

Being an astute purveyor of trends, it’s hard not to view Drake’s collaboration album with 21 Savage — a calculated swingback following the divided response to the dance-music excursions of Honestly, Nevermind — as a tacit acceptance of the lay of the land, a trust-fall into the battle-of-the-sexes talk he knows people love from him. Chopping at Ice Spice and DRAM seemed like attempts to locate the exact frequency of pettiness people were buzzing on in 2022. But the thinly veiled darts at Megan Thee Stallion in Her Loss’s “Circo Loco” — “This bitch lie about getting shots, but she still a stallion / She don’t even get the joke, but she still smiling” — were typical of the year in which people took every opportunity to demean women and any excuse to defend men.

There are bloggers and media personalities who spent months casting doubt on whether Megan was shot in 2020, only to arrive at the Tory Lanez trial learning that this was never in question, who ditched that nothingburger to criticize Stallion’s sexual history and question her testimony, who seem more excited by Lanez as a pariah than a musician or pandemic-era influencer, whose idea of fairness involved harassing a shooting victim. There are clout goblins and gossip sites that care more about attention than accuracy or accountability. (Either you hate the gun violence plaguing hip-hop or you don’t mind if someone you hate gets clapped. The both-sides position — “Ah, ahh, both are annoying” — is grisly. Think of the last time someone got shot and you thought, I mean … It was probably some remorseless piece of shit. Some killer or dictator.) Black women need the same diligence and protection sought for men. They don’t deserve smear campaigns on top of physical violence and institutional oppression.

Ye began the year portraying himself as an inspirational figure whose altruistic mission is hampered by false narratives but spent the rest of it weaponizing his fans against everyone from Adidas executives he took issue with to friends and family asking him to tone down the rhetoric. Parading DaBaby and Marilyn Manson around through last year’s Donda rollout, Ye showed he was prone to the same ideological traps ensnaring men in this decade — a willingness to see oneself in the plight of men under fire for disrespect or gross mistreatment of others instead of the people on the business end of their actions, the fashioning a personal politics out of whatever random assortment of real or perceived slights — but his unrepentant embrace of white-supremacist conspiracy theorists and classic antisemitic rhetoric was a signature case of new media driving people down the same old pathways of thought.

It felt like these developments could only go on in the era of muddying waters and doubling down, when singer-songwriters fixated on the joys of being inaccessible and people all over the entertainment industry got posterized in the marketplace of ideas for remarks they hadn’t completely thought through, diving into the arms of right-wing reactionaries always at the ready to give the hard sell on how identity politics is out of control.

But Ye isn’t the first Black superstar to have a conservative shift that felt like a betrayal of his stated ideals, and he’s far from the only American tycoon to become a fount of racist, conspiratorial misinformation at a crisis point in history. Slavery drove big business, and plenty of the fierce antagonism to abolition stemmed from the many fortunes made off the literal backs of stolen Black families. Henry Ford spent some of the last years of his life by turns blaming Jewish capitalists for World War II, doing everything in his power to discourage the United States from getting involved, and manufacturing the B-24 bombers that struck Germany in the early ’40s. Ye is dipping into a very popular well of Jewish-cabal theories that date back centuries and aligning himself with people pushing the same nationalist “America First” bullshit everybody’s great-grandparents heard, this time with Boost technology.

Antisemitism, like any ideology woven around racism, sprinkles pixie dust over real frustrations, adding the absurdity of myth and monster stories, creating schisms in neighborhoods and arts communities by stoking fear and jealousy. The tech is new, but conservatism is about holding the line, celebrating the old ways. And history repeats when no one reads. But Ye’s latest apparent downfall of his groundbreaking fashion and music empire is more than just the drums finally coming together in his own Greek-tragedy type of beat, the latest pileup on the Slip ’N Slide leading to reactionary politics. Ye was so desperate for approval in a negative news cycle (of his own creation) that he let the proverbial wolves in the door. The reactionaries he hangs with now have well-rehearsed talking points and an understanding that any exposure is an opportunity to win converts and that a lot of hurt, angry people are yearning for an organizing philosophy that makes their social frustrations make sense.

That guiding ideology can be solidarity or it can be hate. You fall into fascism via slopes, not cliffs. As the former president calls for the literal dissolution of the Constitution, it’s time to set houses in order. Hip-hop media — and popular music by extension — is not immune to the lure of sexist, racist, nationalist rhetoric, even if people of color are often the primary targets of it. The year of stress tests to our capacity for kindness and our susceptibility to lies — as fandoms clashed and hit below the belt and chauvinist rap media personalities treated Megan Thee Stallion as if she were a defendant and not the victim in the year’s court proceedings — identified the rifts in our communities that could tear us apart in a political climate that managed to get even bloodier than the mass murders we read about each month, and nothing in the long-term forecast points anywhere promising. The way everyone acted this year … let’s try not to do it again, huh? Let’s rein it in. Let’s reset.

Let’s Not Do This Again