- Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip Hop by Michael Jeffries
Hip hop culture in the United States is widely perceived as a "black thang." Of course, there is some historical accuracy to this belief. Blacks played the lead role in its cultural development even though theirs was certainly not the only major influence. If hip hop music was revolutionary in its debut to the world, it was largely so on the basis of its willingness to speak truth to power—however, at times, misguided that "truth" was—without primary consideration for financial gain. Contemporary hip hop culture is an altogether different beast, willing to perpetuate a monolithic and frequently pathological black experience for consumption by a largely white marketplace. More often than not, practitioners and proponents of hip hop culture blame the "contamination" (read: white capitalistic intervention) on white corporate America, while the reality that black artists are willfully complicit in this economic enterprise is glossed over or explained away. Thus, a pressing issue that rarely gets airplay in this discussion around hip hop's "contamination" is the efficacy of these transactional cultural/economic relationships for both the artists and their consumers. Michael Jeffries's Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip Hop teases out such issues, arguing that hip hop is a complex space where racial and gender norms often conflict and intersect. As Jeffries observes, "The rap-as-resistance debate implies a struggle against white power, but whiteness alone does not adequately describe the power structure that organizes American society. Hip Hop's struggle is [End Page 265] often framed as a guerilla war against white patriarchy rather than simply whiteness" (9). Jeffries's introductory remarks shift away from the romanticized script that hip hop is a victim of corporate corruption. Instead, he grapples with the complexities of racial politics in hip hop's consumption by black and white consumers. Although conceptualizing whiteness in hip hop is central to both Tricia Rose's The Hip Hop Wars and Bakari Kitwana's Why White Kids Love Hip Hop, Jeffries's argument builds upon those interventions by including full interviews with a sampling of hip hop's white consumers. A recognizably unique contribution to his study, Jeffries explains, "the interview sections provide a crucial check for my understanding of coolness and racial politics in commercially successful hip-hop, as I document meaning as understood by everyday hip-hop fans for whom hip-hop is a passion but not necessarily a vocation" (8).
Jeffries situates his analysis through an intriguing explication of one of hip hop's most culturally recognizable archetypes, the thug. Presenting a case study of "thug" rappers, including 50 Cent, T.I., and the originator of "Thug Life," Tupac Shakur, Jeffries embarks upon an investigation of black manhood and its reception. His research is framed by three prominent questions: "How should we understand black men's hip-hop performances . . . do black male listeners interpret and rearticulate hip-hop's definition differently than white male listeners . . . what can hip-hop tell us about race, class, and gender?" (21). Thug Life boasts an interdisciplinary framework of Black Studies and sociology, productively exploring how the thug reflects the current shift in twenty-first-century American racial discourses while situating negotiations of black manhood within this context.
Perhaps most penetrating about Jeffries's argument is his theorization of complex cool, a twenty-first-century update to the progression of Black Cool Studies. Complex cool pivots on the traditional conceptualization of cool pose as an apathetic performance: "[G]oals and outcomes of cool pose are fixed; no matter the context or form the pose takes, the aim is pride, strength, and control, and cool pose inevitably sets black men on a collision course with each other and with whites" (60). Jeffries's thesis turns on the argument that thugs complicate one-dimensional performances of black manhood personified by cool pose by weaving together narratives that can "simultaneously express pain, love, hedonism, an mercenary aggression" (60). The need for complex cool situates itself...