One of the most potent expository tools in Succession is its surgical deployment of musical cues in narrative exposition and character development. The lush baroque-style compositions of composer Nicholas Brittell are a perfect soundtrack of the powerful self-image of the main Succession characters — the herculean Roy family. However, classical music and dissonant chords are not the singular benchmark for musical storyboarding. The position of hip-hop and its relationship with the wealthy white class serves as a recurring soundboard in the HBO series, particularly in shaping the nuances of Kendall Roy’s character in revealing and astonishing ways.
In the first few moments of the pilot, Kendall Roy (played by Jeremy Strong) is in the back of a black town car on the way to the Waystar Royco headquarters. He’s anticipating closing an acquisition deal for flashy media company Vaulter, and taking his position at the mantle of a megacorp. To ready himself for his nascent triumph, he turns the backseat into a faux heavy bag, aggressively drumming on his thighs while rapping the lyrics to the Beastie Boys’ “An Open Letter to NYC”: “Brownstones, water towers, trees, skyscrapers / Writers, prize fighters and Wall Street traders.” Just before he steps out into the street his driver affirms, “You’re the man, Mr. Roy.”
The scene is a brief interaction, but in a satire series that details the minutiae of interpersonal experiences couched in a tale of capitalist avarice, it’s indicative of the evolving position of rap and hip-hop in the ever-devouring demographic of aspirational whiteness.
“The white audience doesn’t just consume rap, it shapes rap also. Rappers and record labels aren’t stupid. They know who’s listening and the music gets tailored to the audience,” writer and activist William Upski Wimsatt wrote in his 1994 essay, Bomb the Suburbs. “To understand where hip-hop is going, then, we must understand this white audience.” For Kendall, rap exists as a metaphorical parallel to corporate dominance and power, a theme that is reinforced throughout the season.
Photo by Photograph by David Russell/HBO.
JAY-Z and Public Enemy soundtrack Kendall’s Living+ moment.
In the final season of the series, Kendall is tested over his ability to adequately step in his fathers footsteps postmortem in the episodes “Kill List” and “Living +,” tasked with managing the merger with GoJo and delivering the launch of the unwieldy product Living+. En route to the office, Kendall finds himself listening to rap yet again — this time finding comfort in the commanding lyrics of JAY-Z’s “Takeover.” It’s a fitting pairing perhaps more than any other rapper in the contemporary era. Shawn Carter has attached his musical success to not only his lyrical talent, but the concept of navigating the industry with the sensibility of a hustler, the core ethos of any exploitative billionaire endeavor. JAY-Z has effectively made himself the shining precedent of corporate ambition, a perfect parallel to the characters Kendall hopes to represent in his battle for preeminence.
In presenting the Living+ product, Kendall walks out to none other than Public Enemy’s “Harder than You Think.” There’s a pointed irony with him walking out to the music from a group with a pointed political message: “Check the facts, expose those cats / Who pose as heroes and take advantage of Blacks / Your government’s gangster, so cut the crap / A war going on so where y’all at?” In the context of the verse, Chuck D is indicting the detrimental impact of gang culture in the Black community. Kendall, however, is aspiring to embrace both sides of the record, embodying the moral authority evoked by Chuck D, as well as the imposing ubiquity of a gang authority in the corporate sense. The fact that his multi-billion enterprise is equally culpable in the exploitation of Black people – going so far as to ultimately facilitate the election of a fascist for profit purposes – is of negligible relevance. The embodied aesthetic outweighs the ultimate impact.
The infamously bad Kendall Roy rap
Given this context, there is limited surprise that, in an attempt to get in the good graces of his father, Kendall develops the hair-brained idea to surprise his father with a custom rap, “L-to-the-O-G,” to celebrate 50 years of Logan Roy running Waystar Royco. For Kendall, rap is the ultimate expression of masculinity: “Don’t try to run your mouth at the king / Just pucker up, bitch, and go kiss the ring.” The two-minute rap is a masterclass in secondhand embarrassment. The producer (a guest appearance from Britell himself) proudly plays a painfully elementary and discordant interpolation of Bach’s “Prelude in C minor” to augment the cringe factor, as Kendall proceeds to run through couplets that hit on basic biographic touchpoints, making a marked emphasis of the Roy patriarch’s richesse and influence. He boasts of his father’s virility and corporate success, and scorns detractors in a rhyme scheme that is technically adequate, but yet utterly unseemly in its execution.
It’s a marked tonal shift from Kendall’s subsequent video message, a reserved display of emotion that emphasizes Logan as a supportive and loyal paternal figure. In an attempt to harness the aplomb that he obtains from his favorite music in hip-hop’s golden era, he falls devastatingly short, embodying the performative skill of a jester. The generational disconnect is cemented upon Logan Roy’s grimace at Kendall’s flimsy placement of a tartan-colored snapback upon his head mid-performance. His siblings look along in equal parts hysterics and discomfort, as if watching a missed basketball dunk in slow motion.
Succession’s Jesse Armstrong touches on the truth — rap is managed by white elites who hold hip-hop as a personal asset
In describing the episode, Succession creator Jesse Armstrong explained: “The idea of a billionaire rapping was — I remember I was thinking — if you heard a billionaire’s son had done that, it’d be like, ‘Yeah, it sounds like the sort of toe-curling thing you might see on Instagram.’” It’s an organic association because it’s rooted in truth. The rap industry is managed by white millionaires and billionaires who hold hip-hop music as a personal asset for wealth management, and end up embodying the industry to their own tastes. Elliot Grainge, son of Universal Music Group executive Lucian Grainge, is a prime example. His label, 10K Projects, has fueled the nascent careers of young hip-hop artists like Trippie Redd, Dro Kenji, Tekashi 6ix9ine, and Ice Spice. Hip-hop is now an industry shaped in the image of white bourgeoisie tastes, interests, and aspirations. It’s natural that at any given point, a young wealthy dilettante would transition from dictating their musical palate to shamelessly deluding themselves into believing they can harness it on an individual level.
Kendall Roy’s transient relationship with hip-hop as a source of wish fulfillment over the series is indicative of that reality – a member of the billionaire class who views hip-hop as a personal tool of self-actualization, fully divorcing it from the material and cultural wellspring it emerged from. It’s a master class in musical storytelling, but also a bittersweet acknowledgment of the reality of the current music industry.
Shamira Ibrahim is a Brooklyn-based writer by way of Harlem, Canada, and East Africa who comments on culture, identity, and politics. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, NYMag, and The Root. You can follow her comings and goings on Twitter at @_Shamgod.
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