why hip hop is the perfect counterpoint for Succession’s entitled plutocrats

why hip hop is the perfect counterpoint for Succession’s entitled plutocrats

From the very first minutes of HBO’s hit drama series, Succession, hip hop is used to underpin, juxtapose and comment on the story of corporate intrigue, capitalist entitlement and white privilege.

Just as a hip hop beat underscores the classical piano lines to the show’s theme song by composer Nicholas Britell, hip hop’s swaggering braggadocio acts as a counterpoint to the Roy family’s rarefied worlds of high finance and plutocratic untouchability.

The first scene of Succession’s pilot episode.

Recalling the opening scene to Office Space (1999) – which begins knee-deep in cringey, white boy, gangsta karaoke – Succession’s first episode introduces wannabe-protagonist Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) with a similarly embarrassing set piece. The businessman is riding in the back of a limo, listening to An Open Letter to NYC by the Beastie Boys, as the hustle and bustle of Manhattan rolls by.

But when the backing track fades, Kendall’s own voice is revealed, thin and childish, rapping along to the lyrics about skyscrapers and Wall Street traders. This wannabe hip hop businessman persona is at the core of Kendall’s deeply conflicted character.

This persona is in full bloom in a memorable season two episode, where Kendall performs L to the OG, a rap tribute to his father Logan Roy (Brian Cox), earning him the nickname “Ken.W.A.” from brother Roman (Kieran Culkin), a la the infamous Compton rap group NWA.

As I explain in my book, Critical Excess: Watch the Throne and the New Gilded Age, corporate board rooms and hip hop ciphers are no longer as incompatible as they might seem. This is exemplified through American rap superstars Jay Z and Kanye West’s (now known as Ye) collaborative “luxury rap” album, Watch the Throne (2011).

Kendall rapping in season two of Succession.

In season four, Kendall listens to Jay Z’s The Takeover (2001) on his way to work in the ATN news studio. It’s not surprising that Jay Z is a favourite. The rapper-turned-entrepreneur once rapped the lines: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man!” in his verse on Ye’s Diamonds from Sierra Leone (2005), an attitude it’s easy to imagine Kendall aligning himself with.

It’s also no coincidence that this dysfunctional family is named Roy, French for “king”, another link to Watch the Throne and the hustle to become “king of New York”.

Real-life media mogul family, the Murdochs, are widely believed to have inspired Succession. But the hip hop connection is particularly uncanny. In 1995, Rupert Murdoch’s youngest son, James, bankrolled the hot new hip hop label Rawkus Records. Soon thereafter Murdoch’s News Corp bought a majority share in Rawkus and artists reportedly started complaining about unpaid royalties.

Hip hop as Kendall’s hype music

Rap music is repeatedly used to show Kendall’s need for a boost of confidence – a need once satisfied by his substance abuse.

Hip hop pioneer KRS-One
reportedly once likened hip hop to a “confidence sandwich” for its ability to help America’s forgotten underclasses find the strength to get up and fight the good fight, from enduring the daily grind to organising for a better world. But what happens when this swag burger is blaring in the ears of an out-of-touch CEO?

Kendall listening to Jay Z’s The Takeover.

As the late, great Black music critic Greg Tate suggests, hip hop has been a site of “the Elvis effect” for decades, with white artists and businessmen profiting mightily from Black creative cultures. This history stretches back to rock and roll, jazz, blues and beyond.

The boost that hip hop gives him allows Kendall to do horrible things. This echoes the way hip hop group De La Soul describes so-called “crossover” music as a “double cross” on their concept album Buhloone Mindstate (1993).

Read more:
De La Soul is coming to streaming services – a brief guide to their best work

As Kendall exemplifies again and again, when hip hop’s witty but often crass wordplay is decontextualised by white men, it almost always comes off as disrespectful frat boy voyeurism. Indeed, London rapper, Roots Manuva recently retweeted a nice case in point on the eve of another high profile “succession” – King Charles III’s accession to the British throne.

So while established rapper Pusha T has recently collaborated with Britell on a remix of Succession’s theme song and while Jay and Ye continue to infiltrate the rarefied white spaces of corporate board rooms and seats of political power, these relationships remain deeply asymmetrical.

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