Television

Succession Can’t Stop Using Hip-Hop as a Punchline

The way the show keeps Kendall’s rap fandom at an ironic arm’s length says a lot about its relationship to race.

A thirtysomething woman and man wearing trendy clothes walk through a crowd at a party
Annabelle Dexter-Jones and Jeremy Strong on Succession. Macall B. Polay/HBO

Some of fiction’s most iconic presences are more memorable for being referred to than actually encountered: Moby-Dick, Kurtz, Godot, the Tiny Wu-Tang Clan. The last of these comes from the most recent episode of Succession, “Too Much Birthday,” and refers to a group of children who perform Wu-Tang Clan covers, intended to be a highlight of Kendall Roy’s 40th birthday party. Viewers never actually get to see the group because Kendall nixes their performance before they’re able to take the stage, after the evening has failed to live up to his expectations. (Things rarely do for Kendall these days.)

Advertisement

As established in Succession’s pilot, when he psyches himself up for a meeting by rapping Beastie Boys’ “An Open Letter to NYC” in the back of a limousine, Kendall Roy is a hip-hop fan, particularly hip-hop of a 1990s vintage, a facet of his character that is repeatedly on display throughout the newest episode. The marquee above the entrance to his party reads “The Notorious KEN: Ready to Die,” while the event’s playlist includes such period classics as KRS-One’s DJ Premier–produced hit “MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know.” And Kendall’s own fandom isn’t the only way that hip-hop factors into Succession. The music’s influence is unmistakable in Nicholas Britell’s much-lauded score, in which regal, classical-ish melodies glide over boom-bap drum loops. (Britell is great, but Automator did it better.) In 2019, Britell and Pusha T even collaborated on “Puppets,” a rap remix of the Succession theme.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Succession’s relationship with hip-hop—which is always conducted at an ironic arm’s length, even when the music takes center stage—increasingly strikes me as a sort of microcosm for the show’s relationship with race. The show’s showcasing of a definitively Black, working-class musical form against a backdrop of white wealth is certainly a winking commentary on its characters’ privileged obtuseness (particularly Kendall’s), but it also resounds as an inadvertent metonym for the rather stunted position of Black characters within the world of the show itself. It’s a joke, but one whose implications can feel a bit queasy the more you think about them.

Historically astute hip-hop fans already know that Kendall’s musical preoccupations are a nod to one of the stranger footnotes in rap industry history. In 1995, Brian Brater and Jarret Myer founded Rawkus Records with the financial backing of their former Horace Mann classmate James Murdoch. The following year, Murdoch’s father, Rupert, bought a majority share of the fledgling record label. In the latter half of the 1990s, Rawkus would become one of the most influential labels of its era, releasing beloved compilation series like Lyricist Lounge and Soundbombing as well as era-defining, backpack-rap classics like Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus and Black Star’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. As a teenager who hoovered up these and other Rawkus titles, I can’t even remember if I was aware of the fact that the guy who owned the hottest “underground” label in the game also owned News Corp; if so, it was only dimly.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Succession never directly insinuates that there is something akin to this in Kendall’s own past; since Kendall is only 40, he’d have been an adolescent during the Rawkus heyday, to say nothing of most of the other rap he name-drops in the show. (When Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers came out in 1993, Kendall wouldn’t have been much older than the Tiny Wu-Tang Clan themselves.) But it’s still obvious that as a young person he associated the music with coolness and transgression, an imagined authenticity and danger that we can only imagine was particularly attractive to someone whose socioeconomic circumstances offered precious little of either. At moments when his worlds of family and business are closing in on him, Kendall seems to retreat into the fantasies of rebellion that the music has long offered.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Succession is not a very diverse show, a condition that’s arguably baked into its subject matter. The elite corridors of American corporate power that Succession depicts have been overwhelmingly Caucasian for as long as they’ve existed. Succession is also, unequivocally, a show about awful people. With the exception of Greg, who’s too far into comic relief to serve as a meaningful pivot of audience identification, every main character in the show is despicable. The degrees of despicableness may differ, but this often corresponds more to sheer opportunity than anyone’s moral compass.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The conceit of Succession thus allows the show to relegate nonwhite characters, Black characters in particular, to sideline roles, while also ensuring that these characters will not be treated particularly well. A recent example is high-powered attorney Lisa Arthur (Sanaa Lathan in an underwritten role), whom Kendall snatches out from under his siblings’ noses and then abruptly jettisons, confident that he knows what’s best for his legal strategy. (Indications thus far: He does not.) It’s a flagrantly disrespectful move, one that’s hard to imagine him duplicating with one of the older, whiter lawyers his father prefers.

Advertisement

This isn’t to suggest that Succession is a racist show, merely that its whiteness lets it avoid confronting the subject of race with any real complexity, which is of course one of the many perks that whiteness has historically conferred on actual white people. It’s notable, though, that a show with such a relatively slight interest in actual Black people would feature hip-hop music so prominently, and often memorably. Succession’s most notorious hip-hop moment came in ”Dundee,” the eighth episode of Season 2. At a 50th anniversary gala for his father, Kendall takes the stage and removes his suit coat to reveal a Logan Roy–themed baseball jersey, then proceeds to serenade his befuddled dad with “L to the O.G.,” a rap that he’s written for the occasion. Soon he’s coaxed the entire gala into a singalong, a tour de force of cringe in a show with no shortage of them. (The track was later released as a single.)

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Kendall’s own love of hip-hop is always presented in a comic register. The idea of Tiny Wu-Tang Clan is funny, as is his dad’s birthday serenade; we laugh as we wince. The trickier question is why it’s funny, why the show’s use of the music produces this particular form of comedic discomfort. And I think a lot of that comes down to race. It’s funny because (almost) everyone is white: the Roy family, the crowd at the anniversary gala, the intended audience for Tiny Wu-Tang Clan. The level of irony at which this particular humor functions is one that the show is only able to tap into because of its whiteness, which is a little disquieting when you consider who actually created hip-hop music.

Advertisement

One of the more difficult feats Succession has to pull off is maintaining a moral center amid the immorality of its characters; without that balance, it ceases to work as satire and just becomes luxury porn against a backdrop of cruelty, or cruelty porn against a backdrop of luxury. Until recently I’d felt like the show’s third season had focused too much on internecine power struggles while losing sight of bigger-picture ramifications; it was just asking viewers to choose a team, when the only right answer should be none of them. The last two episodes have felt like a needed course correction: Episode 6, “What It Takes,” reminded us that the subject of “L to the O.G.” is amenable to backing a white supremacist fascist for president, while “Too Much Birthday” reminds us that Roman, who’s always been the show’s most nihilistic character, may well walk away with the brass ring because of the fact that he is a monster, not in spite of it.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Still, Succession’s awkwardness around race reveals the tension of this balancing act. This is a show in which white people mostly treat nonwhite people shabbily, when they have to interact with them at all, and it’s sometimes unclear whether the show is satirizing this dynamic or just treating it as a joke we’re all in on, which isn’t the same thing. (It begs the question, for one thing, of who “we” are.) Similarly, Succession’s relationship to hip-hop needs to be shrouded in irony to preempt thornier questions about the show’s own racial politics. There’s a moment in “What It Takes” when Tom tells Greg that the right-wing function they’re attending is a “a nice safe space where you don’t have to pretend to like Hamilton”—a lame and dated line that gnawed at me, and not because I’m any fan of Hamilton. I couldn’t tell who the butt of the joke was supposed to be: Tom, for copping to not liking it? Greg, for earnestly protesting that he did? The cloying but well-meaning integrationism of Hamilton itself? I’m not even sure the show knows the answer. It’d rather we just laugh, and not ask.

Advertisement