As the child of an immigrant, I find it amusing how “Americanism”—the projection of our domestic politics onto the world—pervades all sides of the political spectrum. We Americans think our obsessions on race, class, and culture fit the world like a red slipper, forgetting that capitalism and communism are two sides of the same Western materialist framework. In other parts of the globe, people rally around religion, values, and nationalism as ways to define and project world history.
Geopolitics flies above these local fixations and provides an alternative view of international affairs. Geopolitics is the study of how a country’s geography—its land, its border, its location—influences its decisions. Geopolitics may sound esoteric but has often predicted the future.
In geopolitics, history is not a struggle of ideas, but the ruthless recurrence of geopolitical patterns: the Cold War was less about communism versus capitalism than it was the battle between the mighty sea power (America) and the mighty land power (Soviet Union), a struggle that dates back to ancient Athens (sea) versus Sparta (land).
In 1904, Sir Halford Mackinder, a founder of geopolitical thought, surmised that “whoever controls Eastern Europe… controls the world,” and was proved right by World War I, World War II, and The Cold War, all of which centered around Eastern Europe, the pivotal region to control the “grand prize” of the Eurasian continent. Through the geopolitical lens, villains become heroes—Richard Nixon was one of the best geopolitical presidents, brokering peace in the Middle East and normalizing relations with China—and our enemies’ revanchist ambitions receive empathy.
Basically, geopolitics is like one big video game. Each player is trying to acquire land or influence and rule the world. Naturally, I had to compare geopolitics to hip-hop, and I found there’s a lot of overlap between a country’s geostrategy and a rapper’s power moves. Hold my cider beer as I explain why Drake is like Russia, Kanye is like China, and Pusha-T is Al-Qaeda.
Russia — Drake
Unlike America, which is shielded by two vast oceans, Russia has no natural borders protecting its vital cities. It has paid dearly for this. The Mongols, Swedes, French, and Nazi armies have all trampled Russian land marching towards Moscow. After its “Time of Troubles” in the early 1600s, in which a third of the Russian population died, Russia concluded that its failure to dominate its surroundings had led to its suffering. Thus, Russia’s primary geostrategy was to expand the state in every direction—from the years 1552 to 1917, Russia gained, on average, 100,00 square kilometers every year, reaching the shores of Alaska, Hawaii, and even California.
Drake, for all his stature today, remains at his core, an intensely vulnerable artist. He’s still “wheelchair Jimmy,” the mixed-race Canadian former child actor. At least, in the beginning, he had no natural borders—no street credibility, no storied Canadian lineage. The only way Drake could protect himself in hip-hop would be to grow as big as possible, making the gulf between him and other rappers so vast that their attacks could barely reach him—this is why he ultimately responded to “The Story of Adidon” with global No. 1 hit “In My Feelings.” Drake’s whole career has been an omnivorous, aggressive expansion, incorporating the shield of J Prince, the popularity of Lil Wayne, the flavors of Houston, Atlanta, and Vegas, the patois of Jamaica, and most recently, the virality of TikTok.
Today, both Russia and Drake are the biggest of their kind in the world. Russia is nearly twice the size of any other country. Drake occupies more Billboard real estate than any artist ever. Both are superpowers who, in the end, always find a way to win.
England — Lil Wayne
At its peak, Great Britain was the biggest empire in history. Its colonies included Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Egypt, and Canada. Lil Wayne, for those of us old enough to remember, had a similar period of undisputed dominance from 2007 to 2010—Weezy’s reign was mostly free from the beef that plagued rap’s other hegemons, from Drizzy to 50 Cent.
In time, Great Britain receded from the international arena, content to chart its destiny within its borders. It left behind a massive influence—20% of the world speaks English and still more follow English (also known as common) law. Similarly, while Wayne became a recluse—he even did a “Brexit” from Cash Money—nearly every rapper today speaks his language.
Lil Wayne is a former superpower whose influence outlives his time on top. Both he and Great Britain conquered the world, then gave up those ambitions. Yet the world is still an imitation of them.
The Taliban — Pusha-T
Non-state groups still can exert tremendous influence on the world—look at Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, which pulled the United States into a Middle Eastern war that cost us trillions and international credibility we may never recover.
Pusha-T, in his beef with Drake, demonstrated a principle of modern warfare—that a determined guerrilla group can defeat a superpower. During the Cold War, superpowers oriented their militaries around nuclear weapons, which might have deterred world war, but ironically put them at a disadvantage against smaller enemies. The analog is heavyweight boxer Deontay Wilder losing his devastating right hand: he would fight awkwardly, nervously, vulnerable to a smaller, nimble foe. The guerillas’ passion, and their ideological ‘purity,’ also often engulfed the more prominent, but more insecure, power.
One should only go to war when the benefits outweigh the costs. Therefore, the sole aim of the insurgent should be attrition, bleeding the superpower until it can no longer justify its war. The Viet Cong, the Taliban, and Al-Qaeda all survived this way (shockingly, the only formal war the United States has won since WW2 is the Gulf War). Pusha-T used this tactic brilliantly. After luring Drake into a conflict, he then fought dirty in a way that Drake couldn’t—as a superpower, Drake going nuclear would only destroy his international legitimacy. So, like Russia once did in Afghanistan, Drake pulled out.
United States of America — JAY-Z
The United States will likely be the first, only, and last truly global superpower. By every measure—culture, technology, economy, and military—America is number one, although it’s slowly declining. The USA shaped the world in its image: opening markets, promoting aspirational yet materialistic values, and inspiring democracy everywhere from South Africa to South Korea.
In many ways, JAY-Z is hip-hop. His remarkable life paralleled and then shaped the development of the genre. After witnessing hip-hop’s New York formation in the ‘80s, he adopted the rappity-rap flow and Five Percent stylings of the early ‘90s, then turned the culture towards a more gaudy, gangsta, and pop image, then mentored the producer who turned it into high art, then became a billionaire, and most recently blueprinted “dad rap” through the classic 2017 album 4:44.
JAY-Z, by all measure, is hip-hop’s predominant superpower. He is both loved and feared. Like the United States, he often intervenes in the affairs of others, “rescuing” artists like Lil Wayne, Lil Uzi Vert, Megan Thee Stallion, and 21 Savage. JAY-Z and America both remade their world in their image—sometimes good, sometimes bad. There will never be another global power quite like them.
Saudi Arabia — Jay Electronica
The irony of the steely alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States is that their domestic values are completely at odds. The United States promotes liberal freedom and enables cultural hedonism; Saudi Arabia practices a startlingly conservative form of Islam called Wahhabism, which the Muslim Brotherhood itself fingers as the root of modern jihadism.
A similar tension exists between Jay Electronica, one of the least materialistic artists, and JAY-Z, the capitalist powerhouse. At the beginning of Jay Electronica’s career, everyone wanted a piece of him. He was vulnerable to getting exploited—and his proximity to the Honorable Louis Farrakhan meant that controversy over his traditionalist views would come with overexposure. Yet he protected himself through his remoteness, his inscrutability, and his mystery.
Saudi Arabia safeguards massive treasures: vast reserves of oil and one of the world’s holiest sites in Mecca. Aware of the jealousy of outside powers, and to protect its fundamentalist practices, it tinted its windows—masking its vulnerability with opaqueness—and formed an unexpected alliance with the United States. By aligning himself with JAY-Z and Roc Nation, Jay Electronica was similarly able to protect himself from the world.
China — Kanye West
China’s very name attests to its self-importance. 中國, or the “Middle Kingdom,” sees itself as the center of the world. Unlike the United States, which mixed hard and soft power, or Russia, which expanded relentlessly, China historically dominated using its dazzling wealth, which produced magnificent goods that all of its peers coveted. It preferred voluntary submission to its superior culture instead of war.
Kanye West became a superpower in hip-hop by producing magnificent beats that all his peers coveted, and then classic albums that made the world kneel. He did not dominate through force but his superior culture. Kanye shares China’s self-importance, and his career mirrors China’s rapid industrialization: Mao Zedong once said that “the cycle [of China’s development] evolves from disequilibrium to equilibrium and then to disequilibrium again… bringing us to a higher level of development.” Kanye’s albums followed the same pattern, exploding and imploding, from the minimal 808s & Heartbreak (2008) to the sprawling My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) back to the taut Yeezus (2013).
Kanye’s position as China naturally puts him at odds with Drake and his encroachment on Kanye’s territory—Russia’s name in Mandarin is “the hungry land.” China and the United States were once natural allies, like JAY-Z and Kanye, but China’s rising superpower status has put them at odds. While Kanye is increasingly stigmatized, his influence only grows, just like China—and this century will likely be “The Chinese Century.”
These were the most natural comparisons to make, but you could continue: DaBaby is India, a rising power who maintains neutrality; Nicki Minaj is Brazil, a great power whose increasingly illiberal decisions are isolating her from the world; Gucci Mane is Germany, once belligerent but now focused on economic growth and mending his wrongs; Lil Uzi Vert is Japan, a physically diminutive cultural superpower who found protection in the United States of JAY-Z and Roc Nation.
In the ending of his book on geopolitics, The Grand Chessboard, Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote that for global stability, a “framework of cooperation and pressure is needed… between all three sides.” This is a consensus of modern geostrategists—that Russia, China, and the United States all need to get along. Right now, tensions exist between rap’s three great powers—JAY-Z, Drake, and Kanye West. One can only hope that one day, we will achieve world peace.