Rapper Tion Wayne’s Green With Envy is a defining moment in 2020s hip hop, akin to 2Pac’s Man Against The World in the 1990s. The significance of UK rap for popular music was first noted by Michael Jackson in collaborations with British rappers on albums Dangerous and Unbreakable, and more recently by Ed Sheeran in collaborations with Tion Wayne and Aitch, after being influenced by Eminem and 50 Cent earlier in his career. Eminem’s mentor Dr. Dre recently hosted a Superbowl halftime show with Kendrick Lamar representing late-stage American hip hop, while excluding the pinnacle of middle-era hip hop, the music of Kanye West. In the UK, such a political and artistic synthesis was reflected by Stormzy. But now, hip hop everywhere is relapsing to ‘90s themes of sex and violence, in the aftermath of multiple political and economic crises that bear some similarity to the tumultuous end of the Cold War in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Pop is reflecting ‘80s themes in the music of the Weeknd and Dua Lipa, while the ‘90s are returning through rap.
One observation of ‘90s rap is the anarchy of market society. The music video to Dre and 2Pac’s California Love reflects the Mad Max movies, where a post-apocalyptic world is ruled by the pursuit of survival and sexual appetites in the absence of a disciplining hegemony to keep our desires in check. One important desire is jealousy, or the love of what we lack, but what others presumably have. Tion Wayn’s Green With Envy reflects precisely this economy of envy, which British philosopher David Hume once called ‘Jeolousie of Trade’, the subject of intellectual historian Istvàn Hont’s major book on eighteenth-century commercial society.
For Wayne, this society endures. Everyone has to be someone they’re not to leach off the labour of others, as they’re afraid to draw on their own internal resources. Wayne finds old friends turn on him, echoing Drake’s ‘No Friends In The Industry’, and finds his own diligence wearing thin, asking on ‘The Realist One’ for forgiveness from his patient lover. Indeed, ‘Green With Envy’ is a tale in two parts, opening with ambition and anger, and concluding with forgiveness and love. The pivot from 2Pac to Drake is rapid and is mirrored by Aitch’s own synthesis. But you’ve got to ask in response to this astute portrait of modern society: is this all there is?