Are we living in the age of the phallus? From Trump’s ever expanding phallic gestures to the number of cocks that came out of Anthony Scaramucci’s mouth some time ago, to the Game of Thrones season-ending observation that “maybe it is all cocks in the end,” life in early twenty-first century United States certainly appears to be an endless parade of men misrecognizing penises for the phallus, resulting in ever grander, ever cruder, and ever more destructive discourse and action.
One of the great recent disquisitions on the phallus comes to us in the form of one of this summer’s biggest pop hits, “I’m the One,” coordinated by DJ Khaled and featuring some of pop music’s biggest stars – Justin Bieber, Lil’ Wayne, Chance the Rapper, and Quavo. The song, as the title suggests, is at first glance another entry in a long list of songs built around misogynist/masculine bragging about sex. And it is that, to be sure. But the structure of the song, the collective narrative, also makes it something otherwise: a melancholy story of masculinity’s impossibility and its implication in a racial economy of wealth. Why, it seems to ask, is everyone so sad in such an ebullient song?
Pop music is similarly preoccupied. Kylie Minogue announced that she was “the One” and instructed her listeners in the only proper response: “Love me, Love me, Love me, Love me.” Van Halen, in a song drenched in David Lee Roth’s pheromones, claimed their mantle as “the One”: “We came here to entertain you/Leaving here we aggravate you/Don’t you know it means the same to me honey/I’m the one, the one you love.” The affinity between entertainment, aggravation and love animates many of pop’s odes to “the One.” In “Could You Be the One?” Husker Du’s Bob Mould exposed the melancholy emptiness of searching for the one, “And I don’t even know what I’m crying for/Don’t even know what I’m hiding for…/Could you be the one?” Of course, the one is not only about romantic love and sex, even in pop. The Avengers celebrated the radical potential of the One as an uprising of the multitude, intoning “We are not Jesus (Christ)/We are not Fascists (Pigs)/We are not Capitalists (Industrialists)/We are not Communists/We are the One.”
Oneness, then, in some form or another, has long animated our cultural imagination. But being the one has been a particular obsession of masculinity, fantasmatically secured in some capacity through sexual relationship. Indeed, in its clear attention to the melancholia of masculinity and its inadvertent attention to racial capitalism, “I’m the One,” built around one of the catchiest hooks since The-Dream’s “Rockin’ that Shit,” offers us pop music as critical reflection on the epistemological enigma that is life in contemporary America. What more could we ask for?
“I’m the One” is, in form, an iteration of the “posse cut,” the collaborative hip hop song often organized around boastfulness and claims to being the one. If references to sexualized masculinity, wealth, and conspicuous consumption are common, they also tend to flaunt a more organically configured, competitive boasting that collectively advances everyone participating in the song over and against everyone outside the song.
Think, for instance, of a classic of this genre, Marley Marl’s “The Symphony,” which he produced for The Juice Crew, a group of rappers from Queens. If the claim of the song, as a whole, was that the Juice Crew was the one, each verse was an individualistic rejection of all challengers – to be the one was to be no one else. To take but one virtuosic instance, here is Big Daddy Kane in the last verse:
So just acknowledge the way that I kicked it
Cause if rap was a house, you’d be evicted
And dismissed from the microphone, chokin’ on a bone
Cause Daddy’s home
And battlin’ me is hazardous to health
So put a quarter in your ass, cause ya played yourself
Big Daddy Kane makes a claim to being the one through having defeated all rivals. Moreover, “The Symphony” celebrated the relationship of this crew and its emergence out of a specific region. Indeed, the title of the song itself, “The Symphony,” can be taken didactically, suggesting that the individuals be taken both on their own terms and as a unified multiplicity.
“I’m the One,” however, seems, on the surface, to eschew conflict only to mire the entire song in it – all claiming to be “the one” through the same means, it can be nothing but conflict. And the emphasis on sex and coupling forces oneness into a specific register. Here, perhaps, it’s useful to turn to a great explicator of hip hop: Freud. To be the One, in this register, is to have found the complement that fills the lack that is the wellspring of our desire. The Oedipus complex, for instance, is nothing if not a staging of the impossible desire for being the One: to be unified with the all-satisfying mother, to the kill the rivalrous father, it is a story of how and why we can never be the one. In keeping with masculine fantasy, it is an act of possession – in this scenario the woman in the figure of the mother exists to be possessed and to satisfy others’ desires. The sexual relationship, figured, as always, in the form of the couple, makes two into one; and that coupling, whether Freudian, Biblical, or Khaledian, is so often figured as masculine possession of the woman.
The video for “I’m the One” opens as something of an encomium to such possession. Khaled, strolling through the ostentatious grounds of a palatial estate, is on the phone with Chance the Rapper. The conversation, heard only from Khaled’s perspective, constructs the performance as a group of friends getting together to celebrate their lives. “Chance, what’s good? Bless up!” Khaled says, “Please do me a favor. Do me the biggest favor. Let Justin Bieber know, let Wayne know, and let Quavo know. At my house, we gonna celebrate life, success…and our blessings.” While he is saying this a lone, excessive, Rabelaisian woman rides across the grounds toward Khaled on a magnificent white horse.
This woman, displayed as one more of his possessions, sitting astride the white horse, suggests that what Khaled offers is the perfect complement, the one that, through the sexual relationship, holds out the possibility, for Chance, Bieber, Wayne, and Quavo, of oneness. Indeed, her excessiveness is the perfect masquerade for the emptiness of oneness, of jouissance. That she appears first as a part-object – we see only her leg – reinforces this. The song then starts and the camera moves to another scene at the estate, where the men are surrounded by dozens of women. Does oneness, the video seems to ask, come through finding the one (in this case astride a white horse) or accumulating many ones (in this case, women dancing and lounging around a pool)? Or, in the end, is the one simply an illusion masked by ostentation? Either way, Khaled occupies a seemingly transcendent position, offering oneness to his guests.
“I’m the One,” as it moves through each of its verses, stages both the attempts to resolve the status of Oneness through sexual relationships and the ultimate impossibility of such desire. The first verse belongs to Quavo, who grounds Oneness in romantic love and nostalgia for childhood. Perhaps it says more about me than the song itself, but I couldn’t help but think of Beat Happening’s twee masterpiece, “Our Secret”:
I was walking in our town
I was walking through the store
I saw a pretty girl
she held open the door
I said ‘I like you’
she said that she liked me
and we could be friends
in our special secret way
Quavo similarly turns to nostalgia, lending his verse the manufactured innocence of lost childhood: “We go back, remember criss-cross and hopscotch?” Childhood romance, the fact that he found the one early and they stuck it out makes them, the couple in the form of perfect complementarity, the One. Quavo’s oneness is grounded in nostalgia for childhood and also rests on a kind of authenticity of the woman – “I make your dreams come true when you wake up/And your looks just the same without no makeup/Had to pull up on your mama, see what you’re made of.” Woman, in this instance, is no masquerade – the truth of the One follows from the fact that his perfect complement is the same person with or without makeup, a claim verified by checking her genealogy, a moment in which we might say the mother comes into play. The final moment of complementarity occurs in a reference to one of the key markers of both the conjunction of love and death and highly aestheticized violence: “Modern day Bonnie and Clyde what they named us/’Cause when we pull up (prrt prrt) all angles.” There is nothing in the verse suggesting any threat of violence, and thus this is simply one more invocation of complementarity as the key to Oneness, a complementarity even to death. In the end Quavo tells something of a classic love story as the form of being the One.
Chance the Rapper follows Quavo with another conventional account of possession: in what is implicitly an accumulative string of women, a beautiful woman falls all over him because of his signifiers of conspicuous consumption. Chance meets this woman at a club, where she cannot resist him because of his wealth. “She like the price, she see the ice it make her coochie melt,” Chance raps, “When I met her in the club I asked her who she felt/Then she went and put that booty on that Gucci belt.” That last line is delivered with a laugh while the music pauses. The woman is mostly figured as lusting after his wealth because she has none herself. “She say she want bottles, she ain’t got no table/She don’t got no bed frame, she don’t got no tables/We just watching Netflix, she ain’t got no cable, okay though.” In this, the woman without means becomes yet one more possession, not unlike Gucci belts or diamonds. Moreover, the woman is pure masquerade and, indeed, the verse opens with reference to this: “Uh, she beat her face up with that new Chanel.” We might then best understand this verse as an account of one link in the chain of desire, a chain in which desire is always desire for something else – women, cable, tables, bottles, belts, diamonds….
If figured differently, both Quavo and Chance propagate the fantasy that masculinity can be figured as “the One” through the possession of a woman. This, however, is a misrecognition. As the psychoanalytic theorist Joan Copjec puts it, “All pretensions to masculinity are…sheer imposture, just as every display of femininity is sheer masquerade….A universe of men and women is inconceivable; one category does not complete the other, make up for what is lacking in the other. Were one to believe the possibility of such a universe, one would believe in the sexual relation, with all its heterosexist assumptions….The sexual relation fails for two reasons: it is impossible and it is prohibited. Put these two failures together, you will never come up with a whole.” Or, in the lexicon of this song, you will never come up with the One.
This, perhaps a bit surprisingly, is the import of Lil’ Wayne’s verse. Indeed, if we take both Quavo and Chance as narrating the attempt to overcome loss and lack through the sexual relationship, we should also take them as repetitions of the same, attempts to recover pleasure that also always repeat the loss of that pleasure. And in this Wayne seems to expose the melancholy of repetition , of impossibility, of being the One. Wayne opens, as one would expect, with a strong claim: “Lookin’ for the One?/Bitch, you’re lookin’ at the One/I’m the best yet and my best is yet to come.” Unlike the others, Wayne claims to be the One prior to the sexual relationship, but the temporality is off – he’s the One already, the best already, and yet, the realization of all of this remains in the future, where his best is yet to come.
Moreover, he suggests that the complement necessary for oneness is not necessarily to be found: “Cause I’ve been looking for somebody/not just any fucking body.” While it likely was not Wayne’s intention, that somebody might well be the only complement, the impossible complement – the phallic mother. He is, as he says at the end of the verse, just “flexin’ on my exes” – none of them have been or will be the impossible one. Indeed, the idea that someone could be the one through the perfect complement – the animating principle of Quavo’s verse – is directly undercut by Wayne. Where Quavo describes his relationship as “modern day Bonnie and Clyde” – the height of both sexual complementarity and aestheticized violence – Wayne cuts that away: “She think we Clyde and Bonnie/But it’s more like Whitney and Bobby.” The reference here, to Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, is telling. Not only was their marriage a volatile mix, a commitment to union that was, in the end, quite destructive, it also ended in death. And that makes for the second reference to death in Wayne’s verse; earlier, after saying he was looking for a particular “somebody” he follows with “Don’t make me catch a body/that’s for any and everybody.”
Put differently, the desire for oneness is always marked by a desire for death. And this, of course, is where Freud ended: the only possibility of wholeness, oneness, unification, the cessation of desire, is aligned not with the sexual relationship, which is always built on prohibition, but with death. Indeed, as death haunts Wayne’s verse, the impossibility of oneness through the sexual relationship is figured in the zombie-like woman who ruins, if not Wayne’s life, then at least his day. “Bitch, you blow my high, that’s like turning gold to bronze/Roll my eyes/And when she on the molly she a zombie.”
If the attempt to be “the One” is, in a sense, unhistorical – castration, according to both Freud and Lacan, is a universal condition of the subject and thus the impossible attempt both tohave and be the phallus always marks the subject (which, yes, also makes the entire idea of an “age of the phallus” something of a misnomer) – fantasies of resolution are historical. And this is nowhere clearer than in Justin Bieber’s chorus. If being the One through sexual relationship moves from romantic nostalgia to exuberant accumulation to melancholy impossibility across the three verses, Bieber appears to offer a simple resolution. “Yeah, you’re lookin’ at the truth,” Bieber sings, “Money never lie, no.” This is rather trite of course – conspicuous consumption has long been a marker of wealth, and things are no different here, especially when one spends a minute or so with the video.
Bieber is not the only one in the song to reference wealth: Quavo lets his lover know that she “Ain’t gotta worry ‘bout ‘em commas ‘cause my cake up.” Chance’s whole verse is a commentary on his appeal via conspicuous consumption and women’s desire for such, boiled down to “She like the price, she see the ice it make her coochie melt.” But it also raises a question: if Quavo is the one (fantasmatically) because he has found the one, the perfect complement; and if Chance is the One (again, fantasmatically) because he can accumulate women in the club; and if Wayne suggests the melancholy of attempting to be the One, that there is no somebody, no perfect complement, thus puncturing the fantasy itself; then what does it tell us that Bieber’s claim to being the one is grounded simply in money (even if the addressee remains a woman)?
In a rather bizarre twist, the song is in part structured around net worth. Quavo has the first verse and has an estimated net worth of $4.3 million; Chance follows at approximately $9 million; and Wayne closes the verses out at approximately $150 million. But it’s Bieber who has the chorus, around whom the verses circle, and who tells us that money never lies; and its Bieber who tops out at approximately $265 million dollars. Organized around this chorus, where a white celebrity singer intones that the only truth is in money, the real truth is that the white guy is the one. What Quavo, Chance, and Wayne stage collectively as a melancholy account of masculinity, Bieber resolves in the persistent, hegemonic structures of racial capitalism. The fact that he sounds on the verge of tears while singing is perhaps an unintended commentary on the perversity of the chorus. Bieber, pushing his own sense of authenticity through a complicated racial masquerade, nonetheless can’t help but note that he, by virtue of his wealth, is the real one.
In an interview, DJ Khaled said he shed a tear the first time he heard Bieber sing the chorus. Despite its surface joyousness, its celebration of success, life, and blessings, the song, as I’ve suggested, is tinged by melancholy, from Bieber’s almost sorrowful delivery, to Wayne’s melancholy verse, to Khaled’s tears. One might argue, then, that the melancholy is tied not only to the impossibility of oneness through the sexual relation, but is also the affective complement to the racial logic of wealth, money, and capitalism around which the song is structured. If the melancholy masculinity of the sexual relationship distinguishes it from “The Symphony,” it is also distinguished by its mode of assembly, not a regional claim by a crew already united with one another, but one put together by a capitalist impresario. Indeed, despite the friendly overtones of the opening of the video and the performance of a secret boys club, Khaled has, in subsequent interviews, recounted how he assembled the performers, and an organic unity has little to do with it. Rather, this is an assemblage of a commodity, nothing more and nothing less, something to be sold in the pursuit of prosperity.
Apparent in Khaled’s own account of the song’s formation, it’s even more so when understood in the context of his now well-known motivational writings. An irresistibly ebullient pop song, made the all the better precisely by Khaled’s assembly of voices, it is also a perfect example of what he calls “the keys.” “The keys are the guiding principles to prosperity,” Khaled writes in his 2016 book The Keys, “Think of them as commandments that will lead you to success and then more success.” If God and love figure prominently in his writings, for Khaled prosperity is the true mark of success. And thus, for all the love and sex of oneness in the song, its resolution comes though the substitution of money for the sexual relationship, which then figures whiteness as the key to oneness.
In one of the essential essays of the 21st century, Lara Cohen writes that the summer jam “invites us to imagine the subjects summer will have made us – the subjects we are not yet and never will be but always could have been.” As with the summer jam, so too with “I’m the One”’s melancholy masculinity. In 2017, then, this song announces two things to its millions of listeners: first, the heterosexual structure of oneness is an impossible fantasy and second, we should be very wary of Justin Bieber’s whiteness. For those taking the critical message of Khaled’s masterpiece, one question remains: where do we go from here?
Brian Connelly: Hates Florida.