Bigger Than The Government: How We Look At Hip-Hop

May 17th, 2013 by | Tags: , , ,

“Rap is the CNN of the streets.”
–Chuck D, more or less

Rap music is real.

We treat white people and white culture as the default culture in America. As a result, non-white voices are often marginalized and left out of the conversation. The various History Months and Pride Days — those are a way to correct our collective course and encourage the addition and recognition of other voices in our culture. It’s educational for outsiders and aspirational or inspirational for those who are a part of that culture.

In a lot of ways, rap music is like that. It’s an education. The art we create is a reflection of ourselves and the culture we live in. When dude from dead prez says, “The violence in me reflect the violence that surround me,” or when Kendrick Lamar says “I got the blunt in my mouth; usually I’m drug-free… but shit, I’m with the homies,” they’re speaking a truth. You are a product of your environment. You are influenced, and those influences are on display when you create something, whether that creation is your life or your art.

The violence, misogyny, and homophobia in rap are a reflection of the environments the rappers live in, from the crib to the block to the hood to the city to the state to the country. The joy, money-chasing, happiness, and pride in rap are a reflection of those same things, as well. The entire spectrum of content is a reflection, really.

When Chuck D said that rap music was the CNN of the streets — a statement repeated and remixed so often that I actually can’t figure out when or where he actually said it beyond “twenty years ago” — that’s what he was referring to. He was referring specifically to the way that rap lyrics reflect the lives of the rappers, and through the rappers, black people. Not all black people, obviously, but an important subset of the black community.

People say write what you know as advice to newbie writers, but the truth is that you can only write what you know. You’re drawing from your experience, be they direct or indirect. You’re spilling the contents of your brain, and in doing so, educating someone else.

Chuck D wasn’t saying that rap is non-fictional. He was saying that rap has non-fictional roots and that examining those roots is something that should be encouraged, not dismissed. Kanye rapping about trying to get a friend to hook him up with girls and that friend telling him to pump his brakes and drive slow — that’s real. 50 Cent saying that he’ll say anything to make his girl laugh, including “I love you like a fat kid loves cake” — that’s real. Killer Mike and NWA rapping about police brutality, Snoop and Kurupt slathering misogyny over funked out beats, Jean Grae kicking punchlines that make your head nod, Eminem talking about his relationship with his mother — those are all real, no matter how fictionalized they may be.

“Salt all in my wounds/ Hear my tears all in my tunes/ Let my life loose in this booth/ Just for you, muhfucker/ Hope y’all amused”
-Gunplay, 2012

Rap is real, but the meaning of real began to drift as time passed. Instead of representing the idea of emotional or intellectual honesty sitting inside a fictional construct, it began to mean something closer to “be a thug or else you’re fake.” “Keep it real” is a common refrain, or was at one point. It was the rallying cry for a certain type of rapper. Real in that sense meant a specific type of black masculinity and femininity. Real had been whittled down until it meant guns and drugs and bottles in the club. This happened for a variety of reasons — record labels love money, rappers love money, and it turns out white teens LOVE gutter raps — but it is what it is and we have to live with it.

A weird thing about rap is that it feels more “true” to me than most other genres. Part of it is the “CNN of the streets” aspect of things. I can hear myself and my experiences in Jay-Z, Nas, Weezy, and hundreds of other rappers. Kendrick Lamar talking about being lost, Joe Budden talking about awkward love, Killer Mike talking about anger, Devin the Dude talking about weed — I recognize and empathize.

Rap is real, but it’s fake at the same time. The line between the two is often blurred, as rappers draw from real life experiences, movies, other songs, and the rest of our culture to create their rhymes. Lupe Fiasco’s “Kick, Push” and “Kick, Push II” aren’t true stories, to my knowledge, but they are real. The same is true of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” which is partly real and partly fake.

Rap is real, but rap is fictional. But sometimes people get it twisted.

“They said I can’t rap about being broke no more… they ain’t say I can’t rap about coke no more!”
-Eminem, 2000

Earlier this year, Rick Ross kicked this rhyme on Rocko’s UOENO: “Put molly all in her champagne/ she ain’t even know it/ I took her home and enjoyed that/ she ain’t even know it.” It set off a firestorm of essays, complaints, and discussion. Eventually, Reebok dropped Ross from a sponsorship deal. The first petition I saw was this one, Lolia Etomi, though I think that this one was the biggest. Etomi’s petition has a passage that made my head turn:

If what he is saying is true, not just meaningless lyrics he has just publicly admitted to drugging and raping a woman. This should be investigated further and he should be prosecuted. If it is not true and they are just lyrics, he has still just glorified rape and this should not be ignored.

“If what he is saying is true.”

Rick Ross is an entertainer who has co-opted the identity of an infamous drug dealer. Put differently — Rick Ross is a liar. I don’t say that to be insulting, either. He’s a liar like Brad Pitt is a liar, like Denzel Washington is a liar. Brad Pitt has never beaten a man half to death for no reason and Denzel Washington was never Malcolm X. It’s obvious in movies. We know they’re fake. The idea of prosecuting someone in case their lyrics are true is laughable to me, but as I poked around, I realized that it actually happens. Which is a problem, and one that has its roots in the idea that rap is real.

Rap is fake, is the thing, but part of the mystique of rap is that you’re peeking in on another world that’s real to varying degrees. The verisimilitude of rap music blurs the line between real and fake. No one would think that Britney Spears actually did it again or that The Beatles lived everything they talked about, but it’s different with rap. Rap has “CNN of the streets” and “Keep it real” in its past, and that’s led to where we are today, when someone can honestly suspect that a rapper would actually brag about crimes they committed on a song geared toward being a smash hit and played nationwide. I figure how I feel about that is how heavy metal fans felt about the Satanism scares? It’s a possibility.

Keeping your Rap World believable and — maybe more importantly — profitable is tough. I was reading a Complex piece on Ghostface’s favorite songs and came across this:

“I even like ‘Spot Rusherz.’ Rae was saying some fly shit on there. And I was going in on the intro. But I remember when I said, ‘Yo Rae, come here,’ at the end, and he’s like, ‘Yo, chill Ghost.’ And I’m like, ‘Yo Rae, I’m ‘bout to scrape her.’ But I said ‘rape’ at first. ‘Yo Rae, I’m ‘bout to rape her.’ He was like, ‘Nah, we can’t say that.’ [Laughs.] It was too much. He said, ‘No, just say ‘scrape her.’’ And it became ‘scrape.’ I was just thinking about that the other day.

It stuck out to me because the standards for violence and rape in rap has been on my mind for a while now, but also because the implications are fascinating. Some artists have made careers while incorporating rape lyrics. Eminem’s “Who Knew”, for example, includes the lines “You want me to fix up lyrics while the President gets his dick sucked?/ Fuck that! Take drugs, rape sluts/ Make fun of gay clubs, men who wear make-up.” DMX told a faceless enemy that he’d rape his teenaged daughter and Biggie has friends who rape children and throw them off bridges.

At the same time, Eminem’s hit single “My Name Is” included the lines “Extraterrestrial, runnin’ over pedestrians/ in a spaceship while they screamin’ at me ‘Let’s just be friends!'” on the Slim Shady LP. On the original version, those lines were “Extra-terrestrial, killin’ pedestrians/ Rapin’ lesbians while they’re screamin’ at me, ‘Let’s just be friends!'”

Where’s the line for “too far”? Is there a line? Should there be a line? In the case of Rae and Ghost, an off-hand mention of rape was too far. The rest of Only Built 4 Cuban Linx… is about dealing drugs, mafioso aspirations, and how ill Clarks Wallabees are. The violence and other misogyny were acceptable, but a direct rape reference — in the song he makes a woman strip down to her Claibornes and then changes his mind — was not.

The line may be tied to fame. Before Slim Shady LP, Eminem was an underground emcee. He had cosigns from Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine, but he wasn’t anybody yet. He was far from a household name. His first album was softened up — unevenly, if you know it well — probably for the sake of mass appeal. But his Marshall Mathers LP opens with a verse containing these lines:

“Oh, now he’s raping his own mother, abusing a whore, snorting coke, and we gave him the Rolling Stone cover?”
You god damn right, bitch, and now it’s too late
I’m triple platinum and tragedies happen in two states

In what is in hindsight a amazingly self-aware move, a skit on Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP features a skit with Paul Rosenberg, co-founder of Eminem’s Shady Records. Paul, being the liaison between Em and Interscope, is in charge of making sure the ship runs smoothly and the album gets cleared for release. On the skit, Rosenberg says “Dre gave me a copy of the new album… and I just… [sigh] …fuck it.” It’s another essay, but I think Eminem might be one of the most self-aware/self-conscious rappers in recent memory.

By the time Marshall Mathers LP dropped, Eminem was a Name. He made his label millions, he was well on the way to making himself millions, and his videos probably played on MTV more often than he had hot meals. Being a Name brings a certain level of power. When you’re a young guy trying to take advantage of your big break, do you have to sand down your rough edges? But if you’ve already made that break, if you’re established and in a position to defend your art, are you more free to say whatever you want, as long as it’s in a creative context?

Necro, Ill Bill (as a solo artist), and Non-Phixion provide a counterpoint. They’re not going for major label sales or acceptance. They don’t care if somebody’s mama in Minnesota gets offended at their lyrics, so creating songs like “I Need Drugs” and “How to Kill A Cop,” both of which are flips of other popular rap songs, is no skin off their back. Their underground status gives them the same freedom that Eminem’s “made man” status awards him. If you’re not trying to be big, or if you’ve already made it, you have benefits people who haven’t made it yet don’t have.

(Biggie’s another case, one I haven’t quite figured out yet. But, off the top of my head, I have the feeling that he kept his really gutter material segregated from his R&B crossover lyrics. They were on the same album, but aimed at different audiences, much like Eminem’s emotional, violent, and pop songs were serving varied masters.)

Ross is a third situation. He got big, but made himself beholden to non-creative corporate interests at the same time. He became a spokesman for Reebok, as Reebok wanted to use his brand to extend their influence amongst men. The Ross brand is extravagant, suave, and wealthy. He’s selling a lifestyle. But, as pointed out by my friend Cheryl Lynn Eaton, one of Reebok’s primary audiences is women. So a rape line in raps doesn’t play. I spent a lot of time thinking about this aloud on tumblr a while back, and I was struck when a reader said that “It’s easy to feel like a protagonist, “I am the guy doing the rad violence and Whatever He Wants”, but when the power trip is date rape it gets REALLY hard for me to see myself as macho hero instead of ‘date-raped anonymous girl’.”

I was struck because it’s so plainly true. It’s one of the simplest explanations of the downsides of the One Man To Make Things Right scenario. When Ross said what he said, he immediately alienated a significant part of Reebok’s audience in a way that the drug raps and violence don’t, and was punished financially for it. He’s free to say whatever he wants, but free speech has a price.

“Music… reality… sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. But we as entertainers have a responsibility to these kids… psyche!”
–Bizarre, 2002

The context between 2013 and 2000, when Eminem was blowing up, is different now, too. There was no Twitter, no Tumblr, no Facebook. Blogs weren’t what they are now. If you wanted to make a stink, you had to either get on TV, write a book, or get into a magazine. Nowadays? I can just type in “4thletter.net” and go buck wild with a three thousand word essay on how we view rap.

That changes the conversation. Voices that weren’t originally in that conversation are now free to join it, and have a platform that lets them explain their position in a detailed and well-reasoned manner. These voices often lack the legitimacy that’s awarded to people who use traditional channels, but Twitter has a way of turning small things into big ones. If you’re good, the tiniest blog can become the site of an enormous conversation.

You can see this change in conversation in the backlash against Ross, the discussion surrounding Chief Keef, the controversy about Lil Wayne using an Emmett Till metaphor, and the annoying conversations around Lana Del Rey’s “realness.” You can see it when Maura Johnston writes about how not to write about female musicians.

These new voices, like the Months and Days, serve as, if not a corrective, then something else to consider when creating your art or judging someone else’s art. I’ve personally been enriched by this. My thoughts about Ross were crystallized most through talking with white women who are mostly (as near as I can tell) outsiders to rap and black culture on Tumblr. Being around Cheryl Lynn for the past few years has shown me that some of the things I truly love treat black women like trash.

I like every part of rap. I can listen to Curren$y & Juvenile’s “Bitch Get Up” and Blu & Nia Andrews’s “My Sunshine” and recognize the pros and cons of both tracks. (Both of them go, personally.) That doesn’t make me a bad person or a hypocrite. There’s a time and place for everything, whether it’s Eminem’s “Kim” or Tupac’s “Dear Mama.”

(There’s something about how most of the controversy I’ve talked about has been specifically about misogyny or rape instead of violence, drug dealing, and everything else in rap, but I’d need a whole other uncomfortable essay to untangle that knot.)

When it comes to rap and reality, it’s like something David Simon once said. “We know more about human pride, purpose, and obsession from Moby-Dick than from any contemporaneous account of the Nantucket whaler that was actually struck and sunk by a whale in the nineteenth-century incident on which Melville based his book.”

In other words, if you want to know the human cost of the Vietnam War, you can google it and get numbers and data. If you want to know the emotional cost, you should listen to Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home” instead. If you want to know the after-effects of Ronald Reagan’s tenure as president on the black community, read a book. If you want to know what catharsis and guilt sounds like, listen to Killer Mike’s “Reagan.”

Listen to rap.

Similar Posts:

Post to Twitter Post to Facebook Post to Reddit Post to StumbleUpon

11 comments to “Bigger Than The Government: How We Look At Hip-Hop”

  1. I know the Tyler the Creator/Rape conversation has been had too many times, but I figured if there was one rapper that embodies the idea of becoming a character, especially a dark or evil one, in rap, its him. I’m kind of surprised you didn’t mention him. I’m sure there is plenty you could say about him, especially considering there’s plenty that separates him from other rappers. Great article though, I’m always interested in your thoughts on Hip-Hop/Rap.

  2. This feels like the best essay you’ve written in a long time. You gotta blackout like this more often.

  3. Bookmarked for future reference.

    As a metal fan, sure, there’s a parallel to the Satanism scares. So much of the devil talk in metal is obviously theatrical or metaphorical, and the over-reaction to it has a similar ignorance of context. But the Satanic panic in the US was a wave of hysteria that lasted only a few years and was debunked pretty quickly when no actual Satanic cults or demons turned up (not to say it didn’t ruin the lives of some who were affected by it). If rap is real but fake, Satanic metal is…just fake.

    And, of course, most metal musicians and fans are white. America doesn’t fear the devil the way it does young black men.

  4. Problem is, you can’t be real and fake. Contradiction in terms. You have to be one or the other, you can’t be both. So if you’re real, you’re really a misogynist who advocates rape. And if you’re fake, then you’re trading on that misogyny and advocacy of rape to make millions off of poor suckers who don’t even realize they’re being played, don’t even realize they’re suckers, don’t even realize they’re pawns of the same misogynistic rape culture that spawned the idea that it’s somehow okay for Eminem or Tyler to rap about rape, because they’re just inhabiting characters. It does a disservice to them, to their listeners, and to actual victims of rape, by completely removing their agency in the situation. And if nobody has any agency in the situation, then surely everyone is victimized–by the worldview that says eh, it’s just a woman, she probably deserved it by dressing like that.

    The only context for rape is that it’s a violent, ugly, terrible violation of body, mind and spirit. The only proper ethical response to rape is that it is wrong. The excuse of “well, he was just portraying a character” does not wash. Advocacy of rape as a character is still advocacy. The only difference is that you get to excuse it and explain it away . . . and lose your agency in the process.

    You’re being raped too. You just don’t know it.

  5. @Aidan: Yeah, I originally had a few brief sentences about Odd Future, but they were more defensive than I wanted, and a little overkill since I already had a few similar examples. But I think about them a lot. That context is very interesting.

    @MaxBenign: Ha, yes! I left out that racial distinction, too. That would be a whole other kettle of fish, but it’s a valuable point.

    @Demosthenes: “Problem is, you can’t be real and fake.” But you CAN be real fake, can’t you? So is it a contradiction… or is everything the same thing?

    Did I just blow your mind???

  6. I don’t think we should look too seriously at rap “as real” or get too mired in the veracity or “authenticity” of rappers’ accounts; that’s what Chappelle makes fun of in the whole “keepin’ it real goes wrong” series. I think we should be more interested in why certain claims get made and what allows them. In that light, Eminem casually referencing rape isn’t alarming because it’s more or less true: it’s alarming because it’s okay for him to say that without flinching. I really think that the more you look for authenticity in rap, the more you realize you’re just searching for your version of authenticity. That’s cool, but that’s not every rapper’s goal, so you end up limiting your exposure to the genre.

    I guess what I’m saying is that the “rap is CNN” line can be taken seriously only if we take the metaphor seriously, particularly the CNN part. In other words, rap isn’t an unbiased account of happenings in a particular community: it’s an account saturated with biases.Desires, incentives, ambitions, motives, history and interests are always already coming to bare on what we are presented with and how rappers present themselves.

    And I completely think we should dismiss the whole “product of their environment” way of accounting for things. Individuals have way more volition than that. They’re not like John Locke individuals doing whatever the fuck they want – those don’t exist – but I do think that the product of environment narrative seriously discounts people’s agency and resistance. It’s way more productive to look at how that kind of agency manifests. Plus, in the end, the product of the environment narrative goes both ways. Glenn Beck is just as much a “product of his environment” as Kendrick Lamar.

    You should read, “Why Critique Has Run out of Steam” by Bruno Latour. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/19302980/Latour-Why-Has-Critique-Run-Out-of-Steam)

    And I also wrote an essay regarding authenticity: http://theblacktongue.wordpress.com/2013/02/23/rap-is-the-new-race-how-the-hustle-obscures-the-struggle/

  7. @david brothers: Nope, sorry. What you actually did was play cutesy-pie word games and pretend that cleverness is the same as insight, instead of addressing anything of substance in my post. So you tell me who’s real fake here, Mr. Brothers.

    Your lack of agency is showing.

  8. @Stephen Kearse: Why in the world would you dismiss the idea that music is a product of the environment it was created in? That’s lunacy. I think the way I do because I was born black and raised mostly in America by black people who have their own history. I am a direct product of that history and you cannot discout that at all. I’m not sure why you position Glenn Beck being a product of his environment is somehow a counterpoint to Kendrick being one. They both are — that’s obvious.

    Equally obvious is that I’m not absolving anyone of responsibility or suggesting they have no agency. I don’t know how you could read this and come away thinking I believe anything even approaching that. That’s why I talk about a variety of concepts from dudes with shared roots and dudes with wildly different roots. Everyone copes in different ways, and Killer Mike and Juvenile, who I think are nearly peers in age and grew up in the hood in two different Southern states, have both shared subject matter (strippers, drugs) and wildly different subject matter (Mike is way more political).

    But I think you missed my point, but that’s maybe my fault — there’s no real conclusion here and a whole mess of points to consider. One of those points is that the environment is worth considering when discussing rap, but not to the point that you believe the rappers are kicking actual facts. It’s like fiction. The subtext reveals things about the characters, the author, and the world.

    I’m not looking for authenticity in rap. I’m looking for banging beats, tight rhymes, and nice wordplay. The authenticity, or lack thereof, is a side effect of the roots and evolution of the genre. I recognize and appreciate it when I see it — Gucci Mane, Kendrick Lamar, Killer Mike, Fresh Prince, Rakim, and whoever else are all “authentic” — but there’s not some objective idea of authenticity that I’m seeking for.

    Bias is irrelevant. Unbiased accounts don’t exist, and I never said that rap should be taken literally, as your response suggests. In fact, I explicitly say otherwise, repeatedly, in this essay. It’s… it’s basically the entire point of the essay, that there is value in listening to rap but it isn’t objective or academic or… did you read this thing?

    But, okay, taking your statement at face value: We all judge situations according to our own biases. That’s basically how points of view work. I’m approaching this from one angle, you’re approaching it from another, and there’s no unbiased angle because anyone who looks into the subject is not a tabula rasa. They’re a person with opinions and beliefs, and those opinions and beliefs inform how they approach everything. Objective truth exists, but we cannot experience it without it being filtered through a human being, which unconsciously and inevitably injects our biases, prejudices, beliefs, and so on into our perception of the truth. Shorter: the shade of blue that I see is probably not the exact same shade of blue that you see, but both of us see blue.

    I appreciate your points, but you’re not actually replying to what I wrote, I feel like. You’re definitely ascribing positions to me that I do not hold and actively debunk in the post, too.

    @Demosthenes: I don’t think it was cute or clever so much as scornful. I didn’t want to give you any insight because, frankly, you don’t deserve it. You want me to address something of substance in your post — like what? You’re see-thru. You don’t have any substance and your reading comprehension is sorely lacking. “blah blah blah if you mention rape without condemning it you’re a rape advocate.” What world do you live in?

    Here’s some agency for you though:

    1. The entire essay is about how the line between real and fake is often blurred in rap music, as a result of the subject matter, context, and other social factors. A rapper’s “Fuck you” is different from a rock star’s “Fuck you,” even if the motivation behind it is the same.

    2. Your “poor suckers” comment, among others, is incredibly elitist and uninformed. You’re probably one of those dudes who likes to talk about how rap is different than hip-hop, and only conscious rap matters, not that mainstream top 40 stuff. Sorry — I said elitist and uninformed, but I was thinking stupid.

    3. You don’t understand how fiction works.

    4. It is okay for Eminem and Tyler to rap about rape for the same reason it’s okay for Jay-Z to rap about selling drugs and it’s okay for Arnold Schwarzeneggar to murder eight hundred people with a machine gun. It’s fiction, and one thing you apparently didn’t learn is that depiction is not advocacy. Jim Thompson doesn’t advocate for small town sherriffs to murder people and beat women, Eminem doesn’t want you to rape women, Tyler, the Creator is not actually going to kill himself or his friends, even though thus far he’s died a couple times and all of his friends have been killed by his alter ego.

    It’s fake. The context behind it is real, and should inform the discussion of this stuff, but it is fake fake faaaaaake. It is entertainment, and before you leap to your keyboard to tell me that rape isn’t entertaining, entertainment is not always positive, enjoyable, or comfortable! Requiem for a Dream is harrowing. I never fail to feel terrible and cry after I watch Do the Right Thing. But they are art and serve a purpose, and your blanket “If you depict it, you’re encouraging it!” is the sort of thing that would never pass muster in any conversation about art or life. It’s never that easy.

    No one is removing agency. Not even close. It’s the opposite, if anything. I mean, if I say that Eminem chose to make a rape joke in a song, isn’t that suggesting he has agency? Nobody made him do it. He chose to do it. I’d wager he knows good and well that he’s a product of a culture — not just a rape culture, a fully-realized culture — that is violent and racist and sexist. That’s a sucker bet, though, because he’s acknowledged that exact fact repeatedly on record and interviews, and so has basically every single other rapper who has been asked the question. What do you think “You want me to fix up lyrics while the President gets his dick sucked?” means? C’mon son. It’s not about absolving someone of responsibility. It’s about looking at what they’re responsible for in the context of the culture they were influenced by and are contributing to. Probably too much nuance for you, though?

    5. I think the problem is that some people are smart enough to understand the difference between reality and fiction, including the differing rules for both, and other people are named Demosthenes. I mean, otherwise, Robert Downey Jr is a HUGE racist, Val Kilmer is a murderer, Charlotte Gainsbourg believes in female genital mutilation, etc etc. I can’t believe I actually have to say this, honestly.

    6. For somebody explaining to me how I’m a rape advocate or whatever whatever, you sure are free with the word rape. You wanna use the word on this site? You use the dictionary definition of “rape” strictly. You wanna tell me I’m being fooled or taken advantage of or whatever, you use a different word.

    7. You forgot to say “sheeple.”

    8. You want to respond to me again, put your real name on it. If you want to be ignorant in my house, you don’t get to hide behind a fake name, Valentine.

  9. I see what you are saying about me not directly engaging with your points, but that’s my fault. I’ll try to clarify.

    I didn’t mean to imply that history and context are never important because they absolutely are. It’s just that too often when someone uses the “environment” to explain something, the implication is that environment is destiny. I totally agree that you and I think a certain way about things because we’re Black in America, but I feel like the existence of Black Republicans – particularly ones that grew up in poverty – suggests that we should be more nuanced when using the environment to understand why people think or act a certain wayu. Basically, as its currently used, the environment is this omnipotent thing that acts on people. My point was that it’s a lot more complicated than that and that people resist, even in tiny ways.

    Regarding realness vs fakeness, I agree that you make the case that rap is blurry and I agree with that case. It’s just that at one point you imply that realness is something you relate to more and that relatability is what helps that line between real and fake stay invisible. On one hand, that’s idiosyncratic, so it could just be a you thing, but on the other hand, the idea of relatability being necessary for a song to connect is treacherous ground. I say that because I feel like unrelatable things get overlooked. For instance, when I listen to Danny Brown’s album XXX, it is all wholly unfamiliar, especially the hazy vibe of some of the instrumentals, but I’m able to engage with it anyway. The opacity of that relationship is something I value, in fact.

    Now do you think I read this? Haha.

  10. Yeah, I would never suggest that the environment defines where you are going to go, and I apologize if I gave you that impression. It’s more like — who we are is, at least in part, a reaction to our environments, right? In both a positive and negative sense. Sometimes it’s a self-protective thing, sometimes it’s an aspirational thing, sometimes it’s something else entirely. Or everything else. Whichever. Some people reject their environment, some revel in it, and others recognize its influence, but refuse to be defined by it. I’m not sure which I am. Honestly, I would suspect a lot of us (whether “us” is black folks, Americans, men, women, whatever) are a mixture of all three, and some configuration I don’t even know about yet.

    The environment isn’t everything so much as it is the first thing, maybe, or a foundational thing. Me and my little brother are from a similar environment. We have being raised by our mom in common, we lived together until I was grown, and we share a lot of aspects. But, due to when I was born, the choices I’ve made, the choices he’s made, and more besides, we’re different people. We don’t agree on everything, we don’t react the same way to identical situations, and we don’t believe the same things. I used to hate Big Sean, but my brother put me onto a mixtape that changed my mind.

    So there’s a lot of nuance there, and I was trying to speak to that some while writing this by talking about rappers with a wide variety of subject matter. I may not like the idea of a Black Republican (of a certain stripe, anyway, I know a couple that are okay), but I don’t think it’s an invalid response to growing up black in America. You cope as best you can and believe in whatever gives you the strength to keep it moving.

    On the real issue… there’s a spectrum of real for me. I’m mostly thinking of real in this reply in the sense of “reflects some aspect of life in an accurate way.” DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince are as real as Kendrick Lamar as Young Jeezy as Blu as Yasiin Bey. They’re all vastly different types of real, I think, but I connect to them because I recognize bits and pieces of myself in them. It’s very idiosyncratic, but I don’t think that precludes it from being applicable on a larger scale, either. I’m not sure if I’m phrasing that correctly. Rephrasing: what I like about these guys, what I recognize, is something that other people can and do recognize, though the specifics for each of us may change. That’s also the meaning of the CNN comment for me — there’s a kernel of truth in the work of these people that’s worth examining. It may be fictional, but there is still truth inside that fictional wrapper.

    I’m glad you mentioned Danny Brown, because he’s a dude who I connect with on a more intellectual level than an emotional one. I respect his skills, but I’ve never had a drug problem and I wasn’t poor enough as a kid to scrap or die. But I see his skills, and I recognize that he loves language like I love language. I think that counts as relatability, doesn’t it? It’s a little more indirect than Jay rapping about his absentee father and ambivalence or Kanye rapping about grinding or Blu talking that regular guy talk, but it’s there, I think.

    (Plus one of the joints on Danny’s XXX samples a song from the Akira soundtrack. Fields, I think. It’s the tingling melody in the beat.)

    That may be a stretch, I’m not sure, but it feels right. I find it hard to dive into things that I can’t connect to on some level, whether emotionally or intellectually.

    Thanks for the conversation man. This made me think about this specific aspect of things deeper than I have in a while.

  11. Thank you as well. I definitely agree that it’s hard to dive into things when there’s no point of connection. But I think for me that having no clear point of connection is a very valuable thing. It’s probably just a personal preference, but I think it’s helped me occupy spheres of thought that I can’t normally understand and helped me identify other spheres without absorbing them into my own. For example, I really don’t like Watch the Throne. It’s excess in overload and as a guy who isn’t a super millionaire, it’s almost repulsively distancing to hear that much wealth talk. But I think that feeling that distance makes me try to harder to understand why it exists?

    I’m probably getting off topic, ha. Anyway, as far as a spectrum of real, I know what you mean. It’s hard to put into words, but it’s like a mixture of suspension of disbelief and willingness to accept unreal things. The latter enables the former. That being said, the more that spectrum gets defined, the more counterexamples seem to pop-up, so I usually just keep it inside.