On lyrical content, compromise, and hypocrisy (?)

February 15th, 2012 by | Tags: , ,

Hot97’s Peter Rosenberg has recently spoken up against rap songs that glorify drunk driving. He had a brother who was a victim of a drunk driver, and he’s honest about the fact that the death of his brother fuels his crusade.

I’ve been thinking about Rosenberg’s quest a lot, especially after watching this interview he did with Kendrick Lamar (I came to Section.80 late, but it’s definitely one of the better releases from last year) and Schoolboy Q:

Rosenberg’s mission is interesting to me, in part because drunk driving is, without minimizing the tragedy inherent in drunk driving, one of the least of rap’s sins. I’ve implicitly or explicitly cosigned murder, rape, selling crack, homophobia, and the promotion of violence against judges, correctional officers, district attorneys, probation officers, the family of victims, witnesses, and snitching ass hoes. When I walk around singing along to Jay’s “Blue Magic,” I’m explicitly supporting the actions of a dude who actually sold drugs and made his fortune talking about how well he sold drugs.

“Blame Reagan for making me into a monster” is a hot line that’s easy to flip into other contexts. It’s about all of us ’80s babies, sure, but it’s also Jay-Z blaming Reaganomics for pushing him so far into poverty or hardship that he felt licensed to deal poison, poison that was provided in part by the United States government. And I mean, sure, he had his reasons. It’s like something from a Tupac song: “‘I made a G today’ But you made it in a sleazy way/ sellin’ crack to the kids/ “I gotta get paid!”/ Well hey, but that’s the way it is.” But it’s still gross, isn’t it?

And then there’s that deeper, personal level. There’s cocaine in my family history, and it’s definitely the one drug I hold in contempt above any other one. I don’t hang with people who use it, I’ve got no plans to try it, whatever whatever. So why am I so cool with the Clipse? Why is the most common expression of what I think of as black superhero music almost exclusively drug-dealing music?

Jeezy’s (aka Snow aka Snowman aka Mr 17.5) “All White Everything” with Yo Gotti is a banger. I love it when Jeezy flips a concept like that. He’s not lyrical, but he’s charming enough to sell it. Shawty Redd’s beat is on point, too, with triumphant trumpets, that scattered-sounding drum loop that seduces you into head nodding unconsciously.

But you’re a fool if you think the white he’s talking about is just sexy white girls and sexy white Lambos. He’s talking coke. It’s a celebration of what coke money gets you (even if crack isn’t as lucrative as it used to be at its peak, but that’s another conversation). I have every reason not to be down with this song, but I haven’t rejected it.

I re-listened to DMX’s listenable albums the other day. It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot still holds up surprisingly well, but it made me realize how often Dark Man X talks about rape. He wants to rape you, your wife, your mans and them in jail, and if you got a daughter older than fifteen, he’ll “take her on the living-room floor, right there in fronta you.” He talks about rape all the time. DMX is objectively the best dude to step into Tupac’s shoes after his death (or “objectively the best Tupac dick rider,” depending on how charitable you are), but he’s missing that social consciousness that informed all of Tupac’s work. Tupac understood how playing a specific role allows you to reach more people with your message. DMX is just playing a role.

And there’s the violence, too. I love David Banner’s “Treat Me Like.” It’s good bang your head music, the hook is on point, and Jadakiss comes correct, as always. Jada:

I don’t like to promise shit, but we gon’ bring the drama, kid
Just tell me who I gotta slap and where they mama live
Yet and still, real recognize real, and whoever don’t get recognized get killed
Too many soldiers to jeopardize in the field
I got throwaway niggas ready to die, and they will
Jason as a youth, I turned into Satan in the booth
First nigga with Daytons on the coupe, unh
I could drive, but a boss get driven
So I’m shotgun, higher than the cost of living
My seat back, my gear black, my heat black
Deserve whatever you got comin’, so keep that
Now all you do is turn the lights off and drive by slow, I’ma turn his life off
And I’m good long as he bleeding
Nann nigga never play me long as I’m breathing, WHAT

As far as murda muzik goes, Jada’s verse on “Treat Me Like” is tops. It might even be my favorite Jada verse. I can do it off the top, or at least I could at one point. That back/black/black/that sequence is incredible. But at its heart, Jada is talking about killing somebody, right? How can I justify celebrating that?

(Correction: “So I could never hate on another brother/ God is great, the devil is a motherfucker” is probably my favorite couple of bars from Jadakiss, but that verse, as a whole, wins out.)

Or Killer Mike on Chamillionaire’s “Southern Takeover”:

It’s the Mister Four-Fifth toter
Cooking coke with baking soda
Dub roller, pro smoker, wood gripper, pistol whip a
Monkey nigga, if he figure
Fuckin with my figures makes him richer, he should know
Insteada it’ll make him deader
than a mummy fuckin with my money
Get yo mummy snatched right outta sunday school
On a bright and sunny Sunday, this ain’t funny
I ain’t jokin bout my coke and package come up shorter
Might kidnap yo wife and daughter
Bury them down deep in Georgia

right before Pastor Troy drops another heat rock on the same joint:

Okay, y’all know me, it’s PT, well I hunt and all of that
Black on black, with black tint, I can’t help but represent
Not content, I want more, who the fuck you take me for?
Studio rap is not the forté, drop my top and bust my AK
‘No more play in GA,’ yeah, that’s a classic
Ridin in a Classic, toting me and blasting
Send em to the casket, send em to the morgue
Slap me a nigga cause I’m motherfuckin bored”

The beat drops out at “Slap me a nigga ’cause I’m motherfucking bored,” making it that exact line you wanna yell out when you’re listening to this joint. It’s instinctual. It’s dope, in spite of (or maybe because of) what it’s about.

I don’t even know if I have a point, beyond “Rap is messed up and I’m drowning in compromise because I like a lot of stuff my mom would be mad at.” I’m a smart dude, fairly well-read, and while I wouldn’t call myself socially conscious, I’m definitely not an idiot. This post isn’t an exorcism or a big announcement that I’m done listening to rap. That’s stupid. I’m just… aware of the contradictions and thinking my way through them. I’m thinking out loud.

I was talking to a friend the other month about how conflicted I was about the fact that I have bigger issues with artists who buy into liquor companies (Puffy and Ciroc, Luda and Conjour) and then pitch them in music videos, but not with dudes who actually, literally sold drugs and are now getting rich off that fact. I didn’t even come close to having an answer, beyond one act being normalized for me and the other being new.

But I see where Rosenberg is coming from. He’s a smart guy, and he’s clearly put a lot of thought into his position. I can’t begrudge him that at all, and I respect what he’s doing. I think it’s totally worth quizzing artists on lyrical content. Some will have answers. Some won’t. It’s a conversation worth having. It’s worth having a conversation about every aspect of rap. “Why” matters. I like that he’s doing this, and welcome the thoughts he’s spurred, even if it leads directly to the inevitable realization that I’m sitting in a moral quagmire.

I’m listening to Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly as I write this. It’s an explicitly anti-drug album from a movie about pimping and drugs. Superfly made me think of another question: why should I hold rap music to a different standard than film? Is there a real difference between Ready to Die and King of New York? Between Reservoir Dogs and “Reservoir Dogs”? I feel like there isn’t, and if there is, there shouldn’t be.

Similar Posts:

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

6 comments to “On lyrical content, compromise, and hypocrisy (?)”

  1. I see rap lyrics as basically being TV – you get to live out whatever Scarface-derived power fantasy that appeals to you for the four minutes worth of song, and I doubt that any more than .000001% of the audience is manufacturing/using/slanging crack and using Jeezy for actual Thug Motivation.

    The drunk driving thing is (and I noticed that on the mostly terrific Schoolboy Q album) a bit more problematic because people do that all the time that wouldn’t be otherwise into committing other crimes on a regular basis, so in this case you might have dumbasses actually following his advice in the handful of lyrics because they think it’s cool.

    Extremely graphic sexxx rapps still make me feel gross, particularly when juicy slurping noises figure into the song somewhere.

  2. Yes, there’s plenty of unsavory content in the world almost regardless of media or genre. Beyond you coming around to “there shouldn’t be a line” is the issue that it’s potentially corrosive to you and/or others? If there’s no social engineering issue, that is, I like this film/song as a piece of entertainment and doesn’t affect how I really view the world … but not so simple. BTW, Snoop has given a similar explanation as Paula Deen when queried that the lifestyle they each promote could be hazardous to fans trying to emulate it. As in, “I’m an entertainer, not a doctor or babysitter for your kids.” Art and media can educate, mobilize, as well as entertain, for good or bad. It can also be ambient and stay below your awareness, since we’re bombarded with about 3K marketing messages a day.

  3. I was thinking about how I approach other forms of media: movies, comics, TV, books. While I don’t approach them in the same way, it is similar enough. Music is different though because I honestly don’t know what I look for in a song beyond something rather vague, it is tough to pin down. Music is a special kind of storytelling. You can be seduced by a song, you can fall into a song, you can FEEL a song. It is quite easy to enjoy a beat or a chorus long before you reflect on what it was all saying and whether or not you agree with it. Now I’m not saying you shouldn’t think about what a song is saying, but then again it is the ultimate art form of getting your emotions out. I think about how a good angry songs makes me feel better, but would I necessarily want any of that to happen?

    So is that what you call a getaway? / Tell me what you got away with / Cause I’ve seen more spine on jellyfish / I’ve seen more guts on eleven-year-old kids / Have another drink and drive yourself home / I hope there’s ice on all the roads / And you can think of me when you forget your seatbelt / and again when your head goes through the windshield

    But beyond that, what you were saying about kind of the lifestyle behind it, as in Jay-Z’s Blue Magic…well, he isn’t selling drugs now? I dunno. I understand not wanting to support a lifestyle but if it is in the past, are you?

  4. @Brian J: Yeah, you’re dead on. A friend pointed out that the barrier to entry for pitching cracks is actually pretty high for most people, but drunk driving… you can do that on ten dollars or less. That is a huge difference, and thanks for pointing it out.

    Also, yo, any rap album that has a skit where somebody gets a blowjob? That track gets skipped and/or deleted. It’s wack every time.

    @Kate: Yeah, it’s super complicated and probably over-thought on my part. You’re right that I’m not supporting the past lifestyle, but there’s this neurotic part of me that feels like I’m rewarding him for his past behavior, in a way? Like you can draw a line from then to now and the connection bugs me sometimes.

    You’re also right about how music can be much more personal than other media. That’s another wrinkle.

  5. @David

    I don’t think you’re over thinking it really. These are good questions to be asking yourself. But it is very hard to decide when do we forgive the past, when do we separate the work from the lifestyle, etc. That also runs into the further complication of how much do we think media has a responsibility to society. Actually kind of reminds me of the Chris Brown conversations swirling around currently.

  6. Nasakenai…

    Jada stabbing Fiddy in his wanksta-ass forehead

    Jada throwing jabs at Cam’ron

    Jada piggybacking on the “A Milli” craze

    All of these were freestyles. The man is a beast. He’s also the reason why I haven’t wasted a dime on any of these (c)rappers who seem to be earning so much acclaim right now. When Lil’ Wayne and Nicki Minaj are your standard bearers (and let’s not forget Emokiss… I mean Drake) and the only songs that get played in the club are essentially parodies of late-90’s Southern Lowest Common Denominator hip-hop, your genre needs to be taken out back and shot.