Category Archives: Essays

The Compelling Duality of Kanye West: The Participatory Critic in “New Slaves”


I didn’t get a chance to see Kanye West’s world-wide broadcast of his latest single “New Slaves,” the first track unveiled from his sixth studio album Yeezus.  For some reason, Yeezy chose to bypass Pittsburgh for the 66-building international music video projection (who knows why, but I’m thinking it’s a subtle shot at Mac Miller).  But I did have the pleasure of seeing Kanye’s SNL performance.  There he stood, shouting from the shadows, embracing this new ranting-monster-menace role into which we’ve slowly seen him evolve.  Very much by his own motivations, Yeezy has forced mainstream America to tout him as its very own exiled poet.

Although I’m sure the building premier would have been a fascinating experience, I’m much more excited for the album’s June 18th release.  If “New Slaves” stands as an appropriate preview for the nature of the 14-track work, critics best get their keyboards ready.  The single presents a bold commentary on American race relations.  West assails the racial politics of present-day consumerism, labeling it as a new form of slavery.

You see it’s broke nigga racism

That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”

And this rich nigga racism

That’s that “Come here, please buy more

What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?

All you blacks want all the same things”

In the first verse, Kanye speaks from his own experience, moving from his status as a “broke” black man in Chicago to his current post among the self-crowned “new black elite.” Regardless of economic standing, he endures consumer racism.  If a black man is perceived to be in poverty he suffers from “broke nigga racism,” consistently suspected of stealing.  If he is wealthy, he’ll find himself plagued with “rich nigga racism,” forever pressured to participate in a decadent lifestyle to prove his escape from poverty.

Already, critics have blasted Kanye on his new single, calling him a hypocrite for participating in the very system he attacks.  Earnest Owens calls him “that one cousin in the family that never tends to shut up at the dinner table” in an article in The Huffington Post.

In short, Owens claims that Kanye spends too much time complaining about present-day racism, rather than putting his efforts towards fixing the problem.  In The Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper dissects Kanye’s lavish lifestyle to argue that the icon spends far too much time (and money) embracing consumer capitalism to have a pertinent voice in its criticism.

There’s no denying that Kanye is an active participant in the scheme of American consumerism, and therefore perpetuates the conventions that he voraciously attacks.  Of course, this isn’t something out of the ordinary for Kanye.  Critique of American racism–through consumerism, mass incarceration, and faulty education to name a few—has always held prominence in Kanye’s work. At every level, he is the first to admit participatory guilt for almost everything he critiques.

Early on, in Yeezy’s debut album The College Dropout, “All Falls Down” portrays materialism’s plague the black community.  In the final verse, he confesses: “But I ain’t even gonna act holier than thou/Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with twenty-five thou,” and a few lines later: “‘I got a problem with spendin’ before I get it/We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.”

In “Breathe In Breathe Out,” from the same album, Kanye calls himself part of the problem yet again:

Golly, more of that bullshit ice rap

I got to ‘pologize to Mos and Kweli

But is it cool to rap about gold

If I told the world I copped it from Ghana and Mali?

First nigga with a Benz and a backpack

Ice chain, Carti lens, and a knapsack

Always said if I rapped I’d say somethin’ significant

But now I’m rappin’ ’bout money, hoes, and rims again

Kanye is compelled to “’pologize to Mos and Kweli,” admitting that he has let down two prominent socially conscious hip-hop artists—Mos Def and Talib Kweli—by succumbing to “bullshit ice rap,” instead of following his initial goal to “say somethin’ significant.” In “Breathe in Breathe Out,” Kanye participates in the “bullshit ice rap” trend by rapping about “money, hoes, and rims.” But the track is also very much a parody of gangster rap, Yeezy’s way of demonstrating how easy it is to fall into the laziness of meaningless lyricism.

Why then, are we just starting to hear about Kanye’s so called hypocrisy?  Perhaps his most recent work is more aggressive than his earlier critique.  Whereas his participant/critic duality was more subtle in The College Dropout, “New Slaves” has very little comic relief, making for a much louder social commentary.    But seriously, do critics really think they’re making an original point by criticizing him for participating in the problems of hip-hop?  If anything, Yeezy beat the critics at their own game by embracing his participation from the beginning of his career. His honest participation complicates the very issues he attacks.  Despite Kanye’s full awareness that he is part of the problem, his continued participation shows that the issues of hip-hop are far too embedded in black culture to simply avoid.  Not to say that we should give Kanye a free pass, or let him stand alone as his own critic.  Instead, we should use his participatory guilt as a prime example of the issues within hip-hop, not simply dismiss him as a hypocrite.

As for the argument that Kanye spends too much effort criticizing rather than fixing the problems, I must question why we place that mountain responsibility on the artist. Should we criticize Richard Wright for not including practical solutions in Native Son?  That’s a bit of an extreme example, but one essential step to fixing the racial issues embedded in our country is to identify, publicize, and criticize these issues in the first place.  Then, it becomes our own responsibility to pursue action for what we believe is right.  Kanye isn’t a politician or social activist.  He’s a world-famous rapper who has a knack for stirring controversy.  We shouldn’t put his face on a stamp, nor should we dismiss him as a hollow hypocrite.  Instead, let’s take him for what he is: a worldwide megaphone of racial tension.  I’m excited to see just how many fires he can ignite with Yeezus.  If “New Slaves” is any indication of what’s to come, I hope critics can come up with a better reaction than simply crying hypocrite.  The issues here are far too complicated and important to mute that simply.


All Them Fallin’/For The Love of Ballin’: Sports, Hip-Hop, and American Race Relations


The 66th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s monumental debut in Major League Baseball has inspired me to write a post on the current issues we face with professional sports, hip-hop, and race relations.

Let’s get one thing straight: an entire college course could be taught on the plethora of racial issues intertwined in sports and hip-hop.  Countless rap songs portray the harsh reality that from a young age, black men are taught that there are only two ways to break away from inner-city poverty: either be blessed with the skills to make it to the NBA, or pursue a rap career.

Hip-hop is scattered with sports references. J. Cole’s entire catalogue, for example, follows a metaphorical path of athletic success: The Warm Up, The Come Up Friday Night Lights and The Sideline Story.  This model for success—get rich or die trying–presents a new-age, narrow-minded image of the American-American dream.  Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get signed by any means, because there’s no use pursuing a career as a doctor, lawyer, or banker with an education from inner-city public schools. The majority of role models for today’s black youth are either on stage rapping about monetary success, or on TV signing multi-million dollar contracts to play professional sports. The spotlight given to athletes and rappers provide a “they made it, so why can’t I?” mentality to black youth who have suffered through poverty too much to idealize anything less than a high-class lifestyle.

The main problem here, is that the probability of success in either field is lower than any other professional pursuit.  Even worse, failure along either of these paths, even after success in the underground rap scene or collegiate athletics for example, leaves next to nothing to fall back on.  The idealized African-American success story, in reality, ends much more often in tragic letdown than in triumph.  Young black men in poverty who don’t succeed in professional sports are often left with inadequate education.  They are drawn toward the only glorified option left as a means for monetary success: drug dealing.

Kanye West’s line in “Gorgeous” comes to mind: “All them fallin for the love of ballin/got caught with 30 rocks the cop look like Alec Baldwin.”  Notorious B.I.G. also chimed in on “Things Done Changed:”

If I wasn’t in the rap game

I’d probably have a key knee-deep in the crack game

Because the streets is a short stop:

Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot

For every player who signs a deal in the NBA and has the fortune to move their family out of the dangerous neighborhoods from which they came, there are hundreds of young men who remain stuck in poverty.  Young men who were ushered through their high school (or even college) classes because they were stars on the basketball team, but were left with nothing to show for it.

While professional sports do provide an avenue for the lucky few who are blessed with incredible talents, they also perpetuate a flawed, misleading ideal for African American youth.  Moreover, professional athletes and rappers give others a façade to deny any existence of present-day racism.  When Adrian Peterson voiced his opinion that professional sports are a modern-day form of slavery, an angry reaction erupted, citing how much money these professional athletes make compared to the average American income.   I don’t align with Peterson’s view that professional sports are present-day slavery, per se. But there is something significantly wrong when young black men are taught from birth that they need to attain athletic success, so that rich white men can pay to watch them compete as a spectacle.  As if pointing to the few famous black men who have attained elite success somehow negates the fact that most black men are considered lucky if they don’t die before the age of 25.

For me, the most severe problem is that escaping from inner-city poverty is a ridiculously difficult task.  Faced with racial profiling, endless crime, and a disintegrating education system, who can blame these kids for looking up to athletes and rappers, who to this day remain the only prominent role models for the black youth.  Perhaps we need to change how we glorify athletic success, especially at the high school and college level.   Instead of spending so much money funding athletics, why don’t we spend our time, money, and attention creating other avenues to escape poverty, so that our future children will have role models in any field they wish to pursue.

Tagged , , ,

The N Word


It remains one of the most vivid memories of my childhood: There I sat in the back of the yellow bus, waiting to depart from the school parking lot after a day’s worth of kindergarten.   I was four years old and terrified, as I often would be throughout the first three years of my elementary school era.  An angry shout came from across the aisle:

“Hey white boy!”

This came to be my nickname at Northview Heights Elementary. My mother, after experiencing school integration in its earliest form attending T.C. Williams in the early 70’s, decided that her children would undergo an education that was both academically and culturally enriching.  So here I was, in the heart of one of the Pittsburgh projects,  the only white kid on a bus of 20, wondering why everyone looked at me with contempt.

“Say the word nigger! Just say it!”

I had no idea what that word meant.  I was still trying to figure out what letter came after K in the alphabet, and why my shoes never stayed tied with one loop. So I complied.

“Terrance, you hear that white boy say that! Ain’t you swole? Man, you better punch him for that!”

Terrance was a fond classmate of mine, and ended up being a great friend in later years, but on that bus ride, he was forced to confront a situation that had centuries of race relations floating between the aisles.   Punches were thrown. Tears were spilled.  And my bewilderment towards the word “Nigger” was never the same.

For a word that was initially created in hatred and degradation, “nigger” has evolved into a word with a variety of connotations. Recently, we’ve had rich white men (movie executives, FCC regulators, Bill O’Reilly, etc.) try to tell black people that they shouldn’t be able to say it.  As a fellow white man, with inherited white male privilege, I think we have as little say in the matter as we do to tell a woman what to do with her body.

As white people, we need to stop being offended by the word, and start to accept the fact that we aren’t allowed to say it.  Coming out of my mouth, “nigga” or even worse, “nigger,” is a word of hatred and ignorance.  Coming out of Terrance’s, or Kanye’s or Cornell’s or Jamie Foxx’s mouth, it’s a word of remembrance, camaraderie, and strength.  That’s why I find myself angry when the radio chooses to censor a song like “Niggas in Paris” (really, the Grammy went to “Ni[asterisk] [asterisk]as in Paris), when the word choice is so poignant and relevant.  Don’t blame Kanye and Jay-Z for using “nigga” in a song title. We can’t pretend like the song could have been called “black guys in Paris” or “rappers in Paris.” The whole point of using the word “nigga” is to signify an exceptional example of black success.  These men, who faced racial oppression throughout their American upbringing, have overcome their own country’s racial obstacles to attain elite status.  Now they’re self-crowned “niggas,” traveling the world, expatriates of their time, exuding wealth and decadence.

A similar controversy erupted a few years prior when Nas planned to title his 2009 album N.I.G.G.E.R., and the media shut the name down, aiming to bury the word as we have consistently attempted to bury years of racial oppression into our country’s far gone past.  Media moguls, Bill O’Rielly and Al Sharpton, and Oprah Winfrey to name a few, struck a fiery opposition to the title, claiming that spreading the word’s usage would only perpetuate its undertones of racial hatred. Whereas Nas’s album was loaded with poignant racial and societal commentary, that fact was ignored behind the controversial title.

The problems that stem from the prevalence of the word “nigga” come from our own misunderstanding of our current race relations.  We cannot blame rappers, or any black person for using the word.  Instead, we should draw attention to our broader issues that give such heated debate to the word’s usage.  Ignorance of white privilege. Denial of subtle racism and our contemporary caste system.  The stupid and blind perpetuation of a post-racial America. These are the problems that we need to face, before we go about trying to stop rappers from saying “nigga.”

I hold no anger towards my mother for choosing to place me in a school where I represented the 1% statistic of white enrollment. In fact, when my mother transferred me to a different elementary school in third grade because I was being bullied day-in, day-out, I pleaded tirelessly to let me stay. Despite all the anger and tension and culture shock, I grew fond of my “white boy” nickname, embraced my ability to make friends, and even now, find comfort in the fact that I received a cultural wake-up that few white kids are forced to face in their lifetime.

The problem is, very few white kids receive the cultural wake up that I find myself privileged to have had at the age of four.  Rather, there are too many kids think they can say “nigga” because they have a black friend who called them that once.  Or because their mom told them that racism is a thing of the past.  Or simply because they want to seem cool amongst other white friends.  We need to teach our children why the word exists, where it comes from, and what it signifies to different people, so they don’t grow up to be the next rich white bigot who tries to stop rappers from embracing their heritage.  That seems like a fantastic introduction to American race relations.

Tagged ,

Miguel, Frank Ocean, and the New Wave of R&B


When my good friend Calvin told me that I needed to stop everything I was doing and listen to Miguel’s latest album Kaleidoscope Dream¸ I was a bit skeptical: “We’re talking about the same Miguel, right?  The R&B newbie whose only hit thus far was “Quickie?”  Yes, that guy.  He knew what I was thinking.  How could a guy whose best lyrical substance didn’t surpass “No bite marks, no scratches, no hickies, I just want a quickie,” release an album that was worth the stop-in-your-tracks kind of listen session that Calvin suggested?  But I rarely disagree with him on matters of hip-hop and r&b, and this case was no different.  If you haven’t listened to Miguel’s album, consider this a pay-it-forward from Calvin. Stop everything you’re doing, and give it a listen.

From start to finish, Kaleidoscope Dreams is a fantastic piece of work, well worthy of its Grammy nomination for Best Urban Contemporary Album. If Miguel weren’t going against Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange¸ another R&B masterpiece, I would call his loss the biggest snub of the year.  We haven’t seen this many high-quality R&B albums since D’Angelo and Ginuwine ruled the scene.  Yet, I think the Grammys created a separate category for “Urban Contemporary Album” because these young crooners are taking R&B to a place the genre has never been before. Gone are the days of A Capella harmony ballads and smooth jazzy riffs.  Miguel and his talented peers (Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, and The Dream to name the elite), have created a new sound for love songs, intertwining synthesized heartache, thick bass, and sexy funk. Accompanied with the growing prevalence of love drugs in R&B, we’re seeing a new sense of euphoria overtaking the genre.

By now you’ve probably heard Kaleidoscope’s radio single “Adorn,” which won Miguel his first Grammy for Best R&B song. “Use Me,” my personal favorite from Miguel’s album, is an anthem of sexual surrender. The first lines “Sedate me…so that your salty is sweet” commence a slow, brewing buzz into a  chorus of sensational bliss.  “Do You,” perhaps the most catchy song on the album, is gaining radio play as well for its dream-like, hypnotizing crooning and repetitive chorus.  What all these songs have in common is their natural, simplified expressions of companionship.  Very much like his approach to sex, Miguel takes metaphors of love that we’ve heard 100 times over—“I’m gonna do you like drugs”–and makes us feel like we’re hearing them for the very first time.

I could go on naming other quality songs on the album, but listening to the album as a whole is an experience in itself.  You’ll find yourself getting lost in riffs that mix pain and pleasure, heartache and newfound love, celebration and mourning.  And even with all these contradicting emotions, the music comes as easy on the ear as a KC and Jo Jo song you’ve heard 100 times over.

My biggest problem with R&B is that often, the music lacks any sort of political message.  The soft sound and funky vibes don’t leave much room for an aggressive message of change that rappers such as Lupe Fiasco or Kanye West achieve on every album.  Frank Ocean and Miguel are beginning to change that.  Frank’s  “Crack Rock” is tells the sad story of how the crack epidemic can destroy lives: “Hit some stones, and broke your home, Smoking stones in abandoned homes.”

He criticizes corrupt police and racial profiling:

Crooked cop, dead cop

How much dope can you push to me

Crooked cop, dead cop

No good for community

Fucking pig get shot

Three hundred men will search for me

My brother get popped

And don’t no one hear the sound

The final verse depicts how corrupt police can make extra money involving themselves in the drug trade with very little risk, whereas young black men are dying every day from gang violence, largely fueled by the war on drugs.

Take a look at Miguel’s latest visual treatment for his song “Candles in the Sun,” the most politically charged track on the album:

The opening verse criticizes a lack of peace and compassion in the world:

Hey, Say we’re all created equal..

That’s what they teach us

But that ain’t how we treat each other

Naw, that ain’t how we treat each other

Shit, the truth is that we need each other, yea

                We consistently preach equality in schools and fairytales, but in reality, we never live up to these standards.  The chorus brings back Frank Ocean’s portrayal of the destruction of crack-cocaine, and further addresses a lack of peace in the world:

Diamond in the back, babies on crack

Kick in the door, wavin’ the 4-4

White collar, war, crime, money gets spent

Candles in the sun, blowin’ in the wind

Sun goes down, heroes often get shot

Peace has long been forgot

Ooh will it be too late when we find out?

All in all, these songs present a cry for help to the American people.  While they lack the aggression of traditional political hip-hop, the sad lyrics and smooth sounds provide a much more peaceful criticism of our current values and actions.  These songs build a platform for R&B artists of the future, enabling them to incorporate a political critique into a genre that is used to nothing but sex, love, and heartache.  I’m excited to see where Miguel, Frank Ocean and this new crew of R&B pioneers take the genre next.  Moreover, I look forward to hearing how they might inspire our youth to build on their innovative music. I’ll conclude with a cliché, yet perfectly fitting quote from Miguel: “Tomorrow’s just a day away.”

Tagged , ,

Drake: The Controversial Icon of Hip-Hop

Drake Take Care

It never fails:  every single time I tell someone that I’m into hip-hop, they ask me the same question: “What do you think about Drake?”  For being the smooth-talking, hook-cooking, hit-shitting icon that he is, Aubrey “Drake” Graham seems to be the most controversial figure in hip-hop.  Maybe it’s because we knew him first as the kid in the wheelchair in Degrassi (although no one seemed to have a problem with Will Smith when he started rapping).  Perhaps it’s because his ascent to stardom didn’t fit the traditional rapper’s come-up—growing up in the projects, dealing drugs on the corner, gaining ‘hood’ recognition, then rapping about it-.  Drake never did all that, but he maintains this odd cigar-smoking, wine-sipping swagger that makes you think he just inherited 20 million dollars and needs to spend it all in a week.  Then he throws in some sensitive, thoughtful spoken word poetry at the end of “Headlines” and you sit there wondering if you like it or not; and if you even like Drake, or hip-hop, or cigars and wine.  This is all very confusing, but it’ll be ok.

But to answer your question, I love Drake.  I love that no matter how many people question his authenticity as a rapper, he keeps making catchy music that gives me goosebumps the first time I hear it.  I love that, no matter how many people question his sexuality because he has the balls to talk about his relationship flaws with women, he stays as honest as they come.  Drake treats his music like a compiled diary of broken hearts and bitter ex-girlfriends and crazy nights with his friends. He has a way of putting his problems into catchy verses that make you understand exactly how he feels. I find myself empathizing with this multi-millionaire on a daily basis.  Maybe a comparative essay touting Mr. Graham as the 21st century beat poet is on the way. But anyways…

The only problem I have with Drake is that he signed to Young Money when he could’ve been just as successful on his own.  I was afraid he would plateau as the resident hook-maker for the YMCMB clan. Granted, while he does just that for Birdman, Weezy, and the rest, Drake remains entirely unique in his albums.  You see, Drake takes his music career much more seriously than anyone’s opinions, and the best rappers out there understand him and respect him for that.  Then our friend Aubrey releases a hilarious video like this and reminds us that despite his intense aura and life full of problems, he has quite a sense of humor:

Much like the “HYFR” video, “Started From The Bottom” has this jarring balance of non-chalant partying with friends, and Drake strutting around in front of his crew, taking himself as seriously as the Pope on Easter.  What the video says, to me, is that Drake is entirely comfortable with himself, enough to go prancing around in grocery markets with his white friends without worrying about what the haters might say about his legitimacy as a rapper in a genre full of thugs and ex-convicts.  No, Drake doesn’t care about that. He just surrounds himself with his genuine friends, swirls his Pinot Gris, and enjoys the view from the top.

Tagged , ,

From the Hood to the Burbs; Balancing Authenticity and Success in the Rap Game


What constitutes the failure of a rapper?  Losing all authenticity, or going bankrupt?  In an ideal hip-hop world, the two would go hand-in-hand.  Rappers who boast fake personas would lose their fan-base, record labels would drop their deals, and Rick Ross would watch the BET awards from his couch from 2013 on.  Alas, the reality is that rappers almost always have to face a choice between maintaining their integrity, or chasing money.  The only rappers we hear about have attained monetary success and dropped the authenticity that made them hungry for money in the first place; and the artists who remain devoted to their street credibility and authenticity? Well, let’s just say they’re still in the streets.

In many ways, rappers try to maintain their authenticity by swearing fierce loyalty to their “hood.”  Young Jeezy might have a crib in the suburbs now, but, his music is “for the hood.”  Peep some lines from Jeezy’s hit single “My Hood” from Thug Motivation 101:

(Chorus)“Every time I do it I do it for my hood/

Every time I do it I do it for your hood/

Every time I do it I do it for they hood/

It’s understood, I do it for the hood!” (2x)

                                                                                                                          (Verse 1) The streets love Jeez and I love ‘em back

And If I still had to work I’d front you a sack.

It’s all gravy still reach ‘em with my words

And make ‘em feel good like the first and the third.

Young Jeezy, much like Jay-Z, jumpstarted his career and gained street credibility as a successful drug dealer.  Of course, he dropped that business when he gained fame as a rapper, seeing that he no longer needed the money from such a risky business.  He was evidently a friendly guy, loved by the whole neighborhood: “The streets love jeez and I love ‘em back/and If I still had to work I’d front you a sack.”  The ‘first and the third’ in the last verse refers to the bi-weekly arrival of welfare checks, as to say that Jeezy’s rap nourishes the hood.  His verses—stories of hood ambition and drug dealing success—are his version of a government handout, making the people “feel good” with motivation in times of poverty and hunger.

Jeezy creates his own public persona, this image of him strolling the streets and handing out drugs to smiling crack-heads who stand waving to the celebrity returning home: Hey Jeezy! Nice to see you again! Keep doing it for the hood! We’re still here…thanks for the drugs!

This is all hypothetical, of course.  Young Jeezy doesn’t walk around the hood.  It’s far too dangerous after boasting about all the money he has to go strolling through areas of poverty, and rappers complain about fake friends asking for handouts just as much they as they assert their street cred.  Instead, Young Jeezy uses rap to connect with the hood from a far.

Many successful rappers establish a sort of double-life, bragging that they can afford to move out to the suburbs, but still connect to the inner-city through their music.  T.I. speaks to this double life on his hit song  “I’m Illy:” “Rarely out my element, barely out the ghetto with/ One foot out and one foot in, intelligent as fellas get.”  He keeps “one foot in” the inner-city to maintain his authenticity, but still admits that—albeit barely–he is “out” of the “ghetto.”

The rapper’s double-life makes sense: Who wouldn’t brag about being able to afford a crib in the suburbs.  Despite the ugly cookie cutter houses, the suburbs come with many amenities that white people take for granted on a daily basis.  For black men, the suburbs represent a safe haven where they aren’t being monitored on an hourly basis with police drive-bys, or being stopped and frisked for simply walking from one house to another.  Black men have spent their entire lives being racially profiled, trying to evade the mass-incarcerating justice system that pinpoints them as the prime target in the war on drugs.

The problem is, rappers could do a lot more for their neighborhoods after they gain monetary success.  T.I. had a joke of a show on MTV “Road to Redemption,” attempting to show the world that he could change lives in the inner-city, one by one.  After the show, he ended up back in jail and destroyed any image of a role model he had established prior.  Rappers could use a bit of these bountiful portions they speak of to start high-quality programs for inner-city children. Instead of claiming that their rap is even close to a substantial handout for the poverty-stricken hood, they could give back to their neighborhoods without physically returning.  Perhaps, Jeezy, you could create a center for the arts where kids could go after school to record music or make beats, as a way to keep inner-city children away from the gang violence and drug trafficking that has led so many black youth to jail or death before the age of 21.

I’m not saying that this double-life is bad for hip-hop.  But I think rappers could do a lot more to re-connect with their roots in a way that would live up to what they portray in their music.  In many ways, that would give a rapper authenticity in my eyes, and give some credibility to rappers and hip-hop as a genre to the millions of people who write it off as a calamity of guns, drugs, and violence. Yes, you can be authentic and rich, if you just put your money where your mouth is.

Tagged , , , ,

Transforming Misogyny into Homo-Eroticism: The Full Spectrum of Sexual Dominance in Hip-Hop

When you hear critics of hip-hop talk about the problems with hip-hop music “these days,” the prevalence of misogynist lyrics—lines overtly boasting a man’s masculinity through his dominance over women—surfaces as a serious issue within the genre.  Aside from the occasional R&B love ballad (i.e. any track by Miguel, Frank Ocean, or The Dream), women only appear in mainstream hip-hop as one of essential items on a rapper’s to-do list; it goes: get money, purchase some fresh Jordan sneaks, fuck bitches, and then rap about the journey.  Not necessarily in this order, but for simplicity’s sake, that’s usually how it goes.

Rappers find something evidently comforting in telling the world of their hyper masculine habits of objectifying women, whether it be ordering “hoes” to get into their cars, teaching “shorties” how to perform proper oral sex, collecting “a group of bad bitches” for poly-amorous pleasure, or why not all three?  Aside from Wiz Khalifa bragging about how he smokes more weed than us (wooptie-doo), you’ll never hear a rapper assert his bravado with his drawing or cooking skills.  The hip-hop world doesn’t find value in being able to drive a stick or change a flat tire.  God forbid, rappers start showing off their ability to raise children or cook a meal for their family.  While masculinity can certainly be proven with all of these skills, sexual dominance over women continues to pave the easy route to being a “certified G.” In a mainstream cycle where materialism is the only material, rappers have established women as the hot item.

The fact that hip-hop is primarily dominated by men is, to me, the root of the problem.  When women surface as mainstream rappers, they spend far too much time vying for the spot of the top woman in the game, or as the men would say, “the baddest bitch.” Even in one of Nicki Minaj’s best verses, her feature on Kanye West’s “Monster” that boasts the line “you can be the king, but watch the queen conquer,” her video performance shows Minaj’s evil persona avowing sexual dominance over her other self, her Barbie persona.

Men will not fully understand how their misogynist lyrics affect women until women can successfully turn the table and find a way to brag about their sexual dominance over men. For now, sexual domination over men is entirely absent from mainstream hip-hop.This got me thinking, what about about queer rap?  How would straight men, ever-concerned with their masculinity, feel about men rapping in their ear about their ambition to objectify other men? We have small samples of queer rap, with artists such as Le1F and Cakes da Killa emerging as gay rappers, but the likelihood that queer rap will surface to the mainstream in the near future is dim. Instead, I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands with an experiment: what if we changed the lyrics to mainstream rap so far as to make the songs about men objectifying men?

Let’s take the chorus of Lil’ Wayne and Drake’s hit single “She Will” as an primary test.  After all, the song only needs a simple change in pronoun to transform into a homo-erotic anthem:

Uh, he just started to pop it for a nigga

And looked back and told me baby it’s real

And I say I ain’t doubt you for a second

I squeeze it and I could tell how it feel

I wish we could take off and go anywhere

But here, baby you know the deal

Cause he bad, so maybe he won’t

Uh, but shit, then again, maybe he will

Do it for the realest niggas in the fucking game right now, he will

Do it for the realest niggas in the fucking game right now, he will

Maybe for the money and the power and fame right now, he will

Do it for the realest niggas in the fucking game right now, he will

All you straight guys out there: is this making you uncomfortable?  Are you squirming at the thought of a man sexually dominating you? Do you think you can keep reading?  If not, maybe you should consider how the original lyrics make women feel on a daily basis. Let’s continue the experiment, this time with something a little more jarring.  Some tracks don’t even need to be changed to be about a man; all it takes is imagining the subject as a man.  Here is the first verse from Trillville’s radio hit “Some Cut,” appropriately rapped over the sound of squeaking bed springs:

You looking good, I think I seen your ass in the hood

With your friends dressed up, trying to front if you could

But anyway, gone and drop a number or something

So I can call you later on, on your phone or something

Take you home, and maybe we could bone or something

It’s no limits to what we do, cause tonight we cutting, gut busting

I’m digging in your walls something vicious

With your legs to the ceiling, catch a nut something serious

You delirious, or might I say you taste so delicious

With your pretty brown skin, like almond joys and kisses

And you a certified head doctor

Number one staller that takes dick in the ass and won’t holler

Bend you over and I”ll follow you straight to the room

Where it goes down lovely in the Legion of Doom.

Whew, how many straight guys do we have left reading after that trial?  After hearing about men calling them a “certified head doctor” in the “legion of doom,” ready to “catch a nut something serious.”  Women who listen to hip-hop have to hear about themselves getting sexually dominated in almost every song, but if men had to hear the same, the song wouldn’t gain a single spin on the radio.  I’m not necessarily trying to make men uncomfortable, or shove homo-eroticism in their faces. Hopefully this experiment offers a change in perspective, a baby-step for men to understand how it feels to hear men threatening sexual dominion. Perhaps we can soon change the culture of hip-hop, in so far as rappers feel comfortable bragging about other qualities that prove masculinity.  Perhaps we’ll reach the point where rappers are no longer concerned with their masculinity in the first place.  For now, a simple change in the gender of the song’s subject provides a small glimpse into the issues within hip-hop’s misogynist material.

Tagged , ,

Thoughts on Gun Violence, Hip-Hop, and the Hood.

In the aftermath of the tragic Newton Elementary School shooting, we are, as a nation, attempting to recover from the traumatic shock of such a terrible event.  A collective cry in favor of stricter gun control has emerged from the tears and bewilderment.  Here I am wondering why it took the death of 20 children and six teachers, and the shooter’s own mother for us to finally call for stringent gun control. We have children dying every day from gun violence in urban communities in senseless fashion.  We have a video game culture that promotes opening fire with assault weapons on crowds of oncoming humans.  Yes, we have a huge problem with gun violence in the United States, but why have we waited for an elementary school shooting to ignite urgency?

Ravaged by gang violence and crime, many of our nation’s urban neighborhoods face the tragedy of senseless murder on a daily basis. Whereas we were rocked as a nation from the Sandy Hook massacre, families in city limits face the constant fear of gun violence with no end in sight.  Chicago, for example, faced 36 homicides in the month of November, 33 of which were at the face of a gun barrel; that’s not even a high-mark statistic.  November was actually one of the safer months, with August calling in 57 bodies, 49 of them from bullets.  I’m not trying to minimize the tragedy of Sandy Hook, but there are two very different reactions to gun violence, differentiating school shootings and gang violence.  When a white man murders 20 children, we cry for gun control.  Yet, when gang violence causes over 400 black-on-black murders in Chicago, we blame black culture and hip-hop music?

And yet, the NRA and its army of second amendment disciples continue to spew their argument for liberal access to firearms. The most entertaining argument I’ve heard is, to paraphrase, “if everyone had a gun for protection, the shooter would’ve been stopped much earlier.”  Ah, so we’ve gotten to the point where we should arm elementary school teachers (and perhaps, the promising sharpshooters of the next generation) to prevent school shootings?  Certainly not.

The thing is, many of the Americans who stand against gun control are the same people who blame hip-hop music for perpetuating a culture of urban gun violence. To these people, I say listen to the music that you consistently blame to deter attention from the real problem of remarkably easy access to firearms. Then, maybe you’ll discover that we already have an relevant example of what happens when everyone has a firearm for their so-called “personal protection” in urban communities.  Clashing gangs have their members armed with weapons to protect themselves against enemy fire, but all that results is murderous crossfire.

Hip-hop doesn’t get a free pass from perpetuating inner-city violence, but it certainly shouldn’t take all the blame.  Crime didn’t come from hip-hop, but music can certainly glorify and magnify the reality of gang violence.  Rappers can also be, in a sense, reporters of crime from the streets, going along with Chuck D’s claim that hip-hop is “the Black CNN.” Just as hip-hop could take more responsibility to criticize gun violence, we could take more action as listeners.  The fact that gun violence is glorified is not a problem of hip-hop, but rather a problem of gun prevalence in urban communities.

We can continue to blame our nation’s “culture of gun-violence,” but in reality, the only action that will effectively reduce the violence is a firm set of restrictions on gun control.  Whether these guns get into the hands of young brainwashed gang members in the inner-city, or a troubled man who intends to shoot up a school of children, they are equally damaging weapons that rob innocent lives. We can continue to point fingers at hip-hop music and blame some vague problem with our nation’s gun culture, or we can take action now, and ensure that assault weapons stop hitting the streets, for the sake of innocent children in the inner-city and the suburbs.

Tagged , ,

“Gasoline Dreams,” and “Gorgeous:” A Comparative Essay on the Unattainable Black American Dream

One of the greatest aspects of hip-hop,or any form of artistic expression for that matter, is the bridge we build between the past and present.  I’ll listen to an album solely to detect how its creator was influenced by his or her peers and role models.  I can imagine a young Wiz Khalifa, for example, listening to Bone-Thugz n Harmony on repeat, plotting his own ascent to hip-hop stardom. I find a new appreciation for artists and their music, just by tracking their inspiration and motivation.

In the case of hip-hop, the genre’s heavy reliance on sampled music makes this activity less of a guessing game, and more of a jumbled set of puzzle pieces. Every sampled beat, remixed song, and recycled lyric, contributes to a diagram of the artist’s childhood aspiration, and inspiration from current peers.  After Drake released Take Care, I pictured the Toronto child star with his headphones blasting Juvenile and Jon B, wondering how he might manage to blend hip-hop and r&b into one sound. Drizzy transformed Juvenile’s “Back That Ass Up” into the boastful sex ballad “Practice,” and on “Cameras,” rapped about the troubling difference between ideal and realistic images of women over a sped up Jon B’s “Calling on You.”

Now that I’ve ranted a bit about traces of the past in current hip-hop, I’d like to compare two songs that have a bit of a subtler connection than the aforementioned examples.  First, you’ll have to listen to them. First, we have “Gasoline Dreams,” the first track off of OutKast’s 2000 funk-rap masterpiece, Stankonia.  

“Gasoline Dreams” is a song of defiant protest.  Andre 3k and Big Boi scrutinize the racial inequalities of American society, angrily underlining how the black youth face a daily struggle that makes the “American Dream” an unattainable ideal. The chorus embodies the song’s message and explains the title: “Don’t everybody like the smell of gasoline? Well burn motherfucker, burn American dreams.”   In their verses, the Georgia duo cite racial profiling within the war on drugs, child support, and the general lack of opportunity for the youth as the large contributions to the burden blacks face from birth.

As a whole, the tracks shines a light on daunting perspective of black youth.  Initially hungry to ascend from poverty and racism, blacks are ultimately struck down by the systemic racism hidden within American society; as the final lines of the chorus cry out: “The highway up to heaven got a crook on the toll/youth full of fire ain’t got no where to go, no where to go.”

Now, have a listen to a song made 10 years later, Kanye West’s “Gorgeous,” the second track off of his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

After the first spin, similarities between these two tracks aren’t exactly transparent.  Yet, lyrically, both songs accomplish a similar commentary of racial inequality.  With “Gorgeous,” Kanye highlights similar disparities between black and white youth, questioning racial profiling, mass incarceration, and mis-education as contributions to the inevitable failure of blacks in American society.

Take a look at the first verse:

Penitentiary chances, the devil dances
And eventually answers to the call of Autumn
All of them fallin’ for the love of ballin’
Got caught with 30 rocks, the cop look like Alec Baldwin
Inter century anthems based off inner city tantrums
Based off the way we was branded
Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon
And at the airport they check all through my bag
And tell me that it’s random
But we stay winning, this week has been a bad massage
I need a happy ending and a new beginning
And a new fitted, and some job opportunities that’s lucrative
This the real world, homie, school finished
They done stole your dreams, you dunno who did it

Right off the bat, Kanye argues that blacks are plagued from birth by “Penitentiary chances.” Constantly fighting off the “devil” in the form of a  “cop” who “look like Alec Baldwin” (meaning: he’s white), a large portion of the black youth is inevitably doomed by systemic racism. “Lucrative” job opportunities are scarce, especially amid stereotyping and persecution from the justice system. “All them fallin’ for the love of ballin'” criticizes how  black youth are made to aspire to be professional athletes to escape poverty, only to find out that success in that playing field is almost always an unattainable ideal.

The songs present parallels outside of lyrical commentary, as well. Consider that the voices on both tracks have a muffled tone, as if the songs are being broadcast over a PA system at a school.  I interpret this effect as a call to arms to the youth, envisioning the rappers taking over the principal’s office as their personal studio to send their message of racial injustice to classrooms across America.  While “Gasoline Dreams” isn’t Stankonia’s only track with political value, it’s lyrical commentary poses the album’s boldest claims against racial injustice in a loud, fiery manner.  “Gorgeous” faced a similar impediment as the most political track on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Perhaps their blatant call to arms message against racism is a credible reason as to why these songs received very little mainstream recognition, a common treatment for songs deemed too infuriating for radio play.

Created 10 years apart,we see vast evidence that “Gasoline Dreams” could very well have played a large part in inspiring Kanye West to create “Gorgeous.”  What I find more intriguing is how this comparison accentuates how racial injustice as transformed from 2000 to 2010.  While racism certainly hasn’t dissolved, the ways in which our society perpetuates black oppression has evolved.  “Gorgeous” is a much louder track than “Gasoline Dreams,” as Kanye explains current racial injustices in much more detail.  Perhaps, this augmentation was intended to match how the subtle nature of contemporary racism.  Given that our racial caste system has been buried in nuance, Kanye feels the need to make an even bolder statement, to ensure that his voice is heard against the wrongful claims that America has reached a post-racial society.

“Gasoline Dreams” paints a bleak, picture for the black youth, while Kanye West provides a glimpse of hope ten years later. As Kanye does best, he uses himself as a model for the youth, exemplifying his own defiance of oppression to succeed despite ‘the way he was branded.”  Where any notion of the black “American Dream” was burned with OutKast’s gasoline, Kanye leaves his listeners with a lingering motivation to rise above. Perhaps, in another 10 years, we’ll see a new artist create a song that attains the infuriating political value of these tracks.  Then, we can take another glance at our past, to see how we have been inspired, how we have evolved, and how we are still facing many of the same problems.

Waiting for Weezy: Homophobia in Hip-Hop

I was in a bit of shock when Frank Ocean revealed to the blogosphere that he had been in a romantic relationship with a man. In part, because no one in the hip-hop community had ever openly identified as anything other than vehemently heterosexual, let alone one of the younger, more promising icons of the new generation of hip-hop. The black community–a group inundated with homophobia–finally had a voice singing boldly against homosexual discrimination. Frank Ocean gave the young men and women singing along to “Thinking About You” a chance to empathize with his ballad, and understand his perspective, regardless of their sexual orientation.

For me, the news also hit a more personal nerve. I had slowly embarked on a journey to discover my own identity as a gay man, moreover a gay man obsessed with the lyrics of hip-hop. I grew up with rap streaming through my ears. On the bus, in the hallways, and pretty much any other place you can imagine young Pittsburgh kids gathering, we found a way to play blast our favorite artists: DMX, Lauryn Hill, and Lil Wayne, to name a few. For years I turned a blind eye to the homophobic remarks littering the verses of almost every artist I admired. “Faggot” this, “No-homo” that. Surely, my role models were just trying to assert their masculinity, a mindset that plays a tremendous part in a rapper’s persona.

Years passed before I realized the cowardice of homophobic slang. To repeatedly boast their bitch smacking, pussy popping journeys wasn’t enough: Lil Wayne had to reassure us even after he degraded “his” women, that he most certainly wasn’t a faggot. We get it, Weezy, you’re heterosexual; but, I wouldn’t go so far as to say you love women, as you spend far too much time telling the world how much you disrespect them. Lines like “You homo niggas getting’ aids in the ass while the homey here tryin’ to get paid in advance,” slowly began to make me cringe; Dear Mr. Carter: was it really necessary, in 2005, for you to perpetuate the myth that HIV is limited to homosexuals, solely to clarify your money-making ambition? No, Tunechi, it most certainly wasn’t.

I single out Lil’ Wayne here, primarily, because he shares an intriguing connection to Frank Ocean. Both men were raised in the “Creole Cockpit” of New Orleans, equally emerging from their hometown into the spotlight of hip-hop at a very young age. I only came to realize this upon revisiting Lil’ Wayne’s track “Tie My Hands,” his cry for help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The song is refreshingly moving for Weezy, providing a hometown commentary to the racial undertones of the disaster, voicing a message of hope for New Orleans natives struggling to survive. Here, we see a brief example of Lil’ Wayne lyrical promise when he chooses to portray a motivational message in his music.

The opening lines, spoken softly by Robin Thicke, “We are at war with the universe, the sky is falling/And the only thing that can save us now is sensitivity and compassion,” speak against the Lil’ Wayne’s entire catalogue of hatred and discrimination. Offering “sensitivity” as the savior, Wayne speaks up against blind hatred harnessed in racism, ultimately blaming a lack of “compassion” for his personal struggle.

With the third verse, Wayne offers his final point of hope to the oppressed youth of New Orleans:

And if you come from under that water then there’s fresh air
Just breathe baby God’s got a blessing to spare
Yes I know the process is so much stress
But it’s the progress that feels the best
Cause I came from the projects straight to success and you’re next
So try they can’t steal your pride it’s inside

With each line, Wayne portrays an encouraging voice of “progress” and “pride” amid personal struggle. If he could only apply this message to his own homophobic views, he might understand Frank Ocean’s brave proclamation . Alas, Wayne only felt compelled to speak out against discrimination when it hit his hometown. Yes, Frank, “it’s the progress that feels the best…so try they can’t steal your pride it’s inside.” Indeed, Lil’ Wayne’s hands are tied. They are lashed with a blind homophobia that could easily be freed with “sensitivity and compassion.”

After Frank Ocean’s announcement, several hip-hop moguls–Jay-Z, Russell Simmons, and Busta Rhymes to name a few– stepped bravely to the forefront in support. And there I was, waiting patiently for Weezy to denounce his old ways. Instead, the hip-hop world got an affirmation that Lil’ Wayne was stuck knee deep in his homophobic mindset. Featured in Future’s “Turn On The Lights remix,” Weezy rapped “Tell her I skate/I ain’t got no worries/No Frank Ocean, I’m straight.” Finding a new, uninventive way to say “no-homo,” Lil Wayne’s croaky voice made me cringe yet again. Armed with blind hatred, Mr. Carter passed up an opportunity to support a fellow New Orleans native to yet again assert his masculinity.

For the hip-hop community, a group already behind the times with regards to sexual discrimination, the self-crowned “best rapper alive” wouldn’t budge. He turned his back to Frank Ocean, cowered in the face of progress, and let me down. Perhaps Lil’ Wayne will come around; maybe he’ll wake up one day and realize how wrong he was to denounce Frank Ocean’s moment of pride and progress. If not, he’ll slowly fade out of the spotlight, along with the archaic, discriminatory views of older generations. Until then, I’ll just keep listening to Channel Orange.

Tagged , , ,