Tag Archives: Hip-hop

Rappers As Victims: Blame for Perpetuating Racial Stereotypes is Misplaced

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You might’ve seen the video once or twice. As the beat fades in, the camera scans a crowd of young black men standing on a street corner. Some guys are holding styrophome cups, others are leaning on cars, and a few are making gun motions with their hands. The camera zooms in on the crew’s leader, Bobby Shmurda, whose cold eyes stare into the lens as he begins to recite the lyrics to his hit song, “Hot Nigga.” The song, which made Shmurda famous in a matter of days, is a classic braggadocio of the rapper’s street presence and power. He raps about the daily dealings of his gang: “selling crack since like the fifth grade,” “running through checks till I pass out,” and, living up to his name, “try to run down and you can catch a shot, nigga.”

What do you see when you watch the video? A young artist selling himself out to the narrow ideals of commercialized hip-hop? A dangerous hoodlum who belongs in jail? A thoughtless kid who is obliviously perpetuating racial stereotypes of black men?

I see a victim.

Shmurda is a victim of white music executives, who throw money at him to portray a rigid, idealized character of the young black thug. Why? Because white suburban kids get a thrill out of imagining hundreds of black kids toting guns and selling drugs. Because rich white guys can sleep at night knowing that they are personally responsible for continuously codifying black men into a singular image of the dangerous black thug. It’s just another reason to throw that kid into jail for having a gram of marijuana, or saying the wrong words to a police officer, or making the wrong motion with his hands. The more black people we throw in jail, the less we have on the streets, and the more money we have in our pockets.

Here’s a brief sample of comments that sit below the video on YouTube:

“America would be much better if slavery still existed,”

“Wow just straight fucking niggers..this is why black people were better as slaves…look at them now…we don’t want some trashy biggest going around fuck that shit #stupidfuckingniggers.”

“These rise of the planet of the apes DVD trailers are looking good”

Somewhere, a rich white music executive is leaning back in his office chair, cheesing.

He’s a victim of peer-pressure, that suffocating presence that captures young black men in poverty, tempting them to protect themselves with gangs and violence and drug money. For many young black men, gang affiliation is not a choice. If you grow up on a certain black, you are assumed to be part of gang. If you aren’t affiliated with one gang, you are assumed to be part of another, and your life is in danger. If you want to walk home from school without getting mugged or shot, you need the protection of your peers. If you want to make anything over the measly minimum wage, you need to deal drugs. This cultural dilemma is a direct product of the four-decade war on drugs and the failures of the public education system. As long as drug dealing produces more money any job that doesn’t require a college degree, young black men will resort to gang affiliation.

Blaming Bobby Shmurda for perpetuating racial stereotypes is victim blaming. It’s like blaming women for getting sexually assaulted because of the way that they dress. Shmurda is not the first to release a music video bragging about his crew’s violent tactics and drug money earnings, and he certainly wont be the last. He is one of many rappers who fall victim to the temptations of white music executives, and we can’t blame him for that.

We can, however, encourage more funding for public education and after-school programs. We can start supporting artists who promote socially conscious lyrics. We can stop supporting white music executives and turn off the radio. We can end the war on drugs and provide our youth with rewarding jobs that pay enough to feed families. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but there is no time for blaming victims. We don’t need to give that rich white guy another reason to sit back in his chair and smile about his misrepresentations of black culture.

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The Injustice of Incarceration

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It wasn’t until after I learned the capitals of all fifty states.  After I had been lectured on the triumphs of American independence and the basic principles of my country’s foundations of freedom and liberty and pursuit of happiness.  I even learned of the abolishment of slavery and the progressive narrative of the Civil Rights movement of the 1970’s, before I found out that the United States still had prisons.

I clearly remember standing at the window of my father’s downtown office, looking down at the courtyard of the old Allegheny County Jail, watching uniformed black men play basketball, wondering why they were surrounded by large walls and barbed wire.  Before this point, I was fully convinced that prisons were storybook structures, and jail time was a punishment that fell out of practice sometime between the middle ages and whenever Les Miserables took place (my older sister was an avid fan).

Let me be the first to admit that this delayed comprehension of the American Justice System was only made possible by the fact that I was born into stable middle class white family.   I didn’t live in a neighborhood that was policed heavily, my parents never faced trouble with the law, and I grew up under the infinite protections of white privilege.  I was never suspected of thievery, or pulled over or patted down by police because of my race.  I never had my father dragged out of my home for petty crimes, and I wasn’t raised by a struggling single mother who had to choose between working a second job and reading to her children.

I say all of this, primarily, because I’m certain that if I were born with a different color skin, that I would have learned about the harsh realities of mass incarceration long before I actually did.  That I would have been racially profiled, perhaps patted down and pulled over because of my skin, and maybe even dragged behind bars for something as trivial as marijuana possession.

Far too many Americans hide behind the façade of post-racialism, and refuse to acknowledge that systemic racism is alive and well, operating within the mass-incarcerating machine known as the American Justice System.  The notion that everyone holds equal rights and faces equal punishment is a myth.  People of all races commit crimes, and our current system relies on that fact to target and heavily police minorities to perpetuate a myth of inferiority. Once thrown in jail, young black men are stripped of their rights, removed from the voting population, and denied access to education.  These so-called “correctional facilities” are nothing but modern day slave cells.

I’ve written frequently about how hip-hop addresses racial profiling and mass incarceration on this blog.  How black men often lament that they’re lucky to reach the age of 25 without being incarcerated or dying. On the tragedy that jail-time and death have become a forced rite of passage for rappers, and on how it’s problematic that these rappers gain authenticity through punishment and fatality.

And yet we wonder why so-called “family values” have deteriorated in urban neighborhoods.  We ask why these children aren’t being read to, aren’t being fed properly, and aren’t forced to attend school.  What do we expect when police these neighborhoods heavily, thrown their parents in jail, and wonder why they can’t get a job that will properly support their children.

Go ahead, ban Donald Sterling from the NBA.  Boycott Justin Bieber and Paula Deen for their racist remarks.  Whatever convinces you that you don’t perpetuate racism enough to fall asleep.  None of this will fix the fact that white children can go through a large part of their lives without even knowing that prisons still exist, meanwhile black youth are targeted by police and introduced to the perils of incarceration from birth.

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Snubbed for his Skin: Kendrick Lamar’s Racially Charged GRAMMY Rejection

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When Kendrick Lamar took the stage at the 2014 GRAMMY Awards, he stared right at thousands of well dressed white people sitting in their seats, staring awkwardly at this rapper they might’ve heard of a handful of times.  They looked nervous, not knowing what to expect from this so called good kid from a M.A.A.d. city.  He was interrupting that Radioactive song that had heard on a couple commercials and they SO couldn’t wait to add to their running playlist now that they knew the artist’s name, so he’d better make it quick.

Four minutes later, the tuxedos stood and the flashy dresses swayed. This Kendrick guy had just spit two verses about gang violence and young poverty with a hungry motivation that would make you believe he had just escaped the madness of Compton.  All of a sudden he was jumping up and down pounding a bass drum with his hands, and they had to clap along.  If you haven’t seen the performance, I suggest you check it out.

So this was the guy who just lost in all seven categories in which he was nominated? Listen to the last verse of the song, which didn’t appear in the original version of M.A.A.d. city, written specifically for the GRAMMYs performance.  The last few lines sound as if Kendrick expected the snubs.  As if he was screaming out to primetime television that he doesn’t give two fucks about a GRAMMY award:

Fuck, look in my eyes, tell me I died, tell me I tried, to compromise

Tell me you love me, tell me that I, don’t give a fuck and can barely decide

Wishin’ good luck on my enemies, all of my energy go to the almighty God

I could drown in a bottle of Hennessy, fuck your amenities, I’m gettin’ better with time

And why should he care?  Good Kid M.A.A.d. city will stand as one of the best albums of Kendrick’s career.  The work earned him well-deserved commercial success and acclaim, and the credibility to claim his spot as one of the best rap artists in the field.  Can he really beat himself up for losing an award because of the color of his skin?

That’s right.  The reason why Kendrick Lamar lost in all seven of his categories was because there were white artists—generally Macklemore and Ryan Lewis–in contention.  The general response to Macklemore’s GRAMMY sweep wrote off the awards show as a popularity contest.  Like every other awards show, they recognize artists because of their likeability.  Or because they’ve attained commercial success by making pop hits.  Or because they look good in the spotlight.  But most of all, because they’re white.  Skim the list of GRAMMY winners  this year, or last year, or the last ten years.  Count how many times a black person won an award over a white contender. For years, the GRAMMYs not-so-subtly awarded black artists by crowning them within the rap and r&b genre categories, rarely awarding them  with album or song or performance of the year.  Kanye West might have won best rap album or rap performance competing against other black rappers—he is  ranked sixth all time with 21 GRAMMY awards–but has never won album or song or performance of the year.

As much as I’d like to toss away the GRAMMY Awards  and every other show into a black hole  of irrelevance, the racial discrepancies here are far to pertinent to the current  state  of  American race  relations, and more specifically, how the music industry perpetuates and demonizes black stereotypes, mutes any form of socially conscious black counterculture, and rewards white artists who make us think  that everything is hunky dory. Excuse the pun.

Friends of mine can confirm that I was one of many music heads who had Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” video on a tab, preloaded, ready to press play to anyone and everyone with a few minutes to share.  The four-minute secondary shopping spree was one of  my favorite music videos of the year.  Hell, the duo’s  album turned out to be a decent compilation.  So  when GRAMMY nominations were announced, I wasn’t surprised to see The Heist listed in several categories, although rumors have spread that the rap nomination committee stirred controversy over Macklemore’s eligibility as a rapper in the first place.

Macklemore is a rapper.  His music belongs in the hip-hop genre, and his album deserved nominations for Best Rap Album, Song, and Performance.  His race shouldn’t be a factor in his eligibility any more than Kendrick’s.  But history has spoken, and Macklemore four more awards to add on the wall, and Kendrick chose to celebrate his seven snubs with a TDE fan appreciation concert at the House of Blues, even bringing a fan on stage to freestyle to a Section 80 classic.

Macklemore texted Kendrick to apologize, saying “You got robbed” and “I wanted you to win.”  A nice sentiment, perhaps, but Macklemore shouldn’t have to apologize for his white privilege.  The issue is so much bigger than Kendrick being snubbed.  Rather, his main stage elimination is part of a long lineage of racial discrimination in the music industry.  For that, apologies have long been due, and will most likely never come to pass.  Kendrick’s electric performance was a slight slap in the face to an audience that was hesitant to clap along at first, but when the smoke finally cleared, all we seem to talk about is Beyonce’s over-sexualized twerking.

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Dr. Glover, Mr. Gambino: A Confessional Rapper’s Struggle with Racial Identity

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I caught wind of Childish Gambino before ever hearing mention of this Donald McKinley Glover fellow.  Most people know Glover from his portrayal of Troy Barnes on NBC’s Community, or perhaps from his work as a stand-up comedian. Me?  I didn’t hear of him until he stepped into the rap scene.  I’m not a big fan of television shows, but when someone starts spitting similes over sped up Adele, they really know how to perk my ears.  As if Adele was chanting the perfect caveat in the second chorus of “Rolling in the Deep”: “You’re gonna wish you/never had met me…”  before this corny monster calling himself Childish Gambino jumps in to rap one verse before the song is nearly over.   Punch lines like “‘I’m saying that my life’s swell: cortisone,” matched with painfully honest bitterness: “Wow, girl, that’s what you really wanted, huh?/A Michael Cera knockoff, I guess I wasn’t white enough.”  

Yes, Childish Gambino, I kind of wish we had never met. But what initially felt corny and insincere has evolved into a compelling, complex character in hip-hop; Gambino has a lot to say about racial performance and black identity, even if we have to swim through corny punch lines to find said message.  Rapping seemed like a hobby for Glover at first.  But now, Glover has moved from actor-who-occasionally-raps to the next rapper-who-abandoned-acting, as if he needed anything else to draw comparisons to Drake.  He has taken a reduced role in Community, and is set to release his second studio album Because the Internet on December 10th

Donald Glover never really quit acting, though.  His alias, derived from a computer engine that generates Wu-Tang-esque titles from real names, was only the beginning of Glover’s rapping persona.  Childish Gambino is a corny, sensitive, aggressive misogynist, who makes you question when he’s being sincere, when he’s actually pissed off, when he’s pulling your leg, and if he really ever walks around the club surrounded by Asian models.  He’s mastered this jeckle and hyde see-saw character who often reflects on his own authenticity as a rapper, role model, and black man.

Gambino’s first LP, 2011’s Camp, was best known for “Bonfire,” an appropriately named single that strings together clever tangential similes that tells the hackneyed rapper tale of being rich, popular, disrespected, and surrounded by naked women:

Move white girls like there’s coke up my asscrack

Move black girls cause, man, fuck it, I’ll do either

I love pussy, I love bitches, dude, I should be runnin’ PETA

From the single and what I’d heard prior to Camp, I was convinced he was a wittier, more privileged version of Lil Wayne.  Albeit entertaining, this side of Gambino was a mere snippet of his persona’s complexity.  Several of his tracks on Camp portray compelling confessions from a rapper who has suffered through childhood bullying and relationship troubles, all stemming from issues with his racial identity.

On “Backpackers,” Gambino rants about his lack of “street cred” because he’s often considered “that well spoken token,” the nerdy black guy who is too nerdy to align with mainstream America’s image of the black rapper:

Nerdy ass black kid, whatever man I’m sick of him

That well spoken token, who ain’t been heard

The only white rapper who’s allowed to say the N-word

I buy a bunch of ’em and put it on my black card

Now I got some street cred, use it ’til it’s maxed out

He’s “the only white rapper who’s allowed to say the N-word,” passing as a white man but still grasping to his black roots to brag that he can, in fact, say “the N-word” without offending anyone.  The black card pun is equally gripping, conceptualizing the literal purchase of black identity, or “street cred,” through using the word nigger.   

On “Hold You Down,” Gambino dives further into his personal issues with racial identity.  At the end of the first verse, he raps:

But niggas got me feelin’ I ain’t black enough to go to church

Culture shock at barber shops cause I ain’t hood enough

We all look the same to the cops, ain’t that good enough?

The black experience is Black and serious

Cause being black, my experience, is no one hearin’ us

White kids get to wear whatever hat they want

When it comes to black kids one size fits all

The idea that many black youth suffer from both black and white oppression is troublingly real.  If a kid isn’t “black enough,” they’re forced out of the black community while still suffering through the inevitable struggles of racial profiling and white supremacy.  They can pass as neither white nor black, thus facing maltreatment from both sides.  White youth can pass as black as much as they please without ever facing the anguish of racism, but for black kids, “one size fits all.”

So before you criticize for Glover for being a misogynist, or inauthentic, or inconsistent, perhaps give some more thought to why he’s performing as such, and what that means about our societal ideas of what it means to be accepted by the white or black community.  The multiplicity of Gambino’s persona: his lyrical confessions, questionable sincerity, and braggadocios punch lines are all product of a man who felt the need to play these roles to gain acceptance. 

Perhaps we should consider Gambino a confessional poet of hip-hop.  When the bonfire goes out, when he stops playing the persona of the demonized black pimp, he has very gripping points to make on racial identity and the black experience. And when he does decide to perform as this iron jawed sex king, can we view that as a very telling performance of a black rapper?  As insincere as this corny demon sounds, it’s a very honest portrayal of how mainstream America views rappers. The money and women and outrageous behavior Gambino needs to brag about to gain authenticity in hip-hop, it’s all part of his struggle with racial identity.  Glover has passed between the lines of white and black for his whole life, and Childish Gambino is the main stage materialization of that duality. 

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Review: Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP2

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I was ten years old when Eminem stuck his middle finger up to the world with The Marshall Mathers LP.  To people who said he could never make it in hip-hop because he was white.  To naysayers who called him a never-will-amount-to-anything piece of white trash.  To his absent dad, his child’s mother, his English teacher, and his dope-head mom.  He didn’t give a fuck, God sent him to piss the world off.

And here we are, 13 years later.  Eminem is eight albums deep in his career.  He’s experienced inconceivable success, scandals, law suits, drug issues, recovery and finally, a full circle return in the form of The Marshall Mathers LP2. 

And me?  Well, Em and I have sort of lost touch.  I admired him for not giving a fuck.  I loved the way his witty lyricism hopped jumped and skipped through this maze of beats.  How he challenged himself at every turn.  How fast can I flow on this beat?  How much can I offend mainstream America?  Like he got off on the image of mothers covering their sons ears, begging him to stop bragging about slitting faggots’ throats and raping women.  His subject matter thrilled me.  Like the thought of running away for a night just to see how my parents reacted.  Or saying a swear word in sixth grade social studies to get a gasp out of the girl next to me.

But I’m twenty-three now, and honestly,  MMLP2 doesn’t really do it for me. Sure, Eminem exercises his renowned lyrical abilities.  He can spit as fast as Twista, tell graphic tales, and make hilarious allusions to current events all in one verse. But thirteen years later,  I no longer get a thrill from hearing about women being drowned and violently fucked, and frankly, It’s hard not to cringe from the image of my childhood idol breaking a table “over a couple of faggots backs.”

Now–before I get slim-shady’s fan group all riled up into thinking I’m some oblivious, easily offended critic—I get the whole alter-ego thing.  I understand that Eminem doesn’t actually believe all these things.  That slim shady is his evil rapping twin persona that was born to see how easily he could offend sensitive ears.  That Eminem actually supports gay rights, probably respects women, and has done his best to raise his daughter to believe the same.  I get it.  I just think the act is exhausted, and find myself asking: why?

Why is Eminem so angry? He’s not the same twenty-seven-year-old who had something to prove.  He’s a successful rap icon, self-proclaimed rap god who has earned a spot on most everyone’s list of top-ten MC’s alive.  Why does he find it necessary to rekindle the flame he sparked at the beginning of his career, revisiting the same subject matter, hunger, and angry-menace attitude? The very persona that earned my respect as a young fan of hip-hop has me at a loss, wondering why a forty-one year old mogul hasn’t really changed at all.  What was once an impermeable confidence now comes off as a desperate desire to prove that this middle-aged man still has his old tricks.

When I think of Eminem’s peers, rap icons like Jay-Z and Kanye, they’ve matured in ways we couldn’t have perceived at the start of their careers.  They’ve grown into icons who have learned how to revisit their past with more reminiscence than full-fledged embodiment.  Who can brag about how far they’ve come and how much they’ve learned with a newfound maturity, and a worldly awareness of what they represent in the world hip-hop.

The intro to “Rap God” really says it all.  We hear a comic book, Wu-Tang-esque voice : “Look, I was gonna go easy on you and not to hurt your feelings, But I’m only going to get this one chance.”  As if this is Slim-Shady’s only chance to prove something to the world.  Prove what?  That he can still portray this misogynist, homophobic persona?  That if he doesn’t do that, he’s going easy on us? Eminem hasn’t hurt my feelings, he’s just left me disenchanted by his range of material.  In thirteen years, he hasn’t found a way to prove his dominance in the rap game without bragging about sexuality dominating women?

He begins to acknowledge this lack of progress in “Asshole.”  In the last verse, he spits:

Only women that I love are my daughters

And sometimes I rhyme and it sounds

Like I forget I’m a father, and I push it farther

So father forgive me if I forget to draw the line

It’s apparent I shouldn’t of been a parent I’ll never grow up

 Eminem embraces some self-deprecation here, revisiting the self-criticism that has always added an admirable complexity to his music.  But at this point in his career, the wheels have fallen off.  Slim’s don’t-give-a-fuck attitude that made him so appealing in his early work feels different now.  Like he’s trying too hard to be careless.

I’ll still spin “Till I Collapse” on my heavy rotation and hell, I think MMLP2 has some great lines, killer flows, and stadium beats.  I still think that Eminem is a hilarious, complex rap icon who has filled a necessary hole in hip-hop.  His ability to paint horrifying pictures and embody a range of characters is unmatchable. It’s easy to see how his music has inspired a new generation of rappers–Odd Future, Kendrick Lamar, and Yelawolf to name a few.   Perhaps that’s why, as much as it pains me, I’m being so critical of my childhood icon.  Because, thirteen years later, I expected more from a rapper who is fully capable of doing so.

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The Same Love Conflict: Macklemore, Le1f, Angel Haze, and the Search for an Authentic Voice for Gay Rights

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I’ll admit it. I shed a tear or two when I first saw Macklemore’s “Same Love” music video.  The heartwarming story of two men sharing their lives together.  Walking along an aisle of scattered flowers to join hands in marriage. Embracing each other in a hospital room. The whole nine yards. Maybe it was because I had never seen gay marriage portrayed on the stage of mainstream media.  Perhaps I thought it represented a larger movement among straight allies to support LGBTQ rights. Possibly it’s because I had just began my journey as an openly gay male. Whatever the reason, the tears were there.

In retrospect, the video is somewhat of a token anthem; something for straight people to post on their facebook and say: “this song was a hit! Macklemore is such a great guy! It’s ok to be gay!”  Yet, we’re still at the point where queer hip-hop is forced underground, popular hip-hop groups still throw out “faggot” as an insult, and thousands of teens suffer from suicidal thoughts because they’re excommunicated by their families and churches, bullied by teens, and misrepresented in mainstream media.  Same-sex partners are forced out of hospital rooms, denied civil rights on a daily basis.

I’m not saying that Macklemore has done any wrong by making the video.  We need allies in the straight community to speak out in support. But there’s a part of me that’s nauseated at the fact that queer artists have been pushing the same message for years, and Macklemore comes along, makes one record in support of LGBTQ rights, and it goes platinum.

So when Le1f went on a twitter rant criticizing Macklemore’s video, I wasn’t surprised.  For those of you who don’t know Le1f, he’s a leading voice in queer hip-hop.  His most well-known song, “Wut,” features lyrics like “Ukrainian cutie –he really wanna cuddle/The fever in his eyes. He wanna suckle on my muscle.”  One of his songs is titled “Gayngsta.”  In “Fresh” he spits:

I made this song for my girls in Timbs, boys in gems posing real femme

It’s not pretend. No Barbie, no Ken. Hater step up and I poison them

I poison them with a 10 10 10. Homophobes, go watch ESPN

The point is, if anyone should be the authentic voice of queer America, it’s Le1f, not Macklemore.  Le1f is the man who unabashedly breaks the boundaries of mainstream hip-hop, pop music, and the narrow ideological views of the black community.  He slides seamlessly between what we’ve defined as masculine and feminine roles.  He boasts about his conquests of men, his fabulous fashion, and how “he’s the type of john closet dudes wanna go steady on.”

But as popular as Le1F has become in the queer rap scene, I haven’t heard one second of his voice on the radio.  In fact, the most recognition he ever received was when he spoke out against Macklemore, with many criticizing him for refusing the support of a perceived ally.  Well, can you blame him?  Le1f has devoted his entire career to giving a proud, authentic voice to the queer community, and a straight white man comes along, makes one song about gay rights, and he’s made a hero.  As Le1f said best in one of his many twitter-rants: “it saddens me out that a straight man is the voice pop music has chosen for gay rights.”

As with all things, there is a grey area here.  I’m not mad at Macklemore.  I appreciate his support for gay rights as much as I want to see Le1f’s music to go platinum.  I want the straight community to support gay rights without needing a straight white guy to lead the charge with a feel-good story.  A story that hides all the bullying and suicide and discrimination.  A story that makes everyone think that the world is fully accepting of any lifestyle.  Realistically, the fact that Macklemore’s video has become this anthem for gay rights speaks volumes to how far we stand from true equality, genuine acceptance, and a space for an authentic voice for the queer community like Le1f.

If you want to hear the real story about growing up in America as a queer individual, listen to Angel Haze’s remix of “Same Love.”    Here’s a glimpse of her message, which tears down the fairytale that is so happily portrayed in the original video:

So don’t badger and abuse the solemnly defenseless

See us as yourself

There’s no equality in difference

Until we all get it, we’ll be drowning in the same blood

Despite orientation, we all feel the same love

We’ll be drowning in the same blood

Despite orientation, we all feel the same love

Angel Haze has rested perfectly in the middle of this Le1f vs. Macklemore conflict.  She tells the real, bloody tale of facing childhood bullying and a narrow-minded family without bashing allies.  She provides a message of hope without ignoring the reality that we still have a long way to go.  And hopefully, her message will make us realize that how Macklemore’s video doesn’t begin to tell the real story of the present state of acceptance in America.  For now, it’s a feel-good pop anthem for straight America.

Queer rappers like Le1f, Angel Haze, and Mykki Blanco continue to devote their careers to providing an authentic voice to the gay community.  But until they gain recognition and popularity on the mainstream stage, I’ll remain unimpressed with the progress we’ve made in hip-hop, music, or the American social atmosphere as a whole.  If you’re going to be an ally, then at least be cognizant that a video of rainbows and flower petals isn’t exactly an accurate representation of acceptance in mainstream America.

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Acid Rap: Chance The Rapper’s Good Ass Job

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The first time I heard Chance the Rapper’s voice, it was on the intro to his latest mixtape Acid Rap, appropriately titled “Good Ass Intro.”  With this perfect blend of joy, rasp, and charisma, Chance interrupts the gospel-swoon background to announce: “We back, and we back, and we back….”

I knew, after only ten seconds, that this was a man who was happy to be alive.   Ecstatic that he’s finally emerging as a new voice in hip-hop.  Thankful that he can financially support his mother.  And by the end of the song, confidently content that: “this your favorite fucking album and ain’t even fucking done.”

In a style that many rappers attempt but few can master, Acid Rap is full of self-praise. It’s a “Good Ass Intro,” he’s done a “Good ass job,” he’s “better than I was the last time,” it’s your “favorite fucking album,” that includes “your favorite song, you just don’t know the words.”

Sure, he’s tripping balls on acid right now, but can you blame him?  Chance is alive, he’s not in jail, and he has emerged as one of the best new rappers on the scene, thanks to his original sound, hilarious ad-lib, well-chosen sampling, and witty lyricism.  Coming from a city that tallied more deaths than Afghanistan last year, I think he has the right to rejoice.

But as all acid trips go, there’s a handful of loneliness, mistrust, and abandonment on Chance’s mind.  On “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” he yearns for familial affection, looking back on his childhood days when life was simpler; his family was close, and he wasn’t afraid to hug his grandmother without putting visine in his eyes, or get a kiss from his mother without reeking of cigarettes.

But Chance is grown up, now.  Despite burning up a fair amount of his brain cells, he’s still cognizant enough to recognize the tragic stench of death in his hometown.  On “Pusha Man,” Chance takes us “to a land where the lake made of sand, and the milk don’t pour, and the honey don’t dance and the money ain’t yours.”

It’s not the Israel that God promised Moses–try Chiraq.  And if you’re patient enough to wait through the silence following “Pusha Man,” you’ll be rewarded even more tales of fear and murder and crooked cops on the mixtape’s secret track “Paranoia:”

They merking kids, they murder kids here

Why you think they don’t talk about it? They deserted us here

Where the fuck is Matt Lauer at? Somebody get Katie Couric in here

Probably scared of all the refugees, look like we had a fucking hurricane here

Really, though, where the fuck is Matt Lauer?  While The Today Show is busy reporting on the latest fashion trend, or interviewing a rescued white girl, there are hundreds of young black men dying from gun violence in our inner cities.  While school shootings are mourned across the nation, inner-city schools provide the only glimpse of shelter for many of today’s youth.  The media spotlight has consistently avoided the tragic genocide and mass incarceration of black teens.

But who needs Matt Lauer when we have Chance the Rapper.  He’s here to report that, while he has successfully escaped the dangers of his hometown, his peers are dying from Chicago’s summer heat:

And I ponder what’s worse between knowing it’s over and dying first

Cause everybody dies in the summer

Wanna say ya goodbyes, tell them while it’s spring

I heard everybody’s dying in the summer, so pray to God for a little more spring

This third verse in “Paranoia” is as telling as it is haunting.  It’s springtime, and the summer is approaching, so he’s saying his goodbyes.  He’s already accepted that hundreds of his city’s youth, and probably a handful of his friends, will die in the coming season.  He’s heartbroken.  He’s perplexed.  But he’s brutally frank.  If only spring could last forever, perhaps Chicago wouldn’t lose another hundred teens.

Acid Rap is much more than a blissful hallucination.  We see Chance bounce seamlessly between pure joy and sadness.  Between mourning and thankfulness.  Paranoia and confidence.  We see the duality hidden in the life of a newly successful black man.  A man who can’t help but rejoice in his triumph, but refuses to forget the calamity he has narrowly escaped.

I’m excited to hear what Chance has to offer in the future.  He’s already established himself as a thought-provoking, innovative artist in an industry full of rappers with a get-rich-and-brag mentality.  For now, I think we can certainly reaffirm Chance’s claim.  So far, he’s done a good ass job.

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Reminiscing and Rambling: Thoughts on Subdued Racial Commentary in OutKast’s Catalog

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It’s a beautiful thing, revisiting some of your favorite childhood anthems.  Putting on a throwback jam that you listened to on repeat for days when it hit the airwaves.  Reminiscing on the exact feeling you experienced when you first heard the song and knew, right then and there, that you wouldn’t be able to get the track out of your head for at least a week.  I’ve been doing this quite often with OutKast lately, whether it’s playing “Heyya” on the commute to work, or pestering my neighbors with the funkadellic bass line of “Southernplayisticcadillacmusik” at 3 am.  My apologies to the lady in apt. 1, but I’m having too much fun with the funk.

“If not I’ll wait, because the future of the world depends on

If, or not if the child we raise gon’ have that nigga syndrome

Or will it know to beat the odds regardless of the skin tone”

With every spin of Stankonia, I’ve realized that what made me love OutKast back then was very different from how appreciate the duo now.  I remember learning how to play the chorus of “So Fresh and So Clean” in piano class, and giggling when I found out that my 8th grade English teacher’s name was Ms. Jackson; but I hadn’t even begun to realize the musical genius and political lyricism rampant in OutKast’s catalogue.  All the funk and silliness and head bobbing was a front, and I was one of many lab rats of my generation, racing around the wheel of the music industry, “sipping a milkshake in a snowstorm.”

Y’all tellin me that I need to get out and vote, huh. Why?

Ain’t nobody black runnin but crack-kers, so, why I got to register?

I thinkin of better shit to do with my time

Never smelled aroma of diploma, but I write the deep ass rhymes

I’ve only recently realized that Outkast’s catalogue acts a microcosm of the subdued tensions of racial atmosphere in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  How was I supposed to know that OutKast had picked up where George Clinton and his Parliament Funkadelics had left off? How could I have possibly recognized that “Ms. Jackson” was a testament of black male demonization, or a critique of the flawed child support system that contributes to the tragic downfall of young black men.  I was only certain that I could listen to Andre 3K say “foreva-eva?” forever.

On a first offense drug bust, fuck the Holice

That’s if ya racist or ya crooked

Arrest me 4 this dope I didn’t weight it up or cook it

It’s no coincidence that the album that drew me into OutKast as a young teenager, Speakerboxx/The Love Below, was also the duo’s least political compilation.  Dre and Big Boi abandoned the racial commentary ever-present in Stankonia to embrace a funkier, pop-driven album in Speakerboxx, which led to phenomenal commercial success, and an entirely new fan base of young white kids such as myself who knew nothing of Outkast’s previous work.  We only knew that “Roses” was a hilarious anthem about fecal matter, “Heyya” got us up on the homecoming dance floor, and “The Way You Move” had a killer beat.   Speaking for my generation, we viewed OutKast as a goofy duo of funny black men who differed from the aggressive rappers–DMX, Ludacris, and Cam’ron, for example–who dominated hip-hop at the time.

The United Parcel Service & the people at the Post Office

Didn’t call you back because you had cloudy piss

So now you back in the trap just that, trapped

Go on and marinate on that for a minute

To think that I completely bought into this clown-like parody of OutKast’s later albums is troubling.  I wish I could’ve recognized, at the time, that these men were performing this image of happy funky black men to criticize the epidemic of subtle racism heading into the new millennium.     If you didn’t align with the “angry black gangster” identity, they couldn’t portray you as a threat to society.  If you didn’t make fun of yourself, young white kids could take your music too seriously, and maybe even learn something about the tragic systemic racism that continued to thrive in a nation insistent upon keeping up an appearance of equality for all.  OutKast proved that there was no room for the politically critical socially conscious black men in mainstream hip-hop.

Of course you know I feel like the bearer of bad news

Don’t want to be it but it’s needed so what have you

Now question: is every nigga with dreads for the cause?

Is every nigga with golds for the fall? naw

I can only hope that more of my fellow oblivious white kids take a moment to revisit OutKast’s catalogue.  Perhaps they’re realize that there’s much more to their music than shaking it like a Polaroid picture.  They just might find a new perspective on the deeper message hidden in OutKast’s music, and maybe even have an awakening about the racial injustice that has remained in the closet of mainstream hip-hop for decades.  That’s the only way the genius of the two dope boyz of OutKast can be adequately appreciated.

Now look at yourself, are you an OutKast? I know I am

As a matter of fact, fuck being anythang else

It’s only so much time left in this crazy world

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Guest Post: Taking Control; Kendrick Lamar’s Wake Up Call to Hip-Hop

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By Adam Cancryn

We are on notice.

As of about 11 p.m. on Aug. 12, we are all on notice. That’s when Kendrick Lamar dropped the verse of the year, the verse that reverberated across the internet and shocked the hip-hop community to its core.

We were shocked by the viciousness. We were shocked by the hunger. We were shocked by “King of New York” and those 11 names, rattled off with venomous precision.

Most of all, though, we’re shocked that, days later, we’re still shocked. This wasn’t just some tricky wordplay over a sick beat. This was a challenge:

Step back and look around at the hip-hop you’ve wrought. Do you like what you see?

For too many, I suspect the honest answer is no. And that’s jarring, because we thought we’d made it. A genre that started in grungy Harlem basements and on street corners in the Bronx now dominates the charts. Rappers aren’t regarded as criminals or thugs anymore; they’re celebrities. Jay-Z hangs with the president. Questlove and the Roots are on NBC every weeknight at 12:30/11:30 central. That’s a long way from “Fight the Power” or “Licensed to Ill”

Hip-hop clawed its way into the mainstream, and now it’s firmly entrenched. This is success.

It’s supposed to be, at least. But the reality is that for a genre that was once the road to opportunity for anyone with rhymes and a flow, success is now being defined and enjoyed only by an established few.

ItstheReal’s Jeff Rosenthal once joked that the same six rappers are on every song nowadays. He wasn’t far off. Hip-hop, that rebellious, proletariat anti-culture made by and for the masses, is in many ways no longer. What’s replaced it is what you see everywhere else now, from music to politics to the economy: a small, rich clique helping each other get richer on the backs of the people and streets they long ago left and mostly forgot about.

Kendrick grabbed hold of that reality and threw it in everyone’s face. He tapped into mainstream hip-hop’s lingering guilt; embraced that elephant in the studio trumpeting that hip-hop gave up a bit of its soul in pursuit of its profits. That success made it lazy. That it focused too much on bettering individuals at the expense of bettering hip-hop culture as a whole. That, after climbing to the pinnacle of music, it pulled up the ladder, closed the hatch, and left the up-and-comers behind.

Why else could he come in and just take the crown as King of New York? Why else could he name-drop 11 rappers with no fear? Why else would a simple battle rap tip the hip-hop world on its axis?

This was the wakeup call that hip-hop needed. The hope is that rappers will heed it. Because, realistically, one great verse isn’t going to hit their pockets. Drake can still make a mil off talking about how he’s catching bodies, though it must’ve been hard to do all that killing in between rehearsals for Degrassi. Big Sean can still talk about how he “really raps,” even though he knew before anyone how hard Kendrick came on “Control” and still ran out of stuff to say at the end of his own verse. Jay Electronica can still drop one song every three years like that’s an acceptable thing to do. Nobody’s bank account or popularity will suffer if they don’t respond.

But you would hope that they all have more pride than that. Hip-hop’s stars have a greater duty to both honor the culture’s past and make its future better, and it’s one they’ve failed to take on so far. The pressure is on now for them to step up and prove that hip-hop under their stewardship hasn’t just devolved into big talk carried by a nice EDM beat.

And the pressure is on us now, too. We have to demand more than a bass-heavy dance track every few days. We have to seek out the best; the kings of New York, of the West Coast, of the South and the Midwest, like we did before industry A&Rs beamed the throwaway song of the day directly into our inboxes. Rappers have to prove they can really rap. We have to prove that we really like rap, and not just big talk carried by a nice EDM beat.

So that’s the challenge. A few rappers have stepped up so far, but none of the 11 have dared emerge yet. Cassidy reminded everyone he’s still a born natural punchline rapper, Astro showed his potential and even Papoose came out of hiding to drop an otherwise solid diss track derailed by a rare combination of lyrics that were at the same time anti-feminist, xenophobic and homophobic. But the hunger long missing from hip-hop was there. They were punching up, and doing so furiously.

The next few weeks will teach us a lot about the state of hip-hop. It’s a chance for us to conduct a sort of recalibration of the ranks, a correction from the this-should-be-good-enough era. Kendrick reset the bar, and we’ll soon find out who’s suddenly too short to reach it.

Adam Cancryn is an editor and co-founder of the sports blog Began in ‘96.  

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Magna Carta Holy Grail: Jay-Z and the Significance of the New Black Elite

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When Jay-Z released his twelfth studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, I wasn’t in the right mindset to assess it properly; honestly, I don’t think any fan of hip-hop was.  I had just been on a bizarre trip to the land of Yeezus, where I was shouted at, crooned to, and scolded for my white privilege.  Of course, as soon as Magna Carta dropped, the inevitable question of “which album is better” arose.

“They’re different,” was my concrete answer.  Albeit lazy, this was the only response I could muster at the time.  Why do we feel compelled to compare two albums with completely different aspirations? When I started this blog, I didn’t aim to post reviews rating albums as good or bad.  I don’t make top-ten lists of tracks or artists of the year, or God forbid, “best rappers alive.”  MTV can have that role.  I created this blog to make a space for assessing the cultural value of hip-hop music, not to tell the world that I think J. Cole’s Born Sinner scored a 7.

That being said, I understand why Magna Carta scored poorly among critics.  After a couple weeks of spinning the 40-minute explosion that was Yeezus, full of angry critique of modern day racism and consumerism, Magna Carta felt like a repetitive drag of a work.  Aside from a handful of tracks that flaunt vintage Hov–somewhereinamerica and Picasso Baby are clear favorites—there are several songs that I find myself wanting to skip through when I listen through the album. But honestly, I’ve felt the same about Blueprint 3, American Gangster, and even Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life. 

Jay-Z has never set out to make a concept album that was meant to be listened to from start to finish.  Rather, Hov’s main goal, from the birth of his rapping career, has been to make money and consequently rap about it.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.  Despite these moments of repetition that appear in every Jay-Z album in recent memory, we can still find value in the  broader implications of Jay-Z’s catalogue, and furthermore, his iconic persona in the American cultural sphere.

The fact that Jay-Z has reached elite status in American society from bragging about selling large amounts of drugs is significant in itself.  His success completely revamps the American dream, tearing down the traditional model of going to college, working a 9-5 salary job, moving through the ranks and so on.  When Jay-Z was a youngster, that dream wasn’t readily available nor attractive to young black men like himself, and we haven’t made much progress in to improve upon that reality for today’s black youth.  In truth, today’s black men are consistently hampered by racial profiling and the war on drugs, suffering through poverty in homes without fathers and schools without adequate funding.  Not much has changed, and therefore, Jay-Z’s success remains a glaringly relevant slap in the face to the worn out, unrealistic, and nearly unattainable “American dream.”

If you can’t understand why a black man who rose from poverty, bragging about how his daughter can lean against a Jean Michel Basquiat painting because it is hanging in his house, is culturally relevant, then you must reassess your awareness of American race relations.

To criticize Jay-Z for rapping about his newfound elite status, as if it were in some way separating himself from his roots, would be ignoring the significance of his upbringing in the first place.  Jay-Z is not responsible for spelling out the significance of his success as a black man in America, although he does just that quite eloquently, with the help of Dream Hampton, in his memoir Decoded (If you haven’t read it, I suggest you add it to your summer reading lists).

As my favorite author Zadie Smith writes in her New York Times profile of Shawn Carter, “The House That Hova Built:”

“Asking why rappers always talk about their stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies.  Because boasting is a formal condition of the epic form.  And those taught that they deserve nothing rightly enjoy it when they succeed in terms the culture understands.”

Aside from making a poignant comparison between Milton and hip-hop, Smith highlights the importance of Jay-Z’s braggadocio throughout his career.  No, he doesn’t scream at white America for modern day racism, or make public outcries about President Bush being racist.  But his ascent to elite status as a black man in white America still carries profound cultural value.  For me, that’s much more important that discussing whether Magna Carta deserves a spot in 2013’s top-five albums list.

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