As a fan of the culture from Dipset to Army of the Pharaohs, from Young Thug to Cypress Hill, I’m not going to sit here and chat about how hip-hop is close minded, because truthfully, it’s one of the few genres that genuinely tends to exercise its right to free expression. But, as time progresses we see certain epithets built into the culture are slowly unravelling. We can see it simply in the music – Jay-Z rooted for the death of auto tune, and KRS-One rooted for the death of singing-ass rappers, but nonetheless all of these things are ironically the highlight of many great rap songs in 2014.
The editor of this magazine suggested that there’s a mental health taboo in hip-hop, and while at first I felt myself rush to the defense of the genre, immediately I recalled an instance where her observation is correct.
On Pharaoh Monche’s last promo tour for his album PTSD, he spoke about how he felt he couldn’t talk about depression and depression was a problem that he felt wasn’t culturally accepted. This is the sadness about the conservative tendencies of any culture: that someone is left helpless for the sake of an appearance. He would go on to say that in an impoverished environment, especially in black communities, the idea of mental health was a fallacy because of the tangible nature of the other challenges that were faced in day-to-day life. Mental health stability became something only entitled to the more privileged echelons of society.
Now in 2014, you could definitely argue that there’s no longer the stereotyped, greased up Ja Rule action man that was once the face of rap music: not many are trying to out-gun one another, at least not literally (except in Chicago).
I would go further and suggest that the ‘Sad Boys’, or the artists with a varied repertoire of emotion, are the current front runners for rappers that most people listen to. Artists like Tyler, the Creator, KiD CuDi and a number of newcomers have risen to prominence with deeply sensitive and emotional music as their main jingles.
Drake, arguably the saddest boy of them all, is currently the biggest name in mainstream hip-hop – and here we can see a definite turn in the tides of cultural expectations. Although it does allow for awfully cheesy rap ballads like ‘Airplanes’ (ugh) to rise to the top, I’m glad for the expansion of the genre, but it’s easy miss the knuckleheaded brutishness of the early 00s.
Ah, the old chestnut/monolith of homosexuality in the rap music – simply another taboo to slowly disintegrate in front of us millennials. Firstly, we must preface that in 2014 there’s a plethora of LGBT rappers like Le1f, Cakes Da Killa, Myki Blanko, thekeenone (the list could go on) and they’re all very talented, but none are aiming for the mainstream audience. However, we do have Frank Ocean, an out the closet bisexual, and though timed well, his coming-out letter was a beautiful ode to an early lover akin to his persona as an artist. His coming out is almost living proof that as long as you’re good (really good) the industry won’t shun you, but maybe some elderly hip-hop heads will do their best to ignore you or remind everyone how soft you are. And albeit not a rapper first, Frank Ocean raps terrifically well when he feels like it, and to be quite honest, if you’re in the UK, Frank Ocean will be underneath the R&B and hip-hop section anyway – which brings us to another point.
The way we categorize rap music in this country is pretty shameful. By no means is there any rapping in almost all N*E*R*D songs, but time after time, there they are in the rap section. There’s a clear amount of racial lumping together – just because an artist is black doesn’t mean they are hip-hop music. Why the fuck is Mary J Blige coupled with Giggs? It’s embarrassing. It could be argued that the idea of rap being a genre is becoming increasingly obsolete; it’s like having ‘singing’ as a genre – it’s just a vocal style. Most of today’s rap music is actually very melodic.
What is often overlooked is how gay rap music really is, or at least was. The peak era of homophobia in the hip-hop industry (during my lifetime) was during the pretty boy thug era, where all of the rappers were presented as greased up sex symbols to hilarious vulgarity. How could this not appeal to a gay consumer? Isn’t this the same as a Lads Mag cover? Although in jest, Lil B has done a lot to bridge the gap amongst younger rap listeners in the gay rights fight in just calling himself a ‘pretty bitch’ and his frivolously titled album I’m Gay has lead a few to understand that it’s not that serious and it’s silly to be hateful because of someone’s sexuality. However, it does create the issue of whether he is taking the gay community as seriously as they deserve to be taken.
In the same vein, the simple use of language in rap music can help break down barriers that separate us from the gay community. Even though it’s a Harlem standard to call oneself ‘pretty’, the wider audience still interprets it as a feminine word, so when A$AP Rocky announced himself a ‘pretty motherfucker’ it felt like some sort of dam was broken. The ever-decreasing usage of the phrase ‘no homo’ does seem to be a win for cultural unity. Listening to Dame Dash play ‘pause’ (a game when you say pause when something sounds gay) is something I often think about. I mean, you must be thinking about gay sex a lot to say pause when anything can sound ‘sort of gay’. Although it’s a word game much like ‘that’s what she said’ created for ‘entertainment’, there’s a disgustingly degrading feel to it – but Dash has openly stated that he’s not using it to be homophobic. Sure.
It’s important to look at language in a debate like this. J.Cole clumsily tells everyone in the opener to his last album Born Sinner that he used ‘faggot’ and it wasn’t homophobic (in the middle of rapping – cringe), whereas for some it rolls off the tongue. Tyler, the Creator almost leaves you unquestioning that he was using it purely because that’s what he felt like saying, not because he’s homophobic. But words are impactful; it’s hard to know what’s actually okay. And although there’s no malice in Tyler’s slurs (we can safely assume seeing as he formed the first rap group ever to have not one, but two openly LGBT members) it’s almost like we can’t rely on most people to be so responsible or light hearted.
But among the low-key vibe of gay acceptance, there’s a branch of hip-hop accentuating gayness and being aggressively homosexual, fully allowing the idea of sexual dominance often explored in rap music to be accessed by the gay community.
Here we see Die Antwoord’s DJ Hi-Tek violently exclaim how he’s going to ‘fuck you in the ass’. It’s all well and good having ‘Same Love’ on the radio, but in the true spirit of rap music, it’s ridiculously corny (not many elder rap fans are engaging with the song) and we must allow gay people to speak for themselves and engage in hip hop more honestly instead of such mainstream-pandering. Although there’s obvious progression on this topic, incidents like Mister Cee’s rendezvous with a drag queen have been awfully scandalized by the conservative hip-hop media. There would be no story if Mister Cee was able to be open in his sexuality, but much like I proposed with the example of Pharaohe Monche, it’s the older hip-hop heads who are finding themselves constricted by outdated values.
Even though the gay rights movement in America has a strong presence, there’s an element of condescension towards gay people from older rappers. Many like Brand Nubian’s Lord Jamar feel slighted by the acceptance of gays in comparison to how difficult it was to be black and be accepted, and it’s sad to see the oppressed use their own oppression as validity to spiteful attitudes towards homosexuals. Not only this, but you can also see what seems to be a veneer of gay acceptance in order to protect their brand, but still not an attitude in which they believe to be complete equals. I love The Game, but this isn’t a wholly accepting attitude that we should be seeing, albeit this interview being three years old.
Along with these ideas, Lord Jamar puts forward the notion that there’s cultural whitening in the rap community and there are more white rappers and more people ‘acting white.’ Rapper Le1f responds to Lord Jamar’s commentary with a poised statement on his Facebook page, after seeing Jamar tweet ‘THIS IS JUST THE BEGINNING’ after Le1fs performance on a late night show.
Dear Lord Jamar,
Choose your battles. If the whitening of rap is a concern to you, please leave my name out of it. If you think being gay is the same as being white, you are as ignorant as your enemies. I’m darker than you. I’m African. I’m a black man and I experience all the same racism you do, if not more, on top of homophobia, including from black men just like you. Are you proud of being a hateful member of a majority? Rap started out as a creative response to oppression, and no matter my outfit, I know oppressions you will never understand.
All respect, Le1f
While not as condescending, Scarface has also been quoted in observing a cultural whitening, and believes hip hop will become a largely white genre as rock’n’roll did. While it’s understandable for him to be scared of a culture you saw your community create get taken on by other communities, surely it’s a mark of success; now even the white people wanna do it. I guess he’s not looking at the silver linings of his observations, but then again I’ve never released any classic rap albums.
Among these ideas of identity within hip hop, we see more and more black rappers try and undo the identities left for them by the previous generation, with something as little as rappers dyeing their hair blonde are being criticized as being white. Even Childish Gambino in the way he carries himself has been critiqued as ‘too white’. People often forget that racial identity is forced onto minorities, and if they’re not what you’ve been conditioned to see, then it somehow causes an uproar – whereas artists who aren’t rappers don’t receive the attentions of such self righteous haters. It’s sad to see so many feel like black is defined to not dying one’s hair and rapping about the struggle and not wearing tight clothing. As we continue to unify as a population, we’ll see more cultural overflow like this occur, much to the worry of traditionalists (and separatists), but it genuinely looks like a healthy process. I imagine one day there won’t be a black vs white discussion because it’s just too tired now.
So, as the genre of hip-hop progresses, we see massive expansion and innovation similar to that of rock music, but hip-hop has transitioned much more smoothly (in places) to the digital and electronic age. We see vast and varied influences, not just people sticking to the sound of their city or country. With no barrier to entry except good music and a bigger stage than ever, cultural taboos are ever the more ready to be quickly binned.
Now listen to thekeenone rap about how the climate of poor mental healthcare and communication between friends, family and doctors result in society born legal drug addicts.