By Alex Siber, Staff Writer
Can you recall a time when the forerunners of hip-hop’s elite pantheon largely represented the generalizations and pigeonholed stereotypes that the mainstream populace held — perhaps rightfully?
Even as rap’s prominence continues to spread across varying subcultures and demographics (the white rapper is as common as ever, as is rapping in general for that matter — an endless stream of YouTube artists fostered by the Internet Age all lust for fame and recognition), this imagery holds fast within our minds.
In 2013, many aspects of this typecast are far less prominent, and the new school leaders and old guards of the genre stray from the norms of prior decades.
Living legend Kanye West might just be the most publicized artist regardless of genre (often for reasons unrelated to his music), and the only stylistic similarity he bears to the outdated rapper image are his elongated, meme-ified leather skirts that he dons from time to time.
Meanwhile, Jay-Z is still conducting “performance art” in private museum rooms or wearing tuxes with Mr. Timberlake.
While the widespread generalization of the rappers’ image is in desperate need of an upgrade, the growing trend of hip-hop artists issuing apologies for lyrics is a growing trend with potentially unfortunate repercussions. In the past year, several major cases have surpassed the thresholds of the genre and entered the mainstream spotlight.
The ever-successful Rick Ross made headlines earlier this year thanks to a particular line of his in a remix to the popular song, “U.O.E.N.O.” [produced by Childish Major], in which his lyrics insinuate sexual assault: “Put Molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it.”
With coverage ranging from MTV News to CNN, Ross’s rhymes set fire to the media landscape. Previously endorsed by shoe company Reebok, the aggressive pressure group UltraViolet stated that this commercial pairing meant that the apparel corporation condoned rape.
In response, Ross apologized publicly to Billboard Magazine, saying that his decision to include the aforementioned lines did not accurately reflect his “true heart” and was sorely regretted. This scenario raises key questions regarding the current state of rap as a microcosm for the rest of society, as well as the legitimacy of Reebok’s course of action. What can an artist from a generally controversial genre say, and at what point is a line trespassed, thus resulting in consequence?
From a broad scope, political correctness pervades the modern culture. While this is not always a bad thing (the gradual elimination of words such as “faggot” or “retard” from casual vocabulary, for example), a classic consequence is the gentrification of culture. Rap is no different, and apologies for lines such as Ross’s were no commonality earlier in the history of hip-hop music. Looking specifically at Reebok’s decision, one likely feels unsurprised by the resolve.
More specifically, it begs us to ask what lyrics are considered suitable, or acceptable (and therefore expected) for a rapper to implement into his or her work. Ross is no saint, and countless usages of certain words or violent phrases arguably warrant a similar reaction, even if such a response occupies a level of lessened severity.
Artists J. Cole and Drake underwent a similar critical experience thanks to a certain line in the remix “Jodeci’s Back,” a collaborative remix between the two: “I’m artistic, you n***as is autistic, retarded.” The sentence prompted the Anti-Bullying Alliance to offer a petition for the removal of the lyrics, which registered more than 2,500 signatures. Cole tweeted an apology before extending his expression of regret further through an online letter, and Drake, who felt guilty by association, also provided a public apology.
Personally, I do not defend these lines. Nor do I defend their implications. I possess no secret hopes of slurs such as “faggot” or depictions of rape becoming a phenomena that sweeps the world of hip-hop, a world once defined by its grittiness and raw mentality.
What I do believe, though, is that the political correctness gradually growing in rap can have culturally disastrous side effects. In the past, comparable lyrics made for nation-sweeping entertainment.
Simply put, if you don’t enjoy what you’re hearing, you need not listen. The price to pay is a slippery slope, challenging the spirit and heterogeneous character of a powerful style of music, and lifestyle for millions.