Saturday, November 15, 2008

No Rapper Left Behind, or, The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

Check out the shameless use of Billy the Black Boy.

People tend to forget that back when Bush was on the stump in 2000, education reform, tax cuts, and a less interventionist foreign policy were his biggest issues - in that order. Obviously the latter didn't quite pan out the way he promised, the former was anywhere between mildly effective to a disaster, depending on which education wonk you trust, and the tax cuts kinda blew us up fiscally. And yes, I'm still a Republican (albeit an Obama voter). But anyway, back in 2000, one of Bush's more appealing rhetorical tropes was the soft bigotry of low expectations (though it was always agonizing to hear him stumble over those big words). The idea being that, instead of just saying, look, inner-city/low-income rural boys and girls can't be held to very exacting standards, let's just pass them through and get them diplomas as best we can (you see where this got Sarah Palin), there should be some thresholds in the system for going from one grade to the next, and that low expectations in this regard were a sort of softcore bigotry, however benignly intended said low expectations were. Well, No Child Left Behind probably hasn't worked out so well, but the idea, at least, that it's wrong, and in some ways bigoted, to tacitly have a different set of standards for kids in low-income neighborhoods than the standards kids are held to in high-income neighborhoods is still a compelling one to me anyway. Though I can certainly see the counterarguments.

So what's the connection to rap? Well, the other day I was talking to a blogger type, and this blogger was defending their unironic appreciaton of Three 6 Mafia. And I was like, how can you appreciate them on a completely unironic level? Crunchy Black shows every sign of being retarded. Like if you met Crunchy Black, would you not laugh at him? A little? Isn't part of the entertainment value of Three 6 just how nuts and stereotypically ghetto CB is? And blogger type is like, no not at all, in fact, maybe he's faking it. So okay, I can't argue with someone who thinks a guy who once said he's getting bigger like a fucking picture was doing it as some sort of performance art joke. So the conversation turns to Nas, and blogger type mentions that Nas is really sort of dumb. Now, let me be the first to say, I couldn't agree more. Nas was and to an extent still is a brilliant writer, but, like a lot of great writers, often has no clue what he's talking about, is constantly contradicting himself, or just isn't even sure what he thinks about anything. See the Untitled fiasco. And anyone who goes on CNN and says that blacks will lose their right to vote when certain provisions of the Voting Rights Act expire in 23 years (the ones that really matter are permanent) deserves to be sent back to high school. But here and elsewhere, I sense a double standard in how people evaluate rappers. If a rapper explicitly claims to be bright, a lyricist, conscious, or political, or if people do it for him, he's held to a ton of scrutiny and often dismissed as just plain stupid. If a rapper does not do these things, doesn't have critics singing his intellectual praises, or is just simply from da souf, it's not cool to call him out for being dumb, paranoid, ignorant, or what have you. Because what more should you expect from a rapper, who, after all, probably grew up in an environment less than conducive to higher learning - and besides, couldn't it be seen as, perish the thought, racist if you went after some of these dudes? That's the thesis; let's take up some examples.

Common. Oh, Common. Common is so hated on for his granola politics that hating on Common's politics has become a microcottage industry. You've all seen the posts, the essays, the reviews; I don't need links for this shit. Now, I'm on board with the rap 1000%, it's just that we're not holding other rappers to the same standard. In fact, at this point, let me tell you my personal Common's stupid politics story. Here at Duke, you might have heard, a stripper accused some lacrosse players of raping her. Turned out there wasn't much evidence for that, though she still says it happened, and it got thrown out. Now, Common was on stage somewhere during all this and freestyled, "you know I never get lost, yo fuck them damn niggas from Duke Lacrosse." A year later, he comes to perform on Last Day Of Classes. By then the players were exonerated and the DA who ran the case was facing disbarment for ethics charges. So a fair amount of the students were angry that Common was even coming to perform, and he knew he had to make some sort of apology. So, with everybody drunk, Common goes, "yo, I just want to say, that I believe in what's right - and I DON'T believe in what's WRONG. I believe the guilty should be punished - and the innocent should go FREE!!!" And then he went into a rousing performance of Testify. And that's the vacuity of Common's politics in a nutshell.

Plies. Now I know you'll all say, "but Tray, no one defends Plies," but this is not true! Plies's "100 Years" was ranked by no less than the n, the o, the z as the thirteenth best song of 2007 and got plenty of love elsewhere. Me myself, I can name fourteen
Freeway songs better than "100 Years" that came out in 2007. "100 Years," as you may recall, is a song about how pussy-ass crackers give niggas a hundred years in prison, or as Plies puts it, pooseyahhcraakas gihaniggaahunniyeaaa. Putting aside the fact that the first two lines of the song rhyme fihteen (how many years Plies's friend got) with se'enteen (how old he was at the time), that the next couple lines rhyme thang with thang, that the first verse alone mentions crackas and niggas no less than 13 times, a mark Birdman himself would be proud of, that Plies seems to go out of his way to rap in an incomprehensible accent when he doesn't sound that way at all in interviews, AND that the video is full of these downright racist shots of cracka prosecutors cheesing over seeing some kid getting sent to jail - putting aside, that is, that even if Plies had a really great point here, his song would still be the least eloquent case for that point imaginable - the concept of the song, that America is not only a nation that overincarcerates (true), but that crackers are in league to throw Plies and everyone he knows in jail for centuries ("crackers owe each other favors, they'll swap ya out") is inflammatory, wrong, and blithely ignores the fact that there are a ton of white people in jail and a ton of black prosecutors, judges, police, and lawmakers these days too in order to make out this Manichean evil sentencing cracker vs. virtuous lawbreaking nigga dichotomy (it's cute how all the crimes mentioned in the song that get these draconian penalties are supposed to be petty and minor, but really aren't, like shooting someone in the leg, or selling 4 kilos of coke, or "breakin in a bitch house"). At the very least, it's a little halfbaked, a la Nasir; at worst it's pretty bigoted. But people are reluctant to point this out, or to point out that Plies, seemingly voluntarily, chooses to rap like he has Down's Syndrome. (Bragging that you'll never buy a Rolls Royce because you can't fit huge tires on it that only make you look retarded, as he did on 'I'm So Hood,' isn't so great either.)

Jeezy. Now I know I wrote an epically long post a few months ago defending My President Is Black for being way more profound than it looked, and we all know whose song won out in the Obama suckoff race, so I'm looking pretty good on that one. (Nas lost.) But still. The Recession was garbage, and Weiss was virtually the only one to take that shit to task. (And Doc too, in this "he's a trickle-down economist!" way, but frankly I didn't understand what the fuck Doc was saying, and Prefixmag shitted on it, but took him to task for just the wrong reasons - "idle materialism" on the best song on the record! Politics = materialism people! Get in the game!) Otherwise, it got sucked off in some really unexpected quarters - unexpected to me only because the thing sucked musically and usually these guys don't put up with mediocre beats. Village Voice said Jeezy was "the master of populism," not entirely ironically; good old Breihan enthuses that it's "so... thorough and realized." Sure (not), but what the fuck was he saying? Anything? Nothing? Basically, the world is crazy, too much incarceration, Bush is trying to send a message to each and every one of us, and we're in a recession. And everybody's broke. And yet we were told by countless bloggers and critics that Jeezy was getting real political on this album. Well sure, if political means randomly throwing shots at whoever's in charge and noting that the economy doesn't look so hot right now. By that standard my insane uncle's a politically insightful rapper. By that standard, we're all politically insightful rappers. Even Untitled was a little more substantive than this (to say nothing of the much-maligned Hip Hop is Dead). The soft bigotry of low expectations strikes again.

The whole Free Pimp C Movement. Probably cosigned at one point or another by every blogger of note but Bol. Sorry, but why? Are we all not safer when people who carry guns with them to the mall are locked up or at least taught that there are consequences for pulling out guns at the mall, that we don't become folk heroes for pulling guns out at the mall (oh wait, that's just what happened)? There are little kids at malls. Consider Styles P's response in a similar situation:

Lox member Styles P surrendered to authorities yesterday (Nov. 26), to start his 8 month bid at the Valhalla Correctional Facility in upstate New York. P is serving the time for stabbing a man in the buttocks.

"Somebody got me aggravated [and] I did somethin'," Styles told "Now I gotta pay the consequences and repercussions. I wish it wouldn’t have happened. I hope the shorties out there know you gotta pay your consequences and repercussions when shit happens."

Exactly. Let me repeat: exactly. Why is it always the Pimp C's and Tony Yayos and T.I.'s and Lil Kims and Freeky Zeekys who get these crazy Free Rapper X campaigns, always featuring the most ridiculous excuses ("he was forced to equip himself with an arsenal of semiautomatic weapons, someone must've been after him, malls are dangerous these days, best to pack heat when you're at Macy's, snitching is wrong"), while the less, shall we say, IGNORANT types, the Capones, Cormegas, Shynes, Styles Ps, and Z-Ros, the rappers who don't get fifty plastic surgeries and don't do crazy interviews talking about which city's got coke at which price and which city features the most dick-in-the-booty-ass-niggas, don't get such campaigns? Could it be because we have one standard for the rappers who've displayed evidence of being sane over their careers, and another for the ones who just don't know no better? I think so.

Soulja Boy, AKA, Soulja Boy, you are a donk. You know, Crank That was a great record in its way, and I'm totally down with the "dudes used to make stupid dance songs in the 80s too" argument. But things got pretty problematic when, on the same album, Donk implored his teacher to throw some D's on his report card (before his success, he did need to graduate from school, after all) and complained that "a lot of teachers give me tests but they be super hard." Atttitudes like this are why we got NCLB in the first place. But most people avoided the D-word (dumb) or the I-word (ignorant), much less the R-word (functionally retarded), and preferred to talk about how his shit was full of vitality and youthful brashfulness - until, of course, he shouted out the slavemasters for bringing his ancestors over from Africa. And now the axe has kinda come down, because, as loath as rap bloggers are to call a rapper stupid if he isn't a rapper who has pretensions of intellect, you really can't be shouting out the slavemasters like that. Seeing that most rap bloggers' whole political angle on hip-hop is structural racism, and that starts with slavery. It just goes against everything the rap blog world believes in. But there are still defenders! Let's hand the mic over to James Montgomery: (who may be spoofing the trend I'm writing about here, but if so, that just goes to show you how deeply embedded this crap is in our rap criticism that you can't be sure):

Imagine if everything you knew about Soulja Boy Tell'em was wrong. That he was not a hyperactive, cash-craving demon hell-bent on destroying hip-hop. That his songs were not shameless stabs at ringtone royalties, his lyrics not indecipherable and lightweight, his image not clownish and gaudy. Imagine if he were secretly more brilliant than you could ever imagine, that his entire career has been one deceptively subtle bit of social commentary, and that you are just not smart enough to be in on the joke.

I ask you to consider all this, because I am fairly sure that it is all true. Soulja Boy gets a bad rap (pardon the pun). He is not a pariah. He is not, as some of his hip-hop forefathers have claimed, "garbage." He is simply the greatest performance artist of our generation, a genius whose body of work — be it his songs, his persona, his merchandise or his endless parade of YouTube musings — is solely committed to satirizing hip-hop culture.


Late last month, Soulja did an interview with respected cultural critic Touré, in which he submitted to a form of the Proust Questionnaire. When asked, "What historical figure do you most hate?," Soulja was apparently stumped, to which Touré prompted: "Others have said Hitler, bin Laden, the slave masters ... "

"Oh, wait! Hold up! Shout-out to the slave masters!" Soulja replied "Without them, we'd still be in Africa. ... We wouldn't be here to get this ice and tattoos."

Now, keep in mind that Soulja — or, as I'm convinced, his alter ego, 18-year-old DeAndre Way — claimed that his comment was blown out of proportion because he was being "sarcastic," but I'd like to think this was the final master stroke: a hip-hop artist making a comment so mind-blowingly ignorant and insensitive that even the most fervent supporters of the genre would be forced to throw their hands up in the air and say "You know what? There really is no hope."

Of course, you are probably thinking there is no way Soulja Boy is that smart, that he is just a money-hungry kid with no respect and no talent and a blight to the entire genre. And you might be completely right. But that probably also means that you're not in on the joke, and therefore, you're also missing the point. Soulja Boy isn't real; he's a character created out of the public's misconceptions, a brilliant bit of social commentary sprung from one of the most brilliant performance artists of our time.

As Plies might say, I've got no words for this cracker. And I'm out.


Anonymous said...

wow. monster post dude. so necessary. nicely done. it is however, slightly sprawling in nature with ideas all over the place. so pardon me, if my response is similarly scattered

1) About the crux of your argument, about the double standard in critiquing
conscious vs for the lack of a better word, less sophisticated rappers, I completly agree on.
We probably are more harsh in our critique of nas than 3-6 at this point.

It probably originated from an honest place, as a response/backlash @ mainstream media automatically glorifying rappers who aimed for vague positive messages (itself a case of soft bigotry). but yeah, now its gotten to a point that the backlash set-up of criticism that was born in response to this
has become just as biased and prejudiced, as you pointed out.

Another fact I was gonna mention is that this weird double standard might have arisen from the
fact that blogging in general, as an alternative news medium, seems to be interested in presenting
fresh, alternative perspectives to the mainstream. and so, in areas such as music criticism, this often translates into deconstructing, dissecting
and tearing apart our cultural 'heroes'; and on the flip side shedding a positive light
on the underappreciated, maligned underdogs of the artform.
See: an enlightened, overtly intellectualized thesis on your fave ignant rapper. There is also obviously an interesting novelty & fun shock element to examining such seemingly contradictory ideas
- this seems like where a lot of contrarian ideas are born.

As a reader, I actually have no real qualms this form of pop culture criticism, coz at the end of the day i feel like something interesting islearned eitherway-
i see the interpretation of the arts as valuable,
regardless of whether or not this interpretation represents the absolute truth behind the art.
Coz best case scenario - we uncover a kernel of truth we failed to appreciate before;
worst case scenario - we're wrong in our assumptions, but we gain an interesting discussion & ideas to chew over.

tray said...

"blogging in general, as an alternative news medium, seems to be interested in presenting
fresh, alternative perspectives to the mainstream. and so, in areas such as music criticism, this often translates into deconstructing, dissecting
and tearing apart our cultural 'heroes'; and on the flip side shedding a positive light
on the underappreciated, maligned underdogs of the artform."

Well exactly. Same's true of academia. Just in terms of market forces, how is a blogger supposed to get on, how is a professor supposed to get tenure, without saying something provocative, contrarian, revisionist, or new? And since all bloggers do want to be read and get shine, even me, there's a huge incentive to be revisionist, say provocative shit, tell people Nas just isn't that good (but Jeezy really is!). No one's going to notice you for saying that Illmatic's a really good album. So there's the problem, the nature of the blog market or professional intellectual market encourages people to shit on the guys everyone's conventionally thought of as intelligent and defend the rappers people call dumb. So you get people giving Jeezy brownie points for "getting more explicitly political" because he simply mentioned that we're in a recession and said Bush's name. Like dude doesn't even have a stance, he's just stating some fucking obvious facts. Good for you, Jeezy. And here myself, I'm being overly provocative, calling Plies mean names, just to get attention. Dude's garbage, but is he that bad? Probably not. Was there an argument for Pimp C's release? Maybe so. But that's what happens to nuanced views in an intellectual marketplace, emphasis on market. Other than that... yeah. It just never ceases to amaze me that it's totally cool to openly state that Nas and Common are not very bright people (Brandon for instance: "Common’s something of a dullard, really"), but the density of Three 6 Mafia is just sort of on the low or even something people are in denial about. Like when they did their TV show, Breihan was like, wow, this is some exploitative shit, they're making Three 6 look like idiots, and that can't be right, they're genius producers! Oh really? Mozart was a real genius, the kind of guy for whom the word was invented, but outside of music he was kinda stupid. His letters are largely about farting. Seriously. I like Three 6 and Mozart, but there's no need to pretend these guys are smart people.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

"Was there an argument for Pimp C's release? Maybe so."

did you see that bun b interview from the red bull music academy? viewing it as more of a marketing ploy for UGK makes it much more passable in my mind.

"how is a blogger supposed to get on, how is a professor supposed to get tenure, without saying something provocative, contrarian, revisionist, or new?"

there's also the option of just putting out a lot of material. that is a bit more difficult for academics, but for us bloggers and rappers, just getting your name everywhere is a great way to get noticed.

tray said...

Yeah, but unless you're putting out music like eskay, I don't think just putting out tons of material is enough. Like I could do a new retrospective on a canonical album every other minute and no one would read that (unless there was some new insight about what makes these canonical albums so good).

DocZeus said...

This might be the most insightful thing you've ever written. Probably because it goes beyond Rapper X sucks that you usually write.

As for my commentary on Jeezy. Of course, Jeezy isn't making an actual defense of supply side economics. I stated his philosophy is similar, though What I was commenting on is that his idea that if he were allowed to sell unchecked drugs, he would be able to give back to the hood or as he puts it "bring everybody hope" and thus make it a better place bears a certain resemblance to the idea of trickle down economics. In the sense that the idea that if we allowed companies run roughshod with unregulated unethical practices (in Jeezy's case selling coke), the wealth would trickle down back to the people through it's supposed benefits like increased job creation, higher salaries, cheaper prices, etc (or in Jeezy's case his philanthropy.)

Of course, what trickle down economists inherently fail to realize and take account for is the basic nature of human behavior. Humans are inherently selfish. Because why would I help when it's just easier to look out for myself and get mine. Do you. If you lowered the taxes on the rich, all the money they would save would just sit in the back account somewhere idly growing interest. At best, it's maybe spent on something trivial and material. There is no guarantee that their spending would increase or that they would re-invest back into the economy. And even if the supposed benefits were true, it's still an asinine and ass-backwards way of doing it since it seems more prudent in just increasing the tax load on the uber-wealthy (who can afford it) and re-investing money into the community either by letting people who have less money keep more of it by decreasing their tax load or by creating government financed programs to re-build communities and help people out.

I mean expecting the private sector to do anything but look out for itself is utter lunacy at it's finest. But I DIGRESS...

Still, my basic factor for determining whether or not an album's any good is whether or not I liked it or not and how much. I happened to like the Recession more than I liked his first two albums. Mostly because he cut out the asinine coke talk even if he just replaced with asinine politics. It's ultimately a matter of taste which all I base my reviews on.

tray said...

"This might be the most insightful thing you've ever written. Probably because it goes beyond Rapper X sucks that you usually write."

I try to save most of my insights for law. No, like seriously, cultural criticism obviously isn't what I'm good at (other stuff is), I just happen to care about rap a lot. But yeah, I do have plans to come with bigger insights in the future. Anyway, on The Recession, I definitely am not lumping you in with the people who thought he was saying anything too insightful there (though of course I myself thought he was implicitly saying a lot on 'My President is Black'). But about 'Circulate,' I just don't see where he says, "let me sell crack unchecked, then I can give back." He says he wants to give back... but does he ask for unchecked drug dealing rights? I didn't hear it. It just seemed like a vague, muddled song about nothing much in particular. About trickle-down, you know, I don't know that there's much evidence that cutting marginal rates on the rich, or corporate tax rates, does or has done the poor/middle-class any good, but I think you can make a case that it might. Obviously the idea is employers can afford to employ more/just stay in the US instead of relocating elsewhere on the globe, the rich can afford to spend more, their purchase of consumer goods creates jobs, both with the people actually making the goods and the people selling them, the more staff a Bloomingdale's needs to help the customers, the more they're forced to give those well-paying jobs to not as qualified applicants (whereas right now, I go into Bloomingdale's and I'm being helped by older ex-professionals half the time, shit's sad)... that's the idea. Like of course people are selfish, but there's nothing unselfish about spending more or hiring more, it's all to your own selfish good. That's the story - whether it works like that, it's so hard to say. What is true is that a tax cut to a millionaire is mostly saved. It's hardly the most effective way to stimulate the economy. A corporate tax cut - I don't know, what's the last time we even tried one?

DocZeus said...

Well, in some sense, I'm extrapolating what I think the entire thesis of the album is as well as the basic themes of his career. I think in some sense, it's implicit in what he's saying. I dunno it's been awhile since I listened to that specific song but I do remember he explicitly refers on the intro to giving back to the community and bringing them "hope." Perhaps, I'm just mixing songs up. Whatever.

But anyway, haven't corporate tax cuts been the norm since Bush took office. I know, there's been a whole swatch of tax loopholes that companies have been exploiting and in turn by taking jobs overseas.

I just think that even if it did theoretically work as the proponents of trickle down economics said it would, I feel it's just an asinine way of doing it. Why wait for the benefit when you can get it directly, you know? It's placing too much faith in the goodness of people which I feel is a losing proposition. Granted, I have no faith in the human species in general. Regardless of human's capacity for good or evil, I feel we operate on the basic principle that we will act on the way that it is easiest.

tray said...

Well, I guess the claim my conservative friends would make is that when you "get it directly" or give it directly, bad shit happens. Like welfare's a form of getting it directly. We stepped back from that because of the perverse incentives it created. Then there's the "government doesn't know how to give it out right" argument - governments are inefficient, screw things up, etc. For instance, Obama plans to somehow subsidize a whole green jobs industry, create millions of green jobs. The conservative intuition is that this is exactly the wrong way to go about doing things, that what will happen is the wrong technologies will get subsidized and the right ones won't, that the whole process will become way too politicized (like money for corn ethanol because corporate farming lobbies for it when the shit's not any better for the environment than straight gas, plus it drives the price of corn up/takes food off the market), when if you let the market do its work, the cheaper stuff would rise to the top. Then there's the "this costs too much money/forces us to raise taxes too high" argument. But I am very much in agreement with making the tax structure a little more progressive.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

well, it's not just putting out material on your own site, you have to make your rounds on other blogs and contribute to other conversations. but ultimately, it's about the kind of arguments that are being made, and to get noticed they do have to be unique in some way.

Blogger said...

I have just installed iStripper, so I can have the sexiest virtual strippers on my desktop.