Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Note on Swag

Swagger on a hundred, thousand, trillion.

As I'm sure you've all noticed, rappers talk a lot about swag these days, usually making fools out of themselves in the process. The trend didn't really get on my nerves until I heard this regional Philly hit on Power 99 about how this disgracefully bad rapper "drip drops swag on 'em." As opposed to just pouring it out of the bottle. Unlike some people, I don't like to make up straw man arguments that no one ever made just to shoot them down, so I'm not going to say some bullshit like "the quote-unquote smart people are all a-hatin' on swag these days," but I think a natural reaction from a certain type of rap head to this obnoxious trend is to say, "back in the day people didn't like rappers because of their "swag" (whatever that is), they liked rappers because of their skills and content, and all this swag shit is fucking up hip-hop, along with about 8732 other factors." A reaction which I think you get passing hints of here - "the dim-witted idea that "swag" can substitute for skill," the "increasingly absurd notion that swag is some kind of rarefied commodity that somehow makes people more creative, clever and better at rapping". Actually, maybe more than passing hints.

So let me say what I think of swag. Throughout the 80s and 90s, there were, of course, many rappers who got over more on how they said the stuff they said than what they said, and even more on a great voice or inflection than, say, a technically facile flow. But most big-name artists had one or more "skill" going for them; I could be making a hugely inaccurate generalization here, but I don't think there were a ton of guys in the 90s like Pac who both had dodgy flows and mediocre lyrics but still managed to get over on sheer force of personality. Today, though, there are a lot of rappers who (a) aren't skilled in any traditional sense and (b) are quite popular anyway. Rappers like Jeezy. So, by necessity, people fished for a word to describe what these rappers had going for them, and after trying out charisma, mic presence, delivery, and others, they've settled on swag.

Now, after years of people on message boards and street corners talking about swag, the rappers themselves have started talking about it. Which is to be expected. Rap, more than any genre of music, is largely all about itself. Rappers talk about how great their beats are, their flows are, their lyrics, how their beats got made, their superiority in talent to other rappers, their superiority in jewelry-ownership to other rappers, the veracity or lack thereof of the stories told in other rappers' lyrics, etc. In general, a fair share of almost any rapper's work is going to be about what a good rapper he is. So, if the ways in which people assess rappers dramatically change, if people start judging a rapper's work by how much swag its creator possesses, rappers are going to start talking about swag, just as, when lyrical skills played a huge role in critical assessment of rap, rappers talked about how great their lyrics were, often to the point where half or more of their albums were all about just how amazing their rapping was - even though often they never got around to showing you that because they were so damn busy saying "I'm lyrical, I'm lyrical, I'm lyrical" over and over. Similarly, today we have rappers, in efforts to convince you, the listener, that they're great rappers, talking about how much swag they have.

Now, swag's a pretty useless term, critically; it doesn't get us very far to say that a rapper has swag. It says nothing about what that swag's like, and therefore,
people who don't hear that rapper's swag aren't enlightened at all by the claim. If I'm trying to persuade you that Rick Ross is really a great rapper, saying "don't you hear his swag" isn't going to help me much. We need a more developed vocabulary to talk about this shit. And since we lack one, it's no surprise that all the swag songs suck, because, lacking a diversity of ways to talk about their swag, rappers just keep repeating the word 'swag' over and over, hoping that that will convince us of their swaggerificness.

However, what I fear is that the inanity of the concept as expressed in song may tend to mislead some into thinking that swag itself is a stupid concept. The fact is, swag exists and it matters a lot, although swag probably is a horrible name for what it's intended to describe. (Why it's controversial to talk about in rap, it's hard for me to even understand; no one would deny that part of what made Sinatra great was, on top of all his other talents, a certain swagger in the old-school sense.) For example, when Jay did his verse on the 'Diamonds' Re
mix, possibly the last truly great verse of his career, it is the case that it's a reasonably well-written verse with a few great lines, delivered with a great flow. But it's also the case that if you gave the same verse to a different rapper with just as good a flow, rappers like Lupe, Black Thought, Chamillionaire, they could do the same verse just as well technically, but a great deal of the effect would be lost, and that what would be lost would be a certain sort of charisma, or, if you prefer, conviction. It's also the case that just listening to Jay rattle off the no-names on his label ("Freeway and Foxy/YG's, Teairra Marie, Peedi, watch me") is, to this listener at least, far more exciting and enjoyable than any of what Kanye has to say on the same song, or for that matter, far more entertaining than virtually any two bars on Kingdom Come, and that to pretend that Kingdom Come was just a lyrical and musical failure and not a moment where a once-dominant artist lost his cockiness, his conviction - yes, his swag - and suddenly sounded like this hopelessly lost relic would be to entirely misrepresent what was wrong with that record, because truth be told, it's not like Blueprint is a lyrical masterwork either. (And of course, many people did make that mistake and said KC failed because the subject matter was too corporate or that Jay dwelled too much on his wealth when, after all, he'd been doing that since 1998.)

Similarly, take Big Pun. Now, no one thinks that Big Pun was great because of his "swag"; Pun's greatness is usually attributed to the fact that he said things like "
dead in the middle of little Italy, little did we know that we riddled two middle men who didn't do diddley." But suppose that Termanology or Joell Ortiz discovered a rhymebook of Big Pun's, written around the time he made Capital Punishment. And suppose that they worked on their breath control enough to the point where they could more or less approximate Pun's flow. Would the album they'd produce with Pun's rhymebook (assuming it had good production) come anywhere close to Pun's own work? I'd have to say no. In fact, I'm not sure I'd listen to such an album (and that's assuming that we don't know that they've stolen the rhymebook and think they honestly hatched these Pun-quality lyrics on their own). Because Term would still sound like this nasal, helium-voiced, 80-pound nerd (in fact, all those polysyllabic words Pun used would make him sound even nerdier), and Joell Ortiz like a friendly dorky fat guy. Put another way - if you were making a movie about a character who lived the life described in Big Pun's rhymes, would you cast either of those guys? Of course not. Just by the sounds of their voices, they'd render their performances totally implausible. Which isn't a statement about their actual lives - who knows or cares what they're like - but just that they lack the charisma needed to make me suspend my disbelief and imagine that they do do the sorts of things described in Pun's lyrics. Just as, even if you sent Bill Gates to rapping school and got him to the point where he was passable, you'd never want to listen to him rap about his billions, not least because if you didn't know that he was the richest man in the world, you'd never guess by his mild demeanor that he was. Instead, we listen to Jay, a much poorer man, rap about his millions - or at least we did, until he lost his swag.


Jordan said...

What does this have to do with Shawn Bradley?

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

so do i still need to worry about keeping it really real/trill/G.A.N.G.S.T.A./street/play my lane like i'm Bol/gutta/etc., or can i skate by on the strength of my swag?

really, my question for you is, are these all different ways to describe rapping with conviction, or are they separate concerns from different times in rap? also, if they are different, do they build on each other?

and yea, shawn bradley?

Badmon3333 said...

"Dead in the middle of little Italy..." is still right up there with the greatest two bars in hip-hop history. I just went back and listened to 'Capital Punishment' the other day, and now it's back in my car.

Badmon3333 said...

"Packinamacinnabackada'Aaaaaac, packinamacinnabackada'Aaaaaac!"

tray said...

I think the idea was that Shawn Bradley obviously lacks swag. Sarcasm. I think that trillness, realness, throwedness, guttaness, coming correct-ness, griminess, street, keeping it one hunnid, etc. are all subtly separate concerns (except for realness, which is really its whole other category), but I wouldn't say that they're separate concerns from different times so much as they're largely separate concerns from different places (and different times too), and that different regions prize different types of swag, where swag's defined as "appearance, style, or the way he or she presents themselves" - h/t urban dictionary. Now, swag is this huge umbrella concept that denotes any sort of rapping charisma/conviction, whether it's Pimp C's in "Murder" or Onyx's in "Walk In New York," but obviously those are very different types of swag, cultivated to appeal to different groups of listeners to the point where people in '96 Queens likely found Pimp C a little country (if they heard him at all) and people in Texas possibly found Onyx a little too timbed and hoodied out. What I think can be said, though, is that certain rappers just don't have much swag. Like post-retirement Jay has tried to carve out this complicated globe-trotting executive/"dopeboy fresh" swag, this one foot in the boardroom, one little toe in the streets (or at least in street attire and patois) thing, but it just doesn't work at all; he comes off as a confused poser whom time has passed by.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Maybe its bad and slightly useless when examined as a critical tool- but in general, from a pure listener's point of view, intangibles such as 'swagger' absolutely are a factor to me. Nowadays, it seems to serve a word used interchangeably w/ personality, charisma and style. I know it gets a lot of slack nowadays coz a)there exists a pool of lame old school heads who pretend like rap is purely all about technical skill b) there is a pool of lame new school heads who think that they can coast purely on a few snappy catchphrases and the hippest streetwear brands

But regardless, its like analyzing the likeability of any person or thing. Its not like you can dissect each and everything and put down to paper what appeal boils down to. Sometimes its boils down to the intangible of many little things working in your favour, and sometimes its that extra 'it' factor aura certain people have

ex. how every review of devin the dude inevitably mentions his affability - I don't know how that translates into analytical criticissm, but it is an undeniable part of his persona and his popularity.

We can't just ignore the essence of someone (regardless of how you choose to label it) or hold it against someone just because it doesnt translate into an easily identifiable technical skill.