In a time when everyone has something to say, having a critical ear is more important than ever.
It’s 2020, and our relationships with celebrities are tenuous. A 20-year malaise of reality-television- turned-social-media-exhibitionism morphed pop culture icons into villains. Celebrities are more public now than ever. They have the ability to FaceTune every aspect of their image — with apps, and press kits, and fraudulent tax returns. But the public has proven time and time again to want more than lip service and good intentions. They want authenticity.
The last three months told of social recalibration away from the deification of celebrities. Coronavirus quarantines upended the daily routines of millions. Time spent idling in traffic or listening to music on the subway can now be spent with eyes affixed on Twitter and Instagram.
Likewise, everything every actor, musician, athlete and anyone with more than three zeroes in their net worth does has come under increased scrutiny. Even the untouchable Ellen Degeneres felt public backlash less than a month into the lockdowns, after joking that “Quarantine is like being in jail.” The punchline, which in part played off her lesbian identification, was quickly criticized for being tone-deaf. Lockdown for Ellen, in her massive cliffside mansion, isn’t like lockdown for most of the world. Sharing a two-bedroom apartment with five people is a more reasonable equation to jail than anything she’s lived in the last 30 years.
Heightened scrutiny has even made its way into the world of music, both in regard to current social problems and more generally. Lana Del Rey has been in the news more for her dismissive attitude towards artists of color than she has for her recent project, Norman Fucking Rockwell. Jason Derulo, who released his first new album in five years, is also allegedly sampling viral Tik Tok tunes without crediting its originator. Rappers have taken heat for insensitivities. Lil Wayne, Trina, Boosie, among others, all have drawn the ire of fans and run the risk of cancellation.
The music industry is antsy. Right now, we’d be in the throes of festival season. George Floyd protests would vie for airtime against news about surprise concert guests, like Drake popping up at Tyler, the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw last year. Instead everyone is a little more responsive to artists who aren’t spreading positivity or well-being amidst a time driven by hatred.
Rap has been in a unique position of empowerment. The genre itself is grassroots and anti-establishment. Its beginnings as block party music, historic ties to gang violence and 21st Century launch into the zeitgeist tell a story of a genre that influenced politics and social causes as much as it did popular trends. From Eazy-E’s visit to the White House in 1991 to Rick Ross, Alicia Keys, J.Cole, Common, Ludacris, Busta Rhymes, and more ushering out the end of President Barack Obama’s final term in office, hip-hop has proven indefatigable. Rap is music to live by. It’s music to play sports to. It’s music to party to. And more recently, it’s music to protest to.
The internet has changed the way I listen to and interact with hip-hop. I’m active on all the major social media platforms and there isn’t a day that goes by in which I don’t see some artist, frankly, acting a fool. Cancel culture works in perpetual motion — it needs a constant stream of sacrifices. And as rap has sprung to the forefront of pop culture, I regularly find myself questioning who I’m listening to, and if I should be listening at all.
Take an easy target: Kanye West. He dropped Jesus Is King some nine months ago and I still haven’t pressed play. One of the first CDs I bought with my own money was The College Dropout. I sided with Ye, in his manufactured beef with 50 Cent in 2007 when he and Fif’s albums dropped on the same day. By all accounts I’m a Yeezy fan, but refused to touch his music after his slavery diatribes, and MAGA hat support and unforgivable eccentricity. I have a passion for music and its broad consumption, but as more black people are ruthlessly killed, I’ve begun to goad myself into being more critical of the artists I’m spinning.
But can you separate the music from the man? The “troubled artist” is a concept that predates rap and certainly engulfs it. As fans, we praise artists with stomach-knot-inducing histories — the Jay Z’s, the Nipsey Hussle’s — but draw lines when things go too far. Lil Wayne suggests sympathizing with police? Cancel him. T.I. speaks on his daughter’s sexuality? Cancel him. There is no guidebook to which actions determine cancellation, but public commentary steers an unrelenting ship that seldom leaves an artist’s controversy uncharted.
Fortunately, as long as rap continues to provide voices to the otherwise voiceless, I’ll keep listening. Killer Mike and El-P’s terrific Run The Jewels 4 defibrillated the rap game with a project wholly focused on social advancement. Terrace Martin’s “Pig Feet” pairs a clamoring Public Enemy “Fight the Power” style track with calls to raise funds for jailed protesters. Rap’s infatuation with consumerism isn’t going anywhere, especially as artists build their brands and tell their rags to riches stories. But hopefully, social signals will continue to cut through the noise, providing listeners soundtracks to finding their own empowerment.
Having a rap consciousness is taxing. It’s not as simple as deleting an artist’s songs from your workout playlist. What about sponsorships? Do people protest Jordan Brand or Sprite when Drake is called to question about his relationship with Millie Bobby Brown? Music is ubiquitous. It’s interlinked with television deals, athletics, fashion, technology. At best there is a pause button. The “stop” button was removed decades ago.