Columns, Music Issue 2014, Opinion

KESSELLY: Hip-Hop lyricism: Freedom of speech v. inflammatory speech

The last year was a phenomenal year to be a hip-hop or R&B fan. Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean were met with critical acclaim and commercial success. Kanye West, Jay-Z, J. Cole, Drake, Pusha T, Childish Gambino, Eminem and Beyoncé released new, enjoyable LPs. Pharrell Williams made his triumphant return, winning the Grammy for Producer of the Year following two smash-hit songs. Macklemore, Robin Thicke, and Justin Timberlake continually broke down racial barriers within the genres, and Nicki Minaj’s revival of strong female rappers brought ladies like Azaelia Banks, Angel Haze, Kitty Pryde (now known as simply “Kitty”) and Iggy Azalea into the spotlight.

A lot of these artists embody diversity in more ways than one: While Pusha T is a black male who makes hardcore “gangsta” rap with gritty, dark and booming production, Iggy Azalea is a white woman from Australia who more closely represents the electronic dance music rap scene. No matter who you are, there’s something for everyone in the realm of hip-hop, as is the case in nearly any genre. But there is one issue that is continually the focus for hip-hop fans, regardless of race, gender or style of music: lyrics and an artist’s right to freedom of speech. And herein lies the dilemma.

Up until recently, the status quo was that rappers said what they wanted to and the biggest consequences they faced were responses from other rappers. This was usually in the form of traded diss records between competing artists (Jay-Z’s “Takeover” and Nas’ “Ether” both come to mind). However, the controversies have routinely elevated as of late, seen with Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O.,” Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” and now Rick Ross’ “BLK & WHT,” which have all come under fire for different reasons. Of the three, two have been accused of “contributing to rape culture” to varying degrees, while the third uses a tasteless Trayvon Martin metaphor in a song about dealing drugs, violence and bragging about money.

Interestingly enough, two of these controversies involved Miami-based rapper Rick Ross. In 2013, Ross was featured on Rocko’s breakout single “U.O.E.N.O.” A slow-moving club banger, Rocko’s verse contained the usual, expected themes of party/club songs. When it came to Ross’ verse, however, the song took a dark turn as he rapped the lyrics “Put Molly all in her champagne, you ain’t even know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” He tried to clarify the lyric, but to no avail: It was too difficult to explain that a lyric alluding to date rape was “misinterpreted.” A petition was started, and on April 11, 2013, Reebok dropped his endorsement deal. He later issued an apology and things faded into the background. During this controversy, the song was in heavy rotation, peaking at number 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and at number 4 on their Hot Rap Songs chart. (The fact that this was possible is a separate issue in and of itself.)

After that dust settled, one might think that Ross would lay low and choose his words more carefully. Unfortunately, on Feb. 26 he found himself in trouble once more for his Trayvon Martin lyric on a track for his then-upcoming album Mastermind. “Trayvon Martin, I’m never missing my target/Bh n****s hating, tell me it’s what I’m parking/Wingstop owner, lemon pepper aroma/Young black na, barely got a diploma,” he raps in verse two of “BLK & WHT.” He attempted to explain it, but why even bring it up in the first place? There is a fine line between freedom of speech and the explicit use of inflammatory language, and this was the latter. This brings us to “Drunk in Love”.

When the world was first introduced to Beyoncé’s new self-titled album, it was beautifully polarizing. Many championed her powerful use of sexual themes and imagery while others felt it was demeaning and uncomfortable. While Queen B is certainly no stranger to adult content, the album explores more explicit territory in one spin than she has put out in a single LP.

One track in particular hit the radio that probably should not have been sent to pop stations in the first place: “Drunk in Love,” a collaboration with her husband Jay-Z. After she explains in great detail her devotion to him and willingness to cater to his needs, Jay takes center stage with an equally dirty retort. He challenges her to live up to her own hype, and adds his own as well: “I’m Ike Turner, turn up, baby no I don’t play/Now eat the cake Anna Mae said, ‘Eat the cake Anna Mae!’” The lines are a reference to a scene from the 1993 Tina Turner biopic,What’s Love Got to Do with It, in which her then-husband Ike addresses her by her real name and forcibly shoves cake in her face while in public. This is not the first time a reference to Ike and Tina Turner’s relationship has been made — nor will it be the last — but the timing and phrasing turned heads in multiple news outlets, leading many to believe Beyoncé and Jay-Z were mocking domestic violence.

The truth is that there is a fine line between lyrical freedom and the deliberate use of words, phrases and names that will tick people off. Mentioning Tina Turner — while in poor taste — was not a deliberate attempt to incite the fury of a thousand suns. It was incredibly dirty and put bad images in many minds, but it was not meant to disrespect Ms. Turner. Rick Ross, on the other hand, has more problems to face. His lyrics weren’t necessarily edgy, just poorly chosen and poorly worded. Regardless of intention, the words that hit the airwaves left a poor taste in people’s mouths, and the Trayvon Martin reference was not a crafty one. But this leads to another issue: Where does freedom of speech stop in hip-hop and in music in general?

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