The Hip Hop Paradox – Can You Actually “Borrow” Culture?
There is so much talk on the interwebs about authenticity within culture and how and why things come to exist and what exactly can be traced back to what origin. One of the most befuddling aspects of this discussion is without a doubt rap culture. It’s a genre that’s founded on the basic ideal of “borrowing” the best parts of every other genre to formulate a Frankenstein monster of unbelievable concentrated aural grandeur. What’s also kind of confusing about a genre founded on experimentation is how rigid the rules are sometimes. There’s literally entire websites and discussion boards that chronicle the organic vs. the seemingly bastardized aspects of the culture.
That’s why this week in hip hop culture is such a fascinating touchstone to examine the trend of cultural misappropriation or simply “you got your swag swindled”. Jay Z and Kanye released their momentous collaboration album this week Watch The Throne and the reception has been divided between hip hop purists crying out against a portrayal of such an unachievable maximalist lifestyle vs. those of the contemporary hip hop persuasion who wholeheartedly subscribe to any bit of minutia Kanye and Jay fling at the chalkboard. It’s a really interesting conversation especially when you examine their content and cultural inferences and where exactly the arrow lands on their portrayal of “classic” hip hop heritage.
What makes the conversation even more interesting is the other dynamic collaboration that dropped this week, Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame’s Ferrari Boyz. Although decidedly less high profile then the Givenchy endowed Throne, there’s definitely still a camp of hip hop purists that believe Gucci and Waka’s output means more to the inherent culture, from an organic, quinoa enthused standpoint. Another aspect in the ongoing discussion / trend of cultural “borrowing” is the nonstop controversy that’s been surrounding Kreayshawn and her “White Girl Mob”, especially her partner V-Nasty’s nonstop and blatant use of the n-word both in her songs and her casual Riff Raff cameo YouTube indulgences. People have even been calling Kreayshawn and V-Nasty’s schtick a modern version of a quasi-minstrel show minus the blackface, but with all the trappings of a classic D.W. Griffith flick. No matter what side of the argument you find yourself on, these cultural memes are ripe for analyzing whether or not the trend of cultural theft is a real thing, and does anyone actually even care about authenticity in the context of culture.
One aspect of Watch the Throne that really stands out is the range of references it uses both lyrically, and inferred culturally. First off is the “goldleaf” embossed album cover designed by Ricardo Tisci from Givenchy. Kanye has been sitting front row at Paris Fashion Week for years now and this is an obvious extension of his “coture” sampling palette, just as his Takeshi Murakami cover for Graduation was mildly Harajuku baiting. Of course the haughty asides don’t end there. As Fader pointed out in their excellent “By the Numbers” section where they give a numerical breakdown to culturally substantial albums, Kanye and Jay Z repeatedly use cultural references that are decidedly affluence heavy, from Mark Rothko and Basquiat, to Martin Margiela.
Of course there’s tons of references on this album that sway in the other direction, but there’s an overall feel and inferred austerity that seems like a prevailing aesthetic, to the point articles have been written about the album referring to Jay and Kanye losing touch with the common fan through such a “distinguished” aesthetic. Jay Z even sits down on his website Life + Times for a fun, casual conversation with Gwyneth Paltrow, who probably couldn’t be further of an example from the average Jay Z fan if she was debuting her new line of Neti pots at Anthropologie. I think the real heart of the conversation lies with the trend of “luxury rap” and cultural borrowing, and where does this album fit into the equation of conventional rap posturing vs. being out of touch with your core fanbase. Is it possible to be so ensconced with the trappings of billionaire moguls that the very thing that enamored fans in the first place is now starting to repel them?
This idea leads right to the other collaboration album released this week, Gucci Mane & Waka Flocka Flame’s Ferrari Boyz. Ferrari Boyz is probably as pure of a southern rap album that could come out this year. It might not be as rapturous and culturally carnivorous as the Flocka solo gem Flockaveli but one can’t help but contrast and compare with the other album that was released this week to decidedly much more fanfare. For southern rap fans and a small sub-sect of hipsters alike, this album is an absolutely pure cultural experience devoid of any veneer; its entirely guttural and atmospheric, which is for the most part derived from Flocka and Gucci’s brethren chemistry, and especially Waka’s dread shaking, tribal grunt of a delivery.
Not to mention Gucci has been long heralded as the southern king of weirdo rap, with his non stop mush-mouth syncopation and non sequiturs that would easily make him a long lost descendent of Duchamp. The trend of cultural borrowing inherent in Ferrari Boyz vs. Watch the Throne can be examined by Kanye and Jay selling Givenchy T Shirts with their album artwork for $300.00 and allowing only Best Buy to sell physical copies for the album’s first 10 days of release, while Gucci, Waka, and their Brick Squad contingent have literally flooded the blogosphere with free mixtapes for months before the album’s release; Waka even dropped the single for his next album the same day Ferrari Boyz came out. Not only are Gucci and Waka seemingly much more in touch with the reality and lifestyle of their average fanbase, but the way they “borrow” culture and portray it seems much more authentic then Kanye and Jay sampling bro-step and French house maven Cassius. I would even go as far to say Gucci and Flocka easily embrace the early experimental and decidedly avant garde nature of rap culture, much more so then Kanye and Jay, even if the head of design at Givenchy gives you an inferred co-sign. Gucci Mane is easily Max Ernst to Jay Z’s minimalist Rothko nightmare you have to have explained to you by a starched collar and a Brooks Brothers Alpaca hybrid.
So where does Kreayshawn, V-Nasty, and her White Girl Mob fit into this equation / trend of cultural borrowing? Are they merely conceived from an organic culture and then immediately co-opted by a major label who understands the complexity of selling authenticity to an inauthentic consumer? Besides V-Nasty’s rampant use of the n-word both in song and in casual Youtube vids wile lamping at Andy Milonakis’ house, there’s been a nonstop backlash of the idea of a white “hipster” girl posturing within the context of authentic culture simply as an aesthetic choice. Does it matter on a cultural level if Kreayshawn and V-Nasty are authentic and does it really dilute their musical output? Hip hop culture is founded on the idea of of purposeful and blatant cultural borrowing, and with the combination of the new-web mentality of sample everything and ask questions later, I don’t think that authenticity can A, actually be traced back to a specific origin, and B, I don’t think anyone really cares.
People just start to get agro if they feel you’re using or diluting a culture purely for financial gain, which definitely does not seem so with Kreayshawn who’s music comes from an extremely organic place and an honest love for the culture. V-Nasty’s blatant barrage of offensive statements is just another symptom of rap music going into its third decade; she grew up within an authentic culture, is portraying herself that way, and when people don’t understand the context, they get uppity and immediately assume her aesthetic is simply masked as a poor attempt at posturing. Someone really hit home when they commented on her infamous n-word dropping YouTube video (accompanied by the marvelous and eternally experimental Riff Raff) “Is this an SNL skit?”. For some people her “posturing” is a put on, for others it couldn’t be more authentic. Is Kanye sitting front row at Galliano culturally borrowing or is he simply expanding the palette of his main fanbase? Does Gucci Mane really study dada philosophy or is he so zoned out in his own authenticity that these avant-cultural touchstones are completely organic and conceived without any preconceived notions? No matter what, hip hop culture and the current trend of cultural borrowing has made for some absolutely fascinating amalgams that will stupefy and bewilder the populace for decades to come.