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Hip Hop Fridays: Hi, My Name Is...Why Is It So Easy To Misinterpret Risk-Taking For Betrayal? by Ben Rubenstein


"Girl, take your clothes off," comes the directive from my computer speakers. "It's getting hot in herrrre." Wait, is this a Nelly album I downloaded by mistake? Checking the track information... nope, it's definitely Murs and Slug. But wait, I thought these were the sensitive rappers, the ones all the girls love for their continued grappling with feelings and emotional complexity. What are they doing with a song called "Breaker Down Like a Shotgun", not to mention a host of other sexually charged titles on their latest collaborative effort as Felt, Felt, Vol. 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet?

Building off the success of the first volume's "ode" to Christina Ricci (which, like this album, contained no lyrical references to its namesake), the two have made another foray into filthy humor and misogynistic rhymes, and I guess that I shouldn't be surprised. Having been pigeonholed as emo-rap darlings by the always-ready-to-label press, Murs and Slug just need some additional time off from their more reputable personae. What better way to do so than by digging deep into sexual thuggery, and with a former Huxtable, no less.

My deep-seated fantasies regarding A Different World aside, it's easy to see why the duo would indulge in this departure. In a genre so concerned with image, they've been saddled with one that's a bit too tame. Of course, it's partly their own fault; their choice of recordings over the past several years have contributed to the perception that they're concerned almost exclusively with the fairer sex. On last year's "Bad Man", for example, Murs spends several minutes attempting to convince various females of his passion for sex and cuddling ("We can talk all night and listen to iTunes") not exactly battle-worthy. Even on Felt, Vol. 1, the two combined for what might pass as their tag line: "So what you don't like us, your girl probably would." But does this (admittedly exaggerated) attention to the softer side of things preclude the rappers from a bit of crotch-grabbing every now and then?

Similar to the goody-two-shoes who decides it's time to cut loose, Murs and Slug are bound to be called out for their uncharacteristic behavior. They might even be called (gasp!) sellouts by their most ardent fans. Such is the feeling of ownership that fans seem to have over artists who depart from what is perceived to be their area of expertise: a slap in the face, a betrayal.

It's risky business, this decision to step outside the image box the consequences can be career-threatening. In 2002, for example, Talib Kweli found himself defending, well, himself due to a few startling stylistic choices on his then-newly released Quality. While the album contained several songs fans might expect from an artist with his "conscious rapper" label, there were a few tracks whose messages failed to resonate with some of his audience. In particular, the track "Gun Music", which featured a beat constructed almost entirely of ammunition rounds being fired into the air, included several references which could be perceived as pro-gang war: "A 22 Derringer, a 38 long, a 44 Desert Eagle, a Glock Nine / Time to protect the fam I'm-a cock mine / I make the streets run red like a stop sign". Responding to the heat over such violent imagery in his lyrics, Kweli pointed to the fact that the song actually stands as something of a mockery of our reliance on guns to solve problems in our society.

Unfortunately, the irony was lost on many listeners. But the simple fact that there would be such an outcry over lyrics that, in the grand scheme of hip-hop music, were not all that controversial, speaks to the greater theme of artistic expectations. Some fans truly believed that Kweli had a duty to respect the sensibilities of his audience, and submit his messages accordingly. Fans loved the powerful voice of the rapper, but only inasmuch as it was saying words they wanted to hear.

I would imagine that many of these critical fans wanted to hold Kweli (and other artists in the same vein) to a prefabricated standard: an example of a rapper who chooses not to resort to violence, who exists on a higher plane; evidence that hip-hop has social value. This presumed departure stole the pedestal out from under Kweli, and in doing so, knocked the fans from the high horse they had been on as they listened to an artist of "social importance". The criticism of Kweli was as much a representation of crestfallen fans who wanted their art to subscribe to a certain message as it was an outright denouncement of the artist himself.

It seems that fans, as a whole, have difficulty allowing artists the same freedoms that we allow ourselves. Each of us, as fans, is as fickle in our choices in the musical arena as we are in living our lives. This propensity for inconsistency is undoubtedly human, but somehow we forget that when critiquing artists. Artistic creations, when heavily invested in by their creators, are profoundly and permanently altered by what the artists experience in their own lives, lives which we have very little access to except through the windows of their recordings.

Expecting an artist to fit inside our limited constricts doesn't allow us to see the artist as a human being, but only as a product manufactured for our enjoyment (or derision). It also keeps fans from fully appreciating the scope of an artist's music and the potential impact it can have. Sometimes, artists can surprise us in "good" ways: witness Eminem's "Mosh" or Kanye West's recent politically-charged outburst during the Hurricane Katrina fundraiser. These artists, while not typically thought of as political animals, unexpectedly produced some of the more jarring and, therefore, effective political messages of the past few years.

It's precisely because these messages came from surprising places that they carried so much weight. Immediately, the viewing public took one of two stances: either it was impressed that these artists had a passionate, political side to them; or it felt betrayed and confused because the artist had stepped outside his so-called bounds. This second reaction could typically be accompanied by an eye-rolling response: "Why should I listen to what (insert rapper) has to say about this? What kind of an expert is he?"

So what does this mean? If you haven't previously stated a formal opinion on political/moral/social events of your day, and instead focus on other topics, you're afforded no right to do so in the future? Why, then, are former athletes and actors (Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura notwithstanding) looked upon as legitimate political candidates? And why are other unassuming celebrities, like Tiger Woods, looked at as having a moral obligation to comment on certain matters, yet the opinions of some artists are immediately discounted because of an aesthetic in their songs?

Hip-hop's obsession with image seems to have backfired a bit in this situation, as it remains difficult for artists to maintain any credibility either way while still giving in to the natural human tendency to change. Perhaps nowhere was this need to maintain an image made more apparent than on Jay-Z's The Black Album, in which the impresario revealed, in numerous songs, his strategy of constructing and committing to an image which he knew the audience wanted.

On "Moment of Clarity", he submits, "I dumbed down for my audience to double my dollars / They criticized me for it yet they all yelled 'HOLLA'". Only on his "retirement" album is Jay-Z able to fully come to terms with the need to remain true to this personality in order to maintain his career. Which begs the question: Is there any way to escape the demands of an audience obsessed with image?

Perhaps in response to all of this needless excitement surrounding what artists can or cannot do, some have deliberately created several personalities, as if to impart to the world their many different sides while avoiding any accusations of selling out or overstepping boundaries. The best examples of these schizophrenics are the Stones Throw flagship artists, Madlib and MF Doom. Or at least, I think that's what they're calling themselves at the moment.

Each has several incarnations: Madlib has created a helium-voiced, blunted alter ego named Quasimoto, the drum 'n' bass influenced DJ Rels, and the jazz-altering Yesterdays New Quintet, all competing with his own name. The metal-masked Doom equals his cohort, releasing albums under the monikers Viktor Vaughn, King Geedorah, and as part of the new Cartoon Network-endorsed duo Dangerdoom (with DJ Danger Mouse) not to mention his previous identity as Zev Love X. To complicate matters, Madlib and MF Doom, together as Madvillain, released the critically acclaimed Madvillainy last year. And you thought Gorillaz had identity issues.

Most of Lib and Doom's projects mock the importance of image in the hip-hop world, as their songs often include "cameos" from their alter egos and self-congratulatory slaps on the back from alternate characters. Madlib even went so far as to create fake names for the "members" of his jazz quintet so that he might avoid all of the credit for that group's twisting of Stevie Wonder's legacy on Stevie, Vol. 1.

But as far as commitment to a gag goes, Doom tops them all. Since he emerged onto the scene as MF Doom, he has worn a grotesque metal mask during all public appearances, patently refusing access to his true facial features (he's even mastered the art of spitting his deadpan lyrics through the mouth hole). From concerts to publicity appearances (check out his surreal interview in a Canadian record store on the Stones Throw 101 DVD), he is never without the mask. And this is maybe the most powerful statement one can make about hip-hop's image styling.

Adorned with the mask, Doom has simultaneously created an enduring identity and also fully avoided one. Throughout all of his incarnations, the mask is recognizable, and so he has succeeded in "branding" himself, his logo emblazoned in the minds of fans and critics alike. Yet, at the same time, the mask has allowed him to remain somewhat anonymous, and thus escape all the issues that come with putting your face out in the world and opening it to scrutiny. It essentially gives him free reign to be whatever he wants without being accused of shirking the responsibilities of his identity.

While the real reason Doom wears the mask may never be fully known he has been quoted as saying that his earlier experiences with the industry have left him with hideous scars its effect is to emphasize how image-obsessed we as fans have become. Unfortunately, we can't all wear masks, and so must face the mistakes we make: misrepresentations, incorrect facts, or gross generalizations, all of which I'm sure I'm guilty of in this column alone.

Sure, there are other things to hide behind: email addresses, walls, large friends. But it's important to remember that we probably don't need to do this; no matter what, our every little shift in thought is not publicized for the world to see and judge, as they are for most prominent artists. This is not to give celebrities a free pass, as their celebrity is likely their own doing, but only to point out the hypocrisy of criticizing these inevitable changes. And if no one wants to hear that, then, well, direct your complaints to the Red Sox hat covering my face.

This article appears on Pop Matters.


Ben Rubenstein

Friday, October 21, 2005

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