Myles E. Johnson returns with another OkayMuva episode to discuss whether rap beef has devolved into celebrity gossip with shock value.
The brand of integrity that hip-hop once held was perverted and hardly understood by the outsiders gazing on the community, but internally there was a well-understood code. The music could be as raunchy or subversive as we desired, but it had to be good.
Jay-Z once rapped in “Supa Ugly,” “I came in your Bentley backseat, skeeted in your Jeep/ Left condoms on your baby seat.” This diss towards Jay-Z’s then nemesis Nas, even made Jay-Z’s mother force him to apologize on HOT 97. But when I revisit this lyric, as crass and distasteful as it was, there was a painterly quality that the lyricism and the song possessed. Jay-Z painted a vivid image of tremendous moments of disrespect that would make anyone’s blood boil. He did it to the scorching beat of Nas’ “Got Yourself a Gun” and he made it rhyme. He let his voice stab, then caress insults in a way that left the listener in a state of awe not just at the gossip, but at Jay-Z artistic ability.
In the last few years, there seems to be something odd with how hip-hop handles itself during moments of beef. There has been a move in hip-hop to be focused on scandal and controversy. One of the latest examples is Pusha T’s diss to Drake called “The Story of Adidion” to the tune of Jay-Z’s “The Story of O.J.” The song was in response to Drake’s “Duppy Freestyle” which was a response to Pusha T’s new song “Infared” that took shots at Drake.
Social media users cried how “ruthless” and “savage” Pusha T’s latest record was, but I stood unimpressed. It felt rude and salacious like a Wendy Williams hot topic segment, but it didn’t feel like a good rap song. This is particularly disappointing because Pusha T just released DAYTONA which was a masterful slice of luxury that felt modern, smart, and innovative. “The Story of Adidon” simply felt like a tabloid to a beat with no concern for flow, delivery, or musicality.
Pusha T raps, “Adonis is your son / And he deserves more than an Adidas press run, that’s real. Love that baby, respect that girl / Forget she’s a pornstar, let her be your world, yuugh!” This is the line that birthed hysteria around “The Story of Adidon,” but left me unimpressed. There was no cleverness around this reveal. The shock value of having new celebrity fodder for the news cycle is what carried the line, not Pusha T’s immense wit or musical talent.
Pusha T isn’t the first to disappoint me with their handling of a rap beef. This was also recognizable with Remy Ma’s “shETHER”. Remy Ma is one of the most gifted lyricists in hip-hop, but when it came time to lyrically spar with Nicki Minaj, she let herself be absorbed by the sensational gossip culture. Often on the “shETHER” track, she sounded like she was just simply reading a Wikipedia page of bad news rather than crafting a song that exposed Nicki Minaj’s private life, challenged her skill as her rapper, and highlighted Remy Ma’s superior rapping skills.
Remy Ma spits, “Guess who supports a child molester? Nicki Minaj. You paid for your brother’s wedding? That’s hella foul / How you spending money to support a pedophile?” The line felt like a Joan Rivers quip rather than the lyrical bloodbath it was branded as. True or not, I was once again left feeling that these lyrics relied more on our love of celebrity news than her skills as a rapper.
This pattern in hip-hop may seem inconsequential, but I look at it as more proof that hip-hop as a culture—perhaps not as a genre—is dying an embarrassing death. Some might say it is just simply evolving into being a part of the mainstream pop culture, but I believe that that is the embarrassing death. Something designed to subvert the mainstream and exalt the marginalized is now just becoming another layer of a culture that is only concerned with profit and exploitation, not craft and innovation. One of the cornerstones of being seen as a good rapper is being able to battle. It is being able to hold your own as both a musician, a clever wordsmith, and a fierce competitor. This seems to have been substituted for the ability to create a sensational moment with no artistic integrity.
Pusha T fell victim to this even earlier before his battle with Drake when he allowed Kanye West to change the cover of his latest album DAYTONA to an image of the late Whitney Houston’s bathroom at the time of her death that was riddled with drugs that cost $85,000 to license.
Even as we grapple with theme of Pusha T presenting himself as a drug dealer for decades now and perhaps this image of Whitney Houston’s counter at the time of her death as an album cover serving as a type of sobering reflection around the harm he caused, the image relies too much on sensationalism to get to any meaningful artistic and intellectual analysis. It leans on the idea that controversy—not talent—sells art. It says no matter how good you are at your craft, there must be a level of controversy and scandal to make it sellable. It is sad to witness this in such a rebellious culture like hip-hop. We know that most of pop culture is interested in sex and money, but hip-hop felt like the last place where artistic ability could still override the sensational.
We feel far away from diss tracks like the ones crafted by KRS-One and Boogie Down Productions that had to be cutting and fierce, but also artistically masterful. It couldn’t just rely on shock value and our addiction to gossip. It had to reassert the rapper’s prowess and gift.
The bigger picture of why this is a melancholy and distressing moment for hip-hop is because hip-hop is truly one of the last musical genres in the mainstream that still has a living and breathing culture attached to it. It has been contentious, but hip-hop isn’t just what your ears hear; it is what you wear, it is how you move, it is a culture and lifestyle.
It is also a lifestyle that has been proven to be marketable and profitable. And most of the people with the biggest interest in hip-hop culture are less concerned with culture and more interested in profitability. This leaves the responsibility to us—those that value the powerful and influential potential in hip-hop culture—to preserve the traditions and standards set by the creators of this black tradition.
The rap battle is the ultimate art of the insult. It is entertaining and it is an amazing promotional vehicle for all of those that participate. It feeds the industries (including myself writing this) that thrive off of hip-hop culture. However, we can not lose the art. We can not forget that hip-hop is a skill and musical based on black artistic tradition.
Rap artists relying on the same attention-grabbing techniques as the rest of the culture undermines that hip-hop is a culture filled with artists with skill sets. That display of skill set should always be held over the eagerness to gossip. When we start to move away from this to be in the news cycle, we aren’t just insulting our components. We begin to insult ourselves and our own history.
Myles E. Johnson is a Brooklyn, New York-based storyteller. He is also the creator of the literary project, Dear Giovanni. You can follow him on Twitter @HausMuva.