I quake in my boots. The sound thuds through the atmosphere, poisoning our eardrums and rattling the discarded Keystones that litter the ground. They come with flat brims, stickers intact, pointed upwards; adorned in lax pinnies, they’re storming the internet like they bragged that they would. Their presence is unexpected and their supporters are unlikely (Donald Trump, a man who was once seriously considered a nominee for the Republican presidential candidacy, is a vocal supporter of one of the frontrunners), but here they are, ready or not: Bro rappers. Hip-hop purists, shield your eyes.
They’ve long existed, but they’ve been simmering below the surface. Asher Roth had the most visible brush with the mainstream, making frat party playlists everywhere with his schmaltzy hit “I Love College.” It was, to hastily and harshly characterize an entire race of people, whiter than white. It sampled Weezer, it rhymed “beer pong” with “Hakeem Olajuwon” (fucking really?) and featured the least sexy line about getting with girls ever conceived (it’s so pathetic, premature ejaculation is almost implied). While it was a kitschy little hit, it succeeded because kids related to the little, day-in-the-life references he added. Replace “sipping Banker’s Club” with “sipping Barton’s” and you have yourself a hit that would reverberate with Cornell’s own ballers on a budget. It’s an almost cartoonish depiction of college life, but it gets the details right (Thirsty Thursdays, drawing with a sharpie on a dude’s face, dollar pizza slices) and was duly rewarded, making Roth a blip on the hip-hop radar, if only for a moment.
The bro-rap movement went dormant as Roth’s career did the same, but bro-rap came back with a vengeance with Sam Adams (who piggybacked on Roth’s success by providing us with the unnecessary retread of “I Hate College (Remix),” a work I’ve already wrote at length about, though you guys don’t remember that because you hopefully have better things to do), Mac Miller (whom Donald Trump is “very proud” of for writing a song using his name as a title) and Hoodie Allen (the Ivy League option, for some reason). While it would be easy to make fun of the image, the copious references to the girls they bang and the weed they smoke and the frivolously poppy beats they occasionally rap over, I have to concede two things: these guys can sometimes spit, and they seem to be rapping about what they know.
Mac Miller is, to me, head and shoulders above the rest with regards to productivity and skill. He’s got a slippery delivery, relatable songs (“Senior Skip Day” is about everyone’s requisite “screw class, I’m eating yogurt” day) and hit-or-miss production (the laid back groove of “Kool-Aid and Frozen Pizza” is a hit; his sampling of Owl City is a huge miss). Still, the themes of his music are pretty shallow, aside from the occasional heartbreak song or a tribute to a love one who passed away. In Mac’s music, much like on Adams’s and Allen’s, there is little at stake. They’re kids who could have gone to college (in Allen’s case, he could have worked for Google), but chose to stay in the rap game and ended up succeeding.
While their ambition and hard work is admirable, they’re critical lepers. Their target audiences are the type of kids who beat up music critics in high school, and that means a lot. In an age where critical receptions impact everyone but the biggest of superstars (Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Ke$ha are pretty safe as long as there’s a hit or two), this could make or break them. So, why are they so easy to ridicule and dismiss?
To think that there isn’t an underlying question of authenticity would be a gross oversight. These guys take on a traditionally “black” inflection that doesn’t precisely line up with their predominantly white and Jewish backgrounds; they come from relatively privileged backgrounds; and, once again, they’ve invoked an image that is rather unpopular and considered lowbrow, a label that may place them with Limp Bizkit in the annals of music history. Does anyone deserve that? A particular friend of mine (who happens to major in music criticism) recently admitted to me that he jams to “Rollin’” on occasion. While it’s an embarrassing admission, Duran Duran was once vilified, but they were eventually forgiven as it was excused as fun, silly pop music. Can’t we do the same for these poor saps?
Machismo posturing is one of my biggest pet peeves. It manifests itself everywhere, whether it is in pickup games of football or at breakfasts the morning after where guys brag about their sexual conquests or even in simple arguments that devolve into calling someone a pussy. And while your stereotypical artsy sorts often see this appraisal of masculine values as a vice, reaffirmations of manliness are definitely a focus of this “bro-rap” scene (if you want an even more gross violation of the “no overcompensating” rule, take a look at Skrillex, whose music seems to simply be pushing the boundaries of violent, harsh, masculine noise). Still, while songs about getting with girls and being the best lack any sort of sexual sensitivity or nuance, they can still be fun to listen to. If we can forgive R. Kelly for his entire body of work (which is, objectively, awesome), we can forgive a couple of white dudes who just want a piece of the pie. You can have fun with bro-rap; just don’t go on telling me that Mac Miller is the next Eminem (yeah right, Trump).