April 13, 2009

(A) Bad Rap: Asher Roth and the Politics of Race in Hip-Hop

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There will be two kinds of crazy on display at Slope Day. The headlining act, absurd though it may be, follows a much-trammeled (and much-bemoaned) storyline: Girl is Hot, Girl Gets More Girls, Girls Gets Record Deal. And then there’s Asher Roth.
There is something fundamentally icky about Asher Roth, and perhaps that’s why he’s been rather left out of Slope Day Programming Board-bashing (or maybe it’s just that The Pussycat Dolls are too easy). Lyrically, he’s cliché congealed and rhymed, sometimes with itself (his hit “I Love College” features the gem, “time isn’t wasted when you’re getting wasted.”) True, he actually went to college, at least before he dropped out, but his trademark song mostly sounds like a 16 year-old’s imagination of the Best Four Years of His Life: “That party last night was awfully crazy, I wish we taped it / I danced my ass off and had this one girl completely naked / Drink my beer and smoke my weed but my good friends is all I need / Pass out at three, wake up at 10, go out to eat, then do it again.” This is Roth hovering in generalities, not so much obliged to please the college public as he is afraid to disappoint any high school dreamers. All the big players — beer, weed, bros, late nights and girls — must get their due airtime.
And this is the point with Asher Roth. His music is dependent on Frat Pack tropes and Old Spice commercials. He appeals to a demographic which, if too young for actual college, is already saturated with college culture. He is, in a word, postmodern, his lyrics a bunch of comfortable signifiers (“let’s get fucked up”) whose signfieds don’t really matter. It’s precisely this escape into ersatz that’s allowed Roth to do something truly revolutionary — ignore the rules of hip-hop and embrace his white, suburban upbringing. But is that really such a good thing?
A comparison of Asher Roth to other rap artists inevitably arrives at two names: Vanilla Ice and Eminem. While it’s no surprise that Roth is the latter’s distant inferior lyrically, it’s damned frightening that he’s also the former’s — “I Love College” makes “If there is a problem, yo, I’ll solve it / Check out the hook while the DJ revolves it” sound downright Joycean.
But in refusing (or perhaps failing) to claim any hard-knock authenticity, Roth has taken the Great White Hope theme further than has either of his predecessors. Vanilla Ice was laughed into nu rock (whatever that is) when it was discovered that he wasn’t actually from inner-city Miami, and Eminem’s career has been dependent on reiterations of his Detroit upbringing, the most effective of which was the movie 8 Mile. Roth makes no efforts to hide his hood, even in his influences — he lists Mos Def and The Roots, both of which are probably better-known on private school campuses than in the projects (indeed, both are featured on stuffwhitepeoplelike.com) as inspiration.
Roth is more like the Great Jewish Hope (a far more dubious moniker) whose previous holders were the Beastie Boys. Like the New York group on Licensed to Ill, Roth, in lieu of any authenticity to speak of, constantly insists on his ability to have a good time. If the results sound grating, well, that’s because they are grating. If you want to admit you’re soft, you better have a heady lyricism to back it up, like Kanye West on a good day. Asher Roth doesn’t have it, despite the artistic philosophizing on his Facebook page: “When I’m not rhyming I find time to purchase rare kindergarten art off ebay. As I was recently enlightened that it portrays the soul in its purest form.”
But still, despite his horrendous lyrics, his flatfooted imagery and his overall personal oddness, one can’t help being tempted to picture Roth as a sort of carnal, bizarro-world Barack Obama, an image on whom suburban white teenagers can look and say, “That could be me, and I wouldn’t have to hide where I came from. If I set my mind to it, I could get there, even with my skin color, from my high school.”
Indeed, Asher Roth actually is from my high school, and when he played at my senior prom two years ago, I thought he was joking. But he wasn’t. Yes, Akon et. al, whose music was probably blaring at Roth’s la-la-land college parties, are bad, but Roth’s ability is such that he wouldn’t get a second look from a record company if he were black. But he isn’t. He’s serious, and he’s white, and he’s here. He makes suburban, white, middle-class “hip-hop aficionados” like myself question our right to analyze a music that comes from a complex heritage that is not ours.
But when we talk about hip-hop, we do so with a deep, reverential uneasiness, with a sense of gravity that can only hope to make up for our upbringing. Asher Roth does not. So when shit-faced Cornellians welcome the artist whose college songs have more to do with Vince Vaughan movies than with actual college life, there’ll be a sort of justice that only Slope Day can provide — he’ll be ignoring us, and we’ll be ignoring him.