By JACK JONES
Note: This column is the second of two on the subject of authenticity in popular music. Last week’s focused on rock and genres that influenced it, while this column focuses on rap.
In Jay Z’s scalding diss track “Takeover” from 2001’s seminal The Blueprint, he attacks his rival Nas, claiming that Nas embellished and fictionalized his past: “You ain’t lived it, you witnessed it from your folks’ pad / You scribbled in your notepad, and created your life.” Then in his 2010 memoir Decoded, Jay Z writes, “The rapper’s character is essentially a conceit, a first-person literary creation. The core of that character has to match the core of the rapper himself. But then that core gets amplified by the rapper’s creativity and imagination.”
In the second quote, Jay Z essentially acknowledges that he, and in fact all rappers, do precisely the thing that he accuses Nas of in the first. While this might be read as blatant hypocrisy, it may be more nuanced than that. It might help to attribute the “Takeover” lines to Jay Z, while attributing the Decoded comments to the man himself, Shawn Carter. Carter is acknowledging that the person speaking in “Takeover” is the character Jay Z, a character that he can assume but that is not himself exactly.
In this interpretation, it is not hypocritical for Jay Z to attack Nas for embellishment and Carter to admit that Jay Z is an embellishment. It is simply each operating within the spheres in which they exist. Jay Z, a “literary creation,” does not have the same history as Carter, his creator, and thus his attack on Nas’s credibility is not dependent on the credibility of Carter; it’s dependent on the credibility of Jay Z, the fictional creation. Of course, the paradox is that Jay Z’s attack on Nas is based on a perceived disparity between Nas the character and Nasir Jones, the real person.
Rap is the genre where “realness” is prized most, where fidelity between the performer’s onstage and on-record persona and their real self is most demanded. Simultaneously, and perhaps because of this demand, it is also the genre with the most flagrant fictionalization and myth-making.
In my previous column, I wrote about how the rise of singer-songwriters in popular music created a greater demand for emotional authenticity; listeners wanted to believe that the singer was expressing real, personal emotions, not merely imitating them for the sake of performance. Rap’s demand for authenticity can be seen as an extension of this demand for an undivided person/performer. Rap arguably demands even more: while singer-songwriter music is expected to be emotionally real but not necessarily factually true, any claims a rapper makes about their life or past in their music are interpreted as the actual person behind the persona making a statement about their real life, rather than part of the rapper-character fiction.
Two clichés in rap rise out of this problem: first, variations on Jay Z’s own “Unless you was me, how could you judge me?” and second, variations on “I’m not a rapper, I’m a hustler.” The first satisfies a need to establish the rapper-character’s experience as too authentic for the audience to comprehend or analyze; the second addresses the problem of the rapper-character by denying it and defining the rapper’s identity as something else entirely. Ultimately, both attempt to excuse discrepancies between the rapper as creator and the rapper as creation by evading the issue.
All of these evasions and excuses grow from a need that rappers of a certain era had to establish themselves as more than simply artists. They wanted to be recognized larger-than-life characters, with mythic stories of backgrounds in crime and rags-to-riches rises to power.
However, today’s biggest stars do not rely on this formula like previous rap legends did. 2pac, Biggie, Jay Z and Nas all relied, to some degree, on accounts of involvement in crime, while Kanye and Drake rely on emotional authenticity, more akin to singer/songwriters. Kendrick Lamar, whose music mixes social commentary with gritty recollections of his youth that make no attempt to build himself up as a mythic character, is not necessarily pioneering this style, but he is certainly the first “King of Rap” contestant whose intricate rhymes don’t hinge on accounts of his own violent actions.
Of course, with Drake, authenticity is dubious because of the recent revelation that he employs ghostwriters. Ghostwriting doesn’t mean much for artists like Dr. Dre, whose laurels don’t rest on authentic rapping, but for Drake, who claims to present lyrical and emotional authenticity, it very much does.
More important, however, is that Kanye’s, Drake’s and Kendrick’s credibilities rest solely on their status as artists rather than characters. There is no “I’m not a rapper, I’m a hustler” or story outside of the music with them; there is only their music. It seems that rap is beginning to believe again that the music is enough.