Unless you’ve spent the last few months hiding under a rock, living underwater or – even worse – listening exclusively to Mumford & Sons, chances are you’ve heard Robin Thicke’s so-catchy-they-should-invent-a-vaccination über-hit ‘Blurred Lines’. You may or may not have seen the accompanying, pathetic NSFW video, but you’ve surely read about it. Ever since it was banned by the powers that be at YouTube, commentators and columnists have been frothing at the mouth about it. And rightly so – even for the world of R&B, its portrayal of women is exceptionally misogynistic and the whole vibe is a bit, well, for want of a better term, rapey.
These kinds of articles are certainly welcome and it’d be a sad state of affairs if Thicke and chums could release a video so objectionable and not be called out on it. However, in the exciting yet troubling world of hip-hop, records are being released that treat women as little more than the sum of their reproductive organs, and no-one in the mainstream media seems all that bothered about it.
In 2013, new albums that are musically inventive and sonically thrilling have been released by prominent MCs Kanye West, A$AP Rocky and Odd Future’s Tyler, The Creator. From a production point of view, these three records truly advance the cause of modern rap – Tyler’s ‘Wolf’ is full to the brim of exciting ideas, A$AP Rocky is at the forefront of the codeine-enhanced, mind-bendingly heavy fug sound, and Kanye is bringing alternative sounds into the mainstream without a hint of compromise. Yet, as enthralling as all these records are, they’re all rendered near unlistenable by virtue of their lyrical content.
Tyler, The Creator and his Odd Future bandmates have long courted controversy on account of their juvenile humour and violent threats contained within their material. On Tyler’s 2011 album, ‘Goblin’, the song ‘Tron Cat’ contained the line, “Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome”. His newest LP, ‘Wolf’, is no less shocking, containing such radio-friendly hits as ‘IFHY’, which stands for I Fucking Hate You (sample lyric: “You’ll see the meaning of stalking when I pop out the dark to find you”). A$AP Rocky’s ‘LONG.LIVE.A$AP’ treats the world as if it were the set of a porn film, characterised by the refrain to previous single, ‘Fuckin’ Problems’ (“I love bad bitches, that’s my fuckin’ problem / And yeah I like to fuck, I got a fuckin’ problem”). Scholars of lyrical dexterity may like to note Mr Rocky’s genius in rhyming the word ‘problem’ with the word ‘problem’ at this point.
And then, exactly as he’d want, this brings us on to new father Kanye West. Wherever Kanye goes, eager music journalists follow like faithful lapdogs, and plenty has been written about his new record, the modestly-titled ‘Yeezus’. There have even been people calling him out on his less-than-enlightened few of those containing more than one X chromosome, particularly the line, “Eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce” from the track, ‘I’m In It’. However, most articles have focused on hero worship, the (admittedly very good) production, Kanye’s growing Messiah complex, or a combination of the three. Critiques of ‘New Slaves’ focus on his portrayal of black people being “slaves” to consumerism rather than home in on lines like, “Fuck you and your Hampton house / I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse / Come on her Hampton blouse / And in her Hampton mouth”. ‘Bound 2’ features the couplet, “She asked me what I wished for on my wishlist / Have you ever asked your bitch for other bitches?” continuing Kanye’s theme of lyrical requests for a threesome that began with his guest verse on 2 Chainz’s ‘Birthday Song.’ This all makes the period from last year where there was confusion on whether Jay-Z was dropping the word “bitch” from his rhymes seem like a halcyon, bygone age of innocence.
So why can rappers get away with talking about women like this? You or I would be rightly taken to task if we were to display such an attitude, yet today’s most famous hip-hop MCs are treated like demi-gods. Simon Hattenstone’s recent Guardian profile of Snoop Dogg (aka Snoop Lion these days) was embarrassingly fawning, and treated Snoop’s admissions of pimping as little more than harmless japes. The three aforementioned records have had near-blanket positive coverage, with little to no discussion of their attitudinal shortcomings. When the world is full of bluster about Robin Thicke and his cronies’ leering over young women’s chests, how is this allowed to proceed without comment?
The real answer is that there is no justifiable answer, but there certainly are reasons. Despite the recent rise of female MCs such as Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks, and the growing success of so-called ‘queer rappers’ like Mykki Blanco and Zebra Katz, hip-hop has been a generally female-unfriendly zone since gangsta rap came to prominence in the late 80s. That means a whole generation of music critics have grown up with relentless sexism in rap as the status quo. Plus, and I’ll choose my words exceptionally carefully with this one, music criticism is mainly the preserve of white, middle-class men (guilty as charged) and there’s a tendency to romanticise and fetishise the black, working-class experience, which in turn results in overlooking anything negative in favour of reading it as simply being part and parcel of a world in which they’re not an active participant. Without wishing to accuse the whole music journalism industry of a curious positive discrimination, there’s no way an artist like, say, Ed Sheeran could get away with a lyric like, “I be fuckin’ broads like I be fuckin’ bored / Turn a dyke bitch out, have her fucking boys” (an A$AP Rocky special for you there) without some kind of widespread outrage.
Obviously the ideal solution to this would be more enlightened lyrical content, but as a starter, it’d be a boon if critics started calling out rappers on this. It’s not ok to refer to all women as “bitches” or “hoes”, and it’s far from the realms of acceptability to encourage rape with lines like, “I got a little advice / If you fucked her once then you can fuck her twice” (thanks to A$AP Rocky acolyte, ScHoolboy Q for that one). The press would be up in arms if non-rappers came up with lyrics like this, and it’s time for this double standard to end, hopefully as part of a movement eradicating such attitudes once and for all.