April 22nd, 2013
Lyrical Lacerations, from NWA to Rick Ross
Rappers make songs under the creative licenses of their whims, songs are released, and sometimes these songs top the charts. Other times they become catch phrases that become part of urban lexicon, and other times they create a firestorm of criticism and backlash. Certainly ever since music has been made available to the public en masse, there have been lyrics that cause a stir among the public, leading to image issues for the artists and their record labels. Lyrical lacerations–as I have come to coin these controversial songs–are nothing new.
A recent major example was the 1996 backlash against Interscope Records for NWA’s song “F**k the Police” (among others) and the major ensuing assault on gangsta rap music, with the resulting “Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics” stickers which were birthed from that era. But now that Hip-Hop has infiltrated popular culture and the artists within the genre are pop culture icons in their own right, what is the latest face of these lyrical lacerations and how are they implemented?
While (radio) channel surfing, I wound up listening to a passionate denunciation of rapper Lil’ Wayne for his cameo on a song called “Karate Chop” that had been recently leaked by Hip-Hop artist Future. I had not heard the song up until that point, but I was curious about the conversation so I listened to The Open Line broadcast on New York City radio 107.5 WBLS’ as they played the couplet where Lil Wayne said:
Now just for a brief history lesson: In August 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy, was kidnapped in Mississippi from his great-uncle’s home. He was taken to a barn where he was beat, tortured, and killed, with his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River at the hands of two white males who were acquitted for the crime.
And this was the best lyric that Lil’ Wayne could come up with in order to rhyme with the word ‘pills’? Seriously. I’ve studied the Civil Rights Movement outside of school and traveled to many of those cities where the movement traveled through and took place, and I have heard Emmett Till’s mother describe how her son looked and why she decided to have an open casket funeral. In a Vibe magazine exclusive, Till’s family wrote an open letter to the artist and Till’s cousin was also interviewed on The Open Line. Epic Records issued an apology (if you could call it that) and pulled the reference to Till from the song. For all the searching I did, I’m not sure I saw an apology from Lil’ Wayne himself for committing the following as eloquently stated in the Till family’s letter to him: “When you spit lyrics like ‘Beat the p***y up like Emmett Till’, not only are you destroying the preservation and legacy of Emmett Till’s memory and name, but the impact of his murder in black history along with the degradation of women.”
In another recent lyrical laceration, Reebok has dropped its endorsement campaign with rapper Rick Ross due to these lyrics in the song “U.O.E.N.O.”:
The insinuation of date rape using a drug known as ‘Molly’ did not sit well with many and was protested by the feminist group UltraViolet, getting a fair share of the credit for putting the pressure on Reebok to drop Ross and ensure the financial penalty to his pockets. The lyrical laceration of drugging and then sleeping with a woman who “ain’t even know it” while hyping up a company that sells sneakers worldwide and pays you to promote their product? Simply genius, boss.
Rick Ross issued a statement but I think the bigger statement was that he had to pay for his lyrical laceration. Unlike Lil’ Wayne, this one cost Ross some funds – but as one person on my Facebook feed pointed out, date rape in rap lyrics is nothing new; more people just happen to have access to know about it. Social media has become a way of dispersing information and mobilizing in a way that is quick and retributive, and can force people to pay attention. I think that for an artist, getting them in their pockets may be the quickest way to get them to be aware that more than just the fan base is listening.
– Anne Desrosiers
Anne Desrosiers is the founder and Executive Director of The World is Your Oyster, nonprofit consultant and former Americorps Volunteer in Service to America. As an avid media consumer, Anne enjoys engaging in the critique and debate of improving what we see, hear and eventually become as a result of media and its influence on our lives.