Ariana Grande’s new song “7 Rings” was out for only a few hours before it began to draw numerous comparisons to other artists’ existing songs. Princess Nokia flat out accused Ariana of co-opting her 1992 Deluxe song “Mine” in a video posted to Twitter, while Soulja Boy fans — perhaps energized by his wild week of over-the-top interviews and loud reminders of his own influence — linked “7 Rings” to Soulja’s 2010 hit “Pretty Boy Swag.” Still other fans pointed out similarities between Ariana and Nokia’s songs and the 2011 2 Chainz mixtape single “Spend It.”
About the only influence anyone can agree on is the interpolation of the melody of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound Of Music, the only directly credited song aside from “Gimme The Loot” by The Notorious BIG. The issue has once again rekindled the cultural appropriation debate which has dogged pop music singers since pop music became a widely recognized musical genre dating back to the 1960s. However, this time, the furor surrounding “7 Rings” does more to highlight how much more complex and nuanced that debate has become — and how much thornier it stands to get in the very near future. As hip-hop becomes pop — and vice versa — the discussion will need to encompass plenty of new facts that may make its participants more uncomfortable than ever.
The way we debate practically any issue online strips the idea of nuance away from almost any discussion. Everything feels increasingly polarized; you must take a position and stay there, pulling as hard as you can to convince others to join your “side,” whether the issue is as multifaceted as politics or as silly as pineapple on pizza. In the case of cultural identity and appropriation, it can seem as cut and dry as “don’t wear Native headdresses as your festival costume” or as obvious as “white people shouldn’t say n—- at rap shows.”
However, when the discussion wades into murkier waters like the influence of hip-hop on pop music, it can become difficult to hash out just where the lines are — or if there are any at all. For example, just a little under two years ago, Miley Cyrus’ then-recent about-face on using hip-hop to sell records, resulted in plenty of places calling her out for discarding her “love” for hip-hop with a poorly described, ignorant dismissal of the genre that proved her appreciation for it had been surface level at best.
Just months later, fans did the same with Post Malone, who had likewise downplayed his connection with the genre with a dismissive interview response that highlighted how performative his use of the genre might often be. It seems that for many pop acts, hip-hop is good enough to stoke record sales, but not enough to build enough understanding to avoid flat, reductive, cliched criticisms of the genre’s artistic merits.
The problem is, no matter how shallow pop musicians’ understanding of hip-hop is, it’s undeniable that hip-hop will continue to have an influence on pop music. In fact, even hip-hop artists like Juice Wrld have begun to reject the “rapper” label in an effort to expand on their potential audience, which has expanded far beyond what it could have been 20 years ago thanks to streaming. Streaming itself wouldn’t have been possible without Soulja Boy, who broke through as one of the first truly viral acts of the 2000s. As hip-hop mainstreamed in that era, taking over MTV and radio — and becoming a more-or-less on-demand service thanks to Youtube — nearly every person living in America would have been exposed to just as much hip-hop as rock or any other genre, especially as it cross-pollinated with those genres through collaborations and influence.
So when “Pretty Boy Swag” was all over the radio in 2011, it’s entirely possible that it had an impression on Ariana Grande, who would have been 17 years old and squarely in the MTV/TRL demographic at the height of Soulja Boy’s popularity, and on her co-writer for “7 Rings,” Njomza, who is just a year younger. They also would have been among the first generation of teens to heavily use Youtube and similar services for music discovery — like the kind necessary to have picked up flows from 2 Chainz and Princess Nokia. While we’ll likely never know if they specifically set out to mimic those flows, it makes perfect sense for them to do so because those songs, which they might never have been exposed to in the early 2000s, are well within their sphere of awareness now. The flows in question have, in fact, become so prevalent in hip-hop, it’s possible that the “7 Rings” writers may not even have been entirely aware that they were doing any rappers’ specific cadences and more so imitating it subconsciously, through three or four other layers of influence.
But don’t think that lets them off the hook for using content and context responsibly. Nokia’s argument about the similarity to “Mine” was less about the cadence of the bars and more about the subject matter. As “Mine” praises women of color and their hair — which is often berated for being “unprofessional” — her concern seems valid. The “7 Rings” line “You like my hair? Gee, thanks, just bought it” lands awkwardly as hell on my ears, knowing that my cousins have all complained about having their decision to buy weaves and wigs criticized just as much as wearing their natural hair. I can only imagine how it feels for Black women themselves. Yet I’m also very aware that European-descended women like Ariana wear extensions as well — even though their hair is viewed as the default beauty standard already, they like to change up their look as well. I can see both sides, but I also see why one side can find themselves hurt by something that was likely never intended to do so.
These are the kinds of uncomfortable truths we have to face as our world becomes more interconnected and the lines that once delineated cultures start to blur. Could Ariana and Njomza have been more mindful of how a very, very hip-hop-oriented song might want to err on the side of caution? Absolutely, because although hip-hop is culturally ubiquitous, it’s still stigmatized, and some of their pop peers’ unfriendly appraisals of the genre highlight how it’s still being used as a phase for white stars. To be fair, Ariana apologized for her stumble and for announcing the release of the video with a copy+pasted Japanese script that rankled some Asian American fans online as well.
Unfortunately, hip-hop’s predominantly black fans and most hardcore adherents are still being mischaracterized and demeaned by the musical establishment itself. But because hip-hop has basically become pop, we have to be prepared for more pop artists to draw influence from the genre and that they rarely, if ever, mean harm. With America’s history of abuse of people of color, it’s hard not to take it personally. But with enough of these teachable moments, it’s possible that we can define new defaults and a culture where those stigmas are truly a thing of the past.