Music

Why Billie Eilish Has A Point About Fiction In Rap

In a recent interview with Vogue, Billie Eilish caused controversy when her comments about ‘lying’ in hip-hop went viral. Her statement, taken out of context and slapped on Instagram infographics, read, “There are tons of songs where people are just lying. There’s a lot of that in rap right now, from people that I know who rap.” That was all it took to set off a firestorm of accusatory dialogue, calling out Eilish for “disrespecting” hip-hop. However, much of that commentary is from observers who have little of the backstory and seemingly less patience for a teenager making the sort of observation teenagers so often do. They also conveniently avoid acknowledging that in the full quote, Billie has a point: Fiction is not only an important part of hip-hop storytelling, but it’s also actually integral to the type of storytelling hip-hop does.

Previous to the quote that made its way to social media, Billie says “There’s a difference between lying in a song and writing a story.” She distinguishes the importance of narrative storytelling to get a point across from the outright inventions of rappers who make sport of violent imagery to promote a tough-guy image. This is the crux of her argument; she mentions her friends in hip-hop, which include rappers like Denzel Curry, JID, Isaiah Rashad, and Vince Staples — rappers who touch on violent topics because they affect those rappers’ lives — but makes it a point to differentiate embellishment or fictionalized storytelling from “posturing.” That’s a sentiment anyone who’s grown up with hip-hop, as Billie has now that hip-hop is the de facto pop music of the day, can relate to. But there’s nothing wrong with a little posturing, either.

When I was growing up on the West Coast, the radio was filled with examples of this kind of exaggerated hip-hop storytelling. From Ice-T’s “6 In The Mornin’” to Warren G’s “Regulate,” stories of early-morning shootouts rang off with much more frequency than the real-life kind — even if the real-life kind happened often enough that the neighborhoods those raps are about were dubbed “war zones” by the evening news. Even Ice Cube’s “It Was A Good Day” was in his own words a largely fictionalized fantasy of what kind of day he’d like to have — fan attempts to pinpoint a specific point in time notwithstanding. He talked about his writing for Eazy-E’s “Boyz N The Hood” recently as well, citing some of rap’s earlier storytellers as influences: Slick Rick, Melle Mel, and KRS-One.

Rap luminaries like Nas and Outkast have littered their respective discographies with storytelling raps, both violent and non-violent, to depict the worlds around them. “Rewind,” a vibrant Nas narrative track from his 2001 album Stillmatic, notoriously tells the story of a shooting in reverse. Similar songs, from Organized Konfusion’s 1994 track “Stray Bullet” to Nas’ own “I Gave You Power,” often use violent imagery to discuss vital social topics like police brutality, poverty, and mass incarceration. Meanwhile, more lighthearted tracks, such as A Tribe Called Quest’s 1989 debut single “I Left My Wallet In El Segundo,” trade in social commentary for humorous asides.

Even today, rappers Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Pusha T fictionalize portions of their rhymes, with Kendrick intentionally obscuring his role in the narrative of “m.A.A.d city” from his debut album: “If I told you I killed a n**** at sixteen, would you believe me?” During their lyrical joust, Drake accused Pusha T of co-opting his own brother Malice’s real-life street tales for hood clout, and Drake himself has forever been a target for critics who believe he couldn’t have “Started From The Bottom” due to his family connections in the music business. Then, of course, there’s Rick Ross, who has inspired a wealth of think pieces on his own due to his largely fabricated, Scarface-esque persona — a persona at-odds with the humble Carol City corrections officer we know him to be. The authenticity of his stories isn’t the point though; it’s his masterful skill as a narrator. He’s Brian De Palma with rhymes and that’s why he’s got a decade under his belt.

Besides, despite hip-hop’s insistence on “keeping it real,” there are plenty of examples of the drawbacks of rappers using non-fictional accounts of actual crimes in their rhymes. Bobby Shmurda’s hit records “Hot N****” and “Bobby, B*tch” were undeniably authentic — so authentic, in fact, that he’s currently serving a long prison sentence after his rhymes were used as evidence in a racketeering trial. The same can be said for the colorful Tekashi 69. Despite not actually living the lifestyle he propagated, he sprinkled enough truth bombs in “Gummo” and other songs that his gangster image blew up in his face.

“Lying” in raps can also be a good thing. Just look at Eminem, who’d be dead three times over if he did even half of the drugs he’s boasted of taking over the course of his catalog. From The Slim Shady LP to his new album Music To Be Murdered By, Eminem’s earned at least a handful of life sentences for any number of depraved crimes, filled entire cemeteries with both mortal enemies and mild annoyances, and committed literal acts of terrorism. Also, he’s a deity of some kind. Eminem not only doesn’t need to tell the truth — he shouldn’t, nor should any of the horrorcore rappers who preceded him or were eventually inspired by him, like Tyler The Creator, who’d have his own hefty “rap” sheet, if his lyrics were all true.

It’s always problematic to try to speak for an artist, but I think in this case, it’s probably safe to at least assume that Billie wasn’t trying disrespect hip-hop or its long, rich history of fictionalized mythmaking. As per usual, some comments that she made were trimmed down and stripped of their context to generate debate and discussion and ultimately reel in those sweet, sweet clicks. However, it’s important to remember that if kids say the darndest things, it’s because they’re willing to say the things the rest of us are too scared, too complacent, or too set in our ways to. Billie’s comments are a reminder that while hip-hop purports to keep it real as the CNN of the streets, some names, dates, places, and events have been changed — sometimes to protect the guilty and sometimes for added entertainment value.

The point is that it’s usually only hip-hop that is subject to this kind of scrutiny — not just from Billie Eilish, but from the world at large. Assuming that everything every rapper has ever rapped is or must be one hundred percent true diminishes the art form. Hip-hop has always allowed for storytelling of all kinds — fictional and otherwise — to flourish, giving an outlet to marginalized voices that might never have had one without it. Thank your lucky stars that rappers do lie so much or cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Atlanta would be drowning in dead bodies and cocaine by now. Fortunately, those references are a little like the ones in movies — only real to a certain point, with only the storytellers knowing just how much truth there is in fiction.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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