Music

When Hip-Hop Outsiders Leave Rap Behind, They’re Saying More Than They Think

With the release of his sixth studio album No Pressure this week, Logic plans to officially conclude his career as a rapper. He ends his tenure in hip-hop with six studio albums and six mixtapes, a novel, and two Grammy nominations for his anti-suicide anthem “1-800-273-8255.” All told, he’s had a pretty impressive career — so why is he bowing out now, just as he’s reached the sort of success that many longer-tenured rappers are still striving for?

Before No Pressure’s release, Logic revealed an exclusive streaming deal with Twitch worth “seven figures.” For those unfamiliar, Twitch.tv is a website where viewers watch other users play video games. Because I am old enough to remember leaving a quarter on an arcade machine screen to save my place in line and the proceeding agonizing wait for my turn, this behavior confuses and upsets me, but to each their own.

While I certainly can’t begrudge Logic leaving the rap game behind to pursue his passion, watching him do so sets off an uncomfortable buzz of recognition in the back of my mind. Hip-hop has seen this story play out before and the conclusion it implies remains as concerning as ever, even with the slight twists Logic’s version brings to the narrative. Hip-hop outsiders continue to use hip-hop to build an audience and abandon the craft for more desirable pursuits as soon as they can.

We’ve seen it happen before with pop stars like Miley Cyrus. We’ve seen it happen with ostensible rappers like Lil Dicky, Post Malone, and Awkwafina. It shouldn’t be lost on any observer that these are non-Black performers who adopted the traits of hip-hop, a Black genre of music, to gain popularity or experiment with their craft then return to country crooning or swap rap for a far more lucrative career in other arenas such as TV and film.

And yes, I know Logic isn’t “technically” a non-Black artist; he reminds us all he’s biracial so much it’s been a meme for the last five years of his career. But he does fit the profile of a hip-hop outsider. It took him two albums to shake off most of the stigma that pursued him early on, that he was more a talented mimic of greater artists like J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar than a really good rapper in his own right.

Once he did, he still never seemed to garner the respect of the hip-hop establishment, despite many obvious bids to do so. He collaborated with Wu-Tang and Eminem, he brought rising stars like Joey Badass and YBN Cordae on tour with him, and he adopted ever more technical cadences in his attempts to prove his chops. It got him called the worst rapper to pick up a mic by Joe Budden — a sentiment many seem to agree with.

For whatever reason, Logic never seemed to fit into hip-hop’s status quo. Maybe it was his earnestness, or the Rubik’s cube gimmick, or his love for overly complex album concepts. Even so, he does leave behind a long list of projects that prove that at least he was willing to give hip-hop the old college try. Yet, his departure still leaves behind an aftertaste that feels too familiar to those of us who have called out the disposable treatment of this culture we love.

Take Nora Lum, aka Awkwafina. When she appeared in 2012 with her jokey rap debut “My Vag,” she rubbed plenty of critics the wrong way. It seemed more like she was doing a parody of a culture she was not clearly a part of rather than participating in an inside joke. Some assumed she was punching down with her “Blaccent” and old-school rapper mannerisms, rather than showing appreciation for the craft.

Her later career moves have certainly emphasized that early skepticism, as she pivoted from purveying pithy punchlines to delivering award-winning turns in films like The Farewell. Watching her on the promotion trail/victory lap for Crazy Rich Asians, there was little evidence of the hip-hop caricature persona she cultivated for her Yellow Ranger album. While we can’t assume someone else’s intentions, it certainly looks like she used Awkwafina to get her foot in the door before code switching right back to Nora to ensure her mainstream success.

Likewise, Post Malone has taken flak recently for his three-album transformation from “White Iverson,” complete with braids and gold teeth, to the country-fried pop star who delivered the world “Circles” and became the pitchman for Doritos. While there’s no hard rule that says rappers can’t roam around in cowboy hats and rodeo suits, Malone’s transformation sends a clear signal to his growing audience: He’s “safe” now.

To be clear, this is not an indictment of white or Asian rappers. It’s not meant to condemn every single rapper to that one lane for the rest of their lives. Obviously, artists should pursue avenues that interest them — maybe not running for President, though. But there is an obvious difference in how Black rappers creating Black music are perceived in the public eye and what kind of moves they’ll be allowed to make.

Lots of rappers stream on Twitch; in 2018, Stereogum profiled Danny Brown as one of the platform’s first superstars. Yet, there was no announcement of a seven-figure exclusive deal for him, or any of the many other rappers who stream games there. Again, I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. Maybe Twitch pursued other rappers and Logic was the first to say yes. Maybe Logic was the first rapper to pitch an exclusive deal with Twitch. Having a massive audience from his rap days certainly helped, in that case.

Having an existing audience probably also helped Lil Dicky when he pitched Dave to FX. I called Dave one of the best comedies on TV and it is. But you and I both know that the show would have had a different path if it were pitched by Big Sean or Lil Baby. The last hip-hop-oriented comedy produced by a rapper that I can remember is Daveed DiggsThe Mayor, which was also excellent. That’s Daveed Diggs from Hamilton — someone with serious chops and connections in theater and television. He (barely) got his show off the ground, and it was canceled before its first season had aired in its entirety.

Of course, FX also airs Donald Glover’s Atlanta. But to get his foot in the door, Glover had to be a multihyphenate genius who self-financed his feature film debut Mystery Team and had years and years of television work, from writing on SNL to appearing on Community. Lil Dicky walked in the door and told FX’s execs they’d be crazy to not pick up his show. He’s only put out one album. To his credit, he keeps hip-hop at the forefront of his show, which is all anyone can ask.

Dicky acknowledges the privilege he has and uses it to highlight real figures in rap such as guest stars on his show like Gunna, Trippie Redd, and Young Thug and co-stars Taco and GATA. The show constantly lampshades Dave’s ignorance and privilege, using him as a foil to highlight the genuine social issues that Dave is maybe a little too cocksure to speak to in his music on the show. The show’s self-awareness is its saving grace and that self-awareness could go a long way toward mitigating that nasty aftertaste I mentioned before.

Hip-hop is a culture that means a lot to a lot of people, but the folks who started it, who live in it, who breathe it in every day, and who are marked by it by society — for better or worse — can’t leave it, no matter what we do. Jay-Z will always be, first and foremost, a rapper in people’s minds, as will Snoop Dogg or Nas or 50 Cent or Drake or Kendrick Lamar. Even Will Smith, one of the biggest actors on the planet, is just as well known for the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song as he is for his last few movie roles.

So, whenever a hip-hop outsider switches careers, the message it sends is “hip-hop isn’t good enough” and that plays into all the problems of our society. But it also runs counter to what we know from evidence; hip-hop is the biggest genre in America — and maybe even the world. If the music and culture are good enough to use to build an audience, then the people who live in that culture should be good enough to get the same opportunities as outsiders who fake the flow to blow up.

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