By Emma Pollin
Editors' note: Talk about timing. The very day Ms. Pollin turned in this column, heavily based on Akon, the Christopher Columbus Drive locale of his now-deceased manager's label Block Royal Entertainment was raided. The Jersey City Police said they seized 700 grams of cocaine and crack, $30,000, four handguns, hollow-point ammunition, four vehicles, and a bulletproof vest.
The problem is this: When I hear the mellifluous voice of Akon, I act irrationally. “Smack That” comes on the radio and basic decency -- never mind political correctness -- demands that I change the station. But I do not. I reach for the dial and, veering from my good intentions, I turn it up. I then proceed to roll down the car windows to air my apparent self-loathing for all the world.
Nor is the problem limited to Akon tracks. I also crank up Dr. Dre’s “The Next Episode,” in which the shorthand for woman is “somethin’ to poke on.” I join my sisters in shame singing “Got Your Money” by Ol’ Dirty Bastard. ODB exhorts us to give him his money and we, in unison and all too eagerly, acquiesce. And I can’t seem to stay off the dance floor when “Ain’t No Fun” comes on. This Death Row ditty, with its deceptively upbeat bassline, irresistibly melodic synth, and sing-along hook, is in the great “posse cut” tradition; each rapper gets one verse to elaborate on the theme of, in this case, hoes. The not-fun situation of course occurs “if the homies can’t have none” of the young lady the narrator is already enjoying.
Even way back in the eighth grade, I shuddered when my dad asked me what my favorite song was. I answered bravely and honestly, if not quite proudly.
I think Chris Rock explained this phenomenon best. “If the beat’s alright,” he says, “she’ll dance all night.” That is, even if the lyrics we’re dancing to are, for an example courtesy of Rock’s imagination, “Put a dick in her ear/dick in her ear/fuck her in the eye/fuck her in the eye.” Sometimes the song sounds so good that my objections are overwhelmed. I can’t resist.
In that respect, Akon really messed with my mind. His voice positively rings out, seductive and rebellious. Rolling Stone called it “one part reggae rootsman, one part Muslim call to prayer, one part R. Kelly.” And he lent those Senegal-born, Jersey City-bred pipes to solid tracks like “Locked Up” and “Soul Survivor” before moving on to the trashy, misogynistic portion of the hip hop career arc. He won me over crooning, “If you’re lookin’ for me you can find me on the block disobeyin’ the law/Real G, thoroughbred from the streets, pants saggin’ with my gun in my drawers” long before I heard, “Possibly bend you over/Look back and watch me smack that.”
The distinction will seem meager to some, especially those who aren’t fans of hip-hop. Bill O’Reilly, one example among many, condemns hip-hop in general on the basis of its objectionable lyrics. During his 2002 anti-Ludacris campaign, O’Reilly accused the rapper of selling “mind poison” and “subverting the country” because his lyrics “espouse violence, degrading sex, and substance abuse.” O’Reilly even called out American Idol’s R&B cherub Fantasia for the empowerment anthem “Baby Mama,” condemning her for glorifying unwed mothers. Many rappers -- Eminem is a fine example -- like to slap the exonerative label “controversial” on all of their lyrics, regardless of whether they take cheap shots at gays or probe touchy but important racial issues.
Well I do make a distinction, and it’s based on artistic integrity. “Locked Up” is a serious song about prison, where Akon spent three years on auto theft charges. Its haunting refrain (“They won’t let me out”) and earnest message do justice to Akon’s dramatic voice. “Smack That” is about nothing. It’s cotton candy for the club, and after dancing to it you will feel similarly sick.
So I’m not one of those who thinks all popular artists should be role models. In fact, I often dislike songs that try too hard to be “positive.” The attempts tend to melt into a sticky goo, à la India.Arie’s “I ain’t built like a supermodel/But I learned to love myself unconditionally/Because I am a queen.” I’m for quality, honest lyrics, whatever the subject matter, like Akon’s on “Locked Up”:
I’m steady tryna find the motive
Why do what I do?
Freedom ain’t getting’ no closer
No matter how far I go.
Quality lyrics can go on club bangers, too. Dancing to “Hey Ya” is surely as fun as dancing to “Smack That,” without the feminist guilt hangover. But you don’t even have to go innocent. I like a good down-and-dirty track like “Magic Stick,” too. Because as Nigel Tufnel of Spinal Tap learned, there is a difference between sexy and sexist. (“Well what’s wrong with being sexy?” asks Tufnel. “Sex-IST, -IST,” his bandmates reply.)
On his sophomore album, Konvicted, Akon is following the standard formula. It goes like this: First, put out a song or two utterly degrading women. This will somehow prove your street cred with the guys. (Eminem did misogyny extra credit, going so far as to rap about stuffing his wife in the trunk -- presumably in an attempt to compensate for his lack of melanin.) Then, step two, put out what XXL blogger Tara Henley dubs the “for the ladies” track, the sappy musical equivalent of a philandering husband coming home with flowers.
The first singles off Konvicted were “Smack That” and “I Want To Fuck You.” Now Akon is trotting out lyrics like “Nobody wanna see us together/But it don’t matter, no/Cause I got you,” on his latest single “Don’t Matter.”
I’m not so easily duped, Akon. I just heard you saying, “Women just hoin’/Big booty rollin’/Soon I be all in them an’ throwin D/Hittin’ no less than three.” (D=dick.) This two-pronged approach of appealing to the guys with lewdness and the ladies with corniness insults all parties. And we all listen to the same radio stations, FYI. They’re not gender-coded.
If I catch myself singing the utterly degrading chorus on “Ain’t No Fun,” it’s because Dr. Dre and friends put a lot of effort into making a beat catchy enough to overwhelm my objections, and because Nate Dogg’s voice is almost as swoon-inducing as Akon’s. And if I can’t help loving a song like Snoop’s “Gin and Juice” -- whose lyrics include, “When I bust my nut, I’m raisin up off the cot/Don’t get upset girl, that’s just how it goes/I don’t love you hoes, I’m out the door” -- it’s because those lyrics are coming from the mouth of a very talented rapper, one whose silky flow and clever rhymes are wasted on the same old raps about bitches, bitches and more bitches.
It’s a shame to pour so much effort and talent into making great music, only to tack on lame, predictable lyrics. Because that’s exactly what misogyny has become: the predictable, default subject matter. In a bizarre twist, lyrics that should be shocking for their degradation of women have become mundane and formulaic. “Smack That” isn’t edgy. It’s pseudo-edgy -- a calculated, cynical bid for radio play and in many ways as uncontroversial a song as you could put out nowadays.
Even hip-hop superstars have real lives. They can’t live entirely in music videos, surrounded at every moment by slow-mo gyrations and spinner rims.
You know what I’d be interested in hearing about? Polygamy.
You know who could tell me? Akon. His father had four wives back in Senegal and in an interview with Angie Martinez on Hot 97, Akon let slip that he’d like to have many wives himself. Now that would make for some “controversial” lyrics.
Hip-hop misogyny is a long story and I can’t do it justice here. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this fascinating new trend: some rappers are turning on the very subjects of their braggadocio, the groupies. I blame Kanye West for this. After all, he started it with “Gold Digger.” And now Game has followed suit with “Wouldn’t Get Far.” ("Wouldn’t get far/Fuckin’ them rap stars/You know who you are/Put your hands up, ladies/If you kept your legs closed/It would be just a waste of time.") Appropriately, Kanye shows up for a verse, asking some captivating rhetorical questions:
Would you be with Jay-Z if he wasn’t CEO?
Would you be with F-A-B-O if he drove a Neo?
Poor rappers. These innocents are being hustled by wily women with eyes on their bank accounts. The obvious fact that this is a use-use relationship they apparently have not noticed. I ask them:
Would you be with Superhead if she didn’t have double-D-Os?
And don’t think these conscientious objectors are coming home with naught to poke on. Kanye finishes his verse with, “But since they all fall in my palm, I’ll take a trio.” They’re mad at groupies for using them and disgusted by their whorishness -- but they’re not going to stop fucking them! Gracious, no!
I do credit Game with raising the issue in a less whiny, self-pitying way than Kanye has. (I also credit him with having gorgeous biceps -- haha, I counter-objectified!) Whether he succeeds is questionable, but I think Game intends, at least in part, to expose the shrouded exploitation behind the video bootyshake. Maybe rappers will realize that hollow sexual relationships can get old and try for something real, the way Nas is so proudly doing with Kelis.
So if you feel used, rappers, I urge you: Boycott those groupies! Maybe you’ll make better music. Nas sure has:
Tired of hoppin’ from honey to honey
HIV spreadin’, everybody bump the same bunnies…
I want a son to greet every mornin’
Daughters and more sons tickle my feet
Wife smilin’, tellin’ me it's time to eat
I'm gettin’ married
Ladies, do you love some songs that don’t seem to love you back? Stewpot wants to know which ones -- leave a comment, people!
Emma Pollin is a regular columnist for City Belt. Stewpot is her column on politics, popular culture, media and whatever else can be crammed into the pot.