From GQ To Drones, How Hip-Hop Ate Marco Rubio’s Brand

My friend Alan Pyke eviscerated Sen. Marco Rubio’s understanding of the issues that animate hip-hop, a genre he repeatedly claims to love, and that’s become the basis of his claim to be youthful and relatable, in a post here a month ago. In the time since, it’s been amusing to watch Rubio embrace this part of his cultural tastes that the mainstream media seems to find amusing, even to the point of absurdity, as happened when he joined Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster of John Brennan, President Obama’s nominee to run the Central Intelligence Agency, earlier this week.

Now, filibusters often have a reputation for silliness, whether it’s Senators reading from phone books, the question of how someone can go that long without relieving him or herself, or merely because of the futility of the event. But Paul’s filibuster, for all that I disagree with him on nearly every issue, and for all that I wish his concerns about the use of drones wasn’t limited to the use of them against United States citizens on U.S. soil, was a substantive, serious affair for the most part. So it was entertaining, and maybe a little jarring, to watch Rubio use the event not just as a way to poke the administration with a sharp stick, but to reinforce his credentials as a hip-hop head.

And make no mistake, he was diving for opportunities to mention rappers like a Hail Mary pass was on its way to his fingertips. When Rubio took the floor, he started out by telling his colleagues that: “In that question, he used Shakespeare references, he used a reference to the movie Patton, which is one of the great movies. I didn’t bring my Shakespeare book, so let me just begin by quoting a modern-day poet. His name is Whiz Khalifa. He has a song called ‘Work Hard, Play Hard.’ If you look at the time, it’s a time when many of our colleagues expected to be in the home state playing hard, but I’m happy that we’re here still working hard on this issue.” Later, discussion how former President George W. Bush’s use of drones would have been received by the Senate, Rubio mused: “That takes me back to another modern-day poet by the name of Jay-Z. In one of his songs, he wrote ‘It’s funny what seven days can change. It was all good a week ago.’ I don’t know if it was all good a week ago, but I can tell you that things have really changed. Because if the question was George W. Bush and this was a question being asked of him, and his response was the silence that we’ve gotten, we’d have a very different scenario here tonight.” Rubio even pulls hip-hop’s own cultural obsessions into the mix, saying he’ll “Go to a movie, one of the great American movies, The Godfather. There’s a quote in this movie—I don’t have the Patton quotes, but I have The Godfather quotes. This is one of the best-known ones. It says, ‘I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse.’ To me, these are offers you can’t refuse.”

There’s something terribly middle-brow about Rubio’s attempts to demonstrate his cred, the equivalent of a college freshman proffering up Atlas Shrugged quotes as proof of erudition and a sophisticated worldview. It’s even tackier to watch him scramble, Patton quotations aside, given the general seriousness of Paul’s filibuster. And it raises the question of what Rubio expects to get out of the fact that liking hip-hop has become a critical part of his brand.

Is it supposed to signal that he’s young? President Obama is ten years Rubio’s senior and has had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate that he hasn’t just surfed Rap Genius, he’ conversant with ongoing issues like the genre’s gender politics and has beefed with Kanye West from the White House podium. Is it meant to reel in rappers as endorsers when 2016 rolls around? Somehow I doubt that Jay-Z will be so flattered that Rubio knows the lyrics to “A Week Ago,” even if he’s reversing their order—interestingly enough for a song about drone strikes, the track is about snitching—that he and Beyonce will suddenly switch parties. It’s not bad campaign strategy that Rubio knows how to surf a meme, as he did when a sale of water bottles raised $125,000 for his political action committee after he got gif.-ed reaching for a drink during his State of the Union rebuttal. But cleverness and snappiness aren’t the same things as wisdom. And if I were Rubio’s advisors, I’d be concerned that the candidate’s fondness for hip-hop and ability to roll with a joke were becoming the core of his brand. Those are better credentials to be someone’s frat brother than to be president.