When Dedication 4, the latest volume of carefully marketed vapidity from Li’l Wayne, hit the internet yesterday, I did what I’ve been doing with Wayne projects since about 2007: set phasers to “ignore.” The things I love about hiphop simply do not square with the things that Weezie fans love about his music, and there’s little to gain by turning that subjective reality into objective claims about a culture in which I am forever a guest. Unless somebody smart from the rap internet started to make noise about interesting rhymes or a sonic departure from the norm on Dedication 4, then, I was staying away.
“I’m a Republican, voting for Mitt Romney/You lazy bitches is fucking up the econ’my.”
The line was bound to inspire the worst kind of crossover thinking from political pundits with a stronger understanding of tongue-in-cheek twitter rhythms than of hiphop. But any effort to extrapolate a serious political endorsement from a rich emcee’s calendar-sensitive braggodocio would be foolish, and I assumed only the predictable cheerleaders of the right would bother.
Instead, after that tidy little wave of trolling passed, Google started registering credulous hits from actual news outlets. Buzzfeed, Politico, and DC’s unofficial insider-baseball digest The Hill all got in on the action. The Hill not only ran a “Nicki Minaj Raps Mitt Romney Endorsement” headline, but reported the second bar of the rhyme as “a shot at President Obama on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.” Whereas Buzzfeed submitted without comment and Politico filed the “news” in their celebrity gossip column, that quote is from the “Conventions 2012” vertical on TheHill.com. Even Glenn Beck’s site used qualifiers in writing this up, but The Hill’s piece uses declarative language and naked assertions. (We’ll leave aside The Hill’s stylebook being okay with “bitches” but insisting on a prim “f — — — -” two words later in their Nicki quote.)
It’s not just The Hill and the right who screw this stuff up, either. Gawker got in on the traffic game last night too, with a brief, tortured bit of semi-serious exegesis. Gawker also asserted Nicki’s verse was a freestyle, which smacks of “hey, I heard that term once!” unfamiliarity with the form. These might be freestyles, but nobody in the track asserts they’re anything but writtens, and it’s a good example of a meaningful term that often gets used as a buzzword by outsiders. In other words, Gawker did the same kind of parachute drop into hiphop culture that The Hill did, only attempting to spin Nicki’s line the other way.
All this reflects a failure to grok what rappers do, what rap is, how songs and verses work. In this specific case, I’d even argue that it reflects a casual disrespect for the level of thought that goes into crafting a verse. Plucking those couple words out of context is an embarrassing reach, and also detracts from the (gulp) artistry of the verse as a whole. As a hiphop fan, I may have little use for Nicki Minaj, Wayne, and the entire YMCMB style of music. But though it pains me to defend these folks as writers, it’s worse that the politics internet is so willing to use pop culture as grist for the mill.
I have no idea what Nicki Minaj’s politics are, and I respect objections to heavy-handed x-means-exactly-y hiphop exegesis. But for The Hill to report that Minaj not only endorsed Romney but labeled the President a ‘lazy bitch’ is absurd. First, the entire verse is get-on-my-level style wealth bragging, about the high-class lifestyle Nicki enjoys and the less luxurious life the imaginary person she’s mocking lives. That’s a strange home for a macroeconomic critique. Second and last, Nicki Minaj’s penchant for waving fake penises around on stage certainly doesn’t preclude her from making political statements, but it ought to prejudice one’s interpretation of a couple bars she probably recorded months ago towards “attention-grabbing joke” and away from “calculated election gambit.”
But the point isn’t to offer my own, superior interpretation of these lines, thus proving The Hill and the right-wing fever swamp incorrect. It’s that the whole business of scooping out two lines from a just-released mixtape to make a political point is gross and misguided. It’s possible to say interesting things about the intersection of hiphop and politics, but this isn’t how it’s done.
Of course, that assumes that our political media is capable of treating hiphop thoughtfully. We learned that’s mostly not the case from the Common flap last year. (Beyond the acres of right-wing internet real estate given over to hilariously misguided outrage about a mistranscribed misinterpretation of his Def Poetry Jam appearance, Kevin Williamson used his National Review Online space to insist that a culture he’s proud to be ignorant of can never rise to the level of art.) There are numerous exceptions, and there will be more of them as the pundit ranks are taken over by a generation capable of taking rap seriously. But for now at least, there are traffic-oriented news organizations whose grasp on what rappers do is nonexistent. These folks are nonetheless willing to make declarative assertions about what Nicki Minaj meant. I’ll wait for her press conference and performance of “Super Bass” at campaign events.