Ben Shapiro Is Wrong About Rap
For many within the conservative movement, rap is a uniformly negative reflection of the worst ills and excesses of society. It romanticizing everything wrong with the way society is headed, and the more hardlined who hold this view believe it isn’t even music in the first place. This line of reasoning is frequently and most notably echoed by the leading figure of the conservative movement, Ben Shapiro. Shapiro has commented on rap on a number of occasions, but he published an article that neatly summarizes his position on this cultural force. Titled ‘Rap is Crap,’ it’s a phrase every conservative who reflexively mocks rap has at one point thoughtlessly sputtered. It’s thoughtless not because there aren’t respectable reasons to simply not like rap; people dislike whole genres undeniably often, after all. Think of the common statement “I love all music except country”. But disliking a form of music is much different than claiming that opinion is an absolute. And similarly, not liking a genre doesn’t make you racist, as many of Shapiro’s leftist critics idiotically claim.
In his piece, Shapiro holds up T.I. as a representative model of rap as a whole, but he’s also prone to purposely misinterpreting rap. His analysis of Cardi B’s music video for Bodak Yellow comes to mind. Throughout, he’s confused. He mocks the ungrammatical nature of her lyrics, and he thinks that her being in a desert is some sort of political statement on gender equality in Saudi Arabia rather than a randomly exotic backdrop for her music. This throw into doubt the sincerity of Shapiro’s “takedown.” Is he genuinely convinced that people are reading into this music video that Cardi B is holding up Saudi Arabia as a beacon of gender equality? And though some interpret her song as a statement on feminism, it’s doubtful that the artist herself had thought that much into it. In one breath, Shapiro scoffs at the seeming thoughtlessness of this kind of rap, and in another he assigns political motivations where convenient.
His confusion doesn’t end with Cardi B’s sand dunes. He pushes on, in reaction to another popular track, so very confused by Future’s “where ya ass was at?”, well in-keeping with his rigid attention to grammar. You begin to wonder whether he’s actually unable to translate Future’s question into plain English. Shapiro likely knows what he means, but he’s criticizing it for being ungrammatical. That hardline way of thinking ignores that much of art eschews strict adherence to rules, grammar, and reality under creative license. The meaning, in spite of the lyrics’ lack of grammar, remains intact. Future is conveying something that, at its core, isn’t essentially unconservative. He’s asking the question of where those near to him now were when he was working his way up the ladder, harkening to the fact that his success had to be earned by he alone. There are many ways to convey this sentiment, but isn’t it more important that such messages get across in the first place? Language is a tool, not an end unto itself. After all, it’s doubtful that a single, basically intelligent person is going to start ending their questions with prepositions and tossing in “your asses” just because a rapper did. At the same time, one can encourage young people to master the English language, while enjoying rap as a simple form of exaggerated entertainment. And it would be equally silly to mock or act confused while listening to jamaican dancehall artists when they say “tings” instead of things.
His tendency to overthink rap and inject political motives that usually aren’t there blinds him to properly addressing both rap’s flaws and its merits. Say what you will about rap or any other genre for that matter, but if you approach it with the mentality that it’s bad in every way imaginable, it’s no surprise when you’re unwilling to be receptive to it in every way. Applying a political lens to everything is harmful, whether that comes from the feminist, or racially-tinged corners of the radical left or the right. It’s perfectly fair to dislike most of a genre, but it is essential to understand its appeal from a politically neutral standpoint.
Shapiro’s “Rap is Crap” article followed rapper T.I.’s arrest for illegally owning a variety of guns and suppressors. But the gravest sin on the part of T.I. isn’t his criminal extracurricular activities, but instead the substance of his music. That is the crux of the conservative mindset on rap. The typical conservative thinking goes, not only are its performers frequently delinquent, but they champion that style of living in their music.
And while it is accurate to say that the most popular contemporary artists today fall into that camp, it fails to account for what drives general interest in this form of music. It isn’t motivated by a sincere desire to plunge into absurd volumes of strange women, hit some liqs, or wear gold chains that stretch down as far as their sagging jeans. This is especially not the motivation for the vast majority of the public who listen to this music casually. Given that it dependably tops the charts, if that were the case we would be seeing pandemic bloodshed on the streets and uncontrollable domestic abuse (not to mention STDs galore).
Clearly, there is an unignorable entertainment factor that accounts for its eminent popularity, and it’s the same one that undergirds the scenes and plots from violent video games and ridiculous movies. It can almost be seen as absurd self-satire; for instance, when you see rappers talking about having as many bitches on their dicks as they claim they do. It’s hard to believe conservatives are genuinely convinced this reflects any semblance of reality. In fact, artists themselves acknowledge what they say in their records is often grossly exaggerated or ridiculous.
Raps many and reoccurring feuds, for example, mirror performances like the WWE, which doesn’t exactly market itself as fake, but is scripted for the audience’s entertainment. Like WWE superstars, rappers love to ignite them and flex for the sake of driving public interest, streams, and sales. And most of their fans know it and the 10 year olds that don’t inevitably find out that it’s all for show. The act of overthinking the ridiculous lyrics found in the newest trap banger would be as silly as condemning Dumb & Dumber for romanticizing stupidity or the WWE for romanticizing unrepentant violence. The WWE itself, for that matter, often found itself the target of such criticism. It similarly faced backlash for negatively influencing youth, as if the WWE painted this violence as something worthy of imitation. Unfortunately for such critics, we’ll see these elements of human nature play out in virtually every medium of entertainment, because it’s just that: a piece of human nature. For these reasons, conservatives miss quite a bit when they point to the foolish actions of someone like T.I. and suggest that this is the impression any sane listener will come away with.
But not all conservatives think that the music of T.I. and others is going to have some sweeping impact on the culture, but rather that it will impact vulnerable minority communities. Liam Julian of National Review, for example, writes “Hip-hop does not, for instance, play a big role in the lives of most affluent kids, who may just listen to rap while traveling to and from school, or at weekend parties, or while playing sports. This group of young Americans does not see truth in hip-hop’s messages nor strive to emulate its “lifestyle” … Sadly, the same cannot be said of lots of poor, black kids. For these young Americans, hip-hop’s lyrics are too often real reflections of life; too often they come to embody goals, and aspirations. The public, to its immense discredit, is less honest than it should be about rap’s pernicious influence.”
But even accepting that this is true, does the problem lie with the medium or the culture itself? After all, when someone falls prey to video game addiction, is the fault with the video game developers or the addict himself? On those grounds, you would make the same and largely discredited case that the Nicholas Cruzs of the world will be inspired by the violent imagery in video games to carry out their deadly, vengeance fueled acts.
You can hardly blame the industry as a whole when people attempt to act out whatever form of entertainment they’re consuming in extreme ways even while the overwhelming majority of others are able to do so and go about their lives happily and healthily. More pressingly, if you do, what is the solution? The only apparent one is to demonize a type of entertainment that is otherwise enjoyed by the bulk of people for not only innocent, but lighthearted reasons.
Critics of rap like Liam Julian of National Review are also mistaken to claim that the genre one dimensionally glorifies a lifestyle of degeneracy and violence. Even the artist he cites, T.I., in one of his most successful tracks ever, Dead and Gone, speaks of this “lifestyle” in dark and decidedly unromantic terms:
Never mind that now, you lucky to be alive,
Just think it all started you, fussin' with three guys
Now ya pride in the way, but ya pride is the way you
Could fuck around, get shot die any day
Niggas die, every day all over
No more stress, now I'm straight,
Now I get it now I take time to think,
Before I make mistakes, just for my family's sake
That part of me left yesterday, the heart of me is strong today
No regrets I'm blessed to say, the old me dead and gone away.
In the same way, the idea that rap simply glorifies misogyny also reveals a lack of familiarity with even the genre’s most popular tracks. Take for instance the chart topping “Violent Crimes” off of Kanye West’s newest album: ye.
Niggas is savage, niggas is monsters
Niggas is pimps, niggas is players
'Til niggas have daughters, now they precautious
Father forgive me, I'm scared of the karma
'Cause now I see women as somethin' to nurture
Not somethin' to conquer
Moving beyond the fact that rap is not nearly as thoughtless or decadent as its critics believe, by focusing solely on the excesses of rap, they miss a key part of rap’s role in the culture. Although it has its elements, like Kendrick Lamar, who seek to outsource blame to the police or white people for their conditions, there is a much more potent strain that celebrates self-determination and grit. Where virtually every other industry of mainstream entertainment and media has cloaked itself in contempt for our capitalist system, the overwhelming majority of rappers celebrate their hard-won successes. In doing so, they offer a message of inspiration to those who otherwise would only hear that their lack of success is because they’re being denied something by an oppressive other. This is the only cultural force that serves as a rare voice of optimism in an increasingly pessimistic world. It, unlike any other, champions the virtue of self-earned success.
Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye
I ain't never lookin' for no handouts Broke ass niggas never helpin' but they hands out
At times I thought we'd never make it
But now we on our way to greatness
And all that ever took was patience
I-I-I-I used to feel so devastated
At times I thought we'd never make it, yeah
But now we on our way to greatness
And all that ever took was patience
Okay, just getting better each day
Stacking that cheddar, cheese cake
Looking up to the Lord, we pray
Trying to be my best each day
Until I'm laid to rest we lay, yeah
'Til the time being we lit
Hoping I don't let it get all in my head
I don't need money just to say that I'm rich
I wake up, pray every morning These demons, they callin' my soul I said fuck all of you hoes I'm ballin' outta control I'm ballin' outta control If I can give everything back to you
All this passion I got, all I ever needed For me to move on and succeed For me to move on and succeed Jealousy, envy and greed Too much of that shit I don't need it
Naturally, conservatives look at the largely leftist politics of rap artists and think that that must be entirely what the philosophy beneath their lyrics is saying. When in fact, even the most vocal and angry leftists, such as the now-infamous Eminem, have passionately expressed important conservative values--weird as it may sound. A solid example would be this line from his track Beautiful:
Nobody asked for life to deal us
With these bullshit hands we're dealt
We gotta take these cards ourselves
And flip 'em, don't expect no help
Now, I could've either just sat on my ass
And pissed and moaned
Or take this situation in which I'm placed in
And get up and get my own
In another track, legendary Southern rapper Gucci Mane represents the seemingly ignored strain of rap that reflects a deep ability to identify faults and fix them. A message that is much needed within the communities Liam Julian is worried about.
Sometimes I think about my past, it make me start tripping
I was gifted with a talent that was god-given
But I was so hard-headed I would not listen
Sometimes I sit and I reflect about that cold prison
And doin' pull-ups with a nigga got a life sentence
They gave my nigga Grant life, he only gained on me
Five years later, how we in the same room?
You go to jail, that's when you see who really love you
I don't think nobody love me like my auntie Jean do
But I forgive, I been forgiven, I hold grudges too
I'm just a work in progress, I'm not even through
But I forgive, I been forgiven, I hold grudges too
I'm just a work in progress, I'm not even through
This is to say that not only can rap be defended against its negative criticisms, but it can be defended on positive grounds as well. Crudeness doesn’t negate meaning or value, and oftentimes it doesn’t end there. Misleadingly, it can seem as though rap is one dimensionally celebrating sexual hedonism and violence that conservatives are right to detest. But all isn’t as it appears.
If you looked at Kanye West’s “Power” unthinkingly, for example, you could be excused for coming away with the impression that it’s merely an anthem for reckless indulgence. What this piece really explores is a much more sober, and self-conflicted take on the perils of power. This is why the Sword of Damocles lingers over Kanye’s head in its music video, even though he’s surrounded by models and precious metals. West compacts a wide array of artistic and even philosophical meaning in what amounts to a supremely thoughtful piece of music. Mr. West’s video and lyrics are inspired by Roman Philosopher Cicero’s meditation on Damocles to illustrate how captivating grand wealth and power might seem on the surface, but how often forgotten is the responsibility that comes with it. This is a theme Kanye’s song draws upon in a way that directly butts heads with the kind of lavish and superficial rap conservatives point to in their wholesale rejection of the genre. Where what is frequently depicted as without consequence and sheerly ecstatic, Kanye offers us a much starker, serious glimpse into that world. One that ends in utter despair, peppered with contemplations of suicide, which he ultimately surrenders to.
The chorus goes: “The clock’s ticking, I just count the hours Stop tripping, I’m tripping off the power”, which morphs in the latter act of the song into “I’m tripping off the powder.” Powder is, of course, cocaine. The parallel he’s drawing is a fitting one: power produces an illusory and short-lived ecstasy, and an ultimately self-destructive one at that. In a way more mature than conservatives would expect, the artist isn’t celebrating vapid money-making or influence or drugs, but recognizing its inherently toxic and fleeting nature. In a later verse, Kanye raps:
At the end of the day, god damn it I’m killing this shit
I know damn well y’all feeling this shit
I don’t need your pussy, bitch, I’m on my own dick
I ain’t gotta power trip, who you going home with?
How 'Ye doing? I’m surviving
I was drinking earlier, now I’m driving
Where the bad bitches, huh? Where you hiding?
I got the power to make your life so exciting
So excit-, (suicide-, so excit-, (suicide)-” (suicide)
The first couple lines might seem characteristic of the bravado of stereotypical rap, but it transitions into something much more self-aware. The highs of fame and yes, power, are rife with pitfalls, and Kanye manages to express its folly through the medium of rap. Kanye goes from being “on his own dick” to merely “surviving.” He then engages in one of the most reckless acts imaginable, drunk driving, culminating in a crash--where the word “exciting” morphs into “suicide.” Is this not possibly at the heart of what drives so much of the exaggerated peacocking in rap? This, of course, is just one example of how and where rap is not just music, but incredibly meaningful music if you take the time to appreciate and understand what its artists are saying. Which isn’t to say that they’re perfect, and they frequently make utterly foolish blunders. The reality is that it’s incredibly meaningful for more than purely indulgent reasons, which must also be seen.
A central criticism of Shapiro’s is that, as a classically trained musician, rap isn’t music. He makes this case on what can be generously described as faulty grounds. In the track just cited, after all, Kanye draws upon a wide array of musical traditions and genres. From rock to, yes, C Minor, this song serves as a case study that rap is a legitimate form of music. The reservation of C Minor to depict a turbulent, heroic struggle, for instance, is a classical tradition originating with Beethoven's Symphony #5. This tradition has been adhered to by many classical composers ranging from Dmitri Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8. to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 "Resurrection.”
Beyond that, his stirring mixture of rap, rock, and 70s classics in such a harmonious fusion can hardly be described as anything but music. The fact that the artist reworked one of his largest hits, Stronger, 75 times with 8 different engineers and eleven different mix engineers from around the world reflects the kind of devotion and consideration that often goes into this kind of, yes, music. Sneering elitism of this sort only serves to cripple conservatives’ ability to penetrate the broader culture. Defiantly blinding yourself to the virtues and complexity of something like rap does that mission a disservice, and hopefully skeptics may be able to take a more thoughtful look at all forms of legitimate art beyond slogans such as “Rap is Crap.”