“Hi! My name is…What? My name is… Who? My name is…Slim Shady.” To me, these are some of the most iconic lines to ever grace a rap/hip-hop song. In 1999, Eminem released The Slim Shady LP, marked by the widely popular song, “My Name Is.” Eminem’s lewd, rude and violent lyricism throughout not only The Slim Shady LP, but also each and every one of his following albums have identified him as one of the greatest yet controversial rappers of this generation. Eminem sprouted from the vision and mentorship of the legend Dr. Dre, who also shares a contentious history as member of the hip-hop group N.W.A. Either idolized or hated, N.W.A. propelled themselves into the spotlight following the release of politically-charged hits like “Straight Outta Compton” and “F**k tha Police,” even finding themselves under the watchful eye of the FBI. Their raw and provocative music paved the way for the emergence of fellow West Coast artists like Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg. Simultaneously, the public was additionally awed by similar voices and stories from across the nation through the likeness of The Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z and Nas.

The history of rap/hip-hop music and culture is far too rich, detailed and subjective to even begin to bombard you with an account. I mention these legends to compare to all of the artists they have inspired today, not only in their music, but their lyrics, persona and flow. But also, to establish the fact that so much, yet so little, has changed in the rap game. Eminem’s The Slim Shady LP, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton, The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die, Jay-Z’s Hard Knock Life and Nas’ Illmatic are titles of albums recorded by several of the legends I mentioned above, each different, unique and iconic in their own right, but yet, each all the same as they are branded with the large parental advisory warning on their covers.

“One, two, three, four, five, I am the greatest rapper alive. So “damn” great, “motherfucker” I’ve died, and what you’re hearing now is a paranormal vibe.” I left out some of the words included in this quotation because of their explicit nature, but it is spoken by Kendrick Lamar in his single “The Heart Part IV,” which preceded the release of his now certified double platinum album, DAMN. Let me tell you, when I heard him spit those rhymes over an incredible beat switch-up, I almost died myself. DAMN has indeed solidified Lamar’s high ranking in the widely-popular debate over today’s best MC, including artists like Drake, J. Cole and Kanye West, each of whom have also made proclamations that they are the greatest, and additionally express themselves through explicit and vulgar lyricism.

This past week, I had the pleasure of seeing both Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole live in concert and have previously seen my other favorite artists as well: Drake, Kanye and Big Sean. Before each hip-hop concert, besides feeling the anticipation of a sold-out crowd packed into the arena, I usually feel nerves deep in the pit of my stomach, which makes me cringe. This is because of one single question/realization: Are they going to say it?

By they, I mean white people and others. By it, I mean the n-word when singing along. I was recently playing the song “The Story of O.J.” from Jay-Z’s latest album 4:44 on my speaker at home. If you aren’t familiar, he says the n-word exactly 10 times consecutively throughout the chorus. Uncomfortable and disgruntled, both of my parents asked that I turn “that crap” off. A few weeks ago, Jay-Z announced the tour dates for the 4:44 album. Imagine the crowd singing along to that.

Rap/hip-hop now finds itself with a permanent stake in pop culture, specifically with today’s generation of youth. It is no longer just about the music; its influence now finds itself in the realms of fashion, sports and film. However, along with it comes the glamorization of violence, drugs, alcohol and sex; the sexualization and degradation of women and perpetuation of not just explicit “curse” words but also derogatory language regarding race, religion and sexual orientation. Yes, parental advisory labeling warns of the explicit content within music; however, it doesn’t prevent the audience from using it. The lines have become so blurred on what is “acceptable” and what isn’t. Use of the n-word will never be okay. Referring to a woman as a b***h will never be okay. Homophobic and transphobic slurs will never be okay. And it doesn’t matter if Drake, Kendrick, Kanye or Eminem says it. It doesn’t matter if you have Black or gay friends. It doesn’t matter if you thought it was okay…or if you didn’t mean it that way. There is no justification.

Due to its worldwide popularity, in addition to my own personal knowledge regarding it, throughout this piece I only reference rap/hip-hop music and artists. However, I do not want my decision to do this to be misconstrued. I am not identifying rap/hip-hop music as the only culprit of explicit, violent and vulgar messaging. Think back to indie-pop band Foster the People’s smash hit “Pumped Up Kicks.” Insanely catchy, it blew up both the alternative and pop charts. But what many fail to realize is its meaning, which tells the story of a young boy who brings a gun to school intending to kill his classmates. Or what about Justin Bieber’s proclamation in the song “Cold Water,” that “everybody gets high sometimes you know? What else can we do when we are feeling low?” The Weeknd’s hit “Earned It” was used as the theme song for the “50 Shades of Grey” movie — which I am certain needs no explanation. How about Rihanna who, a woman herself, perpetuates the notion that it is okay to refer to females as a b***h or h*e? I reference these examples because I want to make it perfectly clear that rap/hip-hop is not the only genre of music that needs some cleaning up. These artists and songs that I mentioned are played on heavy rotation throughout pop stations with audiences as young as toddlers. I am all for freedom of expression as an artist. One could argue, what would genres like rock or rap/hip-hop be without its grit and brutal honesty or pushing the boundaries? But what becomes too much? Too provocative? Where is the line drawn? And when do we, as listeners, start to question it?

I absolutely loved going to concerts with headlining rap/hip-hop artists, as some of my favorite songs are by musicians I mentioned in this piece. However, while there, even throughout the blast of the music, dancing, roar and excitement of the crowd and thrum of the bass, I could not shake the nervous feeling that I mentioned earlier. My anticipation of the discomfort I would feel if the audience decided to sing along with the rapper and say the n-word became too subtly distracting. The entire time, a whisper in the back of my mind kept repeating,

Are they going to say it?

…They did. 

Stephanie Mullings can be reached at srmulli@umich.edu

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