Rappers have apologized for words or lines in their songs before 2013, but – like the fracking-induced earthquakes in Oklahoma – the frequency has shot up since then. I do remeber Jay-Z apologizing to Nas back in the day because his mom told him to, but it seems to have started with “U.O.E.N.O.” Rick Ross had a verse on the Rocko hit and within it he uttered the lines, “Put molly all in her champagne she ain’t e’en know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that she ain’t e’en know it.” Those two bars pretty clearly describe a date rape,1 with putting a drug in a woman’s drink and taking her home, neither of which said woman is aware of. It’s a really dumb and horrible line in a great song, and Ross ended up losing his sponsorship with Reebok, following widespread criticism by the public.
There’s nothing wrong with companies dropping their endorsement of someone because that person publicly says something objectionable.2 It was when Ross realized those two bars were fucking with his money and tried to atone that things went awry. First he tried to apologize by saying it was a “misunderstanding” and a “misinterpretation” and that he would never use the term “rape” in his lyrics, which is like hiding behind the phrase “I’m not a racist” after someone says something that absolutely is racist. He didn’t have to use the term “rape” for the line to be about rape and someone doesn’t have to be an active KKK member to say something racist. He also said, “The streets don’t condone that. Nobody condones that.” Neither of which are even close to true, when surveys show that one in five women have been raped or had someone attempt to rape them, a percentage that seems astoundingly low. Ross’s apology was also directed at “queens,” “sexy ladies” and “beautiful ladies,” and not toward any women who aren’t queens or sexy or beautiful.
Ross later released a much more appropriate apology, but the damage to his career had already been done. Not long after, Lil Wayne got in hot water for his line in Future’s “Karate Chop (Remix),” where he raps the incredibly dumb line, “Beat that pussy up like Emmett Till,” referencing the 14-year-old black boy who was brutally slain in 1955 by two white adult males. Wayne later apologized and lost his Mountain Dew sponsorship. Also in 2013, J. Cole apologized for a line of his verse on the Drake song “Jodeci Freestyle,” where he said, “I’m artistic you n***as is autistic/retarded.” More recently, in 2014, Ross once again was asked to apologize for a lyric, and Nicki Minaj apologized for her album artwork.
On “Black and White,” off Ross’s most recent album Mastermind, appears the line, “Trayvon Martin, I’m never missing my target.” Ross actually defended the line, twisting its meaning into a boy scout pretzel knot with his logic: “There I’m reminding people that if you’re a black person or a person of any color for that matter in this country, you have to be accurate, whatever moves you make, stay accurate.” Minaj, on the other hand, issued a non-apology for using the famous image of Malcolm X peering through his curtains while holding an AK-47 as her single art (image above) for the song “Lookin Ass N***a,” after drawing the ire of X’s family. Minaj said, “I apologize to the Malcolm X estate if the meaning of the photo was misconstrued” in a Tweegram on her Instagram account. She later explained in a radio interview that she used the image of Malcolm X as being “ready to shoot at a lookin’ ass n***a.”
I don’t have a problem with rappers apologizing for their dumb or offensive lyrics (or both) after the fact, I think it’s good when they realize and acknowledge they said something wrong. I do have a problem with them trying to twist the meaning they meant when they said it, however; like if only the explanation of the lyric on Rap Genius was different, everything would be fine. When Ross says the “never missing my target” line was referencing Trayvon Martin and not his killer or when Minaj says the “lookin ass n***a” isn’t Malcolm X, but rather the dudes he’s looking at through the blinds are the “lookin ass n***as,” it insults everyone’s intelligence and sidesteps an intelligent conversation. That (to me, a white guy) is worse than co-opting important black historical figures or moments for a hyperbolic metaphor in a song.
Obviously, my white middle class perspective influences this, to where I’m more concerned with whether the song is good than if it hurts my community. So with Wayne, J. Cole and Ross’s Trayvon line, they’re just bad lyrics to me. The molly lyric is beyond bad and makes me more concerned with Ross being the type of rapper to talk about a drug he’s never tried. But the Minaj cover art and apology are just frustrating. In a year where her “Boss Ass Bitch” remix both slaps and got P.T.A.F. a record deal, when Minaj is messing with people’s ideas of what her hair and makeup are supposed to look like, and her upcoming album The Pink Print has people believing – at least momentarily – that she could single handedly topple the patriarchy, her response to the Malcolm X artwork falls flat. Had she went with what I assumed was the reason for the cover – portraying a powerful historical figure as just another dude (or in this case, a lookin’ ass n***a) – I think this would all be much smarter and more effective.
The biggest problem with this apologizing isn’t the rappers themselves, though. The nature of hip-hop has historically been much closer to real life than most other art forms, but the way so much media and companies who sponsor rappers demand accountability for their lyrics – as though rock bands or movie writers are allowed to indulge or make shit up, and all rappers are saying exactly what they do and think – reeks of racism. Rappers do indeed have the ability to use problematic viewpoints that aren’t their own for artistic purposes.3 When they’re held to a higher standard than other artists, the music and listeners suffer.
SIDEBAR: A big reason rappers have had to apologize more recently is because of the ability for something to go viral into Outrage Twitter, which is both a straw man for very legitimate perspectives and full of people just waiting to get mad at any person who says something offensive. There wasn’t much outrage when Boogie Down Productions or Young Jeezy co-opted images of Malcolm X, or when Kanye West said he looked like Emmett Till after his car accident, or literally every time a rapper said the word “retarded.”
1. Even though molly is not a date rape drug.↩
2. Obviously it wasn’t that Reebok found the line so distasteful but rather were faced with threats of protests and boycotts from consumers.↩
3. Of course, acting like their words have no consequences ain’t the way to go either.↩