A while back, Paste’s managing editor Nick Marino was working on the rap primer that would, in some ways, push me into this whole month of rap thing He’s a nice guy, a considerate guy, and so he asked me if I was bothered by explicit sex and violence. I said, “Nah, have at it,” but that wasn’t exactly true, because of course it bothers me. It bothers me because I am someone who generally has reasonable emotional responses to things, and also because its explicitness is specifically designed to bother. It’s a folly to think all rap is like that, which I knew coming into this month―but I knew, too, that talking about violence and sex (and violent sex) were hallmarks of the genre, stemming from and perpetuated by the world that rap came out of and that it created around itself over the past thirty-something years. So as a person―and as a woman―it bothers me. As a student, though, I know it’s just par for the course.
And so he made me the mix, and I ripped it to iTunes, and for the very first time those lovely little red rectangles bearing the word EXPLICIT popped up in my library. I didn’t even know that was a Thing That Could Happen! I’m not entirely sure what caused it—probably some auto-encryption thing and probably it has more to do with profanity and not so much the acts described, I know. But it just makes my iTunes look so damn prissy, like it’s all lillywhite rolling fields of unsullied precocity and then, “Oop, here come the angry black guys—watch out!”
I feel myself reaching for kid gloves when listening to and thinking and writing about violence in rap, but at the very same time, I love The Decemberists, who play incredibly violent songs for a rock band, and I never feel the need to mince words or trot around the matter when I talk about them. Last year I even giddily charted out every death and manner of death in every one of their songs, and while the total may very well eclipse the body-count of any average rapper’s oeuvre, I never once found myself in a moral quandary or puzzling over the widespread social repercussions. I’ve known a few people who admitted to being disturbed by a few of the band’s bloodier numbers―“The Rake’s Song,” from their most recent album, seems to be the main culprit―but if I was putting that song or any other on a mix for a friend, it wouldn’t occur to me to ask if it might bother them.
This is partly because the Decemberists are white folks making music in the tradition of other white folks. It’s also because violence in their songs is so clearly performative, so obviously mannered and literary and taking place between characters living in some far-off land or time. Their most violent song, with a body count of 36, is an obvious political allegory. They make no bones about their songs being stories, fairy-tales of sorts; there’s no threat of it being confused with real life. Which is what, it seems, caused the most trouble for Eminem, who seems to be the rapper whose songs have been most publicly and most heatedly spurned for their violence, at least in the past decade or so. In January 2000, Chris Norris wrote an excellent essay for Spin about the artist and the widespread controversy of his violent lyrics, specifically the song in which he details murdering his wife; Norris delves a bit into the ensuing court case, but more compellingly breaks down the levels of Eminem’s numerous artistic personas and steering the debate into the strange world of storytelling ethics and theory. He ties in Halloween and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, slasher movies that fit with Eminem’s clear horrorshow motives but also the trickiness of truth and reality when it comes to crafting a compelling narrative―is a story more or less true if it didn’t happen? Is someone’s rage more or less terrifying―or more or less of a threat―when it’s deliberately crafted?
(If you missed it, Paste actually put together a whole issue on the tricky topic of violence a few years back—you can read pieces from it here.)
I went into this month with passing familiarity of NWA’s “Fuck the Police” and “Straight Outta Compton,” though I’d never heard either song all the way through. I have now, of course; they’re both pummeling and fierce and righteously incensed, and maybe there’s a bit of dramatization—there always is, in good storytelling—but those songs are meant less as fables, less as exercises in creative doppelgangers, but as a kind of vicious telegram of real-life conflict. That’s why the songs were so powerful then, and why they caused such a stir in the mainstream—and why, in a way, they’ve been weakened by their infamy. All the intervening years of canonization and parody and pilfering and Ice Cube’s slow-melt in the salt of Disney flicks makes it hard to hear the songs like they were heard on their 1988 in all their pure boiling, audacious, terrifying rage. Nowadays, neither of the tracks calls up the shrill little EXPLICIT! flag in my iTunes.
I rag on Ice Cube, but to be fair, his “It Was A Good Day” (from his 1993 solo album The Predator) has been the only song I’ve heard so far this month to give me outright chills. The version I heard first was a remix that pulls in a Staple Singers sample; the song lilts and rolls along, and you can practically hear Cube’s slap-happy grin spreading wider and wider with every verse. At first pass it’s just a song about waking up and eating a home-cooked breakfast and meeting friends and smoking pot and having sex and playing basketball and watching TV and staying out late―hell, it does sound pretty nice! So nice, in fact, that I wondered why anyone―let alone a hardcore West Coast rapper―would need to write a song about it, but so nice that I let the question slide.
But on my fourth or fifth spin through it finally hit me—on almost every verse, right before his refrain of “It was a good day,” Ice Cube slips in a little moment of wonderment. The last one is the one that grabbed me first:
_Drunk as hell but no throwin’ up
Half way home and my pager still blowin up
Today I didn’t even have to use my A.K.
I got to say, it was a good day_
Earlier in the track, he says, “Plus nobody I know got killed in South Central L.A. / Today was a good day,” which I only heard when I went back to listen again. Both of the lines are stunning understatements, this blithe insouciance in the face of real violence; doubling back on the song after finally hearing them, it was like I could see the hidden gunmetal glinting from under the car seat, feel the air curdle when a cop car cruised down the block, lights off. Suddenly the peaceful ordinariness seems immensely precious, just because it’s so clear that a real shitstorm could descend at any moment. I still don’t know enough about rap or Ice Cube’s career or what people generally think about this song; it’s entirely possible that the rest of the rap-loving word thinks this track is a goofy piece of shit. I guess I don’t really care. It blew my mind.
Rachael Maddux is Paste’s associate editor. Her column appears at
PasteMagazine.com every Monday. Read all of her Month of Rap entries here.