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Commercial Rap aka Sellouts


In 2006, rap legend Nas stirred some controversy when he released his eighth studio album, Hip Hop is Dead, reflecting on his thoughts and moods about the music industry. In an interview with MTV, he stated:

“When I say ‘hip-hop is dead’, basically America is dead. There is no political voice. Music is dead … Our way of thinking is dead, our commerce is dead. Everything in this society has been done. It’s like a slingshot, where you throw the muthafucka back and it starts losing speed and is about to fall down. That’s where we are as a country … what I mean by ‘hip-hop is dead’ is we’re at a vulnerable state. If we don’t change, we gonna disappear like Rome. I think hip-hop could help rebuild America, once hip-hoppers own hip-hop … We are our own politicians, our own government, we have something to say.”

Whereas 2pac was speaking against police brutality, in a larger context, those in power and who have the final say in decisions, have evolved. Police are still here, but in regards specifically to rappers nowadays, the true “trapper” is the music corporation. In reference to Nas’ interview, Jimmy Iovine, who owns Interscope Records which houses many contemporary A-list rappers such as Eminem and Kendrick Lamar, is the top dog and has much influence on artists’ work. In essence, Iovine has a lot of sway and input into the words, sounds, instrumentals, and execution of rappers and their lyrics, songs, albums, and performances. Sadly, despite the fact that it has only been less than half a decade since the founding of hip hop, the dynamics between the record label and the artist has transformed – or rather degraded depending on one’s perspective – to disproportionality favor the former over the latter. The production of hip hop has a direct correlation on the political attitudes and messages and themes of a rapper’s music and how it is perceived by the wider audience. The problem however is that the making of music, frankly, has very little significance to most fans and listeners simply because there is not much knowledge shared with them about the process to begin with. It is a very behind-closed doors situation, and perhaps more bluntly, fans have no ethical obligation, considering they view music as entertainment rather than a means to raise their political consciousness, to even care about the production side of hip hop. All they want most of the time is to consume the product rather than be actively aware and engaged in it. However, a terrible consequence of this is that fans and listeners become more or less tolerant of sellouts, rappers and artists who sacrifice their message for short term gain.


A good example of this horrendous tradeoff is the rapper B.O.B. whose latest hit, Headbands, might well be a more updated proof of Nas’ prophecy due to its misogynic lyrics –


Already got one, rolled up in my left hand
Pussy on my mind, tighter than a headband
Kush in my lungs, got ganja in my sweat glands
This shit I’m on, better than the next strand
Than the next strand, better than the next strand
She head down, booty poppin’ in a handstand
I shine bright, I’ll give your girl a slight tan
I make that pussy whistle like the Old Spice man
I don’t even understand, why she’d ever want a man
If she ever throw it, I’d catch it like a cornerback
Like a cornerback, that’s an interception
You think I give a fuck, that’s a misconception
Oh what a night, oh what a night
The roof is on fire, so what? I’m high
I said, oh what a night, oh what a night
Yeah she a bad bitch, all jokes aside

If you the type of person who wants meaning extracted between the lines or under them, you need to look no further. The lyrics of Headbands is just that: mundane, boring, and repetitive like any other stereotypical hip hop smash hit.


It is quite perplexing that what shot B.O.B. into stardom and mainstream success was his alternative approach to making music, or rather, a return to hip hop fans’ demand to see rappers make more music that was politically exciting and incited activism. His previous song: Airplanes, opens a can of contradictions:

Yeah yeah somebody take me back to the days
Before this was a job before I got paid
Before it ever mattered what I had in my bank
Yeah back when I was trying to get a tip at subway
And back then I was rapping for the hell of it
But nowadays we rapping to stay relevant
I’m guessing if can make some wishes out of airplanes
Then maybe oh maybe I’ll go back to the days
Before the politics that we call the rap game
And back when ain’t nobody listened to my mix tape
And back before when I tried to cover up my slang
But this is for the Decatur what’s up Bobby Ray
So can I get a wish to end the politics


It doesn’t really make any logical sense how a rapper like B.O.B. has grown to be the conventional rapper most people know of. Similar to Nas proclaiming that hip hop is dead, it is as if he was creating his own creative tombstone for himself, and unfortunately, he is doing the very same thing that he was opposed to just a few years back. In short, B.O.B. is the tragic case of a once politically-minded rapper who had the potential to continue the legacy of Tupac who has turned to the Dark Side.

To be fair though, even conscious rappers are not free from criticism, particularly a core criticism of hip hop that it is sexist toward women and endorses sexual violence against females…and this applies especially to Tupac. However, the difference between Tupac and B.O.B. is that 2pac embraces man’s inherent contradictions on men and how they treat women. He wasn’t afraid to admit he was wrong and confronted his own paradoxes which gives him more political legitimacy than B.O.B, who has yet to do the same.

Case in point:


Further, in his song, Keep Ya Head Up, 2pac examines deeply the problem facing patriarchal societies, races, and ethnic cultures, which he admits he plays a part of and benefits from.

You know it makes me unhappy (what’s that)
When brothas make babies, and leave a young mother to be a pappy
And since we all came from a woman
Got our name from a woman and our game from a woman
I wonder why we take from our women
Why we rape our women, do we hate our women?
I think it’s time to kill for our women
Time to heal our women, be real to our women
And if we don’t we’ll have a race of babies
That will hate the ladies, that make the babies
And since a man can’t make one
He has no right to tell a woman when and where to create one
So will the real men get up
I know you’re fed up ladies, but keep your head up

Even from a sonic, structural, and thematic view, this verse of the song is rich and diverse. On the other hand, the hook of Headbands goes as follows:

Hey, look at baby over there
Whats up, little mama come here
She started talking but I really couldn’t hear
Until she started dancing like she do it in the mirror (whoa)
Like she do it in the mirror, like she do it in the mirror (whoa)
She broke it down started moving like Shakira
Like she do it in the mirror

There is no texture, no life, no political insights to how policy and power dynamics affects the human condition. Like capitalism, it is pure immediate gratification – a commodity, a product, a piece of crap. If Tupac was reincarnated and heard these lyrics, he would much rather prefer rolling in his grave.