The other day in the gym, a Kendrick Lamar tune blasted through the speakers. It was the radio version, much to the chagrin of the guy closest to me.
“Doesn’t even sound right,” he said. “It’s bitch, don’t kill my vibe!’” The “trick” that took its place didn’t meet his satisfaction.
I found myself nodding, not because I’m a glutton for the profane. Radio edits neuters the potency of the original song. Unless you’re a parent or an aural prude, the radio version of your favorite song grates you.
But there was something else familiar about the way he accentuated the first word. It was an intonation that also accompanies common recitations of Pac’s “All Bout U” chorus and Too Short’s “what my favorite word?” line.
What is it about “bitches and hoes” that makes it such an intractable cog of the hip hop engine?
Misogyny is bigger than hip hop. The word literally means “woman hater” and society’s marginalization of women came long before DJ Kool Herc came on the scene. Demeaning women spans many genres. Rap is no exception.
Rap music was never absent of condescending lyrics toward women. It’s the overwhelming amount of such lyrics that throws the sonic ecological system off. Ever since N.W.A. came on the scene over 20 years ago, the system has remained stuck in neutral.
When it comes to gender relationships within rap music, it is the lack of diversity of roles afforded to women that is the problem.
Women are not only Suzy Screws and Sasha Thumpers. They are mothers. Sisters. Aunts. Wives. Cousins. Grandmothers. Teachers. Confidants. Heroes. Ultimately, they are nurturers and life givers.
Mainstream rap music doesn’t seem inclined to support this notion. The songs that touch on the “softer” sides of male-female dynamics aren’t played on the radios and clubs, thus making these songs the least profitable of the bunch.
Many listeners miss the mercantile motives behind the dominant hypermasculinity pushed in hip hop. For example, Jay-Z delivered “Big Pimpin” in 1997. He later apologized about its content when promoting his book Decoded.
He now has a wife and a daughter. His music has evolved. Safe to say he won’t be releasing anymore Big Pimpins, a decision for which his career will not suffer for. It no longer makes sense for him to row that boat.
But he slips in the occasional line — “99 problems but …” and “I got a hot bitch in my home” — that gives fans shades of the old Jay-Z, which is why he shines as an artist.
The best art allows for full expression of the range of emotions of the human experience. Too much ribaldry begs for the sacred. Too much profanity, serenity. Despair, euphoria.
For every derogatory value placed on women within rap’s bars, there is something being revealed about our community we should probably pay attention to. With every mangled Emmett Till and date rape reference comes a macrocosm that is highlighted.
For years, rap has been taken hostage by an injurious ideology with little resistance from its practitioners. We’re beyond finger-pointing. All parties are complicit — the artists, the distribution companies, record labels, us.
“Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe” is purposely catchy enough to be commercial, but content-rich enough to reveal profound points. Being commercially and critically acclaimed in rap has been done by few artists over a long period. The reason for this is obvious: If there is no incentive to do both, then commercial will win out every time.
Once again, we are confronted with the profit motive. Unless there is heightened demand for artistic honesty in dealing with life’s issues, particularly qualms with the opposite sex, hip hop will plateau and thus fall far short of its rich potential.