Rap’s critics have been complaining for years, only to watch the music become even more profane — and more popular. But now it seems as if Don Imus may be accomplishing what a generation of detractors could not.
Four months after outrage over Imus’ sexist and racial comments led to intense scrutiny of rap’s negative imagery, and as the genre’s sales continue to plummet, some artists are publicly abandoning offensive language.
The platinum-seller Chamillionaire recently announced that his new album, “Ultimate Victory,” would be cuss- and N-word free. Numerous lesser-known rappers are promoting themselves as alternatives to misogynistic gangsta rap. The handlers behind 17-year-old sensation Sean Kingston are touting him as PG-rated. And the veteran gangsta Master P also declared that he would make clean music (though the “Dancing With the Stars” contestant’s hitmaking days now seem long gone).
Still, others remain defiant amid increasing pressure from the public and corporations. They vow to remain, in the words of rap’s raunch king Uncle Luke, as nasty as they wanna be.
“It would have to pay something real strong to make me change the way I do my music,” said Twista, whose explicit lyrics got him dropped from a McDonald’s-sponsored concert this week. “I’m gonna keep saying it because I know I’m just making good music.”
Chamillionaire figured he could still make good music — just without the rough language. The rapper, who won a Grammy this year for his socially charged smash “Ridin,”’ says he never cursed all that much in his music anyway. The N-word was a different story: “I’ve always used the N-word.”
But after the success of his last album, he went out on tour and saw mostly white faces lip-synching the epithet along with his lyrics. Now Chamillionaire has had a change of heart for his new album, due in September on Universal Music Group, a unit of General Electric Co.
“I was like, ’You know what? I’m not going to say the N-word on this one because when I go back on the road, and I start performing, I don’t want them to be saying it, like me teaching them,”’ he told The Associated Press.
Chamillionaire insists his conversion is a moral issue and not due to the Imus backlash: “There are a lot of people who are opportunists ... I’m definitely not that.” But more opportunities may arise for rappers with clean lyrics in the wake of Imus’ firing for calling the Rutgers University women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos” on his radio broadcast.
Double standard?The Imus outrage was soon redirected toward equally misogynistic references in rap, as many questioned whether there was a double standard. Then came calls from everyone from civil rights leaders to rap pioneer Russell Simmons for corporations and radio stations to more closely censor profanity and racial epithets.
Fifteen to 20 years ago, when the likes of Tipper Gore and C. Dolores Tucker were protesting, rap just fed off the controversy and gained momentum amid booming sales that generated hundreds of millions of dollars for publicly owned corporations. But now rap sales have plunged a dramatic 33 percent from 2006 — double the decline of the overall music industry. And rappers have moved from the fringe to the mainstream, which makes them — and their endorsements, movie roles and clothing lines — more vulnerable to outside pressure.
Talib Kweli, widely known as a socially conscious artist, says there’s always been positive rappers, but they haven’t received the attention of their gangsta counterparts. He’s not convinced that will change post-Imus, but says Chamillionaire’s decision is “a wise one, a smart one and a creative one, and I commend him on it.
“He’s the type of artist who is talented enough to pull that off, and he’s making a point. Industry executives ... are so used to the formula that they don’t know what to do, and I think they’re scared.”
A few may have been scared straight. The new CD from Sean Kingston, featuring the hit “Beautiful Girls” and a mix of reggae, rap and R&B, is being promoted as curse-free. You might not think the baby-faced Sean would put out raunchy lyrics due to his young age, but this is an industry that gave the world a 15-year-old Foxy Brown rapping about the power of sex and one-hit wonder J-Kwon bragging about getting “Tipsy” at 17.
“I just wanted to make every fan base happy,” says the Miami-born, Jamaican-reared Kingston. “I don’t want nobody to say, ’He’s disrespectful, he curses a lot.”’
Not that many rappers have followed his lead. Check any rap song on the radio and you will likely hear plenty of bleeped out language, violent references and sexual content.
Tolerance for such language may be diminishing. Corporations had cozied up to gangsta rappers in recent years, taking their message mainstream — both Snoop Dogg and T.I., for example, were featured in major car ads. In recent months, however, companies seem less likely to align themselves with rougher artists.
Verizon dropped its sponsorship of Gwen Stefani’s tour when a videotape surfaced of opening act Akon simulating sex onstage at a separate concert with a fan later revealed to be 14. (Akon says he didn’t know the girl was underage.) And while McDonald’s Corp. signed Twista on for their free summer concert series, they quickly dropped him after public pressure mounted due to his lyrics.
Twista’s replacement? Sean Kingston.
“I know there are a lot of artists being blocked out of sponsorships because of the content of the lyrics,” says Chuck Creekmur, who runs the Web site allhiphop.com.
Ted Lucas, CEO of Slip-N-Slide Records, says he’s gotten some of the pressure himself. Lucas, whose label is home to thug rapper Trick Daddy, sex bomb Trina, gangsta Rick Ross and new star Plies, says in recent weeks distributors have tried to get him to persuade his stars to tone down their language.
“They have come to me and said ... ’This word right here is going to cause some heat down the line — is it possible you can get him to change it?’ I have ran into that with the N-word, ’snitching,’ different words,” he said. “But I tell everybody that these are things in our environment we see on a day-to-day basis. It’s hard for you to go tell that person that they can’t go use that word.”
50 Cent invoked the classic hip-hop defense: rappers are telling stories based on their own gritty streets.
“They forget that the art form is a mirror and what we’re writing is a reflection of where we grew up,” he told The AP. “They can be interpreted as glorifying it on some levels but they’re trying to capture a particular feel.”
His new single, “I Get Money,” features plenty of bleep-worthy moments — and he makes no apologies for it.
“I’ve made it this far without having to compromise myself,” he said. “Ain’t no changing what I’m doing now.”