We've entered the age of White Rapper 4.0
The way 18-year-old Miami rapper Stitches tells it, he’s lived alone since 14, sold bricks of cocaine like an industry titan, and owns multiple automatic rifles. Like a young Jay Z (or James Franco's character in Spring Breakers), he’s using drug money to fund a rap career. His jarring video for “Brick in Yo Face” has tallied over 8 million World Star Hip-Hop views since its April 30 premiere, and it’s everything your parents are scared of.
Stitches threatens like an unhinged Juggalo and screams like Fred Durst. He raps over a Dade County fastball beat—all stock brass samples, 808 claps, trap hi-hat loops, and Miami Bass roots—that would be at home on a Slip-N-Slide record. What he lacks in lyricism, he makes up for in barking the phrase “pay up” with the self-assuredness of the guy carrying the bigger stick.
In no time flat, Stitches has transcended low-budget World Star fare to become a polarizing figure in hip-hop. He’s an alpha dog from a new class of snowballing-into-focus shock artists, heisting ideas from the Internet in a bid at stardom that bypasses context and often the genre at large. I call it White Rapper 4.0.
The Beastie Boys reacted to the unmissable celebratory nature of hip-hop and took rap to the American kegger. Vanilla Ice stole the right dance moves but fabricated a résumé that included gangbanging in Miami and set back his kind indefinitely. Eminem moved the underground past battles, backpacks, and scribbles to become the blueprint for credible white rappers henceforth: Only after a rigorous training program of writing and technical work will you earn respect.
We’re now, however, five years into an era where mainstream hip-hop has transcended regional markers. Whereas Dr. Dre was as synonymous with the West Coast as U.G.K. was with Houston or Nas with Queens, New York City’s last two veritable exports, Nicki Minaj and A$AP Rocky, are churning out hits without sonic borders or calling cards. The former cut her teeth as Young Money Entertainment sister to Gardena, Calif.’s Tyga, Toronto’s Drake, and New Orleans’ Lil Wayne, while the latter blends subway nostalgia with post-DJ Screw vocal effects and synthetic drugs.
Nowadays, distinct patois molded on local nuance are rare in a world where most Americans are at the mercy of—and have access to—YouTube’s meritocracy. An era of rap that does not sort by culture, class, or skin color is approaching, and what we’re seeing from Stitches is the tip of the iceberg in terms of potentially problematic, irresponsible, and talking-point art.
Kids are gravitating toward familiar sounds with no context; they’re educated through random clips where it’s easy to emulate thematic blueprints. In fact, doing so is the choice way to hustle new music. The problem is that rock and roll’s fundamental curse lingers, and you get white empires built on the shoulders of black ideas.
Take Iggy Azalea, a blond Australian who borrows liberally from American voices like Trina, Mia-X, and Eve on the mic. Last month, her single “Fancy” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Rap Songs chart. Azalea writes fun, sardonic, almost subversive rap music, and it is generally exceptional, light, and comfortably built for pop.
“There's enough of a digital infrastructure for white rappers to completely sidestep the (still problematic) ‘gatekeepers of rap’ like Macklemore and appeal to a large audience that knows nothing about rap,” wrote rap blogger and former RhymeJunkie.com editor Clyde Lovellette via email. “But even Iggy Azalea is on T.I.'s label, Mac Miller kinda came up through Wiz Khalifa, Machine Gun Kelly has songs with Flocka, Rich Hil was hanging out with Fat Trel for a while.”
In a Los Angeles Times trend piece from 2000, Jay Z predicted that the rap stars of 2010 would skew white because most of his audiences were white and those eager kids were the most voracious readers of hip-hop in history. Ice Cube disagreed—and was proven right, by the way—because he maintained that the fundamental purpose and appeal in rap is its proximity to and ability to report on perilous American conditions.
"Not only is it music driven by the youth, it's a music driven by the street and by the black culture,” Cube said. “The lingo is always changing, and that lingo comes from the bottom of the ghetto. … The reason that won't change is I don't think the white experience in America is as interesting as the black experience in this country. Art comes from the worst conditions and that's why."
Problem is, Stitches and his nascent contemporaries are more interested in taking gangster imagery and its lingo mainstream than they are in polishing some passe rhymebook. More than ever, rap is about conveying moods through blunt choruses, singing, and new slang than it is conventional wordsmithing that aims for standout metaphors and punchlines. That’s terrific—rap will always be about young people finding artistic fits with which to splash—but now that emphasizes standing out, often by disturbing means.
The clip ends with a machine gun onomatopoeia that doubles as an awesomely addictive hashtag, “gratata.” Within 20 days, his two Vine videos garnered almost 200,000 revines. The high school crowd—Vine’s core experimental demographic—blew it up.
LTC safety course for the next 7 hours of my life on this beautiful day 😒 #gratata— Katlynn Sullivan (@kaaitysully) May 10, 2014
It's prom day #Gratata— Kale (@GingeFanatic) May 10, 2014
Turns out Silva is a former porn star turned bodybuilder who loves to drink cough syrup. In a recent interview, he uses and qualifies rampant use of the N-word. He’ll no doubt cash in the post-meme attention for a full-service single. When he does, it’ll be on the heels of 12 seconds of material.
Meanwhile, Stitches’ followup to “Brick In Yo Face,” “Mail,” premiered last week, and it’s an Auto-Tune ballad about moving cocaine through the U.S. Postal Service.
If Stitches is a ridiculous if authentic product of the environment, Chicago area rapper Brewski is the moment’s suburban tipping point. Marketed as the “White Chief Keef,” Brewski molds his swag into Chief Keef’s footprint: mosh pit anthems built on repetition and chants, complete with block-bleeding production from Keef architect, Young Chop. Instead of the captivating house arrest parties about Molly, guns, and the streets from 2012’s Finally Rich, Brewski’s drill sound is transposed to mirror the college parties where Keef’s music already rotates. We get videos filmed in what has to be a campus dormitory for songs about Snapchat hookups and shotgunning beer.
Brewski is a naive and flatly poor rapper by traditional metrics, but he taps into reckless youth with the deft expertise of Blink-182 in its prime. Moreover, with this strain of rap, what matters is the hook, and his are catchy and often excellent. His crosstown cultural tourism is balanced by the multi-ethnic, respectful partying that goes on in Brewski’s better videos.
His clip for “Chauffeur” premiered a week ago and is the breakout hit. Brewski’s fundamental style and point of view hides nothing. It embraces the fact that he’s a privileged, good-looking white dude that you can take home to mom. As such, he gets the girls and rages like a flip-cup king. The Duke basketball and Boston Celtics jerseys are intentional bro badges; they’re toasts to white iconography and stand-ins for moments of clarity and dominance in a traditionally black medium. What becomes deeply problematic is that the “Chauffeur” video—like Miley Cyrus at the VMAs—casts black women as sideshow decorations that exist to twerk in slow motion, to say nothing of lines like “pull them panties down, bitch pull over.”
Rap does not need guardians of the tradition to expound on lost virtues—to act as if modernist geniuses like Future are somehow less intelligent or sanctimonious than Ice Cube when he rapped about death certificates. There’s more at stake now. Like Pat Boone for the Internet age, rappers like Stitches and Brewski are going to land on college tours and record deals just by blowing smoke.
Photo by /flickr (CC By-SA 2.0)