Top Five Train-Wreck Rappers
The Berkley-based rapper Lil B plays the Highline Ballroom on Thursday; for curious New York gawkers, it's a chance to see the world's foremost proponent of a new movement you could kindly term train-wreck rappers -- those artists whose every youthful indiscretion, ill-advised comment, physical altercation, allegation over their sexual orientation, and casual nod toward controversy is projected around the world via the wonders of the Internet. It's like reality-TV rap, where the fun comes in waiting and watching for the derailment, and talking about the idea of the artist is more fun than actually listening to their songs. So in honor of the kid who makes Antoine Dodson seem like the third coming of Rakim, here are five of the current movement's biggest stars.
1. Lil B
Lil B is the ultimate crit-bait rapper, an artist who makes songs that are so atrocious, and releases said songs at such a prolific rate, that there must be a deeper, hidden key to understanding a ditty like "Hoes on My Dick" and conceptualizing an artist who Tweets cries for attention like "If Kanye West doesn't acknowledge me over Twitter and work with me on music, when I see him I'm going to fuck him in the ass!" Well, not especially. It's not East Coast elitism or an inability to move beyond the styles of hip-hop's Golden Era to suggest Lil B is a hideous rapper -- he does the job just fine himself with lines like "Fuck all you niggas that was hating on my dick/Word around town, I can still fuck your bitch/I never gave a fuck and I still don't give a shit." Likewise, his kinda catch-phrase, "Hoes on my dick cause I look like [insert noun/verb/jibberish of choice]," sounds like something a Saturday Night Live intern mustered up when charged with writing the rap parody skit.
Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with terrible rappers -- hip-hop history sparkles with badly rapped but brilliantly enjoyable songs. Often they end up becoming defining moments in pop culture, like mush-mouthed Houston entrepreneur Mike Jones, who made "Still Tippin'" his own and became the brief sound of 2004 largely through the promotional gimmick of giving out his personal cell-phone number in rhyme. (281-330-8004, if you still want to try and book him for your next family function.) But unlike his terrible-rapper peers, Lil B is the subject of growing critical immunity. His debut album proper, due some time this year and reputedly on Soulja Boy's label, will be accompanied by ridiculous reviews suggesting it's a personal flaw on your behalf if you don't "get" Lil B's music and lo-fi swagger. He's the hip-hop version of the emperor's new clothes.
2. Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All
The mythology behind over-sized rap crew Odd Future would have you believe they're a frightening, revolutionary new force in the world of music. Reading their increasingly lavish press praise, you'd be forgiven for thinking the L.A.-based group is the living embodiment of teenage anger channeled through the uncompromising force of rap music and broadcast through the free-speech havens of Tumblr and Twitter. The reality is far duller.
Sure, their main gimmick is to use rape as a threat, they bandy around the phrase "faggot" as an insult, and are fond of referring to their penises. But these are all things that have long since lost their taboo appeal in hip-hop -- for juvenile comedy kicks, '90s horrorcore merchant Ganksta Nip bragging about his sexual frolics with the humble pigeon still wins out, while Big Lurch is a real-life cannibal rapper. But Odd Future's shock schtick soon becomes tiring. It's rap as if recycled from the scrawlings on a dive-bar toilet wall. Their fans are likely the same people who forward you those tedious "shocking" YouTube clips of something like a homeless man chewing off his own foot.
With Odd Future's many members and propensity to release solo albums, they're an easy comparison with the Wu-Tang Clan. But while RZA's bandits shook up the rap industry and rocked early shows with stockings over their faces -- partly to conjure up menace, partly because they were never sure exactly which members would turn up, for various reasons -- Odd Future's version of messing with the industry seems forced. At their last New York show, Tyler, The Creator (comma, his quirk) ranted, "Fuck every label and magazine here, suck my dick!" But by the end of the year, they'll have likely signed to Interscope -- or recorded a phallic-focused project with Lil B.
3. Nicki Minaj
Unlike everyone else on this list, Ms. Minaj has actually sold some records: Her debut, Pink Friday, moved over 375,000 copies in its first week on sale. In common with the rest of her train-wreck peers, though, music is the least fascinating part about following the young minx's career. If Minaj were to never release another song or perform the latest in her line of the world's worst-ever freestyles, it wouldn't matter -- her career is best viewed as the unfolding of a living tabloid story, complete with her casting confusing clues as to her sexual orientation, which readily veers from straight to bi-sexual to straight-but-with-an-exception-for-Cassie, depending on which media outlet she's addressing.
Topping Minaj's salaciousness is her still-simmering and pretty ridiculous beef with veteran rap vixen Lil Kim, which is perhaps the only hip-hop dispute to involve the phrase "Malibu Barbie." Adding a sinister side to proceedings is the shadowy figure of the newly Francophile Diddy, who's sided with Minaj in her war against Biggie's old leading lady. It's an association Minaj might do well to brush up on: From Big's death to Shyne shooting up Club New York, most beefs where Diddy is even tangentially involved end in calamity. Hold the front page!
4. Charles Hamilton
The godfather of the modern train-wreck movement. Back in 2009, the Harlem-raised and one-time homeless Charles Hamilton had all the tropes of the young Internet-era rapper: He'd snagged XXL freshman status, released an improbable number of free mixtapes, scored a Fader cover, and was readying his ultimately doomed Interscope Records debut. With a cocky turn of phrase that almost brought to mind a youthful version of Kanye West's megalomaniacal musings (sample pontification: claiming the Jewish religion was inferior to the plot-line of Sonic the Hedgehog) he was primed for success. Then he caught a fatal one-two blow that left him as every blog comment section's whipping boy.
During an impromptu freestyle battle, he alluded to intimate relations with his female foe, rapping, "Call me irresponsible and immature/But you're beautiful, what the hell else would I hit it for?/Now I could say that I hit it raw/But that would mean that you would have to get an abort... I just not need to go there." The girl smacked him in the face, with the resultant footage quickly becoming a YouTube hit.
But Hamilton's fatal move was to anoint deceased Detroit producer J Dilla to executive producer status on his album, This Perfect Life. Intended as a respectful tribute -- Hamilton claimed he was going to donate money from the release to Dilla's mom -- it instead stoked the ire of Dilla's worldwide Internet army of myopic zealots, who reacted like Hamilton had just copped to a litany of war crimes. Hamilton's career has never recovered. These days he's active on Twitter, perhaps his natural refuge, where he broadcasts in safe seclusion to his 20,000-plus followers with relative impunity.
5. Asher Roth
With a preppy-looking frat-boy image that made him resemble a rapping version of Saved By The Bell's Zack Morris, Asher Roth didn't just allow curmudgeonly rap critics to recycle their Brian Austin-Green jokes, but rode a small wave of excitement pitching him as the latest great white hip-hop hope. His Greenhouse Effect mixtape was even promoted on the basis of Roth being only the second Caucasian rapper to ever hold the honor of paying DJ Drama to act as the host. But then, possibly after an unusually vigorous game of beer pong, Roth let his guard slip while attending an event at Rutgers University. "Been a day of rest and relaxation, sorry Twitter -- hanging out with some nappy headed hoes," he Tweeted, intending to reference the Don Imus controversy.
And his racial faux pas didn't stop. Allegedly distracted by perusing his parents' Goldman Sachs portfolio, he also told an interviewer, "All these black rappers -- African rappers -- talking about how much money they have. Do you realize what's going on in Africa right now? It's just like, You guys are disgusting. Talking about billions and billions of dollars you have. And spending it frivolously, when, you know, the motherland is suffering beyond belief right now."
Despite quickly released apologies for both comments, Roth's college man image never recovered, although the ensuing lack of interest has given him time to cultivate a new indie-rock-Jesus haircut. His latest attempt to resurrect his Big Man on Campus status is the Rawth collaboration with producer Nottz, although reports that Roth is spear-heading a 2011 version of Hip-Hop Against Apartheid's "Ndodemnyama" are currently unconfirmed.