Sound + Vision: Higher Brothers Cosplay as Rappers
The privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.
The red light goes on, and William Leonard Roberts II crushes out a blunt and hefts his massive frame off a leather sofa to make his way through a gauntlet of well-wishers, cronies, and sycophants to the stage, where he will regale a capacity crowd with shopworn tales of his exploits in the drug trade.
Meanwhile, the red light goes on, and Rick Ross swings out of his bunk and presses up along a concrete wall, awaiting twice-daily inmate count. The real Rick Ross does this, of course, because until 2009 he was serving a life sentence in federal prison for a cocaine charge. The pretend Rick Ross, on the other hand, used to be a correctional officer.
I’m not casting aspersions on pretend Rick Ross–I don’t know what circumstances led to him working in corrections, but I do know that by and large both inmates and guards tend to come from at-risk populations. I’m not going to sit here and second guess pretend Ross, and for all I know he really did used to sell cocaine. But let’s be honest, pretend Rick Ross was never a drug kingpin like he claims in his songs, like real Rick Ross actually was.
Who cares? What’s it matter, the man makes songs people want to hear; he paints an enticing fantasy. Why does authenticity matter so much, and why does it sometimes not matter at all? Rap is confusing that way. Nobody cared too much when California’s own Fogerty brothers sang about life on the bayou–with an accent (that second video is a first-ballot Hall of Unintentional Comedy Fame nugget; please enjoy!). But an Australian washes ashore rapping with a so-called “blaccent” and she gets pilloried. An Australian singing in an American accent, however, raises nary an eyebrow. In hip hop there are hazy rules about who is allowed to rap, and about what.
We’re all pretty much cool with a cadaverous aesthete from Detroit never shutting up about the blues, but a Hitler Youth club kid fever dream from Seattle gets lambasted for appropriating a culture that isn’t his. Now, it’s worth mentioning that The White Stripes are great, and Macklemore stinks. But that has nothing to do with race, or rules, or appropriation; it’s just what your ears tell you.
Anyway, who gets to rap? Macklemore and Iggy Azalea represented an interesting flash point; hip hop was talking about race in a way it hadn’t since Eminem’s heyday. By that I mean broadly, and in mainstream channels. There are millions of white rappers, and there have been for years, and most of the time they just fly under the radar. Perhaps nurture matters more than nature.
The rap commentariat went bonkers when “Drill Time” dropped. Part of the issue, it seemed, was that young Slim wasn’t “about that life”. But he copped to it immediately–he never tried to pass himself off as a real “Chiraq soldier”. He was very open about the fact that he just liked drill music and wanted to make some of his own. Slim Jesus and rap have settled into an uneasy truce, for the time being. Is he a cultural tourist? Yes, but he never said he wasn’t.
Drake, on the other hand, is the Galactus of rap, devouring all worlds in his path. He’s like the opposite of Slim Jesus, which I guess makes him some kind of fat antichrist? At any rate, he told us, in no uncertain terms, that he started from the bottom. But, uh, he didn’t. And yet, he remains an unfuckwithable force, impervious to criticism, above the authenticity fray.
So maybe it’s not about what you’ve done. Is it about where you’re from? How then to explain the boys of Chengdu Rap House? If nothing else, it’s a very well-observed drag of American trap. I don’t have any idea what they’re saying, though. It could be drug talk, it could be standard-issue come-up rap. Or it could be more like the millions of Three-6 Mafia descendants. There’s a whole constellation of Chinese-language rap that defies easy categorization, because the lyrical content is a complete mystery to me. A lot of it sounds familiar, but that’s not exactly unique to rap from other countries.
Chinese rappers are clearly aware of and influenced by American rap, but how much of it is just a burlesque, and how much is earnest and earned? MC Hotdog is basically the Taiwanese Flo Rida, which is another way of saying he is fucking terrible. But if Flo Rida gets to keep mercilessly assaulting our eardrums, then Hotdog should have the same opportunity, no? The Higher Brothers may have made the Chinese “What They Do” with “Cosplay”–calling out the tropes of the genre, with a song title and chorus that slyly reference the very nature of what they’re doing. OR this is a snake eating its own tail, and while we fight over who gets to rap, the rest of the world is rapping about fighting. Authenticity is in the eye of the beholder.
Please enjoy this Youtube playlist featuring songs from this column.
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