Self-Titled Eponymous: Critical Exploitation of Scandal

[Author's Note: I write a lot about hip hop and the convergence of race, media, politics, and culture in music, with occasional dalliances into other genres of music]

I was listening to N.W.A. this week and “A Bitch is a Bitch” came on. For those who aren’t familiar, the song is exactly what you’d think it was. It was hailed as a misogynistic nightmare by early ‘90s critics, and the C. Dolores Tuckers of the world began their all-out assault on gangsta rap and its destructive effect on Main Street America. None of this should be a surprise, as rap and urban culture has long been painted in broad strokes as a misogynistic, demeaning genre, and at times, for good reason: insert your favorite 2 Live Crew lyric here.

From videos depicting women as mere sexual objects, to penning songs solely dedicated to the act of “bitches giving head” (take your pick: “She Swallowed It”; “Slob on My Knob”, et al), the genre at times digs its own grave, and we, as listeners, give it a pass. The lyrics of “A Bitch is A Bitch” are appropriately explicit and to most people, probably very offensive. And it’s become one of the resounding classic anthems of West Coast gangsta rap since its release. Hell, I personally love the song dearly.

I was pondering this cognitive dissonance in my head when I passed by a magazine rack and saw this cover:

That’s the cover for VIBE’s Winter 2010 issue (they moved to a seasonal release schedule after the former owners closed out the magazine in June 2009); and yes, that’s Chris Brown. I’ve already written at length about the Chris Brown/Rihanna incident and music journalism’s coverage of it at my older site, so I won’t rehash that. With my history of lambasting hip hop journalism’s coverage of the scandal, I of course had to read it. And lo and behold, I found gems like this:
“His speaking voice is full of texture, adding an air of sincerity to his answer. You get the impression that he’s done some real soul searching.”

The quality of VIBE writing aside, there’s something both encouraging and unsettling about Chris Brown’s ostracism from all of rap and R&B culture, and the coverage thereof, after the charge of domestic abuse against Rihanna.

On the one hand, it’s encouraging that so many famous artists and personalities associated with rap and R&B were willing to take a stand against Brown for what was an undeniably atrocious crime, especially in a genre that has long abided by a “stand by your man” policy—often for understandable reasons. For a genre that is barely 30 years old, hip hop and R&B spent much of the early 90′s trying to escape the net of “fad of the moment” status that the likes of The Sugarhill Gang and Run DMC had to battle against as they became relatively popular acts.

In a culture that previously had not just supported, but elevated, acts with criminal records (the article itself mentions Lil Wayne, Snoop Dogg, Queen Latifah, and Aaron Hall of Guy as examples of BET Awards performers (1) with criminal records), the outcry against Brown is both a startling display of humanity from a culture that spent decades cloaked in thug and gangster bravado, but also represents a watermark moment of a genre that maybe, for the first time since its inception felt confident enough in its own cultural importance that the alienation of an artist that VIBE refers to as “The Future” was a blow that pop-urban music could endure.

On the other hand, it’s unsettling in the sense that Brown’s “long road to redemption” is still a viable media draw for commercial purposes. The magazine chose to give Brown top billing with arguably the biggest pop-rap act currently on the scene, former Degrassi star Drake, in a series of dual covers for its inaugural new-format issue. Moreso, the rehabilitation of Brown’s image and public persona says a lot about a culture that, for the most part, feels the need to somehow explain why the presence of even the most lovey-dovey R&B singer was, in essence, the worst fears of people who once feared the thug culture that groups like N.W.A., or even more palatable acts like Run DMC would bring to white suburbia.

Q: If it wasn’t for all this attention, do you think you and Rihanna would have gotten back together?
A: Yeah, if it wasn’t for the media and everything else, I think it would have definitely been that.

Brown’s story is simultaneously a stereotypical and universal example of the machismo extremism that rap and R&B (the male artists, at least) both feed into as well as originate from. Beyond anyone’s concern that Brown is specifically black, the fact that Brown beat a woman is the crux of the problem that now many media outlets will attempt to repair in the public eye, though his actions are as atrocious as they are completely predictable, given how rap and R&B treats its women. Gender, more than race, is the central concern here.

There’s no shock that men rule the rap/R&B genre, and as a result, get to shape the depiction and internal treatment of women. To this day, there hasn’t been an across-the-board successful female emcee (2) (sorry Foxy Brown, Lil Kim.) Contemporary R&B artists who dominate the charts are mainly men, while the most successful female artists are sexual objects as much they are singers. So it’s no surprise that the music media machine has always worked to rehabilitate the images of male artists who mess up, whether it’s the redemption of R. Kelly (still a wildly successful recording artist even after peeing on a fourteen year old girl) or the continued forgiveness of Michael Jackson’s follies and eccentricities during his lifetime (ironically one of Brown’s idols, probably now moreso than ever.) The same is happening with Brown, and this time it feels inherently dirty because Brown’s crime was an indisputable act of aggression and anger. (You can’t argue that Rihanna “wanted” Brown to savagely beat her, while some have argued the opposite for MJ or R. Kelly.)

VIBE’s cover story of Chris Brown is not shocking, or even surprising. It is what it is, and he will probably have a very successful career and continue to make great music (I was, and I guess technically still am a fan of his stuff, if I’m being honest). I don’t blame Brown for trying to cobble together a comeback, or even to sincerely repair the pieces of what I imagine is a (self-imposed) shattered personal life. Everyone is allowed to move forward after making a mistake.I blame the media for feeling the need to do it for him, when even in this instance, an artist as big as Jay-Z is very publicly damning him for what many would call an unforgivable mistake. You’d think that in this instance, they could take a pass because his crime was to blatantly abuse a woman.

“Behold the 20-year-old one-time golden boy as he finds his footing after a long slide that deflated his ego and demolished his public image.”

If you pick up the Winter 2010 VIBE issue and flip through the first few pages, the third advertisement is a two-page foldout promo for Rihanna’s new album, Rated R. On the right hand side of the page, she arches her back and displays cleavage in a skimpy dress. Turn the page again, and you see Chris Brown on the table of contents page, standing tall, arms extended mid-dance and dressed to the nines, with a note at the bottom detailing the fashion designers that dressed him. Sorry Rihanna, this is a man’s world.

(1) BET removed Chris Brown from its Awards Show, where Brown was slated to perform in the Michael Jackson tribute, shortly before the broadcast.

(2) Queen Latifah is the closest, but for as legendary as her status affords, her career spanned a total of about four years before she got out of the making music game completely.

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