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1520 Sedgwick Avenue: August 1st, 2008 Friday, August 1, 2008

Posted by Andy Hutchins in 1520 Sedgwick Avenue, Rockabye.
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You may have heard this song already.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t have something to say.

There’s a few different issues at play here. Maybe most important for the non-hip-hop fan is the black eye it gives Ludacris for people who only know him as a rapper who Bill O’Reilly caterwauls about from time to time, and the one the conservative pundits who have seized on this are trying to give Barack Obama.

Yeah, it’s not exactly politically correct to say “Hillary hated on you/So that bitch is irrelevant,” or that “McCain doesn’t belong in any chair unless he’s paralyzed,” but he’s also threatening life by asking Jesse Jackson “how you want it, head or gut?” and calling the sitting president, because we apparently have one, “mentally handicapped.” You can cherry-pick whatever you want in here to say anything you want about Lova Lova, but the simple truth is that it’s a lot cleaner than most mainstream hip-hop, and it’s one artist expressing his feelings about politics through the medium of music.

As for Ludacris being a “great talent,” as Obama’s said: He is. Here’s a former radio DJ who sold his CD out of his trunk, became the first big solo act from Atlanta, spit the sickest guest verses you ever heard, and went from zany party guy to serious thinker as his career wore on. If he’s not one of the best 25 rappers breathing, I’m probably writing about the wrong kind of music.

And Luda, like any other artist, has no responsibility to anyone to be politically correct. He took the picture in the video with Obama (and that, though I know better, looks like PhotoShop), and he held a fundraiser for him in 2007, but that does not make him either an official part of the campaign or someone Obama needs to answer for. He’s a celebrity fan, and Obama has no more control of or affiliation with his words than Hillary Clinton does with Timbaland, who hosted a fundraiser for her in 2007.

He’s really only barely a rapper, and a woeful one at that, and his rhymes might be ghostwritten, but you can read the lyrics in that article to see the same misogynistic, thuggish drivel that many rappers spout; he also makes his money off of creating the music for artists to sing about being “Promiscuous” or a “Maneater” or bringing “SexyBack,” so he traffics in the same sort of sex-drenched pop that is decried as the worst thing since the Black Death, or at least hair metal.

That never became a big issue in the primary campaign, partly because it happened so early in the cycle, and partly because Hillary had much bigger issues. She’s really not a “hip-hop” candidate, and it’s been part of Obama’s complex and difficult relationship with race and hip-hop culture for him to be seen, rightly or wrongly, as a torch-carrier for hip-hop in politics.

Obama hasn’t helped distance himself from that with nods to and from Jay-Z (I should note the music in the first clip was edited in by the maker of the clip), and by mentioning the hip-hop on his iPod. And the media have taken note. But Obama’s not exactly running to it, either, with no rappers tabbed for pre-rally sets, those duties left to Arcade Fire, and the pseudo-ballad of his campaign orchestrated by pseudo-rapper will.i.am. He’s tried, and will continue trying, to distance himself from the wrong kind of hip-hop and represent the right kind of hip-hopper.

Yet there’s no doubt that people still see Obama as an extension of the culture that has yet to shake the violent past and often crude present that diminishes its value in the public eye; there’s a stereotype of hip-hop, and he’s tarred with the same brush when things like this Ludacris flap happens. He’s not, clearly, as a post-boomer candidate who, if you look back at that iPod list, listens to Dylan, too, and, if you listen to his rallies, looks to fuse the golden era of Motown sound with the consumer-friendly righteous anger and arena rock of U2.

And he’s listening to hip-hop as an educated person would, evaluating the message and weighing its value against the aesthetic worth of the art.

“I love the art of hip-hop; I don’t always love the message of hip-hop,” Obama told BET earlier this year. “There are times where even . . . with the artists I love, you know, there’s a message that is not only sometimes degrading to women; not only uses the n-word a little too frequently; but — also something I’m really concerned about — it’s always talking about material things.”

Those who are calling Obama’s relationship with hip-hop one long Sister Souljah moment ought to step back for a moment, too. He’s not exactly being confronted with calls for violence from the rappers who drop his name; it’s mainstream artists who are doing this, and even though Jay-Z threatens, in verse, over “A Milli,” “I’ma buy the whole hood llamas on me” should Obama not be elected, the chances of a mogul of his stature actually doing that are nil.

He’s no more an emissary of hip-hop because of the color of his skin than Bryant Gumbel is, and those who confuse any affinity for it developed as part of Obama’s musical taste as an allegiance to it based on racial lines are, I feel, rather disastrously mistaken.

He’s bigger than hip-hop. And hip-hop’s bigger than him. The overlap in this Venn diagram isn’t huge.

Still, the streets watching, in this case, know more about what this song’s purpose was than the mainstream media ever could, because hip-hop’s idiosyncracies inform their views, and they know the explanation for Ludacris that Obama should have deployed.

In the words of the Wu: “Cash rules everything around me.”

See, Luda’s been out of the game for a minute, doing his acting thing and letting things in hip-hop simmer after Release Therapy met tepid reception in 2006. The mixtape he dropped Monday was one with DJ Drama, and it’s been highly anticipated on the Internet for a while, but it’s called The Preview for a reason, folks. It’s clearly an attention-grabber for an artist trying to regain momentum before his album, scheduled for late October, drops. Judged chiefly against Lil Wayne and T.I., Luda saw his swag sagging in comparison as Wayne sold his milli and Tip began his flight of the phoenix back to the top of the game.

So why not go the political route and try to get back on the cable news networks with some incendiary language? The image cost to Ludacris is negligible, as he’s really just saying what he wants to say and has already fought his battles with Fox News and the like; you’ll note there’s been no spin from his camp, and his Wikipedia page hasn’t even been updated. The exposure of his name, which you’ve probably heard this week even if you’re not into hip-hop, is considerable. And, best of all, the play his music and his message has gotten on the same shows that trumpeted him as an instrument of the nefarious is, at worst, deeply comically ironic.

If Obama had merely noted that Ludacris, a hip-hop artist whose talents and business acumen he respects even though he deplores his message, is trying to inflame passions with a naked play for the media circus to add a ring around Chris Bridges for a day, and we’re only feeding him by responding to this criticism and dignifying it with a condemnation, then, just maybe, you would have had a much better reply than the one he really gave.

Obama’s the only loser here; he can’t win for trying to court hip-hop’s considerable power and influence in the youth, and he can’t run far enough away from genuine enthusiasm to obscure the off-color comments it’s wrapped around.

His figurative wag of the finger is, to Ludacris, just a shake of the moneymaker.

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