“Undeniable classic,” says MTV
For a rapper who cut his teeth doing morning-zoo radio-personality shit and whose lyrics couldn’t possibly be more benign without altogether abandoning the whole money-and-hoes meme (which just isn’t going to go away anytime soon, despite what an absolutely huge chunk of rap’s audience, me included, might wish), Ludacris sure does seem to get a whole lot of hate from mainstream culture-commentator types. The whole Bill O’Reilly Pepsi-ad flap of a couple of years ago made sense, I guess: a popular rapper who says cusswords and brags about sex being hired to endorse a product whose target consumer base is all of humanity. But it was still weird; Ludacris is not Public Enemy or Luke or Too Short or Bushwick Bill or Eminem or Big Pun or any of the other rappers who made their names by making enemies and pushing social mores as far as they’d go in whatever direction. His whole thing has always been bawdy-funny strip-club nonsense and empty Southern signifiers and everybody-dance chatter and lots and lots of jokes. He doesn’t really mess with politics or violence or pimp-talk much. He’s never made a move that sickened just about everyone who was paying attention, the way Nelly did with the “Tip Drill” video. He’s certainly been gleefully profane and misogynist (“Ho” from Back for the First Time immediately springs to mind), but he’s always done that stuff with tongue firmly in cheek, and his stuff has always been completely within already-established parameters, so it was tough to see what O’Reilly was all up in arms about, other than the fact that it’s that guy’s job to be all up in arms about stuff. I don’t actually watch O’Reilly’s show (like, ever), so I don’t know if he made similar noise about Kanye West being in a Diet Pepsi ad campaign at the exact same moment that he shit on the president on live TV; I’m guessing he at least had something to say about it, but he didn’t manage to get Pepsi to drop the ad campaign or anything like that (which probably says more about an encouraging cline in the power of rightist blowhard pundits than it does about O’Reilly’s own rancor, but that’s someone else territory right there).
This is happening all over again for Luda, though in a decidedly more low-key way. Jay Smooth posted today about some sort of beef that’s been brewing between Luda and Oprah Winfrey since before Luda appeared with the rest of the cast of Crash on Oprah’s show a few months ago. I didn’t see the show, and it’s not on YouTube, but here’s apparently what happened: Oprah and Don Cheadle were getting all heated with each other over whether or not it’s OK for black people to drop N-bombs, Terrence Howard said that he doesn’t use the word himself, Oprah asked Luda if he’d consider not using it, and Luda squirmed around for a few seconds and said he agreed with Cheadle. Then Sandra Bullock asked Luda to stop saying “bitch” and “ho,” the crowd totally erupted, and Luda said that he’d stop when women stopped calling themselves bitches. Bullock said she wouldn’t call a woman a bitch unless she was one. End of segment. Whew. (Seriously, read this thing, even if I did just pillage it wholesale.) He told Contactmusic.com a few days ago that Oprah cut a lot of his comments out of the show, that he didn’t feel welcome in dealing with her at all, that she admitted in a backstage conversation that she felt like she was giving rappers a platform by having them on her show and that she wasn’t very comfortable with that. Also: “I don’t see why Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, who I am huge fans of, it’s OK for them to go on Oprah. They speak the same language I do, but they do it though comedy, so I guess that’s acceptable to her.”
Now, Luda’s response to Bullock is totally wormy and disingenuous; it’s not a man’s place to say how women should talk about each other just like it’s not a white blogger’s place to tangle himself in a debate among black celebrities about N-bomb usage. But it’s a bit weird how Ludacris, of all people, keeps getting caught up in this stuff. It could be his visibility, as he’s become the latest in a long line of rappers to jump completely into Hollywood culture, a cultural space that still doesn’t know quite what to do with rap music. Most of the rappers who have made that jump (Will Smith, Queen Latifah) have either been total Nerf-balls or populist-empowerment types (exactly like Oprah), so there hasn’t been much conflict, but things get considerably weirder when you consider the case of someone like Ice Cube, whose music was always incomparably more provocative and objectionable than anything Ludacris has ever done and who never faces talk-show host ice-grills when Are We There Yet? or whatever drops. But then, Ludacris is making this jump while he’s still a viable commodity in the rap world, still capable of pushing something like that DTP compilation to gold even though he hasn’t released a half-decent album himself since his utterly fucking amazing debut (one of my top five rap albums of all time, totally not joking). And then, maybe the whole routine banality of his misogyny is what gets under famous people’s skin; he doesn’t make a big show of it the way Ice Cube did, and maybe that makes it all the more disgusting. But I don’t get the impression that Winfrey or O’Reilly spent that much time thinking about it; it’s more like he’s successful, he’s a rapper, he’s right there, let’s say something.
I don’t understand the way rap music works, and neither do you. Anyone who claims to have it figured out is a liar, including rappers. It seems possible that Ludacris could exponentially expand his audience if he stopped talking shit about half the world’s population; Jay-Z certainly made moves in that direction a few years ago, and that’s part of why he’s become such a massive cultural figure. But there’s also a tendency for rappers to suddenly morph into pandering cornballs a la LL Cool J the exact instant they decide they’re going to stop objectifying women. If it’s so easy to cut out unconscionable lyrical material, wouldn’t more rappers do it? Wouldn’t it be easier to find positive examples outside the backpack-librarian crew? Why can’t we leave that shit alone?
As rap increasingly becomes an indispensable part of popular culture, we’re going to have more and more awkward moments between rappers and clueless cultural-gatekeeper types. I can vividly remember Ice Cube on Letterman, promoting Anaconda when I was in high school. (Dave: “So, did you like South America?” Cube: “It was cool, but I prefer South Central.” Dave: “Heh heh, yeah.”) When Luda was on Ellen around the time Crash came out, there was a hard-to-watch moment where Ellen was gushing to Luda about the movie and naming all the actors she thought were great in it but naming only the white actors and forcing Luda to respond by naming all the nonwhite actors in the movie. If misogyny and nihilism can replace funny slang as the main part of this friction, maybe we can get some answers to those questions. Or maybe we can just get a whole lot more people confused.
Voice review: Keith Harris on Ludacris’s Red Light District