Killer Mike and El-P’s excellent new album, Run the Jewels, starts out with, for listeners new to rap, what might seem a particularly jarring salvo. In the second verse of the title track, Mike describes a hold-up: “I’ll pull this pistol, put it on your poodle or your fuckin’ baby/ She clutched the pearls, said, ‘What in the world!’ and ‘I won’t give up shit!’/I put the pistol on that poodle and I shot that bitch.”
These lines won’t make anyone familiar with the genre raise an eyebrow, particularly if they’ve heard the canonical “Gimme the Loot,” on which Biggie covers the same subject with a serial killer’s cruelty. Killer Mike and El-P are thoughtful, friendly guys, and they’ve done plenty of press that depicts them as such. Fans understand the two are unlikely to actually make good on the violence of their music. The idea, both on Run the Jewels itself and in fans’ reaction to it, is clear. Killer Mike and El-P write characters that do horrible things—things that have nothing at all to do with the artists themselves.
But what’s the difference between criticizing the casual violence and misogyny from Mike above, and the casual violence and misogyny of an artist like Action Bronson? Pitchfork critic Ian Cohen recently ripped Bronson for his new mixtape, Saaab Stories. In the review, Cohen reads malice into Bronson’s misogyny. “The sheer percentage of lyrics purposefully written to degrade women is the only thing that might leave a lasting impression.” According to Cohen, it’s not only that Bronson is saying misogynistic things, but that he’s doing so with intent to degrade women.
Cohen’s not the only critic taking a stronger stand on misogyny than in the past. In an article headed “Is Yeezus the Tipping Point for Rap Misogyny?” Brandon Soderberg of SPIN writes that Kanye West’s most recent record “found me reevaluating rap’s nastier aspects. . . . Rap feels like it is reverting.”
There may be an argument that radio rap is reverting, but certainly the genre itself has been this misogynistic and violent for 20 years. A critic should never be a scold, and it’s odd to find experienced critics now taking issue with rap’s subject matter.
Soderberg writes, “Let’s stop hiding behind the ‘this is art’ defense because it’s not that simple.” But when we evaluate rap from a political lens, we’re forced to dismiss an enormous amount of the music that many of us grew up with.
As rap has lost a somewhat single-minded focus on lyrics, critics too have neglected to think of rappers as writers. That’s fair—many popular artists of the last decade have something to offer other than incisive writing. But the loss of focus on lyrics has made people forget the obvious: that rap, more so than any other type of music, remains an exercise in the spoken word, and can often be effectively evaluated when looking at how well bars, lines, and verses are written.
Cohen cites “Thug Love Story 2012” and “Hookers at the Point” as examples of Bronson’s best work to date. These are, respectively, a tale of a violent, abusive relationship between two warped protagonists, and a triptych of hooker, pimp, and john that includes the lyrics: “Bitch get my money fo’ I kill ya/You know the life you chose/Now you wanna be a mother/The kid will be retarded you can add him to his brother/Do the world a favor line your pussy up with rubbers.”
I’d argue these songs are powerful, disturbing tales of vice that, were they not so vivid, so well written, so filled with detail, wouldn’t have the same impact. When Bronson writes well, he does what Killer Mike does—paints believable characters that are easy to separate from the artist himself. When he doesn’t, its temping to think that Bronson’s intent is to be offensive and disgusting, rather than to tell a story.
What offends Cohen about Saaab Stories is that “the narrowing of Bronson’s subject matter has resulted in an increasingly less satisfying artistic experience.” That’s valid criticism that doesn’t indict Cohen himself for loving Roc Marciano’s Reloaded or countless other rap albums he’s evaluated without giving a second thought to misogyny or violence. In an aside, Soderberg makes a similar critique of Yeezus: “When Rick Rubin tells the Wall Street Journal that much of the record was completed in just two days, it makes a lot of sense. Yeezus sounds like an album knocked out in less than two days.” The problem with Yeezus then, is not necessarily its misogyny but rather its lyrical laziness.
Misogyny and violence are twin dilemmas for those of us who believe in the value of rap that’s built on offensive subject matter; if you never liked the genre to begin with, the misogyny and violence rife throughout confirm your bias. It’s inarguable that rap can cover more subjects than bitches and guns. But it’s equally useful to distinguish between the laziness of artists who aren’t taking the time or putting in the work that’s distinguished their lyrics in the past. Artists like Killer Mike, Bret Easton Ellis, Vladimir Nabokov, and Biggie have shown us that artistic depictions of violence and misogyny can have value. When music is well written, it’s easier to separate character from artist, to separate depictions of violence and misogyny to confessions of the same. The question left to critics is whether an artistic work is worthy of its subject, be it violence, misogyny, or anything else.