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In February, fresh off her Grammys sweep, singer Billie Eilish appeared in a Vogue cover feature in which she called rappers liars. Vogue’s Rob Haskell described Eilish as a “grounded girl with a happy family,” a characterization she affirmed, only to explain that, in her music, she likes “developing characters,” including monsters and murderers. Her songwriting, Haskell noted, is “never strictly autobiographical,” and Eilish defended her use of alter egos: “Just because the story isn’t real doesn’t mean it can’t be important.” Lying, though, that’s something else. And rappers, she said, with all their “posturing,” tend to be guilty of it, she said. Indicting America’s blackest and most popular music genre, Eilish noted, “There’s a difference between lying in a song and writing a story.”
In the arts, it is generally acceptable — preferable, even — to play with the truth. Those who create rightly claim the license to employ fantasy, metaphor, mythology, abstraction, sentimentality, exaggeration, and fiction at will, even when representing a lived reality, whether one’s own or someone else’s. Artists use elements of the unreal to purposefully contradict, amplify, or otherwise complicate what we might clumsily define as “real.” Black artists are certainly no exception. One only needs to behold, say, Basquiat’s 1984 Self-Portrait, read Toni Morrison’s Beloved, gaze up at Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War bronze monument, or watch John Singleton’s film Boyz N the Hood to understand the complicated nature of “the truth” within art created to reflect real life.
Rap music, however, has been subject to a different set of standards ever since hip-hop swept the pop music landscape in the late 1980s. For decades now, the music has been relentlessly and uniquely fact-checked. Rap critics and fans alike have made a habit of rubber-stamping only those artists whose lyrical tales and public personas are verifiable. Fakes get no love. Even rap artists themselves have passed judgment. Philly rapper Schoolly D, who wrote rhymes about his IRL exploits with the Park Side Killers gang, once griped about Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys: “None of them are for real. They’re just spoiled little rich kids that know how to act, basically.” A decade later, in another public battle for recognition, rapper Nas blasted rival Jay-Z on the track “Ether”, accusing him of masquerading as an ex-con and cocaine dealer: “No jail bars, Jigga, no pies, no case / Just Hawaiian shirts, hangin’ with little Chase.” In “Ether,” authenticity was currency and Jay-Z was dead broke.
One could make the case that hip-hop artists, in branding themselves as “reality rappers”, “ghetto reporters,” or, simply, “real,” have delineated the very standards by which they have been assessed. In his interview with NWA, following the success of their controversial debut album Straight Outta Compton, Rolling Stone’s Alan Light explained the group’s defense against criticism: “They’re just reporting what they see on the streets around them and setting it to Dre and Yella’s funky, bass-powered beats.” Blame might be leveled at these early L.A. rappers, who were particularly adamant that because they told it “like it is,” they could claim as much cultural authority as the most trusted CNN correspondents. To justify her critique, in other words, Billie Eilish could reasonably cite NWA, the godfathers of reality rap.
The thing is, the notion of authenticity in hip-hop has always been, and still is, performative. It is a rhetorical device — one of many — baked directly into the artistic practice of rap. Since the late 1980s, it has been used as a creative tool, leveraging the public’s rubbernecking fascination with gang life. As John Leland observed in The New York Times in 1989, “the gang member has become one of the prevailing images of the young black male on television and in the movies.” Rap artists of that era not only tapped into that image but exploited it, using it for music industry attention. The “strength of street knowledge,” as NWA called it, was an assertion of a point of view as much as it was a sophisticated marketing trick meant to captivate the public. This was a way to insist on the value of young black perspectives on issues like gang violence, drug culture, and police abuse, and a way of making the world pay attention. Taking cues from filmmakers, tabloid television, and cable news, rap artists figured out how to spin “reality” to make themselves commercially viable.
Rappers have also long understood the cultural value of eliciting disapproval from white listeners and other outsiders. Inversely, this has meant ensuring precious validation from the people for whom the music was intended, especially black peers who understood the references, the humor, the slang, and the conceits in the music.
Eilish’s complaint about rappers lying betrayed, among other things, the young white singer’s patent ignorance about hip-hop songwriting and about complex representations of blackness. She didn’t get it. But her response — the uneasiness, the miscalculation, the brush-off — only reinforces what is so unique about rap as a form of black art: although rappers have indeed staked a claim to “truth,” that “truth” has always been a slippery and subversive thing.
Billie Eilish isn’t supposed to get it. And that’s the point.
Felicia Angeja Viatoris the author of To Live and Defy in LA: How Gangsta Rap Changed America (Harvard University Press, 2020).