Could Rap Lyrics Shift After Wayne, Ross Mishaps?

Since it began, rap has found ways to offend. Whether for political content, sexual imagery, misogyny, violence or coarse humor, rappers have found themselves having to defend their words on a regular basis, no matter how innocuous – or extreme.

Photo: Eric Reed / Invision / AP
iHeartRadio Music Festival, MGM Grand Garden Arena, Las Vegas, Nev.

Those defenses have typically been defiant. So it was a bit startling when both Lil Wayne and Rick Ross – under intense fire over rhymes deemed offensive – gave mea culpas for their words amid threats of boycotts and a loss of major endorsements.

Their contrition, and the success of their detractors in getting them dropped by major corporations, raises the question: Could the close attention paid to lyrics today – mainly because of the digital age and social media – find some rappers toning down their words, or compromising artistry, to satisfy others?

Ebro Darden, the program director of New York’s Hot 97 radio station, thinks rappers may become more mindful, but isn’t convinced this is a tipping point in the genre.

“I think they’ll be more cautious about the disrespect they show toward a specific situation,” he said. “I think hip-hop is a culture of people speaking what they feel and see. … I think it does get out of balance sometimes and I think that’s the main issue people have with hip-hop.”

Others see Lil Wayne and Ross’ situations as blips that won’t shake up how rap stars approach their music.

“Folks in hip-hop are going to use freedom of expression,” said Cori Murray, the entertainment director at Essence. “I don’t see them self-editing themselves.”

There are still plenty of examples of vulgarities dominating in rap, including pop hits such as Kendrick Lamar’s “(Expletive), Don’t Kill My Vibe” and A$AP Rocky’s “(Expletive) Problems.” The use of gay slurs has been toned down, though rappers like Tyler, the Creator still say them regularly.

Photo: Charles Sykes/Invision/AP
Performing at the Hot 97 Summer Jam XX in East Rutherford, N.J.

But even for a genre known for using outrageous words to convey a message, some thought Lil Wayne went too far. On a remix of rapper-producer Future’s song, “Karate Chop,” Lil Wayne compared a sex act to the beating that killed 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. PepsiCo cut ties with Lil Wayne in May; it was the same week the company pulled an online Mountain Dew ad – developed by Tyler, the Creator – that was criticized for portraying racial stereotypes and making light of violence toward women.

Steve Stoute, the former record label boss and advertising executive who has worked with Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige, believes Lil Wayne and Ross did no harm – and nothing they haven’t done before.

“Lil Wayne’s fans know he wasn’t being disrespectful … he was trying to make a point, which in hip-hop you will sometimes go as ridiculous as he went to make a point,” said Stoute, who added that the rappers shouldn’t alter their lyrics. “I think Lil Wayne and Rick Ross and every other artist should do exactly what they’ve always done to become the special thing that they are.”

Ross rapped about giving a woman the drug MDMA, known as Molly, and having his way with her in Rocko’s song “U.O.E.N.O.”

Reebok ended its relationship with Ross in April after the women’s group UltraViolet held several protests, including one outside a Reebok store in New York City. The sneaker brand said it was not happy with how 37-year-old Ross handled the situation (Ross apologized for his lyrics twice before he was dropped, but only acknowledged the seriousness of his words after Reebok let him go).

“I bet you (Ross) wasn’t thinking that was going to happen when he was writing that lyric,” John Legend said of the backlash the burly rapper received, with whom he has collaborated three times. “Now people will think twice about stepping in that territory and making light of it … and if that’s the effect of people protesting then maybe that’s a good effect.”

Lyrics from rap icons like Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G. were sometimes raw and vulgar, but they didn’t have contracts with major companies like rappers do today. Hip-hop performers have become the faces for many top brands: Nicki Minaj has a contract with PepsiCo; Snoop Dogg has had endorsements with Hot Pockets and Monster Energy; and Jay-Z, rap’s ultimate businessman, has had a plethora of partnerships, including Duracell, Reebok and recently Samsung to debut his album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, released this week.

Photo: Roy Mata
Frank Erwin Center, Austin, TX

“When these companies go into business with artists, they know what they’re getting into. It’s not a surprise what kind of record Lil Wayne makes. He’s Lil Wayne,” said Rick Rubin, who has worked with the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Run DMC and dozens of other rock and rap icons. “There’s a reason they want to be associated with him: because of the kind of records he makes.”

Stoute echoed that.

“(Pepsi) went in business and (Wayne) was already locked up in jail for having a gun, but now they’re going to get rid of him because of the Emmett Till line?” Stoute said.