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Wishful Thinking: Searching for a Brighter Side of Gangsta RapAlexis Charles

Aint Nuthin' But a "g" Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap By Eithne Quinn Columbia University, 2004, 264p, $62.50

I pulled up in my 6-4 Impala / They greet me with a 40 and I started drinking / And from the 8-ball my breath start stinking / Love to get my girl, to rock that body / Before I left I hit the Bacardi / Went to her house to get her out the pad / Dumb hoe says something stupid that made me mad / She said somethin' that I couldn't believe / So I grabbed the stupid bitch by her nappy ass weave / She started talkin' shit, wouldn't you know? / Reached back like a pimp and slapped the hoe / Her father jumped out and he started to shout / So I threw a right-cross cold knocked him out / [chorus] Cuz the boyz n the hood are always hard / You come talking that trash we'll pull your card / Knowing nothing in life but to be legit / Don't quote me boy, cuz I ain't saying shit.

- N.W.A., “Boyz n the Hood”

A stroll through your local Barnes and Noble's “Ethnic Studies” section can attest to the existing abundance of literature extrapolating on the state of black culture, with a particular attention paid to rap music. The most prominent and popular of such books include Robin D.G. Kelley's Yo Mama's Disfunktional, Todd Boyd's The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and Reign of Hip Hop, Tricia Rose's Black Noise and Nelson George's Buppies, B-Boys, Baps, and Bohos: Notes on Post-Soul Black Culture.

Amidst this background, Ain't Nuthin' But a “g” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap-complete with the evidently required colorful cover art and in-the-know-lingo title-enters the debate with a British perspective from the scholar Eithne Quinn, a Professor of American Studies at the University of Manchester, UK.

Drawing heavily on ideas presented elsewhere by her shelf-mates, Quinn discerns two main reactions to gangsta rap. The first, held by a leading majority, is that gangsta rap has a decidedly negative impact on American culture. Gangsta rappers perpetuate and promote derogatory stereotypes, and distort how Black Americans are perceived by the culture at large, by offering glamorous portrayals of pimps, thugs and street hustlers. Moreover, gangsta music seems to encourage not only homicide, drug use and the degradation of women, but the use of these motifs for the sole purpose of economic gain.

The alternative perspective, taken up by Kelley and Boyd in their aforementioned works, embraces rap's profitability, and spins it. Far from a detriment, they contend that economic gain through self-exploitation is the only way the young black males who comprise the gangsta rapper populace can be empowered in society.

Quinn's perspective splits these two poles. In a dispassionate study of the emergence of West Coast rappers like Ice Cube, Eazy-E, Dr. Dre, and Snoop Dogg during a term refered to as "classic gangsta," 1988-1996, he locates gangsta rap creators and consumers in the middle of a distressing and debilitating socioeconomic struggle against mainstream America, in which traditional black protest politics are failing.

Quinn's understanding of gangsta rap within the political, social and economic currents of the Reagan and first Bush administrations is a much-needed and provocative analysis given that popular criticism has too often treated the genre in a contextual vacuum. He skillfully draws important connections between the decline in manufacturing work, the proliferation of dead end “McJobs,” high rates of incarceration for black men (resulting from the “war on drugs”), and the explosion of angry, militant and abrasive rap music. And his initial conclusion is sound: gangsta rap is the child of postindustrial conservative America. It's the vivid response to the serious social ills plaguing inner cities.

Regretfully, Quinn's ability to remain dispassionate is patchy, and she occasionally begins a misbegotten crusade to champion gangsta rap. While attempting to illustrate the merits of this individualist and capitalist ethic, she disregards its negative consequences and neglects her earlier claim to avoid judgment.

For example, the opening chapter discusses the McKenzie River Corporation's choice of gangsta rappers as the spokespersons for St. Ides Malt Liquor (a cheap high-alcohol beer). Quinn argues that even though the company was using the rappers to specifically target working-class urban blacks with a potentially harmful product, the rappers themselves were only following their gangsta ethic: to get paid.

She is quick to remind readers that rappers such as N.W.A. would have been promoting the brew for free in songs such as “8 Ball”, even if they had not signed with McKenzie River for a corporate endorsement deal. She also coaches, “to avoid a mass cultural pessimistic reading” of this situation, and understand that spokesmanship, and gangsta rap as a whole, gave young black men access to financial freedoms that they had historically been denied.

But Quinn focuses on just six gangsta rappers—six successful young rappers out of the entire black community. The question that begs to be asked and answered is, "Does the payment of a handful of rappers negate the problematic and exploitative aspects of a corporation knowingly targeting an entire minority community?"

Throughout her text, Quinn attempts to domesticate the gangsta rapper and make the manipulative business practices and often violent and aggressively sexist lyrics acceptable, even palatable. But how does one make acceptable misogynistic lyrics that boast sexual abuse and degradation of women, as in these lyrics from the Geto Boys: “I'm a peeping Tom/her body's beautiful so I'm thinking rape.”

Quinn counter-reads these lyrics, claiming that the gangsta persona is preoccupied with attacking that which threatens his masculinity, so the brutality of the lyrics implicitly construes women as powerful. Even so, the woman's “power” stems from her feminine physical beauty, which still subordinates her to the super-masculinity gangsta rappers purport.

However, Quinn does not make an effort to interpret and justify N.W.A.'s more blatantly abusive lyrics, quoted in full at the top of this review: “Dumb hoe says something stupid that made me mad…So I grabbed the stupid bitch by her nappy ass weave / She started talkin' shit, wouldn't you know? / Reached back like a pimp and slapped the hoe.”

The “power” of the opposite sex in this case stems not from her physical beauty (she can even be read as unattractive with her “nappy ass weave”), but from her refusal to be subordinate and quiet in the presence of the “gangsta.” I find it hard to dismiss these misogynistic lyrics as Quinn does by claiming they are simply signs of gangsta's “working through of relationship insecurities."

Quinn not only attempts to debunk the apparent sexual tension in gangsta rap, she also does her best to assuage reactions to murderous lyrics by claiming they are purely performative. This explanation is true to some extent. Gangsta rap is a highly performative genre. But Quinn conveniently overlooks the documented bloodshed that has manifested from escalating, violent lyrics.

In particular, her dealings with the highly publicized East Coast-West Coast “beef” (gangsta rap feud) between Death Row and Bad Boy Records, which ultimately resulted in the homicides of Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G., both gunned down in the 1990s, is selectively dismissive. According to Quinn: “To date the demise of classic gangsta rap to the high-profile deaths of key personnel would preclude the possibility of any upbeat or open ending to this story."

But to dismiss Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.'s deaths as coincidental to the demise of gangsta rap self-servingly supports the optimistic view of gangsta rap that Quinn is intellectually invested in. Theses deaths, rocked the gangsta rap as well as the entire hip-hop community. They made it painfully obvious that despite financial empowerment, gangsta rappers were still vulnerable to the repercussions of “thug life.” After Tupac and Notorious B.I.G.'s deaths, fans, critics and activists began to clamor for an end to the violence gangsta rappers portrayed. Mainstream “classic gangsta” rap began die when the narrative changed from (gang) banging to “blinging.”

To her credit, Quinn realizes that the nation is in the middle of another decidedly conservative capitalist era. George W. Bush's tax cuts are benefiting the rich while dismantling public services (reminiscent of the situation in which gangsta rap first emerged). But ever the optimist, Quinn predicts a backlash against free-market worship in rap, and a shift away from the accumulation narrative and commodifcation of the ghetto.

Quite hopefully, Quinn notes that “original gangstas,” such as Ice Cube, are moving away from an individualist stance and acknowledging the value of collectivism and community. But what about the young gangstas just getting into the rap game—the ones who are yet to make their fortunes, and want to cash in on unfavorable social conditions and the profitable imagery of thug life?

Billboard's former #1 artist, 50 Cent, is a glaring example of the “new gangsta.” He is quick to claim ghetto authenticity, while endorsing numerous products, from shoes to VitaminWater; he is famous for being shot 9 times, starting fights with rappers from opposing camps and flashing the diamonds and platinum that he has earned by parlaying street life into multi-platinum albums.

Most recently, and perhaps most disturbing to Quinn's hopeful narrative, 50 Cent has defended George W. Bush's actions in dealing with Hurricane Katrina victims. While it is most probable that 50 Cent's comments were meant more to publicly antagonize rapper Kanye West (who infamously accused Bush of not caring about black people) rather than show loyalty to the Bush administration, it is still unsettling that he would publicly support Bush and reject the black community.

This is the reality of gangsta rap in less optimistic terms: It is every man for himself and profit above all else. 50 Cent's comments garnered attention from the press, and managed to stir up speculation about an escalating feud between him and Kanye West, which led to more publicity, which meant more profit.

Overall, Quinn's analysis of gangsta rap warrants attention. She thoroughly explores the history of expressive black culture, her placement of gangsta rap within political and social contexts is original and insightful, and her efforts to highlight the constructive aspects of gangsta rap are laudable. However, while claiming to acknowledge the nuances of gangsta rap, the text forces a positive reading in places where one just doesn't fit. It searches for a way to rationalize and make acceptable the “I don't give a fuck” gangsta attitude, which is everything gangsta rap and rappers are not about. Unlike Quinn's analysis, gangsta rap is not concerned with rationality, acceptability, negating pessimistic readings, or creating upbeat endings. Ulimately, this is the text's greatest failing: clouded with eternal optimism and wishful thinking, it denies gangsta rap the freedom to be “gangsta."

Alexis Charles is a graduate student of American studies at Columbia University.

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