Rapper Lupe Fiasco is intimately familiar with the pressures on artists to make hits. He went through a very public spat with his label, Atlantic Records, over the direction of his 2011 album Lasers, and was publicly indifferent about the finished product -- an indifference shared by many of his fans, who preferred the smart, uncompromising Lupe of his earlier albums to the guy who sampled Modest Mouse and relied on synths and simplistic hooks.
While the album got tons of radio play, large sales, and multiple Grammy nominations, it turned out that Fiasco felt the same way as his supporters. His follow-up mixtape, Friend of the People, was filled with angry record industry disses. But Lupe gets his revenge against these pressures in another way as well. His newest song, "Bitch Bad," features brief excerpts of fake hip-hop and r&b songs that serve as vicious parodies of today's hit records.
"Bitch Bad" is a complicated grappling with misogyny in popular music and culture, and its effect on children of both genders. But what is not complicated is how Lupe feels about songs he hears on the radio. The rap song listened to by one young boy is described like this:
His mama songs along, and this is what she says:
'N***as, I'm a bad bitch, and I'm that bitch
Something that's far above average'
And maybe other rhyming words like 'cabbage' and 'savage'
And 'baby carriage' and other things that match it"
The rapper gets his licks in at the R&B world as well. In the second verse, a group of young girls listens to an R&B song on the radio, and Lupe sings an excerpt of what they hear. To get the full effect, you really need to listen to the song -- the parody of today's R&B player-ific delivery is spot-on:
Bad bitches, bad bitches, bad bitches
That's all I want and all I like in life is bad bitches, bad bitches
Interestingly, this is not the first time the rapper has used this technique. Even before Lasers, he was examining the pressures on artists to make music that, as he so memorably put it, will "dumb it down". On his song "Hip Hop Saved My Life," the central character, an aspiring rapper, creates his first hit, the generically-titled "Stack That Cheese":
... a wack-ass beat
That's a track that's weak that he got last week
'Cause everybody in the stu' was like, 'That's that heat!'
A bass-heavy medley with a sample from the 70's
With a screwed-up hook that went, 'Stack that cheese'
Something something something, 'stack that cheese'
Mother sister cousin, 'stack that cheese'
He couldn't think of nothing, 'stack that cheese'
Interestingly, while the song is portrayed as idiotic, the maker of it is drawn sympathetically -- he has a baby to support, and friends to pull out of tough situations. This contextualization of the cash grab helps bring the song multiple layers, and makes it seem real rather than a CB4-style straight parody.
The technique of creating an intentionally bad fictional song to illustrate a point about popular music was not something Fiasco invented, of course. Eminem created a perfectly done simple hook on his song "Syllables," which is a tune directly about how kids "don't give a shit about lyrics" and artists need to pander to that in order to succeed. Dr. Dre, also on the song, talks about how he's "looking for that hook," and Em responds with this:
Shorty, I love you and you love me too
We were meant to be 'cause
Shorty, you love me and I love you too
And I promise I'll be true to you
Charles Hamilton's "I Hate Parties" is another such meta-complaint. The tune has a generically bouncy beat and samples the most painfully obvious of rock songs, The Cars' "Just What I Needed." Halfway through the first verse, Hamilton drops into self-proclaimed "dumb shit":
So where my ladies at? The smoking section
If you get high enough, you could hold my erection
'Cause I'm fly, sky high
I'm a lady killer, call me Mr. Brightside
'Cause I shine when I black, night sky
A prick on my records, but I'm really a nice guy
The hip-hop canon is filled with these moments, from Shock G's "Fear of a Mixed Planet" to Joe Budden's hysterical "Bullsh*t Rappers & Metaphors". In the latter, Budden calls out his compatriots for their use of on-the-nose comparisons like "hot like the sun" and "flat like plasma". Songs like this are fascinating moments of artists talking back not only to their audience, but to the record industry and the culture as a whole, and rebelling, in the best way they know how, against the pressures to keep their art as simple and universally accessible as possible. In addition to being on-point and funny in the way that only parody from an insider can be, they show a glimpse of how artists see the world that they live in and the trends they spend their lives and livelihoods negotiating with. So the next time you hear someone tell you to "Superman that ho," remember the all-too-human reasons why the character who made the similarly inane "Stack That Cheese" was rapping in the first place:
Get his momma out the hood, put her somewhere in the woods
Keep his lady looking good, have her rolling like she should
Show his homies there's a way other than that flipping yay
Bail his homie out of jail, put a lawyer on the case
Throw a concert for the school, show the shorties that it's cool
Throw some candy on the Caddy, chuck the deuce and act a fool