So how gay is gangsta rap? I just got Chamillionaire’s The Sound of Revenge and the answer seems to be, pretty darn gay. First of all there’s his name (pronounced Camille, like a girl or, even worse, a Frenchman.) And then there’s the subject matter. In “Picture Perfect” Chamillionaire primps and preens, boasting about his diamonds and good looks and encouraging the male chorus to “take a picture, nigger.” In “No Snitchin’” he discusses the importance of keeping secrets with the ardor of a man who’s spent some time on the down low. “Peepin’ Me” is about the glances which precede a hook-up — with a woman, supposedly, but the surreptitiousness of the set-up and the emphasis on getting off and getting out strongly suggest a male-male context. In “Think I’m Crazy,” Chamillionaire is nervous as a woman seems to be coming on to him; the emotional climax comes when the rapper is shown a picture of his (male, naturally) “ex-best friend”— who died of AIDS. But the clincher is “Grown and Sexy” an ode to ass in which Chamillionaire watches a woman walk away and declares “you look better from behind.” Indeed — and we all know what it means when a man doesn’t go for specifically female sexual characteristics but becomes excited by buttocks, don’t we?
Of course, this isn’t just about Chamillionaire. Gangsta rap in general is, and has always been, subliminally flaming in exact proportion to its desperate surface masculinity. It is, after all, about the denigration and rejection of intimacy with women, the glorification of male-male bonds (“it ain’t no fun if the homeys don’t get none”), and the fetishization of that mother-of-all-penis substitutes, the gun.
As R&B and rap have fused, you might have thought that this inward-turned masculinity would have been diluted. Radio rappers work with female performers on a regular basis, after all. Yet the barrier between male and female remains firmly in place; in fact, if anything, it’s accentuated. On the video for Get Up, Chamillionaire performs beside Ciara. Yet he’s entirely oblivious, spitting out his rhymes in front of his all-male crew as if he hasn’t even noticed that one of the hottest women on the planet is gyrating nearby. The disinterest signals of course, that he’s a manly man who doesn’t need no woman…but, you know, it might also signal that he’s a manly man, who doesn’t need no woman.
Or (to give poor Chamillionaire a break) consider a recent appearance by the big bad father of the genre, Dr. Dre. Dre makes a recent guest appearance on the Timbaland track “Bounce”. It’s an amazing song; Timbaland provides one of his best productions, all squeaky stuttering, tripped-out beats. Unfortunately, the lyrics are just embarrassing for everyone. Timbaland’s monotone is, as always, lame, and Dre isn’t a whole lot better — he sounds old, tired, and bored as he mumbles on about an Asian girl named “Some Young Ho”. Then Justin Timberlake starts babbling cluelessly about a menage a trois, and one is forcibly reminded that what we’ve got here is not two girls with one guy, but several guys and no girl. That is, until the last verse, where Missy Eliot shows up — hitting hard on the “bs” of “big old butt”, punching out syllables behind the beat, mocking Dre’s lame rhymes, and generally making the other guys look like pansies. A track which (like pretty much all gangsta tracks) is supposed to solidify the male bona fides of the participants ends up suggesting that the only one in the room who can swing that thing is a (butch) woman.
In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick points out that heterosexual masculinity is always and everywhere caught in a “double bind.” On the one hand, associating with or being intimate with women feminizes you, and makes you gay. On the other hand, associating with or being intimate with men also makes you gay. The result is a desperate, constant, and unconvincing denial of homosexuality. Black men — who have been relentlessly emasculated in our culture — have responded with a cartoon masculinity which needs constant shoring up, not only because of outside pressure, but because of its internal contradictions. You can never be man enough, because being man enough means not being a man, which means you have to prove your man enough…and on and on, repetitive track after repetitive track.
This is why, I think, R&B has really surpassed rap as a creative force on radio at the moment. Gangsta has (ahem) swallowed rap, and gangsta as a genre is, it seems to me, deeply neurotic. The obsession with masculinity limits the subject-matter, the style, and the ambition of its performers. Female R&B performers are just able to talk about more stuff — they can be tough, but they can also be vulnerable; they can talk about wanting sex, but they can also talk about wanting to save themselves. And without the burden of always being dangerous and manly, their tracks can take more musical risks as well. That Ciara track with is sure as hell trickier than anything on Chamillionaire’s album; it actually has different parts, for example.
All of which helps to explain why OutKast’s last, brilliant fusion of rap and R&B went precisely nowhere. Idlewild is certainly about the relationship between Dre and Big Boi — but that relationship is both acknowledged and loving, not a fraught, sublimated mess. As a result, it leaves room for Dre to dress fastidiously while singing feyly off-key, Big Boi to get chewed out by his woman, and both to rely on a goofy stew of influences which includes such manic, semi-androgynous geniuses as Prince and George Clinton. Billed as their break-up album, Idlewild is actually Dre and Big Boi’s most definitive statement that they care more about each other than they do about being tough — and the rap world’s predictable response was, “Fuck that gay shit.” Then they all went back to contemplating each others’ hardness.