“Dark Knight feeling, die and be a hero / or live long enough to see yourself become a villain…”
Jay-Z uttered that on Kanye West’s “So Appalled,” a song title that fits fan sentiment toward so many of our 2000s and 2010s faves’ descent from “favorite to the most hated” for one reason or another. Jay was referencing The Dark Knight and Batman’s choice of whether to kill a corrupted Harvey Dent and keep him from tarnishing his beloved image as the sinister Two-Face or to uphold his own code and let Two-Face continue his rampage.
While the stakes aren’t that high in the rap world, many fans wish we could somehow encase our rap heroes in their greatness, before attrition and celebrity insulation led them to disappoint us for one reason or another. 2020 in particular has been chockful of dubious quotes and curious silence from rappers that muddies the listening experience for many — if they can listen at all. If celebrity has taught us one thing this year, it’s that time, like money, often exposes who you really are.
Rap fans should consider themselves lucky if their favorite merely sounds dated or saw their lyrical luster fade in the battle rap arena like Cassidy. That’s just what happens with art sometimes. But the election season exploits of certain rap veterans, to again quote Kanye’s hit, have been “f*ckin’ ridiculous.”
Kanye is somehow on the election ballot. Diddy and Ice Cube exposed their political inexperience at the wrong time with a pair of scrutinized initiatives. 50 Cent joked about voting for Donald Trump to take advantage of tax breaks, not realizing, or caring, that he has suffering fans that are in no position to joke about another Trump presidential term. 50 Cent became beloved in part for reckless comments, but he’s turned off many for that very same reason. He’s since clarified that he actually hates Trump, but the MAGA crowd are a special kind of misinformed. Clarification doesn’t mean as much to them as fabrication.
Cube’s continued attempts to distance himself from Trump have proved that. The rap icon merely spoke with the administration about his Contract With Black America, but a Trump aide beat him to the punch of announcing it and framed him as an ally. While some respect him for his willingness to speak with whomever for the sake of Black people, others feel like he allowed himself to be used by an administration desperate for Black votes. Unfortunately, he’s been unable to articulate exactly how his CWBA is reflected in Trump’s Platinum Plan for Black America and now he has proximity to Jared Kushner’s racist implication that Black people don’t “want to be successful” — which was uttered during a Fox News interview about Cube. The entire situation is a mess that may forever tarnish his militant early ‘90s catalog with some listeners.
But he’s not the only artist ripe to be heard with new ears. Earlier this year, some stars disappointed their following during a heightened political moment after the police killing of George Floyd. There were some entertainers who spoke up for the protesters, but there was also a deafening silence from stars like Kendrick Lamar. He had spent the previous decade exploring the nature of the Black American experience but had nothing publicly to say about the very real pain we were all dealing with after Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s police killings — although he did make an appearance at a protest in his hometown. There are millions of fans eager to support his next work, but some may feel like they have a new context to engage him as someone who, while talented, might not be as politically passionate as his music would indicate.
Later that June, J. Cole caught ire for tone-policing Noname on his “Snow On Tha Bluff” record. His song is just one instance of many rappers alienating their female fanbases this year. In a more serious circumstance, Game was accused of sexual assault and lost a $7 million dollar lawsuit (because he didn’t show up to the hearing). Cam’ron and 50 Cent somehow found humor in Megan Thee Stallion saying she was shot. Rap fans also expressed disappointment that few rappers came out in support of Megan Thee Stallion. T.I., Bun B, and Maxo Kream were some who eventually did, but it came after weeks of Megan expressing a lack of support amid misogyny — including from her own peers. These artists relied heavily on women to accrue their riches, but couldn’t reciprocate support when Black women needed it most.
This piece would’ve been doubly long culling the misdeeds of newer acts in hip-hop. But the antics of veteran acts sting more because they’re all too entrenched in our minds to dismiss. People won’t hesitate to delete Lil Pump from their libraries after his recent pro-Trump comments. But it’s harder to cut ties with an artist you love. It feels like a bigger slap in the face. Many fans who grew up with ’00s-and-‘10s-era rappers will comb through the music of their teenage and childhood years, reflect on good times with them, then end up saying, “it’s a shame they [insert self-inflicted L here].”
Some of these artists have shown us who they were. They expressed their innermost thoughts and aspirations in song, but some listeners were naive enough to think those characteristics wouldn’t lead them too far astray. Jay-Z told us “I’m out for presidents to represent me” from day one. Should we really be surprised about his controversial alliance with the NFL? Likewise, 50 Cent came out the gate talking reckless without a care for the consequences. That mentality doesn’t change in an election year.
The truth is usually there for us to notice, but in some cases, we feel fooled. When J. Cole rapped “n****s be thinkin’ I’m deep, intelligent, fooled by my college degree, my IQ is average” on “Snow On Tha Bluff,” it felt like a copout. He had spent a decade growing along with fans, ascending commercially around the same time as the Ferguson uprising with “Be Free.” But then he dropped the ball at a critical social justice moment, attacking someone who was advocating for the people in a manner we wished he would have.
But that expectation is the problem. Years of good PR, media hype, and devout stannery vaulted entertainers up the cultural pedestal. But as Tupac once said, “Watch people. Because you can fake for a long time, but one day you’re gonna show yourself to be a phony.” Or an abuser. Or an egoist. The gifts of longevity as an entertainer are fame and riches, but the curse is that no one can hide who they really are forever — especially with riches that detach you from reality. Today, when stars falter, the perceived betrayal makes the backlash strike that much harder. The echo chamber of discontent is that much louder and harder for artists to cut through. The music becomes much harder to listen to.
The disappointment we feel toward our favorites is a pitfall of consumerism. So now we have to scrutinize the environment. It would be foolish of us to continue the cycle of hoisting artists as larger than life figures, knowing we’re going to drop them the second they strike a nerve and not be able to enjoy their music the same. Going forward, a healthier relationship with celebrity looks like simply appreciating their talent and keeping it at that.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.