Some of the most well-known and successful rappers in hip hop right now aren’t the typical ‘thug’ act. These rappers — such as Lupe Fiasco, Childish Gambino and Frank Ocean — don’t just rap about money and fame.
Their lyrics go beyond what can be found between a woman’s legs or at the tip of a lighter, too. Instead, this growing subgenre features nerds and geeks who perform songs about feelings. Nerds and geeks who critique society alongside lyrics about love interests, money and yes, sometimes games.
Some would tell you this is ‘backpack rap.’ A ‘backpacker’ used to refer to graffiti artists carrying around spray cans and music in a backpack. Eventually it stopped identifying graffiti artists, and instead pointed toward their musical taste. Now “backpack rap” has become an underground subgenre of hip hop without (as much of) the glamor, Benjamins and flashing lights. Instead the focus is on the lyrics: sometimes political or rife with social commentary, but typically introspective. Though the genre had been around for a while, it wasn’t until Kanye West burst his way into the limelight that backpack rap reached mass public awareness.
Hip hop has always been subversive, but music like Kanye’s? It wasn’t supposed to succeed. He didn’t have the right image — he liked to wear pink polos, he never hustled, he didn’t grow up on the streets. He was soft. He wasn’t marketable. His first album, The College Dropout, could be considered a little too bourgeois, a little too middle class. I mean, just look at the title of the album! He proved all the sceptics wrong, of course. Kanye reminds us of this his follow-up album, Late Registration, which featured the track “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” “When he came, in the game, he made his own lane” is a lyric about himself delivered with a furious salvo.
Kanye’s success was cemented in 2007. This was the year when performer 50 Cent made a wager: if Graduation, Kanye’s third album, outsold Curtis, 50’s newest album, then 50 would stop making solo albums. The outcome was practically historic: the real gangster, the man who had been shot nine damn times, was outsold by an artist who raps about insecure college women. That’s probably not as bad as turning out to be all talk, though. 50 Cent didn’t stop making solo albums, but he did stop being relevant — unlike Kanye.
Kanye literally strutted around with a backpack in his early days, paving the way for other non hardcore-gangster acts like Kid Cudi and Drake. A few of these acts, like Frank Ocean, might’ve carried a Gameboy or a few comics in that backpack.
Frank Ocean released the album Nostalgia, Ultra in 2011 to much critical acclaim. The album carries nostalgia wistfully and speaks to The Way Things Used To Be: innocent, simpler, better. The theme is carried through the interludes between songs, titled after classic titles such as Street Fighter, Goldeneye and Soul Calibur. These games are artifacts anchoring us down, reminding us of a faraway time — when a swing set was euphoria, popsicles cost a dollar, and controllers only had a handful of buttons.
The hit single off the album is “Novacane”, referring to an anaesthetic used in dentistry. When the song is considered in light of the album’s theme of nostalgia, Novacane becomes a melancholy reminder that Things Have Changed for Frank Ocean. Happiness is a distant memory, in its stead he has a troubling numbness — like the drug.
The idea of nostalgia is seductive like that; it doesn’t matter what we’re talking about. Things are always better in the past…somehow. Typically I scoff at the sentiment: things can’t perpetually be better in the past. Nonetheless Frank Ocean contains a curiously infectious, relatable maudlin. By the time we reach “Swim Good” — a song whose the music video which sees Ocean dressing like Mugen of Samurai Champloo — we feel just as restless, just as lost as he does. A feeling of lack overwhelms the album, and when he finally cries out “I’m about to drive in the ocean, Imma try to swim for something bigger than me” we’re buckling up the passenger seat with him. There’s somewhere else we’re meant to be.
Acts like Lupe Fiasco resemble Peter Parker, embody the stereotype of the geek, the nerd. We’re typically portrayed as the sensitive types, the outliers who are searching for acceptance. The paradox with the Peter Parker type is to be at once meek and still be able to don a costume for heroics. Players: stereotypically reserved, shy until we pick up a controller, until it’s time to save the world. Should the apocalypse ever occur, or if a zombie outbreak happens, the assumption is that we’d thrive, yeah? Backpack rappers, meanwhile, have an eye for the things that are wrong with society. They carry in their chest an idealism that wants to change the world.
To further the paradox, gaming is a thing that almost everyone does nowadays….and yet! There’s still the feeling that we’re outsiders who proving ourselves, that what we ‘stand’ for isn’t fully understood. Always the underdogs, like the characters we play. Just the same, there’s a reason acts like Drake continue to sing about being an anomaly in the rap game despite the ubiquity of similar artists. Yes, it’s true that acts like Drake sell introspection typically absent in mainstream hip hop acts. Drake raps about missing exes, being unsure of what he’s doing with himself and the suffocation of loneliness.
Some would say this sentimentality is a fault — even the delivery itself, where Drake occasionally sings, is a far cry from the verbal assault possible with rap. It’s vulnerable.
And yet, you can’t be in the rap game without ample bravado. Likewise, despite the shy, meek stereotype, you can’t press start if you’re not willing to rise to the challenge. These are but stereotypes, personas and performances, of course — for both.
Regardless, what Lupe Fiasco offers, thanks to that outsider status, is The Real. His debut album, Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor, starts with a song literally titled that,”Real.” He raps about Things That Matter, not bragging about his Benz. Instead, love songs that talk about courtship while riding a skateboard are featured alongside tracks about social inequality and politics. Sometimes ‘the real’ simply refers to emotions and feelings. The point is to achieve resonance, to be honest, to be, well, real. Like Kanye, nobody would have thought Fiasco would succeed with “Kick, Push,” a song about skateboarding — but the track got Lupe nominated for a Grammy in 2007.
In the track “I’m Beaming” Fiasco seems to attribute his persona to being a nerd. “You see I hood a lot, and yeah I nerd some/hood’s where the heart is, nerds where the words from,” he explains. “Nerd,” I assume, describes the way some of us consume our media of choice: hungrily. Whatever the thing is, we’re interested in the weird little details. Knowledge acquisition makes us happy.
Lupe urges the kids looking up to him to go out into the world and to not come back “unless you learn some.” What Fiasco proposes is that you can’t write the lyrics he writes without first being a nerd. In his case: a political science nerd, a history nerd.
The same song reveals that Lupe doesn’t feel comfortable identifying as either label, as it they would be misnomers for what he ‘is.’ I’m sure some of us who hesitate to identify as a ‘gamer,’ especially if we have an extroverted personality that doesn’t fit the archetype, understand this sentiment well. Similarly rebellious against labels is Childish Gambino, whom many know as Donald Glover from the show Community.
Gambino’s geekdom is evident in the title of his explosive single: “Freaks and Geeks.” Here, he mentions geeky things like ee cummings, Minority Report, and Batman. The title is a reference to a canceled show, but is also representative of Gambino’s entire act.
In the song Do Ya Like, Gambino describes himself as “Hovy with glasses, Weezy but geeky” (ie similar to Jay-Z and Lil Wayne, respectively). Like Lupe, he self-identifies as someone that’s nerdier, geekier than your average rapper — that’s the “geek” part. The “freak” part, well, you don’t have to listen to any of Gambino’s songs for long to see what that’s a reference to. Like any rapper, Childish Gambino uses his raps to remind us of his sexual prowess.
In All The Shine, Gambino tells us that his promiscuous lifestyle is him making up for lost time in high school, where he was presumably too unpopular, too ‘white’ and too geeky to get laid. He’s bitter, too — in his remix of Kanye’s song, “All of the Lights,” he indignantly asks “Was I supposed to stay uncool? Please remind me.”
Game-wise, Gambino goes further than both Lupe and Frank Ocean. Gambino regularly mentions games in his songs. For instance, Do Ya Like has a lyric that talks about a ‘stacked’ woman being like Tetris, while the song Heartbeat mentions playing Super Smash Bros. Amusingly, Gambino’s lyrics are so sexual that whenever he mentions something geeky, it’s in the context of something that’s naughty or nasty. Smash Bros, for instance, is referenced in the middle of lyrics about threesomes and sweet sex that sees partners kissing at the end.
Gambino doesn’t want to be known as a backpack rapper — even though he hits on similar themes of loneliness, alienation and social critique as others in the genre, even though he appeals to the same type of audience. In My Shine, Gambino angrily spits “I’m super sayin’ like Goku/Fuck nerdcore, fuck backpack, fuck rap cool, I make cool rap.” Gambino doesn’t want to be pigeonholed, doesn’t want the baggage that comes with the label. His flow is as mercurial as his act is flexible, not quite fitting neatly into the boxes people want to put him in. He sees labels as an extension of the reception he’s gotten from many haters, something done to deny him legitimacy in the exclusive club of ‘real’ rappers.
Curiously, though “one of us” in that they are similarly alienated, in that their eyes might light up to beloved geeky and nerdy franchises, there’s a few jarring differences between the products in our industry and the products in theirs. To highlight the most distinctive difference, let’s look at Lupe Fiasco’s latest album, Lasers.
We often hear about how safe mainstream titles in the gaming industry have to be, right? Too big to take risks. When development costs are enormous, a game has to be palatable to the masses to break even. This means we’re flooded with blockbuster games with no ‘messages,’ because above all, most games are no more than a product.
Lupe’s been vocal about how much of his vision he’s had to sacrifice for Lasers. It’s a departure from earlier albums, which weren’t desperately trying to find a vein in the arm of the mainstream. Critics could see straight through it, it’s got a 57 on Metacritic — as opposed to his earlier much-lauded albums. “I had to create this commercial art that appeases the corporate side. I had to acquiesce to certain forces,” Lupe laments.
Still, in the four minutes of a track off Lasers, like Words I Never Said, Lupe packs a message that has more balls, dares to be more controversial, and is more politically-minded than most mainstream games combined.
I can’t think of a big commercial game that has a message as explicit and incisive as lyrics like “I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit” and “Limbaugh is a racist, Glenn Beck is a racist/Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn’t say shit.” Even Kanye West, who has sold multiple number 1 albums, regularly imbues his lyrics with progressive, explicit critique about current issues.
At best, what we have in games tends to be commentary that’s abstracted — Bioware games are great for this — or presented with a “similar to today’s world, but not quite!” packaging.
Despite being a charged song, Words I Never Said performed decently on the Billboard top 100. If ‘Words I Never Said’ were a game, though, I’m not confident publishers would be comfortable with all of the Realness.