Rap, Rape, and R&B: The Battle of the Sexes

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Kanye West / Nicki Minaj (Photo: Erik Voake)
Brandon Soderberg WRITTEN BY
Brandon Soderberg

To get a distinctly different take on all the talk in this space during the past few weeks about misogyny and sexual violence in rap and R&B, we've invited Latoya Peterson, owner and editor of the website Racialicious, "the intersection of race and pop culture," to join the discussion. Latoya is, well, way better at navigating these issues than I am, and right at the beginning of our exchange, she pointed out two glaring errors on my part: First, when I referred to "R&B" in my previous writing, I actually meant male R&B, and when I discussed misogyny, I never directly addressed the very charged concept of masculinity, a crucial oversight.

Over the course of several days, the two of us e-mailed back and forth, examining my assertion that there's been a notable shift in the treatment of male-female sexual relationships in the songs of rap (for the better) and R&B (for the worse). Latoya was doubtful, but we soldiered on, and the results of our conversation will appear here over two columns – Round One and Round Two. Unsurprisingly, Kanye West has something or other to do with all of it.

We got started with my leading question from a recent column: Is hip-hop more mature than R&B?

LATOYA PETERSON: I don't think this is a matter of maturity vs. immaturity. Your column paints R&B with a broad brush and deals almost exclusively with male artists, when many of the folks topping the charts are women. Women, in general, aren't singing so-called date-rape anthems--so how come what women are doing isn't considered worthy of a trend column?

BRANDON SODERBERG: I did mention Rihanna in the context of "Love The Way You Lie," which is ostensibly a rap song featuring a female R&B singer, and it's much more complex and realistic than anything the current male R&B singers are doing. Female R&B, it seems to me, is actually in pretty good shape so there's nothing to really kick against there. Rihanna does a lot with her persona and is, more often than not, making very specific demands in her songs. Also: Nicki Minaj. No one is even really concerned with whether she's a rapper or a singer and she operates in the worlds of both hip-hop and R&B pretty well. I think Pink Friday is fairly masterful at illustrating a variety of female emotions. So let's refine the question: Is rap more mature than male R&B?

LP: I still don't think so. Rap and R&B appear to be trying on each other's clothing for the moment. How are you defining maturity?

BS: Does the genre approach certain key issues, like dealing with sex or money, in an interesting, complex, non-abusive, caring way. As you said in a previous conversation, pop is aimed at a really young group of people right now. And as I said in my column, I think rappers are doing a better job of smuggling in smart, edifying, mindful stuff, within the context of these youth-focused pop songs.

LP: What is interesting to me is that you didn't focus on larger themes of masculinity, gender, race, or other societal factors in your columns. The most striking thing to me is how, over time, the boundaries of acceptable types of masculinity have blurred. Rappers are allowed to show more range because the game changed. It happens.

BS: And rappers are taking advantage of that wider freedom of expression. It seems like we're transitioning out of the "rap & bullshit" era, where rap songs needed a girl to sing on the hook to express the emotions that rappers were too rugged and raw to let out. Perhaps some of the back-and-forth between the sexes has been lost, but Drake and Kanye are often dealing with their issues or ideas about women and relationships in their raps. That seems like progress.

LP: In a sense. Rappers have always had that one song where they pour out their feelings to someone--Method Man has "Breakups 2 Makeups," Jay-Z has "Song Cry," Immortal Technique has "You Never Know." The culture has broadened enough to allow rappers to explore the dimensions of their relationships. At the same time, the constraints around R&B singers have also eroded. Generally, R&B has always been about seduction; but that ideal appears to have gone out the window.

BS: But what's going on in R&B still remains "seduction." It's just more often about alcohol and drugs and overtly taking advantage of girls. Now, wining and dining and backrubs have been replaced by blatant drinking and drugging. To me, that's just as nefarious, or maybe moreso, than a lot of what has been deemed objectionable over the years in hip-hop lyrics.

LP: Alcohol is the most effective date-rape drug out there. And that's everywhere--in college parties and house parties and on up to bottle service. So it's not necessarily endemic to R&B.

BS: But R&B singers are making songs about it now. Kinda sweet pop songs.

LP: But not all of R&B focuses on alcohol. I'm just not seeing this epidemic of Rape & Blues that you are. There's been a migration in what is considered acceptable behavior, though, and it's interesting when that behavior makes its way into the music.

BS: I just think this dynamic has become a significant part of what's mentioned in songs these days, but I see your point. It also isn't new. The O.G. "Rape & B" song is Dean Martin's "Baby, It's Cold Outside." But the thing about this phenomenon is that what legally constitutes rapeis often exactly what's being sung about in these songs. And I don't think that listeners, or even the artists themselves, are aware that this is what's going on.

LP: A big part of the issue is the murkiness around consent. Point blank, a lot of people still define rape as a "stranger in the bushes" and date rape as "pills in the drink." But it's more complicated. Obviously, pop culture has long glamorized drinking--and our conversations around sex and consent haven't moved too far away from where they were 50 years ago.

BS: The "stranger in the bushes" concept, though, is reaffirmed when listeners, critics, whomever, don't step back from these alcohol-fueled-seduction songs and ask, "What the hell are these songs actually about?" As I said in my column, people are pondering Odd Future's raps that mention rape, which generally fall into the "stranger in the bushes" category; but this date-rape R&B is accepted.

LP: But I don't think this really veers into dangerous territory unless we get into the idea that alcohol subs in for consent."Blame It (On the Alcohol)" was in that murky gray area of consent where people will read what they want into the lyrics.

BS: But it seems to me like a whole bunch of current R&B hovers around this "murky gray area of consent," and that seems really dangerous and messed-up. Potentially, it's far worse than whatever's being said by rap's tough guys.

LP: It's not better or worse, though. It's all still part of how "rape culture" manifests in society.You can have lyrics that demand certain sexual acts and then tell a woman to get out, treating her like an object. Or you can have the "couple more shots and you open up like a book" style. But it's the same basic thing. In both scenarios, the artists are removing agency from the woman and putting their desires at the forefront.

BS: I think that one is worse than the other, though. One is just shitty behavior, and people can listen to the songs and fantasize about how it might be cool to use women and then throw them out when you're done with them; but I'm talking about songs that go beyond that, where part of the thrill is acknowledging how cruel or inappropriate doing such a thing is. With the "couple more shots" style of R&B, there is nothing "bad" or transgressive about it. It's supposed to be normal. A guy like Abel Tesfaye of the Weeknd seems to be taking this to another level. His songs are about openly using women sexually and emotionally, with drugs ("High For This," "Glass Table Girls") being a big part of that. Tesfaye's pushing the concept of the woman as a willing participant even further out of the equation.

LP: But I'm still not seeing the extremes taken by the Weeknd to be representative of...anything.

BS: What the Weeknd represent is this traditional, lecherous male R&B persona reduced to absurdity. It doesn't matter that the Weeknd aren't yet wildly popular, or whether they're part of pop music's cutting edge. What matters is that they exist at all. Because it means that here's a group (or one guy plus a couple of producers) who is picking up on the presence of these ickier, questionable consent aspects of R&B and taking them even further. My question for you: What do you think the Weeknd is doing? Like, what's the deal? Tesfaye is clearly working this stuff out, or something. Is it all a big joke? Is it some deconstruction of modern R&B?

LP: Hell if I know. To me, the Weeknd sounds like Blue Six and Portishead were hanging out with Shai and they had an unfortunate run in with Joe Francis from Girls Gone Wild and Dov Charney from American Apparel at a party where somebody spiked the punch with Lil Wayne's syrup cup.

BS: That's an awesome description of him and he might even think of it as a compliment. That said, I think that description could also fit some of mainstream R&B too, which is my point. The Weeknd is more extreme than what's on the radio, but by just a little bit. There's just no pretending that women matter in songs by the Weeknd.

LP: Generally speaking, pop culture is not interested in the desires of women. Every industry has this problem. There's no Bechdel Test for records, but generally what women are doing isn't considered noteworthy unless it's tailored for male consumption. Trey Songz may get to be eye candy and Kanye gets to have a few reflective moments, but that doesn't mean society suddenly has started caring more about what women want.

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