Country-rap conversation-starter “Accidental Racist,” from Brad Paisley’s new album Wheelhouse (out tomorrow), is a plastic-sounding Nashville facsimile fitted with rudimentary nods to hip-hop production — electronic drums tug along the almost six-minute song, while its studio effects-soaked sound vaguely nods to record scratching. That’s the best you can say about it. The worst: A heretofore rational Paisley haplessly misreads America’s racist past, then LL Cool J drops a guest verse addressing “Mr. White Man,” presumptuously voicing the effects of that racist past. And for good measure, “Accidental Racist” doubles back on its goodwill gesture every chance it gets and insultingly excuses the country’s racial transgressions as just a series of misunderstandings.
Paisley, who for awhile has played the role of the country singer who smarmy liberals like myself could get behind politically, croons the most hedged and noncommittal acknowledgement of white supremacy one could possibly imagine. Here are a few frustrating lines: “The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south”; “I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin / But it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin”; “Our generation didn’t start this nation / And we’re still paying for the mistakes.” Somehow, Paisley refuses to grasp the vast, basic rewards that all these crimes committed so long ago have bestowed, and continue to bestow, upon anyone who claims whiteness.
Then there’s a verse from LL Cool J, which bends over backwards to confirm Paisley’s naivete. While Paisley seems to speak from his own milieu (of Starbucks and Skynyrd T-shirts), multi-media crossover star LL agrees to embody the hackneyed role of, well, every aging racist’s nightmare: The pants-saggin’, gold-chained “thug,” perhaps the most grossly overrepresented cliché in popular culture. Then he has this character concede that, hey, he’s judging Paisley’s cowboy hat too, so “R.I.P. Robert Lee,” and, well, we all got to do a little better in tolerating each other. LL’s subservient characterization also panders to white listeners’ cluelessness, because this isn’t even an accurate presentation of “hood” style anymore, which has moved towards subtler variations on streetwear and skatewear.
Those aware of the occasional conversations between country and hip-hop will remember Eric Church’s “Homeboy.” The 2011 song is a reasonable, if dad-like conservative (with a lower-case “c”!) address to the South’s hustlin’ white kids to get their shit together, that might as well be titled, “Ain’t No Future in Yo’ Frontin'”: “Here you are running these dirty old streets / Tattoo on your neck, fake gold on your teeth / Got the ‘hood here snowed, but you can’t fool me / We both know who you are.” Church enacts a delicate balance that connects hip-hop style and attitude to delinquency, but doesn’t present it as the end-all of blackness or hip-hop culture.
It’s hard to get really enraged at Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s country-hop attempt at racial solidarity because their clueless take on race-based message music seemingly meant well (in the broadest sense of that phrase). But the duo’s creepy, condescending impulse, even as they presume to mend centuries of racial animus, easily makes “Accidental Racist” the most politely toxic thing to drop onto the Internet this year.