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Can’t Nobody Tell Me Nothin: Respectability and The Produced Voice in Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”

It’s been ten weeks now that we’ve all been kicking back in our Wranglers. allowing Lil Nas X’s infectious twang in “Old Town Road” to shower us in yeehaw goodness from its perch atop the Billboard Hot 100. Entrenched as it is on the pop chart, though, “Old Town Road”’s relationship to Billboard got off to a shaky start, first landing on the Hot Country Songs list only to be removed when the publication determined the hit “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” There’s a lot to unpack in a statement like that, and folks have been unpacking it quite consistently, especially in relation to notions of genre and race (in addition to Matthew Morrison’s recommended reads, I’d add Karl Hagstrom-Miller’s Segregating Sound, which traces the roots of segregated music markets). Using the context of that ongoing discussion about genre and race, I’m listening here to a specific moment in “Old Town Road”— the line “can’t nobody tell me nothin”—and the way it changes from the original version to the Billy Ray Cyrus remix. Lil Nas X uses the sound of his voice in this moment to savvily leverage his collaboration with a country music icon, and by doing so subtly drawing out the respectability politics underlying Billboard’s racialized genre categorization of his song.

Screenshot, “Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (Official Movie) ft. Billy Ray Cyrus”

After each of Lil Nas X’s two verses in the original “Old Town Road,” we hear the refrain “can’t nobody tell me nothin.” The song’s texture is fairly sparse throughout, but the refrains feature some added elements. The 808-style kick drum and rattling hihats continue to dominate the soundscape, but they yield just enough room for the banjo sample to come through more clearly than in the verse, and it plucks out a double-time rhythm in the refrain. The vocals change, too, as Lil Nas X performs a call-and-response with himself. The call, “can’t nobody tell me nothin,” is center channel, just as his voice has been throughout the verse, but the response, “can’t tell me nothin,” moves into the left and right speaker, a chorus of Lil Nas X answering the call.  Listen closely to these vocals, and you’ll also hear some pitch correction. Colloquially known as “autotune,” this is an effect purposely pushed to extreme limits to produce garbled or robotic vocals and is a technique most often associated with contemporary hip hop and R&B. Here, it’s applied to this melodic refrain, most noticeably on “nothin” in the call and “can’t” in the response,

After Billboard removed the song from the Hot Country chart in late March, country star Billy Ray Cyrus tweeted his support for “Old Town Road,” and by early April, Lil Nas X had pulled him onto the remix that would come to dominate the Hot 100. The Cyrus remix is straightforward: Cyrus takes the opening chorus, then Lil Nas X’s original version plays through from the first verse to the last chorus, at which point Cyrus tacks on one more verse and then sings the hook in tandem with Lil Nas X to close the song. Well, it’s straightforward except that, while Lil Nas X’s material sounds otherwise unaltered from the original version, the pitch correction is smoothed out so that the garble from the previous version is gone.

In order to figure out what happened to the pitch correction from the first to second “Old Town Road,” I’m bringing in a conceptual framework I’ve been tinkering with the last couple of years: the produced voice. Within this framework, all recorded voices are produced in two specific ways: 1) everyone performs their bodies in relation to gender, race, ability, sex, and class norms, and 2) everyone who sings on record has their voice altered or affected with various levels of technology. To think about a produced voice is to think about how voices are shaped by recording technologies and social technologies at the same time. Listening to the multiple versions of “Old Town Road” draws my attention specifically to the always collaborative nature of produced voices.

In performativity terms—and here Judith Butler’s idea in “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” that “one is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body” (521) is crucial—a collaboratively produced voice is a little nebulous, as it’s not always clear who I’m collaborating with to produce my voice. Sometimes I can (shamefully, I assure you) recognize myself changing the way my voice sounds to fit into some sort of, say, gendered norm that my surroundings expect. As a white man operating in a white supremacist, cisheteropatriarchal society, the deeper my voice sounds, the more authority adheres to me. (Well, only to a point, but that’s another essay). Whether I consciously or subconsciously make my voice deeper, I am definitely involved in a collaboration, as the frequency of my voice is initiated in my body but dictated outside my body. Who I’m collaborating with is harder to establish – maybe it’s the people in the room, or maybe my produced voice and your listening ears (read Jennifer Stoever’s The Sonic Color Line for more on the listening ear) are all working in collaboration with notions of white masculine authority that have long-since been baked into society by teams of chefs whose names we didn’t record.

“Tools in a Recording Studio” by Flickr user Carol VanHook (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In studio production terms, a voice’s collaborators are often hard to name, too, but for different reasons. For most major label releases, we could ask who applied the effects that shaped the solo artist’s voice, and while there’s a specific answer to that question, I’m willing to bet that very few people know for sure. Even where we can track down the engineers, producers, and mix and master artists who worked on any given song, the division of labor is such that probably multiple people (some who aren’t credited anywhere as having worked on the song) adjusted the settings of those vocal effects at some point in the process, masking the details of the collaboration. In the end, we attribute the voice to a singular recording artist because that’s the person who initiated the sound and because the voice circulates in an individualistic, capitalist economy that requires a focal point for our consumption. But my point here is that collaboratively produced voices are messy, with so many actors—social or technological—playing a role in the final outcome that we lose track of all the moving pieces.

Not everyone is comfortable with this mess. For instance, a few years ago long-time David Bowie producer Tony Visconti, while lamenting the role of technology in contemporary studio recordings, mentioned Adele as a singer whose voice may not be as great as it is made to sound on record. Adele responded by requesting that Visconti suck her dick. And though the two seemed at odds with each other, they were being equally disingenuous: Visconti knows that every voice he’s produced has been manipulated in some way, and Adele, too, knows that her voice is run through a variety of effects and algorithms that make her sound as epically Adele as possible. Visconti and Adele align in their desire to sidestep the fundamental collaboration at play in recorded voices, keeping invisible the social and political norms that act on the voice, keeping inaudible the many technologies that shape the voice.

Propping up this Adele-Visconti exchange is a broader relationship between those who benefit from social gender/race scripts and those who benefit from masking technological collaboration. That is, Adele and Visconti both benefit, to varying degrees, from their white femininity and white masculinity, respectively; they fit the molds of race and gender respectability. Similarly, they both benefit from discourses surrounding respectable music and voice performance; they are imbued with singular talent by those discourses. And on the flipside of that relationship, where we find artists who have cultivated a failure to comport with the standards of a respectable singing voice, we’ll also find artists whose bodies don’t benefit from social gender/race scripts: especially Black and Brown artistsnon-binary, women, and men. Here I’m using “failure” in the same sense Jack Halberstam does in The Queer Art of Failure, where failing is purposeful, subversive. To fail queerly isn’t to fall short of a standard you’re trying to meet; it’s to fall short of a standard you think is bullshit to begin with. This kind of failure would be a performance of non-conformity that draws attention to the ways that systemic flaws – whether in social codes or technological music collaborations – privilege ways of being and sounding that conform with white feminine and white masculine aesthetic standards. To fail to meet those standards is to call the standards into question.

So, because respectably collaborating a voice into existence involves masking the collaboration, failing to collaborate a voice into existence would involve exposing the process. This would open up the opportunity for us to hear a singer like Ma$e, who always sings and never sings well, as highlighting a part of the collaborative vocal process (namely pitch correction, either through training or processing the voice) by leaving it out. To listen to Ma$e in terms of failed collaboration is to notice which collaborators didn’t do their work. In Princess Nokia’s doubled and tripled and quadrupled voice, spread carefully across the stereo field, we hear a fully exposed collaboration that fails to even attempt to meet any standards of respectable singing voices. In the case of the countless trap artists whose voices come out garbled through the purposeful misapplication of pitch correction algorithms, we can hear the failure of collaboration in the clumsy or over-eager use of the technology. This performed pitch correction failure is the sound I started with, Lil Nas X on the original lines “can’t nobody tell me nothin.” It’s one of the few times we can hear a trap aesthetic in “Old Town Road,” outside of its instrumental.

In each of these instances, the failure to collaborate results in the failure to achieve a respectably produced voice: a voice that can sing on pitch, a voice that can sing on pitch live, a voice that is trained, a voice that is controlled, a voice that requires no intervention to be perceived as “good” or “beautiful” or “capable.” And when respectable vocal collaboration further empowers white femininity or white masculinity, failure to collaborate right can mean failing in a system that was never going to let you pass in the first place. Or failing in a system that applies nebulous genre standards that happen to keep a song fronted by a Black artist off the country charts but allow a remix of the same song to place a white country artist on the hip hop charts.

The production shift on “can’t nobody tell me nothin” is subtle, but it brings the relationship between social race/gender scripts and technological musical collaboration into focus a bit. It isn’t hard to read “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music” as “sounds too Black,” and enough people called bullshit on Billboard that the publication has had to explicitly deny that their decision had anything to do with race. Lil Nas X’s remix with Billy Ray Cyrus puts Billboard in a really tricky rhetorical position, though. Cyrus’s vocalsmore pinched and nasally than Lil Nas X’s, with more vibrato on the hook (especially on “road” and “ride”), and framed without the hip hop-style drums for the first half of his versedraw attention to the country elements already at play in the song and remove a good deal of doubt about whether “Old Town Road” broadly comports with the genre. But for Billboard to place the song back on the Country chart only after white Billy Ray Cyrus joined the show? Doing so would only intensify the belief that Billboard’s original decision was racially motivated. In order for Billboard to maintain its own colorblind respectability in this matter, in order to keep their name from being at the center of a controversy about race and genre, in order to avoid being the publication believed to still be divvying up genres primarily based on race in 2019, Billboard’s best move is to not move. Even when everyone else in the world knows “Old Town Road” is, among other things, a country song, Billboard’s country charts will chug along as if in a parallel universe where the song never existed.

As Lil Nas X shifted Billboard into a rhetorical checkmate with the release of the Billy Ray Cyrus remix, he also shifted his voice into a more respectable rendition of “can’t nobody tell me nothin,” removing the extreme application of pitch correction effects. This seems the opposite of what we might expect. The Billy Ray Cyrus remix is defiant, thumbing its nose at Billboard for not recognizing the countryness of the tune to begin with. Why, in a defiant moment, would Lil Nas X become more respectable in his vocal production? I hear the smoothed-out remix vocals as a palimpsest, a writing-over that, in the traces of its editing, points to the fact that something has been changed, therefore never fully erasing the original’s over-affected refrain. These more respectable vocals seem to comport with Billboard’s expectations for what a country song should be, showing up in more acceptable garb to request admittance to the country chart, even as the new vocals smuggle in the memory of the original’s more roboticized lines.

While the original vocals failed to achieve respectability by exposing the recording technologies of collaboration, the remix vocals fail to achieve respectability by exposing the social technologies of collaboration, feigning compliance and daring its arbiter to fail it all the same. The change in “Old Town Road”’s vocals from original to remix, then, stacks collaborative exposures on top of one another as Lil Nas X reminds the industry gatekeepers that can’t nobody tell him nothin, indeed.

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Featured image, and all images in this post: screenshots from “Lil Nas X – Old Town Road (Official Movie) ft. Billy Ray Cyrus” posted by YouTube user Lil Nas X

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Justin aDams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.

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Sonic Contact Zones: An Interview with DJs MALT and Eat Paint in Koreatown, Los Angeles

On Sunday, February 21, Atlanta-based hip-hop photographer Gunner Stahl will be DJing at a raw space being built at 4317 Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles’ Koreatown as part of the Red Bull Music Festival. Red Bull suggests that many of the photographer’s artistic subjects, such as Tyler the Creator, Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, Gucci Mane, and/or The Weeknd might make guest appearances during his set. This star-studded stage with financial backing from the drink that gives you wings will stand across the street from Vilma’s Thrift Store, DolEx Dollar Express, Gina’s Beauty Salon, and Botanica Y Joyeria El Milagro. Tickets are a modest $15. At first glance, the location choice might seem odd; why not the legendary Wiltern Theater just down the street on Western? Or why not set up a stage inside MacArthur Park? Those are definitely options, and many performers do grace the stage of The Wiltern for fans in Koreatown and the greater Los Angeles area. However, for those who know Los Angeles’ Koreatown gets down, discounted snacks and pedicures a stone skip away from millionaires sounds just about right.

Figuring out these connections between sound, capital, culture, ethnicity, and art in LA’s Koreatown has been a popular pursuit in recent years. The year was 2014. The place was The Park Plaza Hotel on the outskirts of Los Angeles’ Koreatown. The people performing were TOKiMONSTA (Jennifer Lee), Far East Movement (Kevin Nishimura, James Roh, Jae Choung, and Virman Coquia), Dumbfoundead (Jonathan Park), and others. The reporter was Erik Kristman for Vice Media’s Thump. In the article titled “SPAM N EGGS Festival Was a Window to LA’s Multiculturalist Underground Movement,” Kristman proclaims: “Koreatown’s spectrum of sound, a culture hidden beneath its mid-Wilshire scenery, is no doubt one of the few remaining jewels of the LA underground.”

In Club Cultures: Music, Media, and Subcultural Capital (1996), Sarah Thornton writes that DJs “play a key role in the enculturation of records for dancing, sometimes as an artist but always as a representative and respondent to the crowd. By orchestrating the event and anchoring the music in a particular place, the DJ became a guarantor of subcultural authenticity” (60). Asian American DJs performed in Koreatown, so the electronic music and hip hop they mixed was enculturated not only with a Los Angeles neighborhood flair but also with an ethnic twist.

Park Plaza Hotel, Taken by Flickr User Cathy Cole (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The Park Plaza Hotel, now The MacArthur, has its own important history as a venue as well. Built in the 1920s by prominent Los Angeles-based architect Claud Beelman, the building has hosted the racially exclusive Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, night clubs such as Power Tools with attendees such as Andy Warhol, and has been a site of numerous films and music videos such as Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” (2017). It survived the demolishing of similar Art Deco buildings during the 1980s. It survived the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of four police officers who beat Rodney King and the killing of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins by Soon Ja Du, the Korean-born convenience store owner of Empire Liquor on 91st Street and Figueroa Avenue. It survived, if not flourished, in the subsequent gentrification of the Wilshire Center area with eager real estate agents and endowed buyers who are made nostalgic by the building’s Art Deco façade. The right DJs playing in a prime spot such as The MacArthur could definitely guarantee a level of Los Angeles subcultural authenticity for attendees. But what kind of authentic? And was that something anyone was trying to go for?

Kristman’s caricaturization of Koreatown certainly reveals how this visage of authenticity affected him. In his words, Koreatown is a diamond waiting to be mined. Koreatown is hidden. Koreatown’s “spectrum of sound” takes the singular verb “is,” meaning it functions as a unified, indistinguishable whole. Kristman has “no doubt” about his analysis of his authentic trip to Koreatown.

The openers of Spam N Eggs that night were two techno DJs and producers named MALT (Andrew Seo) and Eat Paint (Vince Fierro). Together, they run the Los Angeles-based Leisure Sports Records. We met at the Seoul-based coffeehouse Caffé Bene in Los Angeles to share misugaru lattes and talk about Kristman’s statement.

“I definitely wouldn’t call ‘Koreatown’ very underground,” says Vince. “It’s certainly become a new social center to LA’s night life, and there was a time when there was a feeling of great potential for a solid underground movement. But sadly, there have not been any significantly artistic home-grown breakthroughs coming from K-Town.”

Vince continues: “Rather, it serves as a new landing pad for the very commercialized Korean hip-hop and EDM cultures in Los Angeles. These genres dominate the K-Town club landscape. Unfortunately [pause] to me, anyway [pause] it’s success not won with any kind of daring artistry or underground legitimacy but rather with familiar aesthetics and neon lights.”

“[Los Angeles] helps them, too,” adds Andrew. “They’ll close off streets and bring in vendors because it gets people out spending money. A lot of the Korean stars come out for these events, but the thing is [pause] what kinds of people are these events attracting? Obviously, Koreans, or people that are fans of Korean music. I think Korean people here have a lot of pride, and they see that there is a rise in the culture and the area’s popularity and they’re jumping on that. They’re trying to make it bigger and better. If you walk around Koreatown, you’ll see gentrification happening everywhere.” He references the Wilshire Grand Center, the Hanjin Group-owned skyscraper that stands taller than any other west of the Mississippi, and its surroundings as evidence.

Urban studies carried out by Kyonghwan Park and Youngmin Lee, Kyeyoung Park and Jessica Kim, and others on Koreatown’s fraught relationship with surges of capital have made similar acknowledgments in wonderful detail. These surges are not evenly distributed among clubs; there are many more “secret” dimly-lit rave spots that pop up throughout the district than there are widely advertised above-ground clubs in Koreatown. Even relatively established clubs such as Union at 4067 West Pico Boulevard or Feria at 682 Irolo Street were not glamorous (and both have closed since the time this recent interview was conducted); they are surrounded by predatory lending offices and abandoned shops. Andrew gave me the address of an upcoming rave spot in Koreatown; it was basically under an apartment complex.

“I think they just want to bring what they build in Korea over here because that’s how they do it over there,” adds Andrew. “They just have apartments and then clubs and restaurants underneath or underground. It’s kind of like how Tokyo is.”

If this “hidden, underground” Koreatown culture does exist, as Kristman suggests, then finding it requires ignoring the flashing lights of Spam N Eggs and seeking out the darker warehouse raves. It also requires a level of suspended disbelief that Koreatown is untouched by hipster gentrification and instead an embracing of a subcultural essence that goes beyond city architecture and real estate. The physical space of sections of Koreatown might not be as important as the potential for the production of space in terms of creating sonic contact zones.

sign in Koreatown, Los Angeles by Flickr User vince Lammin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The zones created by artists such as Malt and Eat Paint are mobile and fleeting as they pop up whenever and wherever these DJs perform. Like Josh Kun famously put forward in his book Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (2005), the music these musicians produce and mix has the ability to create audiotopias “of cultural counter that may not be physical places but nevertheless exist in their own auditory some-where” (2-3). Electronic music, and perhaps similarly this “jewel-like” spectrum of Koreatown sound, has the ability to implant identity into the buildings and surrounding neighborhoods. What once was a Mexican restaurant and is now abandoned becomes a pulsating techno club attracting those Angelenos who shy away from the more commercial scenes.

Perhaps Kristman was focusing more on the Asian American DJs themselves than the types of music they were spinning or The Park Plaza Hotel and its situation in Koreatown. As Asian Americans, these DJs represent and are representative of an authentic subculture to which Kristman bears witness. However, many artists shy away from or sometimes outright deny any racial or ethnic connections being made between their art and their identities. Andrew and Vince shared personal and well-known examples of ambivalent attitudes toward such labeling. Jason Chung, also known as Nosaj Thing, is one of the best-booked electronic performers today, flying around the world sponsored by Adidas or playing huge shows with Flying Lotus. Vince, who worked very closely with Jason just as his career was taking off, reflects on Nosaj’s rise: “Everyone here in K-Town thinks Nosaj Thing is a god. But if you ask him about his pride in being Korean, he won’t say anything.”

Andrew adds: “It’s just like how Qbert is for the Filipino community – that’s who Nosaj Thing is for Koreans today. When I went to South Korea to perform, they would ask me how I was affiliated with him, although I’m not really. South Koreans are amazed to see a Korean guy make it in the music industry in America with a sense of originality, not having to sell out.”

Both Andrew and Vince shift the conversation suddenly to Keith Ape and his debut as a trap music artist. Keith Ape’s success was due in part to spectacle (as the genre demands), to the power of hallyu promotion, but more so to simple respect from established artists such as Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame. In a Noisey documentary about his first U.S. performance at South by Southwest (SXSW) in 2015, Keith Ape is translated as saying: “You know, I’m Asian. And I heard stories of how Asians are still looked at as outsiders in the States. And I heard it’s even worse when it comes down to hip-hop.”

While his successful Atlanta trap-style set at SXSW ultimately assuaged those fears of acceptance, for many beginning and working Asian American DJs and performers, this perceived and sometimes enforced musical barrier is daunting. While Andrew seemed to have his criticisms about how Korean promoters of Korean artists seem to be strictly focused on the commercial payoff of such events, he did not condemn their tapping into the United States market. Furthermore, he never mentioned that performing in the electronic music genre was either assisted or hindered by his ethnicity. Rather, much like Nosaj Thing, Malt lets the music do its work and create an audiotopia in which race and ethnicity are not under the spotlight. Literally, most of the shows Malt performs at do not feature the performer; the DJ is often in the dark, putting the focus almost exclusively on the music.

MALT, courtesy of Leisure Sports Records

Vince adds: “Korean American artists like Nosaj Thing and TOKiMONSTA and David Choe – all these people are doing their own thing. They’ve got these ‘don’t see me as Asian’ mottos, these ‘just think I’m dope’ vibes.”

Instead of searching for authenticity in the racial or ethnic identities of performers, Andrew is more interested in breaking stereotypes about the dangers associated with techno music, raves, and drug use. Andrew concludes: “I think first impressions are very, very important to Korean people. Looks are everything. South Korea is like the biggest plastic surgery country in the world. I went to Korea to visit my grandma, who I hadn’t seen in a long time, and all she would ask me was like, ‘Are you eating well? Look at your hair!’ Just purely about my looks. I was telling her, ‘Grandma! I run a label back in LA! I’m trying to be a musician!’ At our events, random Korean people walk by, they’ll come in for five seconds, listen to the music, and label it as ‘drug music,’ like something you listen to when you’re messed up. The same thing could be said about trap or EDM, right? But they don’t associate it with that. Hopefully, if the right timing comes, we can change that somehow.”

Featured Image: TOKiMONSTA by Twitter User Henry Faber, 2011 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Shawn Higgins is the Academic Coordinator of the Undergraduate Bridge Program at Temple University’s Japan campus. His latest publication is “Orientalist Soundscapes, Barred Zones, and Irving Berlin’s China,” coming out in the 2018 volume of Chinese America: History and Perspectives.

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SO! Podcast #74: Bonus Track for Spanish Rap & Sound Studies Forum

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nopare2In “Asesina,” Darell opens the track shouting “Everybody go to the discotek,” a call for listeners to respond to the catchy beat and come dance. In this series on rap in Spanish and Sound Studies, we’re calling you out to the dance floor…and we have plenty to say about it. Your playlist will not sound the same after we’re through.

Throughout the forum, we explored what Spanish rap has to say on the dance floor, in our cars, and through our headsets. Michael Levine discussed trap in Cuba and el paquete semanal. Lucreccia Quintanilla mused about about Latinx identity in Australia. Ashley Luthers broke down femme sexuality in Cardi B’s music.

A forum on Spanish rap couldn’t be complete without a mixtape, and Lucreccia Quintanilla obliged. She has provided SO! readers with a free playlist that acts as a soundtrack to our series. Also? It’s hot. We wrap up No Pare, Sigue Sigue: Spanish Rap & Sound Studies with this bonus track.

Songs:
We will dance to the light of the moon – Lucreccia and Ruben Heller-Quintanilla
La Cumbia Modular – Galambo
Festividad – Funeral
6 De la Mañana – Kelman Duran
Daddy Yankee, DJ Playero Baby Yankee Rio Bamba Remix
New Freezer- DJ Na
Contra La Pared – Moro
Como Mujer – Ivy Queen Lucreccia Quintanilla Edit
Dimelo – Demphra
Fuego – Lisa M.
El-Apache-ness- x-jlo-mueve-el-cucta-x-jenny-from-the-block    Tayhana-Turra-Edit
La Chilaperra – Mixeo Dj’s
Try Again (Chaboi ‘Mas Duro’ Dembow Refix)
Sueltate el dembow – Bigote Edit
Y Que Lo Mueva (feat.MC Buseta) – Rosa Pistola and YNFYNYT SCROLL

Featured image: “La Flor de Reggaetón” by Flickr user La Tabacalera de Lavapiés, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Lucreccia Quintanilla  is an artist/DJ/writer and PhD candidate at Monash University in Naarm, Melbourne, Australia.

Cardi B: Bringing the Cold and Sexy to Hip Hop

In “Asesina,” Darell opens the track shouting “Everybody go to the discotek,” a call for listeners to respond to the catchy beat and come dance. In this series on rap in Spanish and Sound Studies, we’re calling you out to the dance floor…and we have plenty to say about it. Your playlist will not sound the same after we’re through.

Throughout January, we will explore what Spanish rap has to say on the dance floor, in our cars, and through our headsets. We’ll read about trap in Cuba and about Latinx identity in Australia. And because no forum on Spanish rap is complete without a mixtape, we’ll close out our forum on Thursday with a free playlist for our readers. Today we continue No Pare, Sigue Sigue: Spanish Rap & Sound Studies with Ashley Luthers’ essay on femme sexuality in Cardi B’s music.

Liana M. Silva, forum editor

“Ran down on that bitch twice” was all I heard in this tight, dark basement filled with black and brown bodies, sweat dripping everywhere from everyone. Girls danced all over, yelling and shouting lyrics as they clapped and pointed along to the fast, upbeat rhythm of the song, feeling their own sensations and pleasure from the vibe, and rapping with the catchiness of the repeated phrase, “Ran down on that bitch twice!” As everyone was jumping, the space around me shook because there was so much body movement and flow; it was lit. This wasn’t the first time I heard Cardi B, but dancing along to her song “Foreva” was definitely the first I remember hearing her. Since that dark basement party, I realized that the attitude and energy Cardi B invokes through her raps and lyrics is addicting.

Listening repeatedly to “Foreva,” and the rest of her debut mixtape Gangsta Bitch Music Vol.1, has attuned me to Cardi B as a stone cold, gangster bitch: someone who is fearless, tough on the outside and inside. She doesn’t hesitate; she doesn’t bluff. She gets straight to the point and lets you know that she will fuck you up if and when necessary. A ‘G’ she is, as some would say when describing a person who shows no fear and is always hustling—except that someone is imagined as a black male from the so-called ‘hood who affiliates with drugs, gangs, etc. The music itself reflects this gangster feel, through the hard trap sounds and beats in every track. Trap music as a style and subset of Hip-Hop, and arguably a genre on its own, originated in Atlanta, and has over time become mainstream all across the U.S. specifically within the Northeast region. Within Cardi’s performed, stone cold bitch lyrical persona, she embodies an aggressive femme sexuality, a racialized femme hunger for sex with black men, and an emotional depth that makes her endearing to listeners. Her embodiment of this multiplicity—stone cold attitude, femme sexual thirst, and emotional complexity—can be heard in her music, through the explosion of beats, rhythms, and lyrics that keep listeners hooked to the sound of her self-image. In other words, Cardi B’s sonic and lyrical movements work in tandem with her audio-visual construction of black, Caribbean, Bronx femme desire.

Nowadays this audio-visual construction  is visible across her music and social media, but I want to focus on the image of her debut mixtape cover, Gangsta Bitch Music, Vol.1. This image hailed me and continues to hold me in thrall after lengthy meditations on it. In it, Cardi B sits in the backseat of a car, high-rise apartments peering through the back window, with her legs spread wide open. Between her legs, a big, black, faceless, tatted man gives her head as she casually drinks her Corona. The man’s back sprawls in the place where we might imagine Cardi B’s junk/pussy; he’s her bitch. The audacity of displaying her desire mid-sex-act intrigues me and does more than merely assert black femme sexual desire. The media blew up when Nicki Minaj did her lollipop photoshoot in which her legs are wide open, and her crotch is heavily exposed. But Cardi B’s mixtape cover has a different impact, because of the positioning of its vulgarity and audacity.

I’ve seen pictures of Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Kim where they’re half naked, open to giving men pleasure, and completely distorting the expectation of respectable black women to cover their bodies and assets. But what makes Cardi’s mixtape visual different even from Lil’ Kim’s and Minaj’s visual constructions is that it shouts power from the position often occupied by cis-male desire. Cardi B is seizing her own sexual power and gangster agency while she asserts her business hustle from the seated position of power that is often assumed by cis-male gangster rappers and performers. In the angle and composition of the mixtape image, we, as viewers, are positioned to look up at her as we witness her experiencing pleasure. She’s above us, and her chosen sexual object, who is a big black man, a figure whose masculinity is historically challenged by normative and respectability-obsessed society, and who is historically susceptible to being emasculated, is situated beneath her: there’s a troubling of power’s embodiment, specifically through sex, in this image. She’s visually insisting on getting play.

I connect Gangsta Bitch Mixtape Vol. 1’s cover image to the sounds, vibes, and lyrics of Cardi B’s tracks within the mixtape. In “Foreva,” for example, she raps, “Silly muthafucka who raised you/ a nigga with a pussy how disgraceful.” It’s at this point that we realize that the “bitch” that she “ran down on,” “twice,” is also a dude. In the lyrics, she alternates between beefing with trifling chicks and dudes; for Cardi, bitches breach a gender dyad. She raps from a masculine position as a femme, which ultimately illustrates her mixtape cover’s reversal of who is in the receptive and dominant position of sexual power. In “Foreva,” she’s talking down on black men the same way that most of these men speak on black women in the Hip-Hop industry. Cardi twists the normative misogyny and disrespect that is often demonstrated towards black women in Hip-Hop and instead uses that towards apostrophic black men. The lyrics of “Foreva” and the Gangsta Bitch mixtape cover both sustain this idea of Cardi B working within masculine tropes as a woman in the industry. On the mixtape cover, she is the one who is receiving pleasure, instead of giving it to a man. Lyrically and physically, she’s in a place where she’s on top, looking down on her subject/object of sexual desire, and inviting her audience to watch.

Sonically, “Foreva” and other tracks fits within the genre of trap music. Many of the songs in the mixtape have aggressive beats. The genre is characterized by a deep, hard mood created by the fast beat: Justin Burton describes it as “one of the most iconic sonic elements of trap is the rattling hihat, cruising through subdivisions of the beat at inhuman rates.” This is what we hear and feel from Cardi’s music itself. Specifically, the BPM for “Foreva” is 161 which fits into the range of typical Trap music. The way she sounds is what she embodies. The flow of “Foreva” tells us as listeners that Cardi B isn’t here to play and she damn sure won’t let anybody stop her from making her money. The rest of the music on the mixtape takes a similar route, in that these crisp rhythms speak to her power, her urban upbringing, coming from the Bronx, and her days as a stripper. She owns her sexuality and claims it through the music. The cover reflects this: she is poised and looking directly at us, her stone-cold persona manifested in how she also appears utterly unbothered by you, us, looking at her, looking at us.

Cardi B’s a freak. Clearly. (As if we didn’t know this.) But the way she visually and sonically expresses her sexual yearning is more complicated than the word freak can capture. The thing with Cardi B is, she’s not afraid. In fact, she doesn’t care about respectability. Even when she raps about making money or callin’ shots on someone, she never hesitates to slide in something sex-related because she knows she’s good at getting and giving play, both sexually and musically: “Fuck him so good he gonna want to spend all that/ Pussy got him on the jugg he gonna re-up and come right back.” If you read the lyrics from “With That,” you could think the lyrical subject is a male rapper, like trap’s Future or Gucci Mane. In fact, this song is a remake from Young Thug’s “With That,” which comes from his album Barter 6. Young Thug is one of the big faces in the Atlanta Trap music scene and his track “With That” reflects the life of a rapper like him. Poppin pills, stacking money tall, Thug knows he’s killing the game and shitting on these other rappers with his sounds–Cardi B echoes that bravado in her remake.

Drugs, sex, money, hustle: Cardi B, in a way, replicates the masculine attachment to these tropes. But we are not listening to an abstract, masculinist lyrical subject on her mixtape; we are listening to a black femme subject. So, this goes beyond ‘replication’, as we may wonder whether it has ever historically not been the case in the Americas that black women also had to hustle, grind, find stimulation to escape normative constraints, and take care of their sexual desires. Which is to say, black men are not the OG hustlers; arguably, black women are, and Cardi B channels that historical force in her audio-visual construction of a stone-cold bitch who knows how to get play, and still have feelings in a hatin’ ass world.

We’re introduced to this hard, stone cold Cardi B inside and outside of her music’s lyrics as she repeatedly performs that she is not at all ashamed of the fact that she used to be stripper, aka, someone who hustles hard. Her choice of the trap genre, as a black Latina, acknowledges the existence of that hustle theme within it—even honors it. Her refusal of shame and respectability affects that take a specific toll on black women in the Americas, circles me back to the welcoming aura she displays on the mixtape cover. She wants viewers to see her in her happy place; she wants us listeners to hear how good she is in bed; she wants the world to know she’s a freak. This is her way of fucking with the mythical construction of masculinity in Hip-Hop where cis-men are the most badass, aka, the “most political” subjects; she acts on her own urges and desires, which does a lot more than just show femme as “sexy.” She’s sexy and she’s cold and so is her music too: the kick drums, synth lines, and hihats make her sonically ominous and cold.

In one of Cardi B’s latest tracks, “Money,” I still hear echoes of “Foreva,” but I’m hearing so much more. I find myself paying as much attention to the audio as to the visual constructions that Cardi B’s generous yet cutting aesthetic offers: in the cover image for “Money,” we see her naked body, positioned in a way that shows off her peacock thigh tattoo, suggesting but keeping her junk from you. She’s wearing a plethora of gold watches, almost as if they’re long-sleeve gloves, and a gold hat, the shape of which channels both Beyoncé’s in “Formation” and Jeffery’s (aka, Young Thug) on the cover of Jeffery. Unlike the cover of the first mixtape, Cardi does not give us her hair in this image, and she does not give us her gaze; while she directs her face at the camera, the hat dripping with diamonds conceals her hair and her eyes from us—or, she is giving her gaze to herself, to the inward rewards of her hustle. The ice is cold, but the image is warm as a swarm of gold bling and golden light surrounds her.

Lyrically, on “Money,” she’s doing what she does best, rapping about her hustle, her money, and still managing to throw in a little something about her love for sex. Sonically, this is pure trap. We hear an orchestration of keyboards, brass, and drums. As for us, listening viewers, we not only consume her music, but also continue to take in everything Cardi B has to offer because it fascinates and pleases us. She returns our pleasure (in her pleasure) to us, and nothing less than that.

Featured Image: Still from “Cardi B ‘Foreva’ (Live) Choreography By- Hollywood”

Ashley Luthers is currently a Senior at Wesleyan University studying English and Economics. She has spent the past year researching and studying Cardi B inside and outside of the classroom. Her final senior essay revolves around Cardi B as a black femme artist in Hip-Hop through an analysis of different theories surrounding the black female body.

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What Feels Good to Me: Extra-Verbal Vocal Sounds and Sonic Pleasure in Black Femme Pop Music” -Robin James

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