With Jack Harlow’s major label debut Thats What They All Say selling strongly alongside a bumper deluxe version of Eminem’s Music to be Murdered By, white rappers are riding unexpectedly high at the end of 2020.
Harlow, a 22-year-old from Kentucky, celebrates being a dorky outsider who has somehow made it to the top of the rap game (“At 16 I never thought I would look this cute”) while using language that is usually cringeworthy coming from suburban white people. On his Grammy-nominated single What’s Poppin he makes reference to “whips” and “certified freak hoes” – but he has enough charisma to carry it off, and he has earned co-signs from Black artists such as Lil Wayne, DaBaby and Big Sean.
But while Harlow and Eminem continue to adopt a recognisably Black aesthetic, many of their white peers seem to be heading in a different direction, altering their sound at a time when conversations around systemic racism are louder than ever. Machine Gun Kelly, a white rapper who broke through at the start of the 2010s with blunt rhymes about living on the wrong side of the tracks, spent the year releasing syrupy pop-punk, recalling a Blink-182 tribute band. G-Eazy also pivoted starkly from the champagne-popping theatrics with which he made his name: his experimental album When It’s Dark Out is rooted in introspective emo. Post Malone, meanwhile, is miles from the psychedelic trap of his breakthrough single White Iverson in 2015, a time when his teeth were nearly always hidden under gold grills. He covered Nirvana songs at an online gig in April and, much like Machine Gun Kelly, now makes a point of being pictured with a guitar. The grills are gone.
These artists all initially found success with a melodic take on trap, a style rooted in the struggles of America’s inner cities, where young Black men are given few opportunities. Perhaps, post-George Floyd, these white rappers are reading the room and realising they need to embrace a sound that speaks more honestly to their experiences.
“White anger and confidence is something rap audiences just don’t want to hear as much of any more,” says AD Carson, an author, rapper and assistant professor of hip-hop at the University of Virginia. He argues that the shift “has everything to do with the current political landscape”.
He continues: “The unhinged white rage Eminem had great success with in the early 2000s was an extension of a kind of repressed rage felt all across white America. Yet this rage is the same thing you now see coming out of the White House every single day. The idea of white grievance or supreme white confidence has taken the front seat over the last four years through Trump, and a lot of the audience is tired. Even if a white rapper truly came from struggle, the anger they carry might still struggle to cut through. They need to approach things differently now.”
As recently as 2014, the white rapper Macklemore beat Drake, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West in the Grammy category for best rap album and Iggy Azalea topped the US charts with the smash Fancy, a catchy if problematic rap song where the Australian used the accent of a Black woman from the American south. “Why is her mimicry of sonic Blackness OK?” asked cultural critic Brittney Cooper. Accusations of cultural appropriation grew louder and eventually pushed her into the periphery – her 2019 comeback album, In My Defense, tanked.
Compare her with 2020’s fast-rising white rapper Ashnikko, who embraces her links to middle-class suburbia (one online video has her showing her Christian grandparents some of her most sexualised music videos). While she and Harlow are still borrowing from Black culture, they aren’t wearing durags like Eminem, clutching pistols while throwing up gang signs like Slim Jesus or embellishing hood ties as Vanilla Ice once did – but embracing their own character traits and goofiness.
Aside from self-mocking tracks in the vein of Lil Dicky or jocular suburban UK rapper Niko B, the other route for white rappers is towards emo rap. Alongside Black artists such as Juice WRLD, the late Lil Peep created a new lane for white suburban kids to sing the blues, thanks to the pioneering way he merged My Chemical Romance-era emo with the distorted bass of trap artists such as Gucci Mane. White artists including Bladee, Lil Xan and the UK’s BVDLVD and Bexey have followed, perhaps aware that this is a much less gauche route into hip-hop.
Carson says that it’s unlikely a white rapper like Iggy Azalea, who so brazenly mimicked Black artists, could dominate today’s pop landscape, something he credits to a growing awareness around cultural appropriation.
Yet he also argues that the genre-roaming of white artists such as Post Malone and G-Eazy is an extension of their white privilege. “With white rappers and artists, it is much easier to shift into new sounds than it is for Black artists,” he argues. “It’s something we’ve seen with Pink and Miley Cyrus, who both tapped into a Black R&B sound before embracing a quite obviously white stadium-pop aesthetic when the market called for it. White rappers can move between genre spaces in a similarly easy way as they’re not as hard-coded to the racial injustices that go with hip-hop culture like Black artists maybe are.”
For Carson, the changing modes of white rap have “a lot more to do with capitalism than it does white rappers reading the room” and suggests that their labels could be steering them away from a Black hip-hop sound to avoid criticism. If white rappers embrace and benefit from Black aesthetics then they should – at the very least – be aware of the issues faced by Black Americans, but “by disconnecting, it means there’s less pressure for their artists to speak up”. In fairness, Machine Gun Kelly, Post Malone, G-Eazy and more all made robust statements of solidarity during the Black Lives Matter protests, and they will likely want to give space for Black voices to be heard first and foremost.
Whether these rappers’ transition to melancholic pop was an artistic choice or a commercial one, it’s arguably a move they needed to make. If Jack Harlow would like his success to continue, then staying true to his suburban background, while continuing to embrace a sound that isn’t built on white rage, could be key – and it would be nice to see him move past those “certified freak hoes” lyrics by album two.