Great artists have great themes, and James Brown’s was self-determination. Vigorously and repeatedly, his lyrics stress the importance of having something of one’s own, being in command of oneself, doing what one says one will do, and the music he evolved to accompany these lyrics didn’t reflect these themes so much as it amplified them, made them concrete. It had the force of necessity and a simplicity befitting self-knowledge, self-declaration, and self-love, but the grandeur was something particular to Brown himself, his voice. The more he boiled things down to self, the greater he became: When, during a song, he repeated the word “I” four times in a row, he sounded each time as if he had just discovered the word’s meaning and magnitude.
Titled “Super Bad,” the song was released in 1970 into a frenzied world. The nation’s campuses were wracked with protests, and some of the protesters were shot and killed by the National Guard. The protests were directed at many policies and institutions, but their immediate cause was President Nixon’s extension of the Vietnam War into Cambodia, a poor nation whose roads, villages, forests, and natives the American air force incinerated in a fruitless attempt to stall the Viet Cong. The specter of a race war was no less prominent at home than abroad. In the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King by white supremacists, the liberatory initiative that animated the civil-rights movement shifted more toward organizations preaching black power, black schools, and black separatism, chief among them the Black Panthers. Whether he wanted it to or not, Brown’s message of individual self-empowerment coincided with the Panthers’ calls for education and collective action. He couldn’t speak just for himself: His music’s revolutionary aesthetic necessarily accompanied a movement toward social liberation (as well as, it’s often left unsaid, economic self-sufficiency).
The alliance between art and politics was based in pride: The shared desire to feel positively justified in one’s identity and the shared difficulty in gratifying that desire. In the case of black Americans, accepting oneself and taking pride in it was anything but facile. Individually or collectively, selves are constructed in dialogue with the world beyond them, and the outer world, for the minority of Americans who were black, had very little positive and next to nothing accurate to say about them. This was, of course, intentional, a matter of material and moral economy. Then and now, the fact and fantasy of white wealth is predicated on the fantasy and fact of black poverty, while the inviolability of white innocence and goodness defines itself in contrast with a blackness presumed to be inherently guilty and bad. Under such adverse conditions, merely insisting on one’s goodness was of no avail. The only way forward was to take into account what the white majority believed about one and turn it, through art, to one’s advantage. Believing in oneself meant accepting one’s badness.
Through the alchemy of culture, an inferior social status imposed from without became a mark of honor when conferred upon oneself by oneself: “I got soul / And I’m super bad,” Brown sings, his voice thick with stress and joy, sounding for all the world as if goodness was not the antithesis of badness, but a uniquely self-aware form of it. Even the name of his music accentuated the moral inversion implicit in its lyrics. Moral hierarchies gain oppressive social power through the enforcement of ritual taboos regulating purity and pollution, yet what Brown celebrated, unrelentingly, was the antithesis of Puritan cleanliness: It was funk, the heat-spawned redolence of Southern climates and bodies. For the curious listener, fair could seem foul, while foul could seem unfamiliar, strangely sweet. But in any case, what couldn’t be denied about funk was its power, its depth and range.
Brown had his limits. He succumbed to the drugs whose temptations and ravages he warned against in his songs and fired his musicians for taking. Once a pacesetter, he ended up chasing trends. The business empire he had purchased with the proceeds of his record sales crumbled under the pressure of IRS audits. He invariably married light-skinned, full-figured women, beat them, divorced them, and then remarried another. All the same, his vitality exceeded him; his legacy endured. The dozens of singles that made his name feel as timely as ever, and his influence only grows more colossal with each passing year. Few corners of black and popular music were left untouched by his example. In the ’70s, George Clinton would pick up where Brown left off, often literally: The ranks of Parliament included no small contingent of former Brown band members, among them Bootsy Collins, the man who shaped the plump yet angular bass line of “Super Bad,” whom Brown had fired for playing a show on LSD. In the ’80s, Michael Jackson, who all future pop and R&B artists would end up emulating, was himself an emulator of Brown’s attitude and drive; so, too, was Prince, a genre unto himself. Yet his influence on the dominant popular genre from the ’90s on was somehow even more profound. Artists, producers, and critics alike have witnessed how, by centering songs around vocals more spoken than sung and emphasizing percussion over melody, Brown laid the foundations for American hip-hop music, and quite often literally. No small proportion of the instrumentals in early hip-hop were directly based on James Brown rhythms and grooves. Even today, he remains the most-sampled artist ever.
As the story is often told, hip-hop’s center of gravity ping-ponged between an East Coast centered on New York and a West Coast centered on Los Angeles, before settling in a South centered on Atlanta. But taking into account hip-hop’s roots in Brown’s music and the origins of Brown’s funk in the South, the ascension of Southern rap during the past two decades could easily be viewed as a renaissance. Gucci Mane is the primary source of the current Atlanta scene, but in spirit and in style, James Brown could be said to be its ultimate origin. The mantra-like repetition of short phrases and the high concentration of ad-libs that are hallmarks of today’s Atlanta house style have as much, if not more, in common with the Godfather of Soul as they do with present-day rap beyond the South.
Consider the Migos, the north Atlanta triad whose second studio album Culture, recently released, topped the Billboard charts in its first week. Fittingly, Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset inscribed themselves in hip-hop culture in three major ways. Their breakout 2013 mixtape Y.R.N. tripled down on mantras to a distinctive and alarming degree (“Versace,” “Hannah Montana,” “China Town”) and was largely responsible for shifting the prosodic balance of rap nationwide from meters which stress every second or fourth syllable toward those which stress every third syllable; in subsequent years they would promote dabbing (the tipping point probably being 2015’s “Look at My Dab”), a physical motion which soon became ubiquitous to the point where one could see white kids in the audience of Counter-Strike tournaments tucking their head into an arrow with a bent elbow for its tip and an extended arm for its tail. The parallels between James Brown, who repeated words and phrases (the aforementioned “I,” “please,” “the funky drummer,” among many others) with an intensity verging on abstraction, who single-handedly shifted the rhythmic emphasis in black music from drumbeats stressing the second and fourth beats to ones stressing the first and third, and whose dance moves were taken up worldwide through the King of Pop, and the Migos are as far-reaching and deep as comparisons between the Migos and Beatles are instigative and facetious.
The stylistic bonds between the artist of “Super Bad” and the artists of “Bad and Boujee” (Culture’s currently ubiquitous lead single) are complemented by linguistic ties. Sonically, “Bad and Boujee” isn’t very funky — produced by Metro Boomin, the track tends toward more of a lounge-y, even louche vibe. Yet in terms of tone it hews closely to the logic of “Super Bad.” “Bad and Boujee” is the latest entry in a lineage of iconic deployments of badness that runs from “Super Bad” (1970) through Melvin Van Peebles’s seminal blaxploitation film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971, required viewing for Black Panther members), the hard-core punk pioneers Bad Brains (founded 1977), Michael Jackson’s “Bad” and Bad (1987), Samuel L. Jackson’s “bad motherfucker” wallet in Pulp Fiction (1994), and the line of self-proclaimed “bad bitches” in rap from Lil Kim and Trina up to Nicki Minaj. These last are, unsurprisingly, the most pertinent to the Migos. When Offset mentions, during the song’s uncharacteristically long hook, that “My bitch is bad,” it’s clearly a statement of pride in a woman as beautiful as she is demanding, tenacious, and grounded.
Of course, there’s an extra term that wasn’t there before, one which highlights how things have changed in the four decades since “Super Bad.” An alternative spelling of “bougie,” “boujee” derives from the French word bourgeois, which itself derives from bourg, meaning town; bourg springs from the same medieval root, and means more or less the same thing, as the -burg in Hamburg, the -burgh in Pittsburgh, and the five boroughs of New York. Populated in large part by escaped and liberated serfs, the towns of Europe served as incubators for a middle class of tradesmen, merchants, and bankers, one posed precariously between peasant and aristocrat yet distinct from both. Many centuries later, in the wake of several revolutions (English, French, industrial, scientific), that class had risen to become the dominant political and economic class on the continent; simultaneously, through the savagery of imperial wars, the displacement and plunder of colonization, and the coercive imposition of imbalanced trade relations, it had become the dominant class on the planet.
It was then, during the 19th century, when the power of their mode of capitalism was at its most naked, that the bourgeois as a class were analyzed by Karl Marx so extensively that the word became inseparable from Marxism, a philosophy of action that aimed to overthrow it. It’s unclear at what point the phrase entered into popular circulation among black Americans, but the likeliest periods are the 1930s and 1940s, when the Soviet-directed American Communist Party made inroads among both the black and white industrial working class in Northern cities, or, more likely, during the late 1960s and 1970s, when the Maoist-influenced Black Panthers were at their most popular and most active.
What is clear, though, is that “bougie” took on a life of its own. It retained the pejorative tone and class critique of its origins, but it acquired a cultural valence specific to black American conditions in the post-’60s era. Like any strong word, the meaning of “bougie” is uncommonly flexible, but it was and is often mockingly deployed by black people against other black people, predominantly college-educated, whose affectations of respectability the former viewed as insincere or preposterous. Like “hipster,” “bougie” was virtually never a word one willingly applied to oneself; like “hipster,” “bougie” was an electrifying phrase because it simultaneously tapped into multiple reserves of guilt related to money, social origins and aspirations, personal authenticity, and cultural self-presentation. Unlike “hipster,” though, “bougie” wasn’t centered on quirkiness, but on propriety. The hipster strives to divest himself of the blandness of whiteness while retaining its privileges; the bougie seeks refuge from the exceptional (for better and worse) status of blackness by aspiring to a fixed ideal — the “classic man.”
In both cases, style is the vehicle through which the striving expresses itself, but the styles emerging from each could hardly be more diametrically opposed. Hipster style is anarchic, provisional, masochistic; bougie style is neoclassical, stolid, anesthetic. Perhaps the keenest reader of the vagaries and motives of bougie culture was Kanye West, whose early albums send up bougie premises about the worth of proper schooling while folding bougie ambitions back into a broader narrative of black aspiration. The College Dropout’s “Get Em High” is particularly ambivalent in its observation of what Talib Kweli, during his verse, calls “bougie behavior”: the song serves as a directory of bougie tastes (Common, Talib Kweli) and platforms (the social network BlackPlanet, the website Okayplayer) circa 2004, but it also points toward the instability of bougie identity. The black coed Kanye aims to bed (“at NYU but she hail from Kansas”) may prefer Talib Kweli’s album, but her friend Candace worships Biggie Smalls, and it’s not as if her respectability precludes her emailing him seductive images of herself and Candace together. Though it doesn’t mention the term “bougie” outright, “Fancy” from Drake’s debut album Thank Me Later is clearly operating in a similar orbit: Splitting the difference as he tends to do, Drake states that he likes college-educated, style-conscious, independently wealthy women who are “book and street-smart” — not quite “My bitch is bad and boujee,” but it’s certainly getting close.
In Migos’ hands though, the term “boujee,” while still maintaining an aesthetic valence, seems to have returned to the economic meaning it originally possessed in the 19th century: As in Marx’s day, it once again means something very close to nouveau riche. “I’m young and rich and plus I’m boujee,” Offset declares, off-handedly. It reinforces his assertion in the intro that “We ain’t never had no old money, but we sure got a lot of new money” and in the hook that “We came from nothing to something.” The best application of the word, though, goes to Quavo’s ludicrous, revealing proclamation that his Draco automatic rifle is “bad and boujee”: The money and culture peel away for a moment, exposing the violent threats that underwrite them. As with the Migos themselves, the meaning of “boujee” is threefold: newly rich, displaying new riches through style, and candid about the (bad) means by which the riches were attained. “Bougie” was antithetical to gangster rap, but “boujee” is synonymous with it, albeit in a chintzier tone: As with every memorable Migos song, “Bad and Boujee” is wonderful because it’s stylish and chintzy at the same time, and powerful because it doesn’t bothering hiding either fact. With them, cultural pretensions no longer swell in the presence of money, but fade. For bourgeois Americans of all colors, desperate not to be “bad,” this is all but impossible. Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset seem to grasp intuitively that, in the modern world, no elegance is possible without vulgarity.
And if, in Balzac’s words, behind every great fortune lies a crime, why even bother lying about it? Just as James Brown claimed to have Chinese ancestry and the Black Panthers carried around Mao’s little red book, the Migos, at least in the mythical world conjured by their lyrics, have their own Chinese connection. Whatever the personal truth of the verses in “China Town” (“Young rich nigga, I got plugs out in China Town”) it’s true that no small portion of the drugs dealt in America, especially powerful opiates like fentanyl, are of Chinese origin, filtered through Mexican cartels. For all the concordances between James Brown and hip-hop and James Brown and the Migos, there’s a marked difference so far as drugs are concerned. Brown warned his audience about drugs in “King Heroin” and “Public Enemy Number One,” describing them as thieves of one’s virility and inner freedom, but rap music, especially its most prevalent, least bougie variants, has based its own gospel of self-determination around their sale and distribution.
Quavo, Takeoff, and Offset are musically innovative and fun in a non-sadistic way, and that’s more than enough to ask from them. They don’t have to be revolutionaries, or even cultural revolutionaries. But at times their choice of words does point out, in its way, what the obstacles to social transformation are within those who would seek it. Society is structured on an economic basis, but there are more economies than just the material: Goodness is itself a scarce good, and its distribution is inextricably tied to notions of purity. Doesn’t it follow that to alter this state of affairs one must first accept one’s own bad nature, one’s own bougie pretensions, one’s funk as a matter of fact? If Twitter is any indication, the worst world of all may well be a world where everyone believes they are innocent. In any case, it’s evident that the culture in which the Migos play such a prominent role continues to be the best thing available in a bad world — not bad meaning good, but bad meaning bad.