How Rap Reveals What a ‘Rock Star’ Really Means

Post Malone. Photo: Mark Horton/WireImage

To borrow the title from another one of his songs, Post Malone deserves congratulations. Aided by a bit of YouTube skulduggery but mostly powered by its own sheer catchiness, “Rockstar,” the darkly zonked-out single from Post Malone, has, after weeks of jostling, finally replaced “Bodak Yellow” as the top song on the Billboard Hot 100. As is typical in these cases, several records are tied to the triumph of “Rockstar”: For one, it’s the highest-charting single for both Post Malone and featured artist 21 Savage. It’s also the highest-charting single ever with the term “rock star” in its title, breaking the record held by the Atlanta trio Shop Boyz’s “Party Like a Rockstar,” which, peaking at No. 2 in 2007, itself broke the record set a year prior by Nickelback’s “Rockstar,” a quadruple-platinum hit that maxed out at No. 6. Beyond the top ten, there are plenty of others. Rihanna was the instructor on Rated R’s Slash-featuring “Rockstar 101”; R. Kelly called in Ludacris and Kid Rock for Double Up’s “Rock Star.” There are tracks by Hannah Montana and Poison, Jimmy Eat World and Willow Smith, plus countless other renditions from less prominent artists. It’s an interesting mini-genre, the “rock star” song. Though the songs aren’t all great, the concept behind them is playful and liberating. It seems as if anyone, not just rock artists, is free to recreate the mythical figure of the rock star in their own image.

Rappers seem especially eager in this regard. In the past few years, there’s been a steady rise in the number of allusions to rock stars. Following the lead of the guitar-powered Travis Scott, or of Marilyn Manson and pop-punk aficionado Lil Uzi Vert, younger rappers are routinely citing rock stars and rock subgenres as vital influences, even going so far, as with the brooding (and allegedly very brutal) XXXTentacion, to present their music not as rap but as alternative rock. Given this development, and the fact that rap remains both the most verbally focused of musical genres and the one most reliant on “realness” to sustain its image, it might be interesting to examine that sliver of “rock star” songs by rappers and see if one comes any closer to the true meaning of a rock star. Imagine for a second that every rock artist and rock song had been erased from human memory, and that listeners were left to puzzle out what a rock star was based purely on rap references. It’s not an outlandish proposition; in fact, given that younger listeners, by and large, are rap fiends with zero direct memory of rock’s golden or even silver age, it’s a fair approximation of the present cultural moment. As many of its own practitioners (Marilyn Manson, for example) acknowledge, rock, as both a musical genre and a central concern in popular music, is dead. But in the eyes of rappers and their audience, the rock star, its meaning changed or perhaps just revealed, continues to live.

As with much else in rap, the “rock star” song is primarily a southern phenomenon. Parallel to the one-hit wonder from Atlanta’s Shop Boyz, Chamillionaire from Houston also pictured himself as a “Rock Star” in 2007; Mississippi’s Soulja Boy, who burst into fame in the same year, released a mixtape titled Rockstar in 2016, its title single boasting stellar production from London on Da Track; Future, the Atlanta don of recent years, went full “Rock Star” in 2014 on a Nicki Minaj–featuring outtakes from the Honest sessions. The sketches of the rock star in these songs coincide with the traditional view. The rock star is famous; lives in luxury; spends an inordinate amount of time partying, so much so that the act of partying itself becomes associated with them; has plenty of sex with women; frequently indulges in uncontrolled, excessive, and drug-associated behavior; defies the law. In short, the new figure of the rapper and the old image of the rock star converge without much difficulty. Skin color, in the eyes of these artists, is a secondary concern, a function readily dissolved in the heat of the mosh pit and the force of a tsunami of liquor. Like the rapper, the rock star gains wealth and status not through inheritance, education, or a regular salary, but through passionate expression. Intensity is key; on this factor, and this factor alone, all others depend. Black or white, anyone can be a rock star. Yet turning into a rock star, as Soulja Boy notes, essentially means being turned into “a demon”; whatever the rock star’s virtues, self-control is not among them.

It’s a point taken up at greater length by a pair of Michigan artists. With its grim, downhill, slurred beat, Danny Brown’s “Die Like a Rockstar” (2011) pushes the drug abuse central to the rock-star myth to its logical and fatal end, citing not just rock stars but their intoxicant-related disabilities and deaths: “Tripping off the shit that had Brian Wilson flipping, experiment so much it’s a miracle I’m living”; “Life is so Sublime, I’m going out like Brad Nowell; I got that Kurt Cobain type of mind frame.” If Brown’s having orgies, he’s having them with the ghosts of dead porn stars, “all in hell where the horns grow long.” He’s not afraid to admit that rock, rap, sex, and drugs are devilish stuff; he just doesn’t think anyone, least of all himself, can be saved. Hell and pain are guaranteed; fine rhyming and pleasure are optional, but much preferred.

Bizarre, known for being the portly clown of Eminem’s D12 crew, delivers a distinctly less artful verse on “Rockstar,” the 2005 lead single for his solo album Hannicap Circus (which, if you’ve never heard of, you can probably guess why). Produced by Eminem himself, “Rockstar” is an extraordinarily dopey song which still contains its measure of cruel truth. “Girl, where’s my punch? If I don’t get punch, you gon’ get punched.” Precisely by reciting the line without a smidgen of conscience or gravity, Bizarre exposes the brutal amorality that lurks within the rock-star legend. A rock star’s excesses are often had at someone else’s expense, and most of the time that someone else is a woman. Though attempts to claim it for themselves have been made by women musicians, the image of the rock star remains, first and foremost, an embodiment of unbounded masculine power. It bridges racial divides by reinforcing the fantasy, and fact, that powerful men can do just about anything they want: make beautiful music, make money, make out with women eager to make out with them, make out with uncertain women, force women to do things against their will.

The rock star isn’t just a cultural representation; it’s a representation of the power of men to represent themselves in culture exactly as they please. (It’s something more than a coincidence and less than a connection that the video-game developer Rockstar Games rose to prominence by creating the Grand Theft Auto series, whose male protagonists are notoriously free to do whatever they want to anyone, nor that Sleater-Kinney’s former record label was named Kill Rock Stars.) Given recent revelations throughout multiple fields of culture, one could argue that, so long as it’s sufficient to coerce others, any measure of cultural power will do to turn a man who can’t control himself into a rock star.

There is a kind of freedom in culture that can be found nowhere else, but that freedom instantly becomes a dreadful thing when used to break the will of others. Fusing freedom with its misuse, the rock star is a quintessentially American icon; like all icons (and like the American state itself, that ultimate rock star) it can’t be destroyed until it’s replaced by a different object of worship. For now, it’s possible to present an alternative, more morally focused vision of the rock star. Just take the case of N.E.R.D., whose raucous “Rock Star” (2001) strips the image down to calling out frauds and rhyming on top of cop cars. And it’s even possible to interpret its refrain “It’s almost over now, it’s almost over now” as referring to the fading worth and increasingly crushing costs of the rock-star mythos. But even if you did, the key word in the phrase would still be “almost.”

How Rap Reveals What a ‘Rock Star’ Really Means