Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images
It’s late in 2017. Do you still have to hear both sides? If Joyner Lucas has his way, you do. Last week, the Massachusetts rapper released a song and video titled “I’m Not Racist”; not surprisingly, it’s garnered a considerable deal of attention. It’s approaching 9 million views on YouTube. CNN (the website) called it “the brutal race conversation no one wants to have.” Desus and Mero mocked it for a couple of minutes.
The song literally makes the listener hear both sides, both voiced by Lucas. First, a white voice recounts a list of grievances against black people. It’s a long list, but it reduces itself neatly to “they complain too much and produce too little.” Then a black voice offers a point-by-point rebuttal. The N-word means something different when white people and black people use it. Black people today are not slaves, but the legacy of slavery persists. Trump really is bad. Tupac, actually, is good. Eminem taking a stand against Trump, in fact, is good. (Both the “white” voice and the “black” voice sound exactly like Eminem.) It’s white people, in fact, who blame everyone — everyone, except themselves. And so on. The video ends with the white guy and the black guy hugging it out.
Rigid symmetry and a stilted tone reminiscent of high-school theater are nothing new for Lucas, whose best-known songs prior to “I’m Not Racist” followed the same dramatic double-sided format. “Ross Capicchioni” tells both sides of the (true) story of a white Michigan teen gunned down by a black friend: The friend, it turns out, needed to kill an innocent to be initiated into a gang. (Despite having his arm and chest reduced to hash by buckshot, Capicchioni somehow survived to tell his tale in court.) “I’m Sorry” is composed of two first-person narratives, one from the perspective of a suicide, the other from that of a friend helpless to stop it and angry that it happened. These dialogic narratives carry on in the vein of Eminem classics like “Guilty Conscience” and “Stan” in much the same way that Lucas’s voice replicates Eminem’s delivery. Lucas can rappity-rap with the best of them: his freestyles over Desiigner’s “Panda” and Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” display first-rate technical skill.
With his rhyme-building talent and his preference for complicated tale-telling, Lucas has carved out a niche audience large enough to merit his being signed to Atlantic Records, which released his last album 508-507-2209 earlier this June. What he can’t seem to do is fit in with the times. His interviews and lyrics are thick with complaints that more popular rappers (a) have no content to their music beyond drugs and swag, and (b) refuse to work with him, even though he’s better than them. Lucas seems to hold a special grudge against Logic, who, like him, has a white mother and black father, made a notable song about suicidal ideation, and tends toward the nerdier side of the rap spectrum. Though his beef is ostensibly over Logic turning in a subpar performance on a Tech N9ne track they featured on, its roots run deeper than mere pique. Logic is equally corny, less verbally adept, and far more popular. Ultimately it’s not his actions that offend Lucas, but his status: The fact that Logic occupies a position Lucas thinks he himself deserves is enough to make him fume indefinitely.
It’s not as if uncool rappers with white moms can’t leverage their ability to “see both sides” into mainstream success. Look at Logic; look at Drake. But doing so while remaining loyal to an exhausted hip-hop paradigm is impossible. Logic succeeds by doing normcore impressions of Kendrick Lamar; Drake makes women his primary audience, sings a lot, and hops on trends. Eminem mimicry in 2017 just isn’t going to cut it past a certain point, as even the progress of “I’m Not Racist” shows. The song isn’t uncomfortable so much as simply tedious; seven minutes is a long time to pore over the same tired debate about being racist.
The notion that social divisions could be reconciled through “honest” conversation was already a dicey proposition when President Obama represented it; after 2016’s Trump election and 2017’s Trump administration, it’s gone forever. The only reconciliation happening now is between the punitive tax bill passed by the Republican House and the punitive tax bill passed by the Republican Senate. “I’m Not Racist” references current events, but its mindset is hopelessly outdated. It may have made a splash, but it’s not going to float. Even if someone still cared to revive how Eminem sounds in 2017, there’s little need for Joyner Lucas when Eminem himself is still around; his new album, Revival, comes out in two weeks.