David Banner made a song and called it “Swag.” It bangs, it knocks, it slaps, it goes hard. Sonically it’s everything you could ask for from a David Banner record. Unfortunately it comes with a “positive” message that is messy at best.
No names are named, but you know who he’s talking about when you venn diagram his talking points and anyone who chants “Swag.” When he complains of “dissing God” he’s calling out proud atheists Odd Future and/or Lil B, who makes songs about being God and looking like Jesus. He’s also likely referring to Kreayshawn‘s White Girl Mob affiliate V-Nasty’s use of the N-word (this actually seems like one of the few reasonable complaints on “Swag”). Then he fills in the empty bars with generic early ’00s conscious rapper rhetoric, using religiously charged moral scare tactics, drawing an end-all comparison to minstrelsy (which has become something of a Godwin’s Law for any and all critiques of popular hip-hop since Spike Lee popularized the idea with Bamboozled). Banner hates dancing, he invokes a nameless black kid that was shot by a cop, he claims to be a teacher while merely chastising instead of educating. Perhaps most weirdly, he bemoans drug dealers a lot.
It’s strange, because if there’s anything that unites this increasingly wide swath of the many rappers chanting “swag,” it’s how almost every one of them is explicitly not making songs about selling drugs, instead pointing kids towards healthier and creative pursuits like fashion, skateboarding, filmmaking and graphic design. They might be making songs about doing drugs, but they’ve all but completely sidestepped the dope boy chic that the Jeezy generation promoted. Where Banner and his ilk get it confused is that many of them are adopting the language of that era. While certain media outlets might try to say otherwise, the cooking dance doesn’t mimic cooking crack (the “Knife! Steak!” aspects of the dance should alone prove) and Odd Future refers to their home recording studio when they speak of “The Trap.” Similarly it’s hard to read their more vulgar songs as anything but tongue-in-cheek. OF’s “Bitch Suck Dick,” anchored by the purely nonsense hook — “My bitch suck dick like she suck dick” — also finds them bragging about riding unicorns. There are about a thousand angles of absurdity when Lil B raps “Hoes on my dick ’cause I look like Jesus.” These are tasteless jokes, to be certain, but jokes nonetheless.
Kids who listen to this stuff understand that, that’s why they’re all smiles at the shows. But hip-hop conservatives, outsiders and the people who prey on both have long struggled — or simply chose not — to properly parse satire, parody and absurdism in the genre. Or maybe they understand it quite well but they choose to feign ignorance, knowing that there’s as much value in outrage as there is in the initial shock. “Swag,” like so much hip-hop finger waving before it, inverts the same attention-baiting tactics it critiques.
On the other hand, to dismiss this music as mindless or messageless or something that fails to “speak the truth” is to totally misunderstand every artist involved in this whole mess. Peel back enough of the layers of irony and sarcasm and profanity and post-modern posturing that these rappers play in, and you’ll find well-intentioned, if muddled messages (much like Banner’s response, incidentally). B makes incredibly vulgar music in the name of hippiesh personal freedom and will turn around and make full length albums that play to the exact rap consciousness that Banner calls for. Odd Future’s initial core message (before they began leaning Trollish) was more personal — that of overcoming the pains of growing up in a single parent household. Even Kreayshawn’s only real song is about forgoing designer fashion in favor of adopting an affordable thrift shop swag. These are all really positive things for kids to hear. (Banner’s jab about dissing God is most frustrating, because questioning religion is undeniably a sociopolitical stance. Questioning religion is as thoughtful as blindly adhering to it is thoughtless.)
It’s possible that Banner is not listening carefully, and the only thing he hears is the shocking and shameless stuff. This is nothing new in hip-hop. Dirty rap legend (and the man who first put Lil B on) Too $hort often complained that while he made socially minded singles like “The Ghetto,” popular demand pushed him in the direction of vulgar fan favorites like “Freaky Tales.” This popular divide is most evident today in Lil B’s Youtube statistics: His self-proclaimed “MOST POSITIVE SONG EVER MADE” “We Are The World” has just under 250,000 views. “Suck My Dick Ho” has 2 Million.
Though B has never acknowledged this, many listeners have suspected that B has used his more ignorant records as a draw to get fans to listen to his more cerebral work. Decidedly post-Lil B rapper and swag-chanter TKO Capone has come out and said as much. Ironically, this very approach is a large part of the reason David Banner even has a platform to scold these rappers today. His biggest hits were not reflective singles like “Cadillac’s On 22’s” but proudly ignorant stuff like “Like A Pimp” and “Play,” which featured the refrain “Come on girl I’m tryna get your pussy wet.” Now he wants to play hard moralist because his soapbox is solidified.