The gap between hip-hop and rock, whether musical or cultural, is often greatly exaggerated. There are simply too many people who enjoy large amounts of both genres, too many musicians from either discipline who have crossed that gradually disappearing line. But every time a rapper tries to rock or a rocker tries to rap, we go through the same familiar motions. The artist invariably behaves as if his actions are as bold and groundbreaking as the first time Aerosmith stood onstage alongside Run-DMC; sometimes, fans and critics agree, but more often, the reaction is of the “omg lol wtf” variety, with enough feigned outrage and distaste to make one think none of these people had ever seen peanut butter in their chocolate before. “Why do rappers like Coldplay so much?” may very well be the inane watercooler observation of the 21st century.
You can expect to see this debate play itself out many times between now and April, when the most popular rapper in the world, Lil Wayne, releases his first rock album, Rebirth. Wayne’s been the focal point of such discussions ever since he half-heartedly twanged away at a guitar in the video for “Leather So Soft” two years ago, and since then, the guitar’s become a staple of his public appearances and concerts, albeit employed more as a symbol than as an actual instrument. The MC whose rhyming skills seemed to rapidly improve over the last few years through a tireless recording regimen has been a surprisingly lazy guitarist, only learning just enough to pluck out half-assed solos on songs like “Lollipop” and “Shoot Me Down.”
Last year, Wayne signed white singer/guitarist Kevin Rudolf to Cash Money Records, and their collaboration “Let It Rock” was a fairly large hit, reaching the Hot 100′s top 10. But the rap/rock smash never managed to scale any rap or rock charts (although that may be because it was more of a synth-pop song from a production standpoint). Even as flirtations with music other than hip-hop went, Lil Wayne seemed far more invested in R&B, emulating T-Pain’s AutoTune-heavy singing style. The R&B album he’s occasionally talked up, Luv Sawngz, has never surfaced, and a rock album seemed even less likely—at least until Rebirth was announced last week. The record’s lead single, “Prom Queen,” leaked over the weekend:
From the nasal vocals to the lyrics penned by a twentysomething from the perspective of a high schooler—”I loved her fancy underwear/ I sat behind her every year”—it seems like Wayne’s rock ideal is Blink 182. Except Blink 182 usually made an effort to say something clever or funny in their lyrics (as did, for that matter, Lil Wayne’s rap records). The backing track is obviously a live band, and the song fits into your standard 2009 rock template quite a bit better than, say, “Let It Rock,” even if it is fairly poorly recorded and features some hopelessly generic riffs. The membership of his backing band is currently unknown, although given that Wayne has yet to demonstrate the ability to play chords, it’s safe to assume he didn’t lay down any of the guitar. Whether Wayne sticks with faceless session musicians or lines up a supporting cast of actual rock stars, it’s hard to foresee Rebirth getting any better than this.
It’s unclear if Cash Money’s parent company, Universal, whose roster includes such rock-radio heavyweights as 3 Doors Down and Hinder, will be using any of its resources to work “Prom Queen” to the stations that play those bands. In fact, I’m not sure the label has any plan for Rebirth, other than placating a profitable star who wants to get a passion project off his chest so that everyone can move onto the next blockbuster in the Carter series as quickly as possible. I’d bet this album wouldn’t even be seeing the light of day at all if Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak hadn’t recently proven that one of the biggest hip-hop stars in the world can sell copies of an album with no rapping that almost deliberately confounds much of his fanbase. 808s‘ production was still palatable to R&B radio, however, and Kanye’s divisive experiment had enough supporters to become a critical favorite. Rebirth, on the other hand, has pretty much no chance of not being a widely panned fiasco, unless the label shelves the album now and Wayne gets distracted with another project.
If he continues restlessly evolving and altering his sound and image at the pace he has in recent years, Lil Wayne may actually make good rock music someday. But that day won’t come anytime soon. Wayne became a favorite of rock critics because he made a convincing case that he may be (or was) the best rapper alive, not because he sampled Slayer on 2005′s “Best Rapper Alive.” We may chuckle when he name-drops Iggy Pop in a verse, but who wants to hear him cover “Raw Power”? That sounds about as appealing as hearing Geddy Lee rap on “Roll The Bones.” The mock-horror that greets most rap/rock crossovers is, as I said, usually forced and exaggerated for comic effect, but that doesn’t mean that the songs aren’t actually pretty bad most of the time.
Hip-hop stations may play the song for a couple days as a curiosity, but they likely won’t put it in rotation, and iTunes purchases may push it up the chart, but not for long. So “Prom Queen”‘s best chance at success is rock radio. (Although when Maura asked me to speculate on the odds of “Prom Queen” making its way into those station’s Shinedown-dominated playlists, my first response was “How many words do you want me to use to say ‘zero’?”) The Tennessee band Framing Hanley’s nu-metal cover of Wayne’s “Lollipop” was only moderately popular by novelty-hit standards, peaking at No. 22 on the Modern Rock chart a couple months ago, and I’ll be shocked if “Prom Queen” gets even that far.
Personally, I think that Lil Wayne’s best bet for appearing on a rock radio hit right now is Fall Out Boy’s “Tiffany Blews,” which features a catchy and entertainingly batshit bridge full of T-Wayne uttering Pete Wentz lyrics. Even that’s a long shot, however; the song hasn’t been released as a single yet, and neither of Folie à Deux‘s first two singles has cracked the Modern Rock top 20.
As I noted last year, the history of rappers crossing over to rock charts is spotty at best, and usually involves either white MCs (The Beastie Boys, Eminem), Clash samples (Cypress Hill, M.I.A.), or rap-rock bands who rely on instruments more than samples (Rage Against The Machine, Flobots). When Andre 3000 strapped on a guitar and scored the worldwide smash “Hey Ya!” in 2003, the song got up to No. 16 on the Modern Rock chart—a significant, yet still modest peak compared to just about every other chart it appeared on. And while I’m not a particular fan of the OutKast song, I will be the first to point out that “Prom Queen” is no “Hey Ya!”