Deconstructing: Big Sean, 2 Chainz, And The Racial Politics Of Punchline Rap

Big Sean is one of hip-hop’s worst misnomers, and not just because the guy is only five-foot-eight. Everything about the Detroit rapper screams “twerp.” In his inexplicably frequent guest spots on gargantuan hits by A-list rappers, he is the kid brother begging to tag along — a pest, a nuisance, a whoopie cushion rapping about assquakes. Thanks to Grantland’s Chris Ryan, I can’t shake the image of Sean as a plastic lawn flamingo. And he’s just as much of a pesky cornball in his own music. On “Control,” his recent non-album track, Sean was an afterthought, swallowed up whole by Kendrick Lamar along with Jay Electronica and the rest of the universe. Throughout Hall of Fame, the record Sean released last month via Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music imprint, he is a walking, talking embodiment of “giggity.” Lately, he’s been favoring the adlib “Oh god,” which pretty much sums up how I feel when I hear his voice. Still, sometimes I can’t help but cackle along with him when he drops a clunker like, “I don’t give a fuck about feelings/ I ain’t no dentist.”

Big Sean has appeared on several songs with 2 Chainz, a rapper who actually pulls off the fun-lovin’ hedonist persona Sean aspires to. The artist formerly known as Tity Boi, whose own new album B.O.A.T.S. II: Me Time is out this week, is even more of a serial guest star than Big Sean, but he tends to have the opposite polarizing effect. Whereas Sean’s verses send me lunging for the skip button, 2 Chainz features seem like events no matter how ubiquitous they’ve become (very ubiquitous) and no matter how rarely they deviate from radio rap’s typical roulette of sex, drugs, money, fashion, and violence. Whether bragging about owning a “chain the color of Akon” on Kanye’s “Mercy” or whimsically approximating a sneeze on Drake’s “All Me” (two monstrous bangers Sean couldn’t ruin despite his best efforts), 2 Chainz is as funny, charismatic and evocative as Sean imagines himself to be. He only has one line on Lil Wayne’s “Rich As Fuck,” and it’s enough to turn that sinking ship into a party cruise. The guy can bring a smile to my face just by shouting his own name. And while the shooting percentage dips a bit when 2 Chainz has to hold down a whole song, solo hits like “I’m Different” and “Feds Watching” are still reliably entertaining. Pitchfork’s Jayson Greene neatly encapsulates our man Tauheed: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, and a 2 Chainz verse is like a Nate Robinson/J.R. Smith one-on-one game.”

Both MCs have been under Kanye’s wing to some extent, but they don’t share his grandiose vision, his cultural clout or his knack for pushing rap’s boundaries. What they do have in common with Yeezy is a penchant for punchlines, the kind of nyuk-nyuk wordplay that elicits forehead slaps as often as daps. When people talk about Kanye’s appeal, the assumption is usually that we merely tolerate lyrics like “They be ballin’ in the D-League/ I be speaking Swag-hili.” But the success of his cornball underlings makes me wonder if the general public secretly craves such ridiculous puns, no matter how much SMH they might generate. As an unrepentant pun purveyor myself, I can assure you at least one person out here craves them. I welcome the kind of shenanigans some people dismiss as struggle bars, even if it means wincing every once in a while. I don’t want rap to be reduced to a battle of corny one-liners, but corny one-liners do have their place. For me, the more egregious the better. “She got a big booty so I call her Big Booty”? I want to frame that shit on gold-embossed paper and hang it in a museum. And while I’m pretty sure my appetite for groaners is innocuous, as a white person laughing at black people, I sometimes wonder if I should check myself.

The well-worn topic of minstrelsy never really goes away, but it’s sure had a big year. From Macklemore to Miley, the politics of appropriation have been dissected at length in 2013. But a slightly different debate that’s more germane to this topic flared up back in July. When R. Kelly headlined Pitchfork Music Festival, longtime Chicago music writer Jim DeRogatis questioned the sincerity of the predominantly white audience’s adulation. Noisey’s Drew Millard was among those who shot back at DeRogatis, claiming that Pitchfork booked Kelly not as a joke but because his music matters to people, and that if DeRo can only comprehend millennials’ schizophrenic music consumption as irony, he’s got his own problems to sort out.

Can ridiculousness can be enjoyed without belittling that which is ridiculous? I’m inclined to agree with Pitchfork’s Greene, who tweeted, “If you savor a note of ridiculousness in something, that doesn’t make your appreciation ‘ironic.’ It makes it a FULL APPRECIATION.” Sure, the dude holding the sign inviting Kelly to piss on him indicated that at least some people in the crowd confirmed DeRo’s assumptions, but just because some white people interact with black performers in a disrespectful way doesn’t justify projecting those biases on every young white person who smiled broadly when Kellz released all those dove-shaped balloons.

It does suggest, however, that white audiences should be mindful of the way they interact with black performers. We can argue about whether people groups who’ve traditionally held the power and privilege have a responsibility to behave benevolently toward those who haven’t; depending on your worldview, it might not be a given that any person should be responsible to treat other people a certain way. What’s not up for debate is that any privileged person who is interested in behaving benevolently needs to focus less on their rights and more on how they affect less-privileged people. That’s a conversation whose terms the less-privileged ought to dictate.

That’s what Dave Chappelle did in Hartford late last month. During a show on his comeback tour, Chappelle interpreted hostile hecklers as laughing at him rather than with him, demanding he shuck-and-jive his way through decade-old routines from his TV show. So Chappelle sat down for a while, and when the jeers didn’t subside, he walked off. Much of the media construed Chappelle’s behavior as a meltdown, but Ebony’s Lesli-Ann Lewis deftly explained why it was anything but: “Chappelle wasn’t having a meltdown. This was a Black artist shrugging the weight of White consumption, deciding when enough was enough. This isn’t the first time Chappelle has done so and it isn’t the first time his behavior has been characterized as a meltdown.” Just like when Chappelle called off Chappelle’s Show at the peak of its popularity, when the entertainer started to feel disparaged by his audience, he got the fuck out of there.

It’s Chappelle’s prerogative to walk away from what he perceives as demeaning treatment, just as it’s R. Kelly’s prerogative to bask in silliness and risk being demeaned. Navigating that chasm between reverie and ridicule is every performer’s burden — especially minority performers, unfair as that may be — but it’s also up to each person to define what dignity means to them. For instance, I doubt Kelly would consider his broad smile throughout that Pitchfork set as a gesture of minstrelsy; like Millard, he probably sees it as a signal of joy in a moment of triumph. But when I interviewed TV On The Radio’s Kyp Malone years ago for a story that has been lost to the recesses of the internet, he explained that he never smiled in band photos because he wanted to steer as far clear of shucking and jiving as possible, to present himself and his music as entities to be taken seriously.

If you remove humor from the picture entirely, though, you’re left with something like the Weeknd’s monochromatic self-seriousness, and that’s just no fun. I have no idea if Abel Tesfaye’s motives for making such emotionally stark music are similar to Malone equating seriousness with self-respect, but I do know in the Weeknd’s case such a grim approach is a drag. Like the trilogy of nihilistic mixtapes before it, Tesfaye’s Kiss Land, also out this week, is too uniformly dark and dreary to endure for an entire album’s length. Some levity would go a long way toward correcting that. There’s certainly room for humorless music in the world, and sometimes a Weeknd song hits the spot, but if every musician in the world adopted Tesfaye’s austere aesthetic I think I would just go ahead and die. To TV On The Radio’s credit, they’ve been able to keep a straight face while still capturing a vibrant array of emotions, and their new “Mercy” video proves it’s possible joke around now and then without sacrificing your dignity.

But again, it’s not up to me as a white man to decide what’s dignified for a black man. Let’s not devolve into a hearty round of “whitesplaining,” shall we? What is for me to decide is whether it’s righteous to gobble up so much lyrical cheese, and whether laughing with those punchlines inevitably constitutes laughing at the rappers who deliver them. The verdict: That cheese is delicious, and I’ll sleep soundly after gorging on it until Tity Boi tells me otherwise.