In just the past 14 hours, this rapper's new video had amassed 272,584 video views. It's well on the way to the millions of views that many of his other videos have racked up. My Twitter feed is showering praise on this red-hot emcee. Our own Z even wrote, "This kid is going to be huge," and it seems DJBooth Nation agrees.
Not a single one of his nine features on DJBooth has below a 4.0 rating.
The entire internet is seemingly content to sit down and watch, but it also seems like nobody knows exactly what they're watching.
His name is Lil Dicky.
Heard of him? Of course, you have.
It's nearly impossible these days to cruise around the rap interwebz and not see Dicky's name. One part Weird Al, one part Lonely Island and one part aspiring-Drake, Dicky reached internet fame by creating easily-digestible, catchy songs that openly and absurdly mocked things like a bunch of males pre-gaming for a night out trying to pick up a bunch of women. These aren't so much songs as they are comedy skits set to music, which should be relatively easy to handle. If he's a comedian, arguing about his rap credentials would be as absurd as his videos. Except Dicky also often insists that he deserves to be taken seriously as a rapper.
So where do the jokes end and the serious rapper begin?
At this point, everyone under the age of 35 is well versed in the ways of the internet. We can spot a fake video a mile away. We know when that viral clip is real and when Jimmy Kimmel is behind the door waiting to "punk" us. We can even handle the mind-twisting existence of rappers like Riff Raff and Lil B; whether they're characters, real people or real people who have completely lost themselves in their characters, they at least never break character.
With Dicky, however, the lines are strangely often even blurrier, and that seems to be part of the appeal. Some think he's the lost member of Lonely Island—a comedian creating musical skits—and others are accusing him of cashing in on his white privilege, while others are indeed taking him very seriously. He's touring, doing songs with Michael Christmas and Rockie Fresh, getting posts on major sites and racking up fan acclaim. In that context, what does being a good or real rapper even mean? That is essentially the question so many are asking, and the more I look, the more it seems like Lil Dicky himself doesn't seem to know the answer.
In an interview from 2014, Dicky reveals that he doesn't:
"I started rapping simply to get attention comedically, so I could write movies, write TV shows and act. I had very little interest in being a rapper. I fell in love with rapping though, so I'm not leaving that game until I've proved my point. However, I plan on having two concurrent careers going on at the same time, as a rapper, and as a comedian/actor/writer. I value the non-musical career just as much as the rap career, and can't wait to begin acting on that."
Ok, so, what point is he trying to prove before he leaves rap? That ... someone who never even really wanted to be a rapper can be a more successful rapper than those who devoted their lives to it? That a white guy who raps about white privilege can out-rap the black rappers who rap about coming out of poverty?
“If I looked like Rick Ross, do you realize how much fun that would be? I’d literally get to say any combination of words without being judged." —Noisey Interview
It was far easier to simply relax and laugh at songs about the '90s before reading a quote like that, before hearing him say he plans on using hip-hop to achieve his goals and then might simply discard it once he's "proved his point." But maybe I'm over-reacting. Maybe I'm falling into the internet thinkpiece trap. Maybe that's reading too much into a rapper whose videos feature men prancing around in tights.
But then, in a HipHopDX interview, he said:
"I did 'So Hard' to be noticed for being funny. And then towards the end of it I started to really evolve as a rapper and noticed how good I had become, right before So Hard came out and I added a few songs to reflect that, but when I made So Hard I did not see myself as one of the best rappers alive and now I do. And I think I’ve only gotten better."
Somewhere between his start and, well now, something changed, and Dicky went from a comedian to (in his mind) a bonafide rapper; an artist who deserves to be taken seriously as something more than a comedy skit; an artist who deserves to be considered one of the best rappers alive.
Somewhere along the way, it stopped being a joke. Except to Dicky it is still a joke.
Except it's not.
"I wouldn't say it’s comedy, I’d say it’s rap music. I think it’s misguided if you think it’s comedy, I think I’m a rapper who’s funny." —Noisey Interview
If he was just a comedian, this conversation wouldn't be nearly so complicated. Comedians are allowed a certain leeway when it comes to off-color jokes, but as he's insisted himself, there's more to his music than simply being a comedian. And the contradictions, the complications, the intricacies don't stop there. Despite doing entire songs about his white privilege, Lil Dicky also seems to view himself as an underdog; an outsider who seems himself as overcoming barriers in a genre he believes is 99% violent and poor.
"Unless you’re an extremely stupid person that began life as a poor, violent man, only to see your fortunes turn once you started rapping, you won’t be able to relate to 99 percent of today’s rap music.” —Lil Dicky's Blog
That kind of comment comes far too close to the kind of remark we've heard from Fox News anchors about hip-hop; that the entire genre is based on materialism and violence, while those of us who actually love the music know what a simplistic and reductionist view that is.
Of course, some popular rap music is about materialism, but 99%? With Kendrick and J. Cole and Chance the Rapper and Joey Bada$$ and Lupe Fiasco and countless more pumping new music into our headphones every day? That's not an isolated quote, though. In that same Noisey interview, Dicky goes on to talk about how, in some ways, he's actually had a harder path in pursuing his rap dreams than those coming from poverty.
Lil Dicky: "I think I’ve overcome a lifestyle. I think it’s very brave. There’s a line in one my songs that comes out in the future that says, “This wasn’t rappin’ or trappin / This was rappin’ or a big ol’ fucking house with a family.” I had everything to lose, if that makes sense. Obviously it’s very impressive when you go from nothing to something. But let’s be realistic, sometimes people have nothing to lose and it’s very easy to go for their dreams. I had a very safe route that would make me relatively content for the rest of my life. And I pretty much put that aside. I don’t think that should be ignored in my opinion, I think that’s a brave thing."
Drew Millard: "That’s not true at all. If you failed you could just go back to your job."
Lil Dicky: "I would say that’s very false. My parents were begging me not to put anything online because it would completely damn my possibility of having another job. If I put “Ex-Boyfriend” out on the internet and nobody liked it, then there’s evidence of me saying the word “Kike” and it not being well-received, if I’m trying to get a job in law that could bite me in the ass. Could you not see that? By putting this music out I think I genuinely eliminated 80 percent of the previous jobs I was qualified for. I’m not sure I could’ve gotten my job back. I don’t think it’s black and white. I think there was risk, is all I’m saying. I think I did have something to lose."
I'm more confused than when I started. Lil Dicky is a living, breathing (and maybe a rapping) paradox. Am I supposed to relax and get in on the joke? Or take his "plight" seriously? Am I supposed to see Lil Dicky as someone making harmless dick jokes, or as an artist who believes he's risked as much for his career as Kendrick Lamar has risked in rising out of the mad city of Compton?
Does he even like hip-hop?
Does he even respect it on any level?
When I listen to Lil Dicky, I hear a guy who stumbled into a goldmine; a guy who realized he could make a profit and get famous using hip-hop as a shortcut to meeting Judd Apatow. It feels like he doesn't love hip-hop, he loves what hip-hop's capable of doing for him.
Lil Dicky once tweeted, "I am a satirical rapper, makin fun of the most absurd genre in the world." He may be a satirical rapper, and parts of hip-hop—like parts of so many other cultures—are absurd, but hip-hop is not the most absurd genre in the world. The often absurdly exaggerated Rick Ross-esque rappers he seems to focus on are actually only a small fraction of hip-hop's DNA. Look even just a little deeper and you'll find artists like Run The Jewels and Mick Jenkins and so many others I've already named, none of which celebrate "the poor, violent man." Killer Mike's dad is a cop; how does that fit into the narrative?
Actually, directly measuring his rap skills against artists like those previously mentioned seems too serious; Dicky might be able to rap well for a comedian who only just started rapping, but I find it hard to believe even the most devoted Dickheads think if it came down to making a song not about boners, and that his flows, his bars, and his lyrics could possibly hold up to the other emcees in that best rapper alive categories—the Nas' and Kendricks and Coles and Eminems and Tech N9nes and Black Thoughts of the hip-hop world.
To quote poet-lauret Meek Mill, "There's levels to this shit." There are so many sub-genres, so many classifications, endless stories and complex arcs in hip-hop. To boil down hip-hop to the same old and tired stereotype is great for the satire business, but it hurts real rappers with real stories. Dicky's allowed the same poetic license as everyone and he very well may have real stories to tell; we've heard hints of that "realness" on songs like "Really Scared." I'm certainly not stopping him from becoming a "real" rapper; suburban white kids making music about suburban white life and earning respect from hip-hop in the process is nothing new—cough*Mac Miller*cough. But his version of what it means to be a middle-class white guy isn't that music, it's just one that's good for business.
It seems fitting when discussing a white guy stereotype to fulfill that stereotype myself. That's right, I'm about to reference a scene from The Wire. Like the store guard, Dicky wants it to be one way but it's actually the other way. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to be able to make people laugh, mock hip-hop and then be accepted and taken seriously by hip-hop. He wants to be a rapper when it's easy and a comedian when it's hard. He wants the same leeway we give to satirists but also the same respect we give to rappers in our "best alive" conversations. It doesn't work that way.
As he's said himself, Lil Dicky really has just started rapping. Maybe as he continues his career he'll figure out how to navigate hip-hop's waters better. Or maybe he'll be starring in a remake of Malibu's Most Wanted in two years. Only time will tell. But right now, if he really does wants to be a rapper, if he wants to be taken seriously, then we are laughing at Dicky for all the wrong reasons.