Last week, Kelis shared some disturbing details about her abusive marriage to Nas. For an artist whose music I’ve been holding dear for 25 years, I’m ashamed to admit that my initial reflex was to immediately search for holes in her story.
There was the infidelity, allegations which Nas denied on Life Is Good standout “Bye Baby” and subsequently blamed on paranoia supposedly fueled by her father’s not exactly monogamous tendencies. There was her mentioning of how they both squared up in their physical fights, though she’s adamant she never initiated these bouts and was merely defending herself. And then there was also Nas’ heavy drinking.
Within seconds, my mind started constructing a narrative in which there was a lot of booze, a severe lack of trust and fighting on both sides. This was enough for me to sow a seed of doubt about the extent of Nas’ responsibility in what was some truly foul behavior. One of my rap heroes likely engaged in heinous conduct, but I’d already twisted my mind to somehow downgrade his alleged actions to make them slightly more palpable, for me.
I had zero knowledge of what exactly transpired between these two people, yet, I was all too eager to call into question the narrative of a woman who was right there, talking about living through it all.
Taking a step back, I realized this is something I always do whenever the name of a legacy artist appears in a disturbing headline.
I pulled off the same mental gymnastics when I first found out that legendary MC Big Pun pistol-whipped his wife. A woman who adored him. The mother of his children. And it was on videotape. There was no way of denying it, no inkling of doubt about the despicable act. Yet, I constructed half-assed excuses in my mind for him as if any kind of personal or marital issues could ever be an excuse for such a nauseating act of violence.
The selfish reason? Pun had made an incredible album I couldn’t bear to let go; it simply meant too much to me.
Back when mainstream hip-hop was diving headfirst into the shiny suit era and the divide between underground and mainstream rap grew bigger than it had ever been, Pun somehow managed to successfully straddle the line. He delivered technically impeccable raps full of awesome alliteration, internal rhyme schemes, and incredible breath control, all in service of humor and storytelling skills, to a rap scene overly enamored with the outside signifiers of success. And he brought that same glamour of success back to the underground, proving that being a supremely gifted rapper was still the most important thing in rap. That it could make you a star no matter what.
Pun's seminal debut, Capital Punishment, which celebrated its 20 year anniversary this past Saturday, was undeniable. It was a record that hip-hop needed at the time, beloved by every segment of the genre without hesitation. I thought I couldn’t part from an album that meant so much to me. The joy I had derived from listening to it on repeat wasn’t something I believed I could let go. And the same goes for Illmatic, which isn’t just a record I love, but a body of work that is universally recognized as the gold standard in hip-hop.
Just recently, I followed the same pretzel-formed logic following Kanye West’s 2016 visit to Trump Tower. Up until last week, when he started calling the tangerine fascist his "brother" and openly sported a MAGA hat, I’d convinced myself that the public co-sign was either a symptom of Kanye’s previously reported health issues or a form of naïvety in which he genuinely thought he might steer those tiny hands away from grabbing calamity by the pussy.
Capital Punishment, Illmatic, and Late Registration are all recordings. By their very nature, they are works of art that exist outside of the artists that made them. None of the material sounds any less good because of what the content creators have done or said outside of the music.
So why is it so hard to separate the art from the artist, especially in hip-hop? Probably for the same reason that ghostwriting is and always has been considered foul play.
Within hip-hop, the artist often is, at the very least, part and parcel of the art. In addition to the expectation that MCs are to be the sole author of every lyric uttered, we also tend to conflate the viewpoint character of any rapped narrative as coming from its performer.
We suspended our disbelief for the outlandish mobster life Rick Ross portrayed in his music, knowing full well that he took his name from an actual gangster and couldn’t possibly be speaking about his own experiences. But, when it was revealed that Ross was previously employed as a correctional officer, many articulated that the juxtaposition between the character Ross was portraying in his music and the real-life Ross was far too wide. Suddenly, he was no longer "keeping it real."
This reactionary behavior is rooted in hip-hop’s origin as a grassroots culture. There’s no way for an MC to brandish an arsenal of words crafted by somebody else without rendering it useless by default. Not only is writing your own lyrics an integral part of the craft of being an MC, there is no other genre in which the author and performer are so strongly intertwined.
As such, when we learn about legacy artists who have done or said horrible things, it tends to bleed into how we perceive their works. And not wanting to give up our enjoyment of those works leads to some uncalled-for caping for these artists. Look no further than the myriad artists bending over backward this past week in their defense of Kanye's conservative-leaning, Trump-endorsing, freethinking Twitter ramblings.
My own continued attachment to Big Pun’s work largely stems from the fact I didn't learn about his behavior until long after my attachment to his music. On the other hand, I can’t even bring myself to press play on the work of various SoundCloud rappers without alarm bells blaring ‘WIFEBEATER!’ in my head. And yet, I’m willing to let go of those same trepidations when it comes to legends.
I cannot and will not engage in victim blaming; that is a line I’m not willing to cross for any artist. And I can’t really rationalize where the line exactly is that I’m willing to draw in separating art from the artist—which, yes, makes me a hypocrite. But I’ve come to realize that, at the very least, it’s important to be aware of when I’m drawing it.