New York purist Papoose has become a punchline to social media's snaps and memes. Is this fair? Or do we need to leave him alone?
Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
When the news broke that Papoose had released a “Control” freestyle last week, the world readied to punish its favored target for twitter snaps and bruises.
It’s not like he doesn’t make it easy sometimes. OK, I'll admit it: It's not like he doesn't make it easy pretty often. He’s very sincere about his desire to be the best, and definitely believes it is within his grasp. And of course, anyone who has an earnest public profile is basically inviting the internet roasting sessions. He's been calling himself New York's future for so long that it's impossible to take him seriously.
Here at Complex, we’ve cataloged some of the times the rapper’s actions have inspired the public to step up and land a few blows. Last week, we even jumped in on the action ourselves, highlighting some of the worst lyrics from his “Control” freestyle, including “You’ll never be a real West Coast artist like Eazy-E/You a fucking joke, we laughing at you like hee-hee-hee.” What amazed people most about that line was probably his use of "hee-hee-hee" as a punchline. But even beyond that, the irony of Papoose, the subject of "12 Funny Papoose Summer Jam Memes," calling another rapper a "joke" was hard to reconcile.
The hits don't stop. There was also this condescending interview with Papoose by Hot 97's Ebro, Kay Foxx, and Cipha Sounds, which best iterated the legion of embarrassments detractors lay on the rapper's doorstep. They mock how few people are familiar with his Nacirema Dream album title, even though he's been saying it for years. They tease him for taking his name from a construction company. They have a pedantic argument over the meaning of "for sure" when Pap says his girlfriend, Remy Ma, is coming home from prison "for sure." Basically, one gets the impression that the crew interviewing Pap don't think very of much of him, and they feel like the audience is on their side.
And that's probably, to some degree, a safe bet. After all, Papoose does to lack a certain degree of self-awareness, or at least, a willingness to admit to fault in front of the cameras. Despite his impervious, positive winner's attitude, his album sold a paltry 5,442 copies in its first week, debuting at No. 97 on the the Billboard 200.
But the rap media's lampooning of Papoose is a little ironic in itself. When he first appeared, he was celebrated. Impressive mixtape buzz had lead to a $1.5 million dollar deal with Jive Records, and placements on high-profile records like Busta Rhymes' "Touch It (Remix)."
The music industry is made up of people who will celebrate a winner, regardless of his or her music, and castigate the loser. Papoose had substantial buzz early on, so he was insulated. But one thing that has dogged his career is something that's pretty well out of his control: the overall health of New York hip-hop has been in question since before he arrived on the scene. You can see him cited as the hope of New York in this 2007 Vibe article about the state of the city's hip-hop. When Papoose's Scott Storch-produced lead single for Nacirema Dream flopped, it set him on a path to become a perennial punching bag. He represented—to many of the people documenting the scene—the specter of the city's questions about its own relevence.
When the industry picks on Papoose, it says more about the way their own values about hip-hop have changed, rather than the way hip-hop itself has changed.
When the industry picks on Papoose, it says more about the way their own values about hip-hop have changed, rather than the way hip-hop itself has changed. For many, it's as if the direction of hip-hop's past and future has been long-decided. Keith Murphy recently argued in Vibe that it was 2007's "cultural slaying" of 50 Cent—the moment Kanye West defeated 50 in a clash-of-the-titans sales battle—that marked the transition. "Being a gangster or repping the streets," Murphy wrote, "no longer represented being the coolest person in the room."
Of course, this doesn't explain the continued popularity of Lil' Wayne, or the way careers of street rappers continually ebb and flow in the industry, despite repeated claims of the subgenre's demise. But while there are undeniable benefits to rap's shedding it gangstacentrism—the caricature of black youth as one-dimensional gangsters, and deliminating rappers to those roles, is wrong, flat out—it's not hard to see that, in the new New York, some things have been lost. And Papoose is one of the few rappers out right now who still understands this less-visible hip-hop tradition.
I recently lamented that Kendrick Lamar's "Control" verse, for all its impact, was unlikely to inspire the kind of ad-hominem shit talking that was a huge part of why the genre appealed to me in the first place. Rappers like 50 Cent and Dipset were unafraid to send shots at Ja Rule or Jay Z, and they did so in a way that was charged with meaning. It wasn't a "good clean fight." It was dirty, and that was the point.
Of course, Papoose isn't quite at that level on his own "Control (Freestyle)"—nor would anyone argue that, creatively, he's on the level of any of the aforementioned artists. But he understands what it means to be a rapper. He dresses like a rapper. He has a great rapper's voice—better than many, many New York MCs, although it would be good if he learned that non-hardcore lyrics aren't necessarily redeemed just because they're delivered in a hardcore way. But he plays the role to a T. And that's what plenty of great New York rappers in the past were able to embody completely, and it's something that recent New York rap has struggled to convey.
One of the most revealing parts of the interview with Ebro comes when they ask him about his weaknesses as an artist. "Who does that?" asks Papoose. "I'm more focused on making myself greater. I'm going on the record: I have no weaknesses."
The Hot 97 crew seem mildly stunned by this lack of self-awareness. This isn't how this is supposed to work; Pap failed, he has little buzz, his records sell poorly. Why couldn't he take a step back and think about that fact? But Papoose actually understands his role very clearly. "My craft is practiced before I come here," he says. "I do my homework. It's called homework. When I come here, I'm not at homework. It's a ballgame when I'm here...." Papoose plays a rapper in the way all great rappers have done so; he embodies the character, completely and fully—and that includes in interviews. He doesn't sit back and analyze; he is a superhero, impervious. Otherwise, how can anyone believe in him?
The hip-hop press has, of late, completely misunderstood the theater of hip-hop.
"Your weakness are when you don't listen to when people give you critiques," argued Ebro.
"Why should I?" said Papoose.
Sure, there's a level of delusion to Papoose saying Jay Z is just "aight" as a lyricist, as he does in that video. But on the other hand, the history of the genre—from Kanye telling Jay and Dame he wanted to be a rapper, to the kid from the "Hawaiian Sophie" video becoming the King of New York—is full of similar delusions. The best rappers better believe in themselves, or there really isn't any point to it.