Rap nerds have been on the rise for the last 10 years. Now it's time to finally admit nerds don't just run rap, they run the world.
Written by Damon Young (@VerySmartBros)
Chris Paul is the NBA’s best point guard. Russell Westbrook’s the most explosive. Stephen Curry’s the most electrifying. But none of them are as “he’ll Vine you”-worthy as Kyrie Irving is right now. As The Shadow League’s Khalid Salaam writes, he may not be the NBA’s best point guard, but he’s “the nastiest.”
But, Salaam continues, while his predecessors in nastiness—people like Allen Iverson and Kenny Anderson and Tim Hardaway and Isiah Thomas—all came from the inner city, Irving has an upper-middle class background. He defies the archetype. It doesn’t seem to matter, though. It would have 20 years ago. Maybe even 10. Now, no one seems to care. All that matters is his game.
Basically, Kyrie Irving is like Kanye West. And Kendrick Lamar. And Tyler, the Creator. And Childish Gambino.
The Best Rapper Alive was a straight-A student and belongs to a collective called “Black Hippy.”
The most important person in rap today is a kilt-and-leather-sweatpant-rocking son of a college professor. The Best Rapper Alive was a straight-A student and belongs to a collective called “Black Hippy.” Some of today’s most controversial and cringe-inducing content comes from a skateboarder from the Black Beverly Hills. The last rap album I listened to was created by an Asian-fetishizing comedian who has been employed by two separate NBC shows.
The nerds—the kids without traditional street cred, the guys who don’t look and sound like the type of people we’ve always associated with hip-hop influence and relevance—are no longer obscured by the cool kids. They’re not even competing with the cool kids. Now, the nerds are the cool kids.
Attributing nerd culture’s dominance in hip-hop culture in 2013 to a soon-to-be 10-year-old Kanye West album seems like something someone who doesn’t really listen to rap would write. It feels lazy. Perfunctory. Still, it is true. Well, kinda true. The College Dropout is not the best rap album of the 21st century. But it has already proven to be the most influential. What made Ye’s popularity so astounding at the time wasn’t the fact that he wasn’t a street guy who didn’t rap about street shit. The same could be said for OutKast, De La Soul, The Pharcyde, Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and anyone else who found space and grew popular countering rap’s dominant street culture.
What made Kanye’s coolness “cool” was the fact that he wasn’t cool. He was awkward. He wore pink Polos. He was (and still is) a spaz. He talked funny. He didn't seem to fit the hyper-heterosexual image expected of Black male rap stars, so he was considered soft. Some even derided him as gay (NTTAWWT).
The acceptance of and embrace of Kanye’s lack of cool didn’t exist in a vacuum, though. He didn’t create the wave. He just was lucky enough to get on it. A nerd (Bill Gates) already controlled the way we worked. A nerd (Steve Jobs) was beginning to control the way we consumed culture. A nerd (Mark Zuckerberg) soon found a way to control the way we interacted. A nerd (Sean Parker) forever controlled the way we listened to music. This wasn’t Revenge of the Nerds. It was—and still is—the nerds ordering everyone else to bow the fuck down. Jack Dorsey is no different than General Zod.
Hip-hop’s embrace of nerds was slow. Very slow. Which was expected for a genre built on braggadocio and brawn. The qualities associated with nerdiness contradicted what we expected to hear when we listened to rappers rap. Even if we were intellectually aware that some of rap’s biggest “bullies” were featherweights we could probably take in an actual fight, we still wanted to be bullied by them.
But, as the aughts continued, the nerd takeover became inevitable. Kanye showed us it could be done, and the other nerds were busy shifting culture in a way that changed the barriers to entry and relevance. Soon, Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, and 88 Keys started happening. ?uestlove, the “nerdiest” member of the world’s coolest rap band became its most popular member. Street cred and hot singles were still important. But social-media strategy and SEO savvy were even more important. And it wasn’t just that nerds and others outside of the traditional rapper archetype were being let in. Nerds were becoming the cultural arbiters—the ones giving Tyler the Creator and Kendrick Lamar millions of views and Wiki pages before they released any major-label albums and the ones downloading Chance the Rapper’s and Childish Gambino’s mixtapes.
Childish Gambino loses cool points because he still acts like he doesn't have any.
Any doubt that nerd culture has reached a critical mass this year would be quelled by a visit to any inner-city high school. You’ll see jeans too tight to run in tucked into multi-colored sneakers. Oversized and occasionally lensless glasses. Intentionally ironic t-shirts. Suspenders. Bow ties. Knee-high socks with Disney characters on them. I saw these things when I was in high school, too. But the kids with them were getting stuffed into lockers, smacked with spitballs, and friend-zoned-ed by Laura Winslow. Not looking and acting exactly like the most popular rappers and NBA players.
A downside to this type of cultural ubiquity is the inevitable backlash, which is why it doesn’t surprise me that Childish Gambino’s Because the Internet has received some underwhelming reviews. His entire schtick, including his name, is a very intentional counter to hip-hop’s prevailing culture…from 10 years ago. Now, though, as "nerd" is no longer an automatic synonym for “uncool,” the persona, of a nerd intent on proving he can now do things his nerdiness didn’t always allow him to do, feels a little outdated. Unfashionable. He loses cool points because he still acts like he doesn’t have any.
I guess this is progress. Nerds becoming the cool kids isn’t a bad thing, I suppose. Shit, a couple more decades of this, and I wouldn’t even be surprised if we had a Black nerd president some day. I can picture him now. He’ll be a gangly introvert with big ears. He’ll be from Montana or Hawaii or some other state no one cool gives a damn about. He’ll also have a funny name, and he’ll play basketball in the same type of white ankle socks and low-top sneakers that uncles rock when grilling hot dogs.
Eh, never mind. Seems a bit too unrealistic. That said, my favorite rapper worked at the Gap and my favorite point guard went to Duke, so I guess anything’s possible.
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