“This deluxe is all cap, this shit is not real,” Lil Durk says at the beginning of “So What,” the intro to his 7220 deluxe album.
His disclaimer once seemed unthinkable for many fans. For the majority of hip-hop history, rappers have sold themselves as paragons of authenticity in their music. “I’m living my raps” was the intrinsic sell to most consumers. But in recent years, the justice system has been preying on that dynamic by criminalizing lyrics, whether it’s cases against individual artists like San Diego’s Tiny Doo or sweeping indictments like the YSL RICO case, where Georgia prosecutors allege that Young Thug and Gunna’s lyrics are evidence of their involvement in a violent gang.
Now, rappers are playing defense against the feds, getting out ahead of any would-be prosecutions with disclaimers like Durk’s “So What” proclamation. Even more recently, up-and-coming rapper Monster Corleone’s “I’m Cappin” went viral because the entire premise of the song lies on him taking turns with collaborator Big Flock to let people know that their raps shouldn’t be taken literally.
“Do y’all promote guns and violence in your videos?” an interviewer asks at the beginning of the Twon Dosa-directed video. “Hell naw,” Corleone, Flock, and their friends exclaim in unison. From there, Corleone rhymes, “I ain’t in the streets, bitch I don’t get active/ Fuck do you mean? Lil nigga stop, I ain’t got opps, you niggas can have it.” In the following verse, DMV rap stalwart Big Flock raps, “Said I got za packs for a ‘lil note, but I ain’t gonna lie man that shit was a joke.”
The two artists get off all the slick talk and braggadocio that they would have on a song where they were depicting being drug lords, but they do it while saying that’s who they aren’t. As Corleone implores, “I’m just a rapper, this shit is a gimmick.” Asked if he thinks the song could backfire with listeners misinterpreting the record and calling him “fake,” he says, “If that’s what they’re saying, then that’s a good thing in the situation, right?”
Like so much great art, “I’m Cappin” is a response to something that shouldn’t be happening at all. A top YouTube comment under the music video states, “Police and Supreme court swingin’ in the air off this song,” a joke that illustrates the justice system’s racist propensity for criminalizing lyrics. Rappers, as Black creators, are having their First Amendment rights violated in a way that no other genre suffers, setting a dangerous precedent for so-called street rappers going forward.
Corleone, a Fredericksburg, Virginia artist who has been rapping for roughly four years, tells Complex that he created “I’m Cappin” as a response to the YSL indictment. “I saw these people are getting in trouble for this music,” he says. “Nah, I don’t want no parts in that. This shit cap. Don’t even listen to nothing I’m talking about. Because I’ve been known to have some lyrics that might be a little sensitive. But personally, I just looked at it like I ain’t got nothing to do with that. I’m a rapper. Just leave me out of all that shit. Don’t use nothing I’m saying.”
“I saw these people are getting in trouble for this music. Nah, I don’t want no parts in that. This shit cap.” – Monster Corleone
Thankfully, there’s no legal precedent for artists’ stating that their lyrics are fake in a song, and then having that song be used as court evidence. And while rap videos are being included in state and federal indictments, including in YSL’s, there are no prominent examples of music videos with “these guns are props”-style disclaimers being criminalized either. The music video disclaimer has become a standard in certain rap scenes, where artists tote fake guns to augment their artistic depictions. And now we’re seeing whole disclaimer songs being made.
There is precedent for rappers making songs that remind consumers not to take them literally, however. On 2007’s “Ignorant Shit,” Jay-Z responded to a confusing backlash against rap, which occurred after late shock jock Don Imus called Rutgers University’s (predominantly Black) women’s basketball team “nappy headed h*es” on his radio show. Prominent figures like Al Sharpton somehow came to a conclusion that rap’s use of the h-word normalized the slur, and hence made rappers responsible for Imus’ racist, misogynist remark. Sharpton even led demonstrations, which fit right into conservatives’ “blame rap” bag. But Jay-Z shut all that down in brilliant fashion on the American Gangster classic, asking, “What do my lyrics got to do with this shit?,” and rhyming, “Believe half of what you see, none of what you hear even if its spat by me/ And with that said, I will kill niggas dead.”
And now, instead of defending the culture against the court of public opinion, artists are explaining their craft in the hope that they don’t unjustly become defendants in the court of law.
On “AHH HA,” which is widely regarded as a diss to YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Lil Durk preambles, “Ayy, this shit like videos, you hear me? Everything I say in this motherfucker all props, just in case the police listening, you know?” As a leading purveyor of drill, a genre that’s been plagued by prosecutors trying to link rappers to gangs, it’s no surprise that he’s trying to protect himself.
So is Corleone, who says the immediate shock of YSL’s indictment had him considering quitting rap altogether. ”I thought about not rapping no more, man,” he reveals. “I’m like, ‘Man, this shit just going to be a sentence for me.’ That’s what they trying to do.’”
“One thing that people gravitate towards is a person speaking their truth or speaking the real, and now we can’t do that. Or even if it’s not real, we don’t want to act like it’s real.” – Monster Corleone
There was a time when rap was seen as a pathway from the streets to legal money, but Corleone’s comments reflect the peril of police targeting, which street artists are facing more heavily than ever. Bobby Shmurda has said that he felt like the NYPD was more eager to arrest him and Brooklyn’s GS9 crew once he and Rowdy Rebel achieved rap fame off the strength of songs like “Hot Nigga” and “Computers.”
Young Thug paid Lil Baby money to stay out of the streets and record, presumably to escape the streets. But in a cruel twist of fate, Fulton County, GA DA Fani Willis is using lyrics to place Thug in proximity to violence. More recently, Willis made headlines by promising two more high-profile indictments by mid-September. And while the indictments could very well be against criminal street organizations with no ties to music, many fans are anticipating two more rap crews being ensnared.
This is yet another development in the music industry that has seeped into the art itself. DSPs have inspired shorter songs and longer tracklists to rack up stream counts. Artists are tailoring their songs for TikTok with gimmicky hooks and dance songs. And now, the feds’ sinking their teeth into rap is affecting rappers’ actual lyrics. This is unquestionably a problem for rappers’ creative freedom. How many artists who specialize in street rap are going to see the genre being criminalized and quit music, or pivot to another style they’re less suited for? Will every rapper be expected to provide some kind of asterisk on their art? These are questions worth asking amid a racially motivated influx of rap prosecutions.
“One thing that people gravitate towards is a person speaking their truth or speaking the real, and now we can’t do that,” Corleone says. “Or even if it’s not real, we don’t want to act like it’s real. You know what I’m saying? Because this [is] going to bring negative heat to us. I mean, hopefully they pass the law where they can’t use lyrics in the court system. But until then, we’ve got to be smart with it, man.”
The RAP Act, proposed by congressmen Hank Johnson (Georgia) and Jamaal Bowman (New York), is vying to limit the court’s ability to use rap lyrics as evidence against artists. The bill hasn’t been passed yet, however. Earlier this year, New York passed the Jay-Z and Meek Mill-backed Senate Bill S7527, which will stifle prosecutors’ ability to use song lyrics and other forms of “creative expression” as evidence in criminal cases. The New York bill a step in the direction, but it only covers cases in New York. For the time being, artists are still susceptible to having their lyrics criminalized, and some, like Corleone and Durk, are deciding to preemptively acknowledge that possibility in their music.
21 Savage can’t even convince actual rap consumers not to take his lyrics literally, and now rappers are having to defend their lyrics against prosecutors, judges, and juries. For too many young artists, rap is their only form of expression amid relentless oppression by predacious vessels of white supremacy, and now they don’t fully have that either. Rappers shouldn’t have to prove they’re artists, but here we are, in the abyss, where the justice system has taken an artform we created as a response to (and escape from) violence, and are now framing it as the cause. But, ever-creative, we may have imagined a way out of that circumstance, too.