It ain’t for everybody! Welcome to Hollywood, baby.
—Jay-Z, “Hollywood”, Kingdom Come (2006)
Every year, rappers appear in movies. And, every year, we—moviegoers, critics, audiophiles, rappers who don’t appear in movies, all of us—have something to say about it. Some rappers we love on camera, some we don’t, and our ambivalence to Hollywood has been reflected in our music. Check these cuts for proof: Erykah Badu’s ultra-funky “Hollywood” from the crossover-conscious Spike Lee flick Bamboozled (2000); Lucy Pearl’s spazzy, rocked-out “Hollywood” track from its self-titled album; or reach back in time to Public Enemy’s “Burn Hollywood Burn”, featuring Big Daddy Kane and Ice Cube, for a rather satisfying summary of why the movie roles for black actors were (and are) often frustrating to watch.
Usually, though, the discussion about rappers movin’ on up to Hollywood revolves around the impact of hip-hop’s influx on the movie industry. “Warn the townspeople, the rappers are coming!” is the outcry. If the quality of “rap” movies isn’t at issue, then the problem is what I like to call the “Rappers on a Plane” effect, named in honor of Samuel L. Jackson’s reported displeasure with appearing in movies with rappers or sharing top billing with them.
Jackson’s concerns were two-fold: 1) rappers would be taking roles away from actors who had trained and worked hard for these opportunities, and the roles for black actors are already limited as it is; and 2) rappers would be getting the same credibility as seasoned actors like Denzel Washington, Forrest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, and (of course) Samuel L. Jackson. In other words, there are too many motherf*ckin’ rappers on this motherf*ckin’ plane!
I don’t bring this up to bash Jackson. Even if I did have a problem with him, our superstar-fan relationship would’ve been as good as new after his voiceover work for Afro Samurai. Nicely done!
Instead, I’d like to flip the script on the rappers-in-Hollywood dialogue. I really don’t care if these rappers can act or not. Each year, I waste plenty of time and money watching films with silly plots and non-rappers who can’t act, so big deal. I’m interested in the music; specifically, I want to know how the phenomenon of rappers-who-act has affected hip-hop, if at all. Of course there are benefits for the individual rappers involved (increased exposure, bigger and more reliable paychecks, etc.), but what are the drawbacks? Below, I’ve listed three areas of concern regarding the hip-hop-to-Hollywood phenomenon.
1. About Credibility
If you stay in Beverly Hills too long you become a Mercedes.
Rap’s reverence for “keeping it real” often conflicts with an artist’s desire to sell lots of records. Such a desire leads to charges of “crossing over”. What, then, happens to a rapper’s “street credibility” when rap fans think he or she is trying to be a “movie star”? Do they get their “ghetto passes” revoked?
Boiled down to the essentials, what we have is a classic case of Hip-Hop’s First Law of Crossing Over. You’ve heard of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Industry Rule Number 4080” that says “record company people are shady” (“Check the Rhime”)—well, there are 4,079 other such industry rules before that one, and one of them pertaining to “credibility” goes like this:
Hip-Hop’s First Law of Crossing Over: “Street credibility” that’s intact tends to stay intact and street credibility in question tends to stay in question unless acted upon by a significant career move.
It’s Newton’s “law of inertia”, folks, and we see it all the time. Let’s say you write raps about having a good time and partying or—I don’t know, let’s try a wild one—humorous rhymes about how parents just don’t understand their kids or how you think you could defeat a heavyweight boxing champ in the ring. As far as “credibility” goes, if you started out as a “commercial rapper”, Hollywood roles that involve you having a good time, partying, or being funny (like Kid ‘n’ Play in the House Party franchise) should make your transition into the movies a little smoother than if you try to play a tough guy.
Will Smith and the Cast of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Will Smith, for example, was much better suited for Independence Day after starring in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air than something like Goodfellas or Pulp Fiction. Conversely, I’m not sure a “hardcore” rapper like Scarface would have worked in a Fresh Prince-like sitcom or in many of Smith’s movies (maybe Bad Boys, though). Eminem and 50 Cent arguably “just played themselves” in their films, 8 Mile and Get Rich or Die Tryin’ respectively, and this strategy worked for them. The credibility issue arises when they try to branch out.
Of course, there are examples of rappers who have emerged relatively unscathed in terms of credibility after taking movie roles that veered away from their core hip-hop images. Queen Latifah’s turn in the musical Chicago gave her some distance from hip-hop and her role as “Khadijah James” on the sitcom Living Single. On the show, she ran an “urban”, community-centered magazine called “Flavor”, like the name of her real-life “Flavor Unit Management” outfit and Flavor Unit rap crew. Her real life mother, Rita Owens, provided cameos as Khadijah’s mom. Chicago also paved the way for Latifah’s album of jazz standards, The Dana Owens Album, using her real name in the album title as opposed to her royal hip-hop moniker.
Personally, I miss the “Afrocentric” Queen Latifah, the one who wore dashikis and headdresses, before all the Cover Girl ads, but I hear she’s set to release another jazz album this year called Trav’lin Light. Apparently, she’ll cover the likes of Etta James, Sarah Vaughn, Nina Simone, Robert Flack, and Phoebe Snow. Eye roll and groan! That’s all right, it’s cool (*sniffle*), Queen. It’s all good. We shared All Hail the Queen, Nature of a Sista, Black Reign, and Order in the Court, and we’ll always have our memories.
Tupac and Ice Cube, on the other hand, might be viewed a bit differently. Tupac’s albums exhibited a mixture of machismo and sensitivity, which translated to the totality of his film roles, from his portrayal of “Bishop”, the paradigm I-don’t-give-a-f*ck blaze-of-glory brotha, to his “regular dude” roles in Poetic Justice and Gridlock’d. Similarly, Ice Cube’s debut in Boyz N the Hood hovered around his “gangsta” rap persona as a member of NWA, and now look—Ice Cube’s doing family movies like Are We There Yet?, and has cameo spots on his albums from Chris Rock and Mike Epps. I find Ice Cube’s “family films” excruciating to watch—does anybody know how Are We There Yet? ends?—but people seem fascinated by Cube’s ability to strike a “hardcore” musical pose while starring in movies they can watch with their kids. Nonetheless, both Tupac and Ice Cube at times felt compelled to address the supposed conflict between their movie roles and their rap personas.
2. You Can Always Come Home
I lost my memory in Hollywood
I’ve had a million visions, bad and good
There’s something in the air in Hollywood
I tried to leave it but I never could
—Madonna, “Hollywood”, American Life (2003)
The Second Hip-Hop Law of Crossing Over states: “For every career choice you make outside of hip-hop, an equal and opposite action occurs within hip-hop.” This can manifest in either of two ways: 1) the rapper’s acting career causes his or her music to suffer, or 2) the rapper’s acting career causes the rapper to disappear from hip-hop altogether.
For the first category, let’s go with LL Cool J. Uncle L has been building a lengthy filmography over the years, going back to 1986’s Wildcats, and including Any Given Sunday, In Too Deep, S.W.A.T., Deliver Us from Eva, and Deep Blue Sea (Sam Jackson getting eaten by the shark in Deep Blue Sea is hilarious!). Still, some would argue that while his best films may be ahead of him (far, far ahead), his best albums (Radio, Bigger & Deffer, Walking with a Panther, Mama Said Knock You Out) are in the past.
Ice Cube, as already mentioned, has been working the box office angle since 1991, but his film energy really expanded after his 1993 LP, Lethal Injection. Cube didn’t release any solo albums between 1993 and 1998’s War & Peace, Vol. 1 disc, while appearing in no less than seven films during the same period (The Glass Shield, Higher Learning, Friday, Dangerous Ground, Anaconda, The Player’s Club, and I Got the Hook Up). Personally, I think Cube’s War & Peace discs in 1998 and 2000 were decent efforts, but many saw the double album (discs sold separately) as two steps in the wrong direction. Perhaps splitting one’s time between music and acting could be a factor in that, an intimation Cube made reference to several times on 2006’s Laugh Now, Cry Later.
And then there’s Mos Def. Like Lauryn Hill, Mos Def performed as an actor long before he had rap albums—remember? Lauryn Hill played the “troubled black teen” for awhile on the US soap opera As the World Turns and appeared in Sister Act with Whoopi Goldberg. “You can’t match this rapper-slash-actress,” she said in the song “Everything Is Everything”.
Before making the Black Star album with Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek, Mos Def appeared in The Cosby Mysteries back in the early ‘90s. It’s not a question of whether Mos Def can deliver onscreen, considering his work in HBO’s Something the Lord Made, an awesome portrayal of heart surgery pioneer Vivien Thomas, lab tech and assistant to Dr. Alfred Blalock (played by Alan Rickman). Most impressive was Mos Def’s ability to sound like Thomas—he kind of looked like him too—evoking the southern dialect and mannerisms of the time period.
Nonetheless, there’s a marked difference between Mos Def as a member of Black Star and as a soloist on Black on Both Sides. While some would argue that Mos lost some of his def-ness with his forays into rock with Black Jack Johnson on The New Danger (I disagree, but we can argue that another day), I think the more definitive drop would be 2006’s True Magic, which isn’t that bad, just a bit meandering and lackadaisical. Meanwhile, this perceived decline in musical output corresponds to a steady increase in film work since the Black Star album, most notably Monster’s Ball (I despise the film, but Mos was good in it), Showtime (sort of a brick, but De Niro’s in it, so I understand), Brown Sugar (even the title makes me drowsy), The Italian Job (I’ll put up with any film where they stick it to that dweeb Ed Norton), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (why must they ruin everything I love?), and 16 Blocks (hated it). He’s also had TV appearances (wasn’t he funny on Chappelle’s Show and The Boondocks?) and has been hosting Def Poetry Jam. Mos might be busy with the cameras and with community activism, and Mos might be suffering for it on the musical tip, but he’s certainly not out of the game. We’ll see where it goes.
Common and Jeremy Piven in Smokin’ Aces
Same thing with Common, who definitely gets much respect for not only keeping himself from getting killed in Smokin’ Aces, but for helping to save Alicia Keys’s character, too. Way to read the script first and make sure your character survives to the end!
Musically, most everyone has noted the similarities between Common’s latest release, Finding Forever, and its predecessor, Be. Could the similarities indicate a reliance on formula? And could the Gap ads and increasing cinematic interest be contributing to Common’s reliance on his formula (i.e., formulaic work is easier to fit into an increasingly tight schedule)? Possibly. It might also depend on how you view Common’s Electric Circus LP. If you think it’s terrible, then you might feel like Common’s musical stars are getting into alignment. If you think Electric Circus is a masterwork, you might be getting nervous with what you’re seeing as musical complacency.
On the other hand, some rappers just disappear. I’m not sure which is worse: a rapper-slash-actor who releases disappointing albums, or the rapper who fades from the rap grind completely. Sometimes, becoming an actor is the best course to pursue when the “rapper” is simply better at acting than at rapping.
That’s the case with Mark Wahlberg of Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Seriously, do you want to see Marky Mark performing “Good Vibrations”, or would you rather watch Wahlberg in Boogie Nights or The Departed? Uh huh, that’s what I thought.
Yet, whenever a rapper “goes Hollywood”, we risk a loss on the hip-hop side of the equation. Maybe critics, and some fans, would applaud Smith’s move into acting, calling his rhymes “outdated” or—wasn’t it Bow Wow of all people who said this?—“corny”, but I’ve found Will much more entertaining as a rapper than as an actor. He still releases albums from time to time, so perhaps he hasn’t disappeared from hip-hop altogether. The point is that our “Fresh Prince” days are over in hip-hop, and Smith is not a “rapper-who-acts”, he’s an “actor-who-might-rap”, and there’s a big difference between the two.
My concern is that, with Smith’s Hollywood ascension, we in hip-hop lost his brand of humor and good-natured storytelling. Not completely, as there are still solid storytellers and funny emcees, but his impact has lessened. Who knows? Maybe it wasn’t “gangsta rap” that killed the hip-hop radio stars; maybe another part of the story is that the most interesting ones disappeared of their own volition.
A similar result occurred with Queen Latifah’s career. While I’ve genuinely enjoyed her film appearances, I sure do miss her rhymes and the poise she brought to her rap albums. Her absence is all the more glaring since female emcees with skills are still having a tough time getting heard these days.
3. What’s Beef?
It’s said in Hollywood that you should always forgive your enemies—because you never know when you’ll have to work with them.
The formula for calculating the existence of beef can be derived from the Notorious B.I.G.‘s line in “What’s Beef”. Biggie says, “Beef is when I see you.” Accordingly, we have the formula:
B = P1 + P2…
Here, “B” (for “beef”) is equal to “P1” (one person) in conjunction with “P2” (another person). The equation goes into effect whenever two or more people come into contact with each other (or, as we’ll see below, when one person is perceived as trying to avoid contact with others).
Hip-hop has thrived on beef and on rivalries (i.e., BDP vs. MC Shan, Kool Moe Dee vs. LL, and so on) but, as rappers rub elbows in wider circles, new alliances develop, as do new conflicts. Witness the beef between “the rappers” (50, Ludacris, and Ice Cube) and Oprah. The rappers claimed that Oprah had something against hip-hoppers, Oprah denied it, and Oprah ended up having a “townhall meeting” to discuss rap music in the aftermath of the Don Imus thing. In the cases of Ludacris and Cube, their acting careers (and Cube’s directing, producing, and screenwriting) figured prominently in their quoted statements. The skirmish might not have taken place when the rappers were focusing on their music.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not looking forward to any more of these inter-industry beefs. Besides, the “rappers vs. Oprah” stuff was too public for my tastes. I mean, dag, why we always gotta put our business out in the street? Could that have been handled behind the scenes? Get Tavis Smiley to mediate and the whole thing’ll be settled in no time.
The bottom line is that rappers are going to continue working on TV and in the movies. I just hope they don’t skimp on the music in the process. Know what I mean? Good. I’m going to force myself to finish watching Snoop and Dre in Car Wash now.
// Notes from the Road
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