The first time I got called "white boy" I was 13. A kid asked me for a dollar; when I told him I didn't have any money, he said something to the effect of "alright white boy, lemme check your wallet then." This occurred in our nation's capital -- a city that was, at the time, still toiling in the expulsion of its utterly fallacious mayor, Marion Barry, and was yet to become the quaint repository for suburban flight (or "urban renewal", or "gentrification", depending on your perspective). I didn't quite know how to respond to racial profiling at the time, but the more I got called "white boy", the more the term seemed to encapsulate the problems of an insanely segregated city like Washington DC.
Suffice it to say, I was pretty damn impressed and a little shocked to hear of a Rockford, Illinois-based MC that went by "White Boy". The epithet is contentious by nature; it's loaded with the racial profiling mentioned above, and indicative of the latest urban trends -- be they of the city planning variety or of hip-hop's proclivity for self-division.
Most rappers skirt the race issue entirely, while others rely on the same old lexicon. Euphemisms have all but eschewed white underground rappers to teenybopper hell: "emo", "the new punk rock", and "Internet" are the most capricious end of hip-hop's latest racial dividing lines. Which is why someone with a name like "White Boy" is so inspiring. Here's a kid (Chris Riley, aka White Boy, is only 18) that's willing to grab hip-hop by the tusks, dig into some intense racial melodrama, and spell it out: WHITE BOY. There's no avoiding the issue at hand. Or at least that's the implication. No Gray Area's press release claims, after all, that White Boy is a "study of contrasts" -- "the product of a stormy interracial union." Likewise, the record's title suggests its content would have something important to say about the subject (an analogue to Danny Hotch's hilarious satire White Boyz? A 2 Live Jews sorta' quip at Eminem?)
Unfortunately, there's not much of a backstory to the guy's name and nothing to quell the anticipatory curiosity. There's no grand explanation and no insight into what it's like to be one of the few bi-racial rappers that's willing to dote on his own white boy-ness. Subjective investment is exactly that, of course, and the weeks of mounting expectations were basically stultified when I heard the record's first cut "Young Pimp".
There are two things wrong with No Gray Area. First, the aforementioned pimp songs (there's more than one) sound like the same old rehash. The conceptual clout they bring to the record redeems them somewhat (Riley's range of subject matter proves him to be much more than just another platinum front-sportin' cardboard cutout), but ultimately they're trite and sound like everything ever released by anyone trying to be Too Short. Second, the record's title doesn't work. If Riley's being ironic, more power to him; god knows hip-hop needs more MCs that are willing to clown the genre's posturing. Sincerity would have been more appropriate though, because he rarely -- if ever -- has a sense of humor. In fact, if there's one thing White Boy's proved with his debut, it's that there's an entire universe of gray area.
Yes, Riley is a study in contrasts -- only not in the way initially suspected. Thank god there's more to the record than "Cadillacs, Remy & Dro" and "Do Dat Dance", because it's when he gets downright personal with cuts like "Daddy", "Hold Tight", and "Growing Pains" -- which includes a gang of kiddies singing back-ups and honestly has one of the best choruses I've ever heard -- that you think Chicago hip-hop might a have a future in this guy.
Predictably, No Gray Area's standout track comes from Kanye West. What "U Know" lacks in lyrical depth, it more than makes up for in production and White Boy's a-rhythmic jumping jacks. It's basically a Chi-Town party jam, but the melancholy, emotional tenacity of the cut's souled-out backdrop make it a beautiful and strange choice for a single.
Whether or not White Boy is positioning himself to be hip-hop's next thug laureate is irrelevant, because he already seems to be well on his way (à la Tupac -- though it'll hopefully be without the tragedy). For an 18-year-old, he's got vision; the fact that he doesn't mention a damn thing about his name is almost as powerful as if he'd provided a whole laundry list of explanations.
Almost, because the problem with the "I'm a white boy, so what?" approach is that isn't true to life. If you're going to release a record that attempts capturing the essence of who you are -- and you happen to be a minority in your medium -- there ain't no way your gonna cut a successful record without a single reference to that tension.
Riley might very well be the exception, because there's nothing so pervasive as a name like "White Boy."