As Pareles wrote in February 1992, “Hating rap, a purportedly esthetic judgment, can be a synonym for hating and fearing young black men…. Hip-hop, many commentators have inveighed, is intended solely to spur violence, race hatred and general lawlessness. Not so coincidentally, that's what those commentators fear from an urban black population whose prospects deteriorated steadily through the 1980's.”
Black writers covering rap at Billboard took more generous, nuanced views than what’s been quoted -- and they did so in stories that rarely made it to the front page. For instance, Havelock Nelson, who wrote “The Rap Column” for the mag in the ‘90s, attempted to enliven the caricature of Shakur put forth by the mainstream media. “He harbored a lot of pain, and when he put his mind to it, he was capable of writing vivid, introspective lyrics that made those private tensions public spectacle,” he wrote in October 1996, less than a month after Shakur was killed. But he too resorted to conservative talking points; from the conclusion of the previously quoted essay: “Shakur sold -- and other artists sell their fans -- the lie that they can overcome their poor surroundings and become somebody by doing whatever to acquire luxury items and designer duds. The fact is that going that route only wastes one’s life while eroding the surrounding community.”
While Billboard ran op-eds targeted largely at the music industry, critics had consumers in mind as they wrestled with morality and the music. Robert Christgau, writing most often for the Village Voice, was an old-guard white male rock critic who embraced hip-hop. Still, every critic will draw some line when pressed -- Christgau’s review of Ice Cube’s second solo album, Death Certificate, released in October 1991, demarcates his limits. In an echo of Chuck D’s withering assessment of Elvis from “Fight the Power,” he labels Cube a “a straight-up racist simple and plain” for lyrics about Korean-Americans and Korean-owned businesses, for using language like “Jap” and “Jew” as epithets, for rampant use of the word “f----t,” for misogyny that treats “the female body as pestilence and plague.”
He concludes by likening the explanation offered by Cube’s publicist at the time -- that Death Certificate is “an honest expression of black rage” -- to Axl Rose’s defense of “One in a Million”: “Hey, didn't Axl already use that line? Oh, right -- ripping off the white man is reparations, not theft. And it's certainly not playing into the enemy's hands. No way."
Crucially, Christgau engages with the music as an adult, treating it as music other adults will consume; his objections aren’t of the “think of the children” variety. Still, his reparations argument is specious; “racism” as the unifying quality shared by Cube and Rose elides white supremacy and fails to apprehend the real power dynamic at play on even a hateful song like “Black Korea.”
Christgau doesn’t mention the March 1991 death of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl who was shot to death in Los Angeles by Soon Ja Du, a Korean shopkeeper, less than three weeks after the Los Angeles Police Department attacked Rodney King during a traffic stop. Though Du was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, the presiding judge, Joyce Karlin, sentenced her to no prison time -- instead, Karlin fined Du, gave her five years probation and 400 hours of community service. It’s disturbing context that one imagines a different writer might have engaged with fruitfully. (Pareles, in his story about the album and its reception, including calls from the Jewish human-rights group the Simon Wiesenthal Center to record stores to ban its sale, does not mention Harlins or Du either.)
As noxious as Death Certificate can be, it is a crucial document of suffering created during an exasperating and brutal time in American history. Los Angeles was on the verge of the Rodney King Riots, and the album contains the roiling anger born of white supremacy, a corrupt police department, and a judicial system that would not enact justice, resulting in over 60 deaths and 1 billion dollars in property damage meted out over the course of six days. Of course, Christgau doesn’t know that when reviewing the album months beforehand. It’s impossible to account for the legacy of a work in the moment; it doesn’t exist.
Contrast the Death Certificate review with Christgau’s assessment of Life After Death, a record he awarded an “A” grade. Finding Biggie “sardonic, self-deprecating, and tough-minded,” he’s taken in by the humor on the project, for its “moments of warmth for family and comrades…. In short, way more fun and somewhat more moral than the look-ma-no-hands unaccountability promoted by showbiz outlaws from Mobb Deep to Westside Connection.”