As the crowd waited for Rihanna to take the stage at the SAP Center last year, the opening DJ put on Too Short’s banger, “Blow the Whistle.” Being a local anthem of sorts, Short’s song got people out of their seats to dance and sing along—never louder than when the East Bay rapper called out, “What’s my favorite word?” The crowd lustily responded, “Biiiiitch.”
This could just be privileged hand-wringing from another think piece-prone white guy, but the direct, triumphant nature of the line still makes me cringe a bit. A decade after the song’s 2006 release, the track mostly holds up. But in these wokest of times, that moment sticks in my craw. Though I’m not particularly sure why. After all, Short’s favorite word certainly hasn’t dropped from rap’s vocabulary.
Hip-hop’s reigning social conscience, Kendrick Lamar, made it central in “Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe,” the fourth single off his heralded debut, Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. It’s the first word in Vince Staples’ “Norf Norf,” an unflinchingly poignant tale of senseless violence in his native Long Beach. Father and philanthropist Chance the Rapper sprinkles it liberally through his radio single, “No Problem.” And Migos scored their biggest hit to date, “Bad and Boujee,” by using the word to describe their loyal ladies. So in terms of using a bad word, Short’s in good company.
A prolific artist, Short will release his 20th full-length album—The Pimp Tape—later this year. He possesses a bouncy, fun flow and gives a better live show than many contemporaries. But if you rap along, then you have little choice but to engage in a little transitive property misogyny, especially in his new album’s first single, “Ain’t My Girlfriend.”
Featuring three, big-right-now names, Ty Dolla $ign, Jeremih and French Montana, the track rehashes the tired trope of treating women like powerless playthings. Still, I doubt the dance floor clears when it comes on in the club.
Critics who dismiss rap whole cloth for its disrespect toward women miss the rich forest for a diseased tree. Still despite the often Drake-eclipsing success of Nicki Minaj, these attitudes have stuck around longer than homophobia, which has been fading since Eminem and Elton John’s incredibly awkward “See, we’re cool!” moment. And of late, it has been almost entirely blown up by Young Thug’s androgyny and Frank Ocean’s sexual openness.
As media has shifted online, traditionally underheard voices have gained platforms and pushed many to reconsider the impact of words, particularly those used to demonize the marginalized. So it’s a little strange to see hip-hop, today’s biggest, most flexible genre, struggle to keep up with the widely accepted idea that Short’s favorite word shouldn’t be thrown around so casually.
And perhaps a lot of it is in the inflection. As rap has grown, so has its uses for “bitch.” Sometimes, a rapper uses the word to flesh out a character. Or it’s slipped into a string of boasts too ludicrous to be literal. Or it’s deployed phonetically because it’s a punchy syllable that handily rhymes with “rich.” Or it’s preceded by “bad” as a term of admiration—or empowerment, if it’s a female rapper. But too often, it’s used to question the masculinity of a competitor, or to describe an unequal relationship with a woman, as Short & Co. do in “Ain’t My Girlfriend.”
America has a history of glorifying independent men who casually dispatch foes and attract myriad women willing to do just about anything to occupy the same space as they do. Rappers fit the mold. They’re modern-day cowboys who have (mostly) swapped bullets for bars.
From Jesse James to Henry Hill to 50 Cent, we’ve been spoon-fed these men as protagonists from before we started forming memories. So really, hip-hop’s misogyny is just a symptom of a country where 63 million voted to be represented by a man who said more objectionable things into a hot mic than any rapper ever has.
Look. When we put in Grand Theft Auto, we don’t play as the pedestrian. Rappers, including Too Short, invite projection into a long-admired American archetype. It’s fun to hear these chest-thumping words, memorize them and say them as though they’re your own. It’s tragic if you act on them. But there will always be millions of young men, alone in their room, asking the mirror, “you talkin’ to me?” The answer is obvious.
Apr 15, 9pm, $30
BackBar SoFa, San Jose