Rap and Country: Brothers from Another Mother

Oh, I’m used to it – your shocked laughter, your snide comments, your perpetually raised eyebrows. Sure, it seems crazy, but it’s true. Listen to me, America: anyone who likes rap should like country, and anyone who likes country should like rap.

I’m just old enough to have used Facebook since its inception, and I’ve been on it far more than I should since then. After glancing at untold thousands of profiles, only a few things people say about themselves ever really annoy me. Foremost among those things, one all-too-typical way in which people describe their musical preferences makes me want to surgically remove my eyes and then reattach them backwards: “I like anything but Country lol…”

Why? Why restrict yourself? Sure, there’s plenty of musical pollution washing into the Cumberland River, but that’s just as true of rock, electronica, and, of course, rap. Don’t believe me? If you’re from a big city, listen to your metro-area mainstream urban radio station tonight. Novelty value aside, those syrup-thick flows and bassy background rumbles will give you a headache within minutes. And while I don’t reflexively hate Li’l Wayne the way some people do, the crummy new rhymes he releases every forty-five minutes make it harder and harder for me to defend him.

I’ve also noticed the opposite phenomenon – members of the older, predominantly white audience for country music automatically dismissing all rap as terrible. It’s not like all of these people necessarily like country music, but I’m betting a substantial proportion of them do.

People, this mutual antipathy cannot stand. It limits meaningful cross-pollination between genres (aside from this sort of ridiculousness, or this sort of self-parody). It forces people to choose between genres, at least if they don’t want to look goofy. It locks audiences in their comfort zones (as far as I’m concerned, that’s the worst thing real art can do).

Finally, though, the hostility between country and rap is just silly. Why? Well, the two genres have more in common than you might think:

1) Both are lyrically driven.

When it comes right down to it, country songs and rap songs both succeed on the strength of their words. For a variety of reasons, the sorts of lyrics that work well differ between the two genres. But there’s more than a little overlap.

Country songs are usually story songs – that is, they unspool some sort of narrative. Not all rap songs are story songs in this way – many are just exercises in lyricism for lyricism’s sake, or boast songs, or disconnected rhymes that happen to work well together. But there are plenty of story songs in rap, too. Take Children’s Story by Slick Rick or I Left My Wallet in El Segundo by A Tribe Called Quest. And if you think rap lyrics are too violent or vulgar for country, consider Knoxville Girl by the Louvin Brothers or [UNPRINTABLE] from El Paso by Kinky Friedman.

2) Both have their own specific standards of excellence.

A lot of people assume that both rap music and country music are inherently crude. It’s true that some rap hits are just the result of some idiot getting his hands on an 808, and some country songs are just plain stupid. But that doesn’t mean that the two genres lack internal standards of excellence.

Listening to a gifted MC like Busta Rhymes isn’t so different from listening to a really talented steel guitarist like “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow. There’s something inherently satisfying about witnessing someone who is good at something do that thing really well. People should be able to appreciate excellence, even if it is excellence in an area that is initially unfamiliar to them.

3) Both come from people on the margins.

Country and rap are both produced by people who consider themselves outsiders. This may be justified – remember that before they were pigeonholed as “country music” and “R&B”, the music that poor white Americans made was called “hillbilly music” and most music made by black Americans was called “race music.”

Rap and country treat their isolation from the mainstream in different ways. Many rap songs (almost anything made by Jay-Z) sound like the modern-day soundtrack to a Horatio Alger novel. Even when it wallows in depravity and violence, most rap is somehow aspirational. On the other hand, country music often sounds like a comfort for people who don’t imagine that they will move up much further in the world. The Talking Heads parodied this attitude in People Like Us – “We don’t want freedom! We don’t want justice! We just want someone to love!” More often than rap, country limits its aspirations to the realms of family or religion.

4) Both are as American as apple pie.

Over the past few decades, both country and rap have gone global. In Africa and Asia, country songs provide the same sort of soundtrack to rural displacement that they did in early and mid-20th century America. And rappers now hail from countries all across the world – “From the Robert Taylor Homes to Africa slum cities,” something about rap speaks to lots of different people. But before rap and country spread, they began in America. Both of them express some part of what it means to be American. Rap and Country aren’t created by the same people, and they’re not aimed at the exact same audience, but they’ve emanated from the same primordial pop stew that produced rock and roll and jazz. I’m not always proud of America’s government, but I’ll always be proud of what our culture produces. Again, some of it is bad, but it’s almost always interesting.

You don’t have to blend rap and country music in the same song to appreciate them for what they are. If you’re a rap partisan or a country reactionary, just be willing to listen to something unfamiliar.

Just don’t become this guy.

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