Back in 2008 when comedian/actor/philanthropist/activist/America’s Dad Bill Cosby announced he was releasing a hip-hop album filled with clean raps and positive messages (which became 2009’s Bill Cosby Presents the Cosnarati: State of Emergency, the response was mostly hearty laughter.
Nevermind that the image of the former Jell-O pudding spokesman donning a doo-rag and spitting hot fire in the studio was simply hilarious (he outstourced the actual rapping, so no worries that this actually happened), the idea of releasing a curse word free rap album in this current era was laughable.
Cursing and rap are bosom buddies by now, 20+ years after Ice-T had the dubious honor of bearing the first Parental Advisory sticker in hip-hop on his debut album Rhyme Pays.
OK, so Lupe Fiasco’s first album, 2006’s Food & Liquor, has all of three curses in the entire 70 minute run, but it’s an anomaly in today’s hip-hop world. Which is why it’s a bit surprising to hear that Kanye West protege Kid Cudi plans to release his upcoming third album, by his side-group WZRD, sans curses and the infamous n-word. According to him it will be “a universal album for everyone.”
Foregoing cursing doesn’t necessarily mean the album will be for “everyone,” but Cudi’s motive is clear. He wants to make his album appealing to the segment of the population that has never embraced profanity in music. It’s a relatively bold move, given the current unspoken conventional wisdom that the way to become more marketable is to increase profanity usage. Could this strategy actually work?
Cudi need look no further for an example of a rapper who didn’t curse and was still loved by many than the recently departed Heavy D. The “overweight lover” was laid to rest earlier this week and people from all over came to pay their respects to the man and his legacy, which includes being “a fav of my momma’s,” as Q-Tip once put it on the track “Don’t Curse.” On this song, Hev challenged a crew of some of hip-hop’s most respected emcees (Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, CL Smooth, Grand Puba, and the aforementioned Q-Tip) to do an entire verse without cursing.
Combined with his generally lovable demeanor, fun subject matter, and penchant for dancing, his refusal to use curses in his rhymes made him a family friendly emcee. He rode that appeal to three platinum and two gold albums. However, unlike what Cudi has planned, Hev wasn’t shy around usage of the “n-word.” He was, after all, the architect of the posse cut “A Bunch of N****s” from 1993’s Blue Funk album.
Of course, the most famous rapper to shun curse words on wax is Will Smith. Profanity free since his days as the Fresh Prince, Smith became the posterboy for squeaky clean rappers when accepting an MTV Video Music Award he said “I ain’t never killed no one in my records, and I don’t use no profanity in my records, and I still got here.”
This caused notorious foul-mouthed emcee Eminem to respond on his 2000 single “The Real Slim Shady,” rhyming: “Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records/well I do/so f**k him and f**k you too.” It didn’t rattle Smith at all, and he never budged from his stance. With over 20 million records sold as a solo artists, why would he? He actually hasn’t had to curse to be successful in hip-hop.
It’s not an impossible task. Run-DMC were massively popular and mostly clean, and MC Hammer managed to become the first rapper to sell ten million records (diamond status) without cursing. But ever since the success of N.W.A. and the profanity-laden lyrics that characterized the gangsta rap sub-genre entered hip-hop’s consciousness, the tide has turned significantly to where cursing on record is not simply the norm but almost a requirement.
Even in the era where artists would release clean versions for radio play, the expectation was that one could go to the album to hear the dirty version. It’s hard to compete as the clean alternative when rappers like Too $hort have expressed their love of “Cusswords.”
The entire breadth of the English language (or any other language one chooses to employ) should be available to an artist. In the right hands, curse words become a mosaic of expression, used to articulate and emphasize emotional responses like anger and frustration, and to connect with listeners in a language readily available to them. Not cursing may present a bigger challenge, one Kid Cudi seems to be willing to take on.
Artistically, curse words can become a crutch, fillers where the songwriter failed to push themselves creatively and express their thoughts with vivid and colorful language. Will he still be able to get his message across without relying on the lowest common denominator that is the curse word?
We’ll find out in January. It’s unlikely that many more will follow in his footsteps, but at the least this is an interesting thought experiment. And if it’s bad, we always have the option of cursing it.