Country, soul and rap

Old Town Road is a funny song. I definitely wouldn’t call it country. It’s not even country rap. I’m a big fan of cross genre music having been raised on the original cross genre, rock ‘n roll, and having grown up with cowpunk, post-punk, grunge (a cross of metal and punk) and many other examples. Little Nas’ song is more like experimental rap. It’s got the word tractor, and the word cowboy and a midwestern sounding twang. And these are all country elements. But it’s missing a very essential ingredient that is found in any soul music, whether country, blues, or soul, and that is emotion. Rappers like Little Nas or Cardi B simply cannot produce it. Either they haven’t lived through enough, or else they have and have sublimated emotion and its associated pain with material wealth and consumption.

That is not meant to be a critique on rap. Rappers such as Little Nas or Cardi B possess many fine qualities – good technical ability, clever rhymes, and most importantly, the ability to portray an absolute disaffectedness which protects them from feeling hurt and appeals to young audiences. It is the latter that most clearly distinguishes rap and gives it it’s “toughness”. Indifference to feeling is also what drives consumer society forward because we replace desire for human relationships with things and that is important to branding and the creation of markets. While Little Nas writes:

Hat down, cross town, livin’ like a rockstar
Spent a lot of money on my brand new guitar
Baby’s got a habit: diamond rings and Fendi sports bras

Expressions of pain and vulnerability are more difficult. They are embarrassing, not “cool” snappy workplace conversations or marketing campaigns, but they draw people closer to one another and increase empathy/love between people. And this is important to musicians in the soul genres. In a country song, one doesn’t need to look very hard to find lyrics about how love is primary, For example Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line”:

I find it very, very easy to be true
I find myself alone when each day is through
Yes, I’ll admit I’m a fool for you
Because you are mine, I walk the line

Or the pain caused by the loss of love. Sunny Sweeney is a master of this in many of her songs, “Unsaid” being but one example:

There’s so much left unsaid
Cuts to the bone to see your name written in stone
Wish I could get it off my chest
Shoulda let go of my pride when I still had the time
Dammit it hurts these words I left unsaid

Classic soul will always be the original, and always capable of making us feel the pain of lost love, for example Bill Withers “Ain’t No Sunshine”:

Ain’t no sunshine when she gone
Only darkness everyday
Ain’t no sunshine when she gone
This house just ain’t no home
Anytime she goes away (ain’t no sunshine)

Or Macy Grey’s “Still” which has moved me to tears on many occasions:

I still
Light up like a candle burnin’ when he calls me up
I still
Melt down like a candle burnin’ every time we touch
Oh say what you will
He does me wrong and I should be gone
But I still
Be lovin’ you baby and it’s much too much

To borrow from Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse in his 1960’s classic “One Dimensional Man”, the rapper is alienated from love. He has desublimated his desire for human connection and substituted it with material objects, diamonds, designer sneakers, fendi sports bras. Perhaps that’s inverse indicator of how badly the rapper has been hurt and how capable he actually is of feeling, but this requires a lot of reading between the lines, and a simpler message could just as easily be made when we want to relate to a song. The country/soul singer delivers that, like Johnny Paycheck who will self-destructively “drink 15 beers” to get a woman off his mind. Soulful songs are primarily about acknowledging one’s feelings, and not substituting them with shopping (although admittedly, perhaps with whiskey).

Lastly, there is the word “nigga” which is not simply acceptable in country music. And that word is in plenty of Little Nas’s songs. Not “Old Town Road” but for example in “Rodeo” where Cardi Bi sings:

Now my heart, it feels like Brillo, I’m hard like armadillo
Can’t be no nigga ex, I could only be his widow

Although the word “nigga”, which by current standards is nothing more than a rap music convention, is considered to be harmless in pop music, and especially in rap, the majority of country music fans don’t want to hear these cynical divisive terms. Corny as it may sound, sensitivity is again at hand here, not to mention the fact that any skilled music writer can deliver meaningful content without resorting to hackneyed catch-words. So any song with the word “nigga” will automatically be excluded from the genre of country, which protects its standards.

Still, “Old Town Road” is an interesting rap song and it has a redeeming quality. My 19 year old son, who is into rap, played it for me recently, asking if it was a country song. So it gave me a chance to discuss what country songs are, and play Johnny Paycheck and Sunny Sweeney as examples, and present my critique of rap music’s insensitivity to my son. So I must thank Little Nas for giving me the opportunity to speak about music and culture with my kid. Keep trying Little Nas, keep it real, and remember, you can’t sing the blues unless you’ve had the blues!