The Many Circles of Swag: Nacho Picasso, Nicki Minaj and Rap vs. Rap

Jonah Bromwich used to ghostwrite for Mad Skillz. Let’s talk about swag and lyricism for a second. No! No! Don’t leave! For those of you still here, allow me to frame this conversation in a way...
By    June 6, 2012

Jonah Bromwich used to ghostwrite for Mad Skillz.

Let’s talk about swag and lyricism for a second. No! No! Don’t leave!

For those of you still here, allow me to frame this conversation in a way that makes sense. The PotW staff is generally in support of technically skilled rappers. That’s a tricky way of saying we like lyrical rappers, artists with big ideas, with multiple, versatile flows and exploratory vocabularies, with quickfire punchlines and brilliant verses, who have respect for the history of rap and do their best to place themselves in rap’s canon. In that way, we’re conservative, “old heads,” the kind of people that Jon Caramanica sloughed off in his Summer Jam review a couple days ago.

Except, wait a second. In the last year alone, we’ve ridden for plenty of rappers who lack traditionalist notions of technical ability. Yeah, Rocky is learning to rhyme at a furious pace but on LiveLoveA$AP, which most of us loved, he didn’t have that together yet. Last month we featured songs by 2chainz, Waka, and Chief Keef, all of whom avoid Canibus-style lyricism like sulfuric acid. And then there’s Nacho Picasso, who’s just released a third weird, fun album, this one called Exalted.

It’s not that Nacho can’t rap. He can. Mostly. He raps pretty much the same way on every song, in a Lil Wayne croak, slowly, sounding smoked out and amused. He says funny things, like calling himself a “super soldier on crank” on “Villains in my Circle” or “I’m all on that bitch, fuck increments” on “Surf Nazis Must Die,” the very title of which necessitates a listen. But he never really switches up his flow, or does anything particularly startling or impressive lyrically. It’s largely simple tricks and nonsense.

Nacho is lucky enough to rap over great production by Blue Sky Black Death, the Seattle duo that’s so important to Nacho’s sound that they get an artistic credit on Exalted. They provide the perfect soundtrack for Nacho’s nihilistic musings, adding creeping crescendos which inspire dread on songs like “Swap Em Out” and Charles Manson quotes on “Mob Ties.” Nacho’s aesthetic wouldn’t work without them.

And Nacho’s aesthetic works. Despite a lack of virtuosic technical ability (which could develop at some point), I’m a big fan. Nacho is the epitome of a swag rapper, someone whose personality, references and production become the point. It’s undoubtedly a different kind of art than Danny Brown’s rapid fire recitals, but it’s an art that a lot of us really like.

Technical rapping is a specific skill so when we talk about rap being good, we’re often talking about a very particular type of ability. Though we try to avoid this term, it’s sometimes referred to as “real hip-hop.” But then there are swag rappers like Nacho, whom we still ride for because they’re funny, or have a coherent brand, or have great production, or, usually, all three rapped up into one cool (I guess, uh, swaggy) package. As people who are interested in rap recognize that all boundaries have dissolved, we’re going to need to rethink these labels, just to make sure we’re talking about the same thing.

The point of these labels, by the way, is to make it easier to talk about these things, which is a lot of fun [ed. note: sort of]. When we acknowledge that art is subjective (which it is) I can’t naysay Sach and claim that Kendrick is the best doing it right now. It’s just a framework to have fun in. If you don’t like it, stop reading music criticism.

To take this a little more mainstream: the technical ability to rap is something that many of us still hold dear and that we see as an art form which, while it’s not dying, no longer holds the place in popular music that it did ten years ago. Biggie charted on pop radio. That would never happen now, unless he got on a song with a thunderous beat, the kind of song that isn’t actually optimal for rapping over, because radio-ready beats these days tend to drown the illest rhymes out.

This slow marginalization is why we get upset when someone as TECHNICALLY gifted as Nicki Minaj is making songs on which that talent isn’t utilized, like, say, “Starships.” All we mean when we say it’s not real hip-hop is “NICKI WHY ARENT YOU RAPPING GOOD FOR THE KIDS?!” But we should recognize that if Nicki rapped as well as she’s able on every song, she wouldn’t rule radio, and she wouldn’t be able to drop an ill guest verse or an incredible rappity rap song here and there.

In order to stay relevant, Nicki has to make songs that utilize her particular brand of swag, the candy-colored Barbie persona that makes her label lots of money off of teenage girls and others who appreciate this sound. It’s a kind of swag-rap. And though it’s not one we’re obligated to support, we have to realize that this kind of music holds an appeal for others; an appeal that we readily acknowledge in artists like Nacho and ASAP, whose aesthetic is meant for our demographic. We can complain about Nicki not making the classic rappity rap album she’s capable of. But as long as we’re accepting/enthusiastically supporting other swag rappers we have to sheepishly acknowledge, that when we criticize Nicki, we’re being hypocritical.


We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!