Eric Thurm don’t do shit for the homies.
Depicting rappers in pop culture is tricky. Most of the people who write TV and movies are not and have not been rappers, and rarely succeed at depicting them as people. Often, these fictional rappers are terrible collections of dumb stereotypes. But whether they’re in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Malibu’s Most Wanted, or Bamboozled, hip-hop characters are often the way rap is packaged for digestion in pop culture narratives. That shit’s important to how people think, and how people think is important to how they act. Welcome to Phony Rappers, a look at rappers in pop culture.
There are a ton of horrible fictional rappers, but maybe it’s better to start on a good note with one that worked, from one of the best TV shows in recent memory (if you forget the last season): The Boondocks’ Gangstalicious.
The Boondocks had a full crew of great, memorable rapper characters who were also people, including an actual crew, the perfectly named Lethal Interjection. But the best of these, and probably Aaron McGruder’s best non-Freeman, was always Ganstalicious. Voiced by Mos Def, Gangstalicious is a savvy artist and businessman, ’licious is a gangster poser-turned fashion icon. More importantly, he’s a deeply closeted gay rapper in the mid-’00s—the spiritual ancestor of Young Thug a few years too soon, a dude who could maybe have been a transformational artist (and Lord Jamar’s worst nightmare) if he’d only had the courage to come out.
When we first meet Gangstalicious in “The Story Of Gangstalicious,” he’s embroiled in a beef with Eat Dirt, a bit that goes through a few standard Boondocks rap spoof stuff (people throwing chairs at awards shows) before he gets shot again and winds up in the hospital near the Freemans’ home of Woodcrest, where wannabe Riley (Riley Escobar to you) visits him. While they’re on the run from his assailants, Riley learns that his hero Gangstalicious is really the type of dude who’s adamant about proper seatbelt safety in a car chase. He’s a coward, if maybe a sensible coward (dudes are coming after him with guns, and the label won’t even pay for security?!). ’licious is savvy, up to a point. (Also, considering where he’ll be at in his next spotlight episode, it’s important that he’s dressed in black this whole time.)
Finally, Riley and Gangstalicious are trapped, and Lincoln, the guy who’s been chasing them reveals why he shot Gangstalicious—thuggin’ love. Frederick cheated on him on tour. It’s not a serious rapper beef or problems from when ’licious was (or wasn’t) in the drug game; it’s the plot of an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and that’s the one that doesn’t have Ice-T. At the end of “The Story Of Gangstalicious,” his homosexuality is close to a punchline, a twist that explains both why he’s being hunted and what thuggin’ love is. The real story is that Gangstalicious, like most of the rappers on The Boondocks, are posers, selling something they don’t own. (Gangstalicious’ favorite rapper is obviously Ice Cube.) The fact that he’s gay is almost tossed off as an aside—are we supposed to be grossed-out by Lincoln and Gangstalicious’ long, wet, slobbery kiss, before Lincoln and his crew miss Riley and ’licious at point-blank range?
What’s important is probably your reaction to the kiss. Riley is disgusted, sure, and there’s a lot of slobber. But it’s also kind of sad, amid the humor. The secret of Gangstalicious is that he’s a rap Rorschach blot, reflecting everyone else’s attitude—not for nothing does Huey compare him to Oprah. Mos Def’s vocal performance makes him kind of ridiculous, and he does try to sell the fashion world (and Regis and Kelly) on pink bulletproof vests that aren’t actually bulletproof, but he’s just close enough to the line of actually being out that everyone’s reaction to him says more about them than it does him.
That’s why he actually barely appears in “The Story Of Gangstalicious Part Two,” which focuses primarily on Granddad’s reaction to fearing that Riley is gay. Huey doesn’t care, but does exploit gay panic to get his own room. Tom thinks that it’s a good thing for someone to be gay since gay people are cleaner because of course Tom would think that. And the rap game writ large gets hyped on the newer, gayer incarnation of ’licious, whose wardrobe as switched from black to pink as a visual signifier and is pushing the most homoerotic visuals this side of Hannibal, before he’s outed in a tell-all book. Not only are the members of Lethal Interjection wearing his clothing line, they buy into a construction of masculinity that, taken to its logical conclusion by a gay rapper in the immortal “Homies Over Hoes,” suggests that even needing women is a sign of weakness. (Macktastic protests: “It ain’t like we respectin’ them or nothin’ like that.”)
But the most critical character in this story isn’t Gangstalicious, or even Granddad: it’s Riley. At the end of the first episode, Riley realizes that his hero, the hard Gangstalicious, is a normal, broke, short dude who rents the jets for his videos (a sad realization I think a lot of former eight-year-olds can identify with). Later on, the young Riley Escobar refuses to believe that his hero might be gay, even though he’s sending him hush money, free skirts and purses, and thanking him for not going public with his proclivity for kissing dudes. Gangstalicious is even willing to hop on a remix with Lethal Interjection, who vow to keep his secret safe.
Everything about the Gangstalicious story culminates in a surprisingly moving sequence set to Aalon’s “Rock And Roll Gangster.” Beset on all sides, Gangstalicious thinks he’s finally been run out of the game. Lethal Interjection skips out on their track with him to avoid being called gay (while wearing pearl necklaces). Old gay rappers from the ’80s on VH1 claim that in order for homosexuality to be fully accepted, a current rapper will need to come out. Riley confronts Gangstalicious, and the rapper pulls back from the truth. Seriously, watch it again on Netflix (or YouTube, if you’re cheap). Would Riley be more accepting if Gangstalicious had come out? Would he just turn on him? It’s hard to say—maybe ’licious made the right call for himself. Certainly, life would have gotten a lot harder for him, so it’s hard to criticize, especially since he’s a, uh, fictional character.
The thing about the “The Story Of Gangstalicious, Part Two” that makes it one of the best episodes of The Boondocks and one of the saddest is that it probably could have been made a couple of years ago with maybe minimal cosmetic changes. Sure, there are quite a few gay rappers, and lots of them are just now starting to get attention, but the episode aired in 2008, and there’s still no gay rapper with the star power we’re supposed to believe Gangstalicious has. We’re coming closer—Le1f on Letterman, Frank Ocean’s career, even Mister Cee—but that’s all movement in the right direction, not the flashpoint Gangstalicious would have created. Aaron McGruder’s new show might be about Black Jesus, but Gangstalicious is the guy who could have died for our sins and blinked.