Contextualizing Hip Hop Sonic Cool Pose in Late Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Rap Music

By Bradley, Regina | Current Musicology, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Contextualizing Hip Hop Sonic Cool Pose in Late Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century Rap Music


Bradley, Regina, Current Musicology


"Cool is so individual that one man's cool won't work for other men"

--Guthrie Ramsey

"You might think we all beats and rhymes ... but you don't hear me"

--Lil' Flip, "Game Over"

In considering the cultural significance of rap music in (mis)conceptualizations of American identity, it is important to point out commercialized rap's attachment to notions of blackness that are presumed irrefutable. Likewise, constructions of racial discourse in popular culture cannot be divorced from the effects of capitalism and enterprise on the framework of a twenty-first century black American experience. While it would be overly simplistic to dismiss commercial rap music as socially and ethically bankrupt due to the mass consumption and (over)production of corporatized black narratives, it is important to identify rap's corporatization as a mutual investment by both record labels and artists themselves. Employing regurgitated and thus normalized scripts of blackness and black manhood is rewarded by monetary gain and popularity. The artists' investment in such scripts sustains public visibility and thus relevance. The commercialization of rap music simultaneously enables rap to become a gauge of the post-Civil Rights experience while it becomes commodified and stereotyped. Thus, hip hop is important in providing alternative forms of negotiating the manifestations--visual, sonic, and political--of blackness that are mass consumed by a multi-ethnic audience. One way we can complicate our understanding of the impetus behind rappers' performance and identity politics is to examine their negotiations of "black cool." Of particular interest to this essay are the intersections of enterprise and sonic manifestations of black masculine cool in commercial rap music.

Arguably, the most visible script of popular black masculine performance is cool pose. Cool pose, the performance and positioning of the black male body as a symbol of coolness, in its present form leans heavily upon stereotypical and often uncontested expectations of black masculinity. A litany of scholarship has theorized how black cool establishes the visible significance and presence of black men in American popular culture. Richard Majors and Janet Bilson's seminal study Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood (1992) broke ground for teasing out manifestations of cool pose in a post-Civil Rights American cultural landscape. Todd Boyd (1997) reads cool pose as a survival mechanism and the antithesis of white masculinity, opining that "cool is about a detached, removed, nonchalant sense of being. An aloofness that suggests one is above it all. A pride, an arrogance even, that is at once laid back, unconcerned, perceived to be highly sexual, and potentially violent" (118). Bell hooks asserts in We Real Cool that black cool "was defined by the ways in which black men confronted the hardships of life without their spirits being ravaged ... it was defined by black male willingness to confront reality, to face the truth, and bear it ... it was defined by individual black males daring to self-define rather than be defined by others" (138). Donna Britt renegotiates cool as a collective response of black men within this contemporary moment of history, coining the term "brothercool." "Brothercool is demonstrating black men's increasing diversity in income, interest, and attitude. The 'new cool' that black men are forging could be more like the old: deriving its edge from the risks that accompany growth, expansion, the embrace of other culture, the hot breath that signifies life" (author's original emphasis). Rebecca Walker, editor of 1000 Streams of Black Cool, situates black cool as both a gauge and limitation to understanding a contemporary African-American experience: "black cool can be emulated, co-opted, and appropriated, but its ownership can't be denied ... it's our language of survival. It's our genius ... Black cool is forever."

Still, composing a working definition of cool pose as it has presented itself in rap music of the last twenty years proves to be an arduous and complex task, considering the numerous, often conflicting intersections of blackness, masculinity, and enterprise that frame commercial rap music. …

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