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More than Meets the Eye: Hip-Hop and Social Currents

Quavo, a rapper from the Atlanta hip-hop trio Migos, wants a featured verse on the United States’ national anthem. A Migos fan started a petition for Quavo—arguably one of the most popular musicians in America at the moment, frequently dominating Billboard charts—to have his own official version of the Star-Spangled Banner, and it is likely to reach its goal of 10,000 signatures very soon. Even Quavo tweeted his approval for his fans’ efforts, suggesting in an interview with TMZ that his rendition of the national anthem could be a political act of unification and modernity.

The original idea behind the petition, however, is a facetious jab at the numerous songs Quavo has been featured on and ultimately rap features as a whole. The petition’s description reads, “It’s the current year, 2017, and I think the nation should get with the times and feature Quavo on the National Anthem. He’s a feature on everything else, so why not?” As evidenced by the petition, there has been an almost cult-ish following around the plentiful amount of Quavo guest verses. Some have even gone as far as to rank every single of his features in 2017 alone. This phenomenon of obsession with featured verses, while in this instance specifically centered around Quavo, is a byproduct of the music industry’s history of incorporating rap verses into pop songs–sometimes done fluidly and otherwise shoehorned in. In light of hip-hop being recently crowned as the most popular genre in the United States, it is worthwhile to investigate hip-hop’s treatment in pop music and its reflection of American culture, a relationship in which pop music frequently uses rap for its own benefit while the music industry eschews celebrating hip-hop as an independent genre.

Beginning in the 1990s, pop music has used guest rap verses to give a song a quick stylistic flair, often giving little credence to hip-hop as its own genre. “She Ain’t Worth It” by Glenn Medeiros featuring Bobby Brown was the number one hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in July of 1990, the first chart-topper to begin the wave of bringing in rappers for pop music–albeit Brown was more of a pop artist than a rapper during his halcyon–and introduced the word “featuring” into the music business lexicon as an official way of describing the relationship of two artists appearing on a single song. In the original cut of “She Ain’t Worth It,” Medeiros sings for a majority of the song as if it was his own single. Brown suddenly appears around the two-minute mark, delivers his eight bars, and disappears for the rest of the track. In the extended version, Brown reappears to give the outro to the song, although he delivers the same verse verbatim. Despite the spontaneity of Brown’s verse, listeners were attracted to the flamboyant, fast rap flow, and the song became an instant hit. Lasting for only twenty seconds, the guest verse serves to break up the otherwise mundane pop flavor of the track. The frivolousness of Brown’s verse demonstrates the use of rap to serve the interest of pop, and the success of “Ain’t” showed to the music industry the potential of combining pop music with rap.

Soon, the rap verse bridge would become a staple of pop music for the upcoming decades. To trace the whole history of guest hip-hop verses in pop songs would be an ambitious task; once the formula for hip-hop and pop’s relationship was established, it proliferated rapidly. One only needs to look to the recent past to find examples. Estelle’s “American Boy” features verses from Kanye West. Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” includes a rap from Snoop Dogg. Justin Bieber’s “Baby” infamously featured Ludacris. Taylor Swift draws the talents of Kendrick Lamar for her “Bad Blood.” As prominently displayed as each of these guest verses are, they ultimately take a backseat to the original artist’s song. While this is to be expected for a “featured” artist, pop music has exploited its relationship with hip-hop. Nowadays, it’s difficult to find a pop song that isn’t attributed to a singer and featuring a rapper. The hip-hop guest verse has become instrumental to the pop genre, especially due to hip-hop’s recent dominance in popularity. Pop music rides the wave of hip-hop’s success while subverting a complete acceptance of hip-hop culture. Prior to hip-hop’s recent eminence, rap could only be appreciated but only in the context of a pop singer’s spotlight for a majority of audiences.

The relationship between pop and rap has clearly benefitted pop music, yet hip-hop does not reap the same rewards. Hip-hop songs featuring guest pop vocals come by far less often than do pop songs with guest rap verses. (Notable examples are Kanye West’s “Gold Digger” featuring Jamie Foxx and Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie” featuring Rihanna.) As a genre, hip-hop has had to hold its own in the music industry. Mainstream American culture has long been hesitant to fully embrace hip-hop and the culture associated with it, frequently citing the supposed way it promotes illicit and violent behavior and its use as a platform to address sociopolitical issues. The Grammy’s rocky relationship with hip-hop demonstrates the apprehensiveness of the music industry and the mainstream culture it reflects to enjoy hip-hop with the same level of comfortability as pop, rock, R&B, or country. This is ironic considering the work hip-hop has done for pop music; it highlights the one-sided relationship of the two genres in which mainstream listeners find rap unoffensive as long as it is ultimately buried under a pop track but refuse to equally accept it in its original domain of hip-hop. Despite the benefits pop music has received by incorporating elements of rap into its songs, the music industry remains reluctant to award hip-hop for its own independent endeavors.

Not surprisingly, the sidelining of rap by pop has been criticized as another example of the entertainment industry’s overlooking of Black artists in public award ceremonies. In the same vein as the #OscarSoWhite responses to the lack of diversity in the Academy Awards, the Grammys have been called out for having a race problem as well. However, the underrepresentation of Black and hip-hop artists in comparison to their white and pop counterparts cannot be simply attributed to the fault of any singular organization. Rather, the lack of formal recognition that appropriately acknowledges the diverse breadth of Black hip-hop artists stems from American culture’s long refusal to completely adopt hip-hop–with all of its ethnic, historical, and sociopolitical baggage, considered distasteful to a broader, non-minority audience–into the mainstream. This explains the popularity and even ludicrous success of white hip-hop artists such as Eminem and Macklemore who are able to adopt the stylistic flair of rap music without having to be concerned with the social context and history of the genre. The same goes for guest rap verses in pop songs; when hip-hop appears without the weight of its ‘anomie’–when it conforms to conventions of innocuous music–the genre can be appreciated. In its conjunction with pop, hip-hop has been able to find validity, although only for an eight-bar bridge verse. The Grammys, though, can serve as a reflection of these otherwise intangible yet conspicuous sentiments.

With the new eminence of hip-hop in pop culture, the genre and everything it comes with stands strongly. Hip-hop and rap are now the main course of American music, not the garnish. Whereas before it could primarily appear in the mainstream as a brief feature for another artist, hip-hop now takes center stage. As one of the artists at the forefront of hip-hop’s reign, Quavo seems to deserve his own rendition of the national anthem, as many pop and rock artists have. In his interview with TMZ, Quavo affirms that his version of the Star Spangled Banner would be “Something that’s representing now. Something that representing the modern day national anthem.” Chasing modernity, hip-hop is fit for the challenge.

About the Author

Noah Choi '20 is a Senior Staff Writer for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Noah can be reached at