The Politics of Lil’ Wayne

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As Karen notes below, Barack Obama crossed the pop culture/politics divide today by praising Lil’ Wayne’s rhyming ability at a campaign event in Powder Springs, Georgia. Before dismissing this development as trivia, consider that Lil’ Wayne is both the most acclaimed rapper of 2008 and one of the biggest pop culture figures in the nation, with a song, Lollipop, that is #2 on the Billboard charts four months after its release and an album that sold 423,000 copies on its first day in stores. Add to this the fact that Weezy, as he sometimes calls himself, is perfectly willing to rap about politics, albeit crudely.

Take the lyrics of Lollipop, the aforementioned song which, if you have not yet heard on the radio, then your children certainly have. As is the habit of most modern Hip Hop, it is a song of sexual conquest, with Lil’ Wayne boasting of his ability to attract women and enjoy their company. Not so interesting, you think? Check out this set of lyrical couplets:

I get her on top / She drop it like it’s hot

And when I’m at the bottom / She Hillary Rodham

In the song, these lines are meant as a compliment both to the girl in his bed and the former presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, whose take-charge, ready-from-day-one attitude the artist apparently admires. Of course, the precise context of the compliment is insulting to millions of Americans, but then the Lil’ Wayne oeuvre is not exactly sensitive to such considerations.

Now, I don’t have data on radio play, but I am willing to bet that more Americans have heard this homage to Clinton more times in the last month, on the radio, in their iPods, in dance halls, on television (MTV and BET play the video in heavy rotation), than any segment of a speech by Barack Obama or John McCain. These pop stars have some serious messaging power.

For the same reason, the pop culture stature of Rev. Al Sharpton, another former Democratic candidate for president, has been directly challenged by another track from Lil’ Wayne’s latest album. At the end of the song Misunderstood, the rapper goes into an extended rumination on race, crime and politics in America. It ends with a blistering appraisal of Sharpton:

Mr. Al Sharpton, here’s why I don’t respect you, and nobody like you. You’re the type that gets off on getting on other people. That’s not good. . . . And rather unhuman, I should say. I mean, given the fact that humanity – well, good humanity, rather – to me is helping one another no matter your color or race. But this guy and people like him, they’d rather speculate before they informate, if that’s a word.

It turns out informate is a word, at least in one dictionary. Lil’ Wayne goes on to call Sharpton “just another Don King, with a perm, hahah, just a little more political, and that just means you’re a little unhuman.” This is not the sort of language that is often heard in political debate. But then Lil’ Wayne is not the sort of person who usually enters the political maw. In addition to his critical acclaim and success–TIME calls him “the best rapper alive”–he has survived an accidental self-inflicted gun shot, a subsequent arrest for gun possession, and an arrest by U.S. Border Patrol for possession of cocaine and ecstasy. All that, and the man is among America’s reigning masters of wordplay.

Politicians everywhere, beware.