U.S. Identity in the Music of Justin Timberlake

by Mejin Leechor '08
Davidson College


Navigate below...

+ Introduction
+ Purpose
+ Is Hip-Hop American?
+ Hip-Hop and Commercialism
+ Hip-Hop in the U.S. Mainstream
+ The Problem of Authenticity
+ White Rappers
+ Justin Timberlake
.... Justified
.... “Señorita”
.... FutureSex/LoveSounds
.... “Let Me Talk to You Prelude”
+ Conclusion

+ Endnotes
+ Bibliography


White Rappers:
Vanilla Ice, Eminem, and Fred Durst

       The importance of authenticity in hip-hop culture cannot be underestimated.  Ironically, white artists often find themselves at pains to project realness to the white suburban listeners who constitute a majority of their buyers; these white listeners are themselves well versed in the rhetoric of authenticity and will not spend their dollars on mere imitations.  But regardless of whose rhetoric it is, white rappers are constrained in their access to the hip-hop arena.  The following discussion of three famous white rappers draws from the research of Mickey Hess, who has argued that the few white incursions into rap in the ‘90s tested and confirmed the authenticity claims of rap music.[14]

       The story of Vanilla Ice, the one-hit wonder behind “Ice, Ice, Baby,” ought to serve as a cautionary tale for budding white rappers.  In an autobiography he published in 1990, Vanilla Ice appealed to a social-locational formation of authenticity, claiming he had grown up on the streets of Miami.  When the press revealed that he had actually grown up in suburban Texas, critics and rap fans skewered him, destroying his musical career.  He had broken rule the first rule of hip-hop authenticity: stay true to yourself.  White rappers experienced nearly a decade of great difficulty breaking into the field after Vanilla Ice’s deception.  Whiteness and hip-hop authenticity suffered a critical rupture, and Vanilla Ice became the industry scapegoat.[15]

       Years after the Vanilla Ice incident had blown over, Eminem set forth a different approach to dealing with his whiteness.  Unlike Vanilla Ice, Eminem was a legitimate product of the lower class.  Rather than fabricating an image of blackness, he self-consciously drew attention to his whiteness as a social barrier in the culture of hip-hop.  He reinforced his own claims to realness by collaborating with black hip-hop producer Dr. Dre.  This raises an important point: established black performers who have already proven their authenticity can validate other performers (presumably, they put their reputations on the line).  Eminem’s commercial success and his ability to command respect in the hip-hop world marked what Hess calls an era of reintegration in rap.  Emimem proved that it was possible for a white rapper to succeed in the genre – but only after passing the test of authenticity.[16]

       Jason Middleton and Roger Beebe see yet a third approach to the problem of whiteness in frontman Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, a rock/rap hybrid band.  Like Eminem, Durst presents himself as “white trash,” having grown up poor on the streets of Florida.  However, Durst does not attempt integration with black culture.  Rather, his music and videos “incorporate elements of black cultural forms – the sound of the record scratch, the b-boy style, and the dancers – as objects available for consumption by a white audience figured by the crowd in the video, while the video avoids featuring any participatory black subjects.”[17]  Middleton and Beebe pessimistically view the participation of both Durst and Eminem in hip-hop as only a superficial engagement with the music’s black cultural roots in order secure a place for white performers in a post-rock musical climate.[18]  My own assessment is that this is more severe a problem with Durst than with Eminem, who has demonstrated a far stronger commitment to hip-hop culture.

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