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'Thugs don't dance'

Amanda Howell Whitehurst for NPR

This story was adapted from Episode 6 of Louder Than A Riot, Season 2. To hear more about iLoveMakonnen, Drake and how hip-hop enforces norms of masculinity, stream the full episode or subscribe to the Louder Than A Riot podcast.

Their encounter was brief but tense.

Two years after striking a musical partnership that launched with a Billboard charting hit and ended with an unceremonious split, Drake and iLoveMakonnen came face-to-face one night for the last time. The impromptu meeting, at Rihanna's afterparty for the 2016 MTV VMAs, would serve as their final goodbye.

"I ain't seen Drake in a minute," Makonnen recalls years later. "So I was like, "Drake, what's up!"

His enthusiasm was not reciprocated. "He looked at me like, 'Look, next time I see you, I'm gonna f*** you up for talking s***.' "

If you've spent any amount of time since then searching online or off for iLoveMakonnen — the rapper who seemingly vamped from the industry after breaking big in 2014 with his Drake-assisted remix "Tuesday" — you may already understand how hypermasculinity contributed to curbing the rising star's trajectory nearly a decade ago.

In Looking For Leroy: Illegible Black Masculinities, a book published just one year before Makonnen and Drake's fateful one-off, cultural critic and academic Mark Anthony Neal outlines the five tropes that defined hip-hop masculinity at the time: playas, pimps, hustlas, thugs and n*****. None of which left much room for artists who existed in between those rigid confines. Through sonic innovations that helped set rap's SoundCloud era in motion, Drake and Makonnen each charted subversive, emo paths at a time when the genre's mainstream players were still marked by hardness and artifice. They made a hit together, and threatened to disrupt the status quo, before one of them perceived the other to be the potential threat.

While women in rap have been the primary focus of Louder Than A Riot's second season, misogynoir also manifests in the stories of male artists, especially those whose performance of masculinity counters the accepted cultural norms — that is, the kind of Black male presentation that Neal's book identifies as "illegible" to many audiences. On our latest episode, we track the story of iLoveMakonnen's rise within the industry, and the particular impediments he faced along the way. Makonnen challenged hip-hop's standards in a way Drake didn't. His eventual coming out as gay in early 2017 helps us understand something about the fragility of masculinity in hip-hop.

You can hear that whole story in the podcast, but here we wanted to dig deeper into those tropes, how they've evolved, and whom they've left out of the conversation. To do that, Louder host Rodney Carmichael sat down with Mark Anthony Neal to talk about why hip-hop's standard bearers still find it hard to read or recognize some artists as authentic — and why there's still plenty of opportunity for those standards to change.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Rodney Carmichael: I wonder if you could talk about your own relationship to hip-hop, and its performance of masculinity, as you were coming up in the Bronx. How would you describe it, and how were you engaging with it at the time?

Mark Anthony Neal: I was 13 years old when "Rapper's Delight" dropped. You know, we didn't call it rap music at the time — but I was aware of this thing that was happening, because it was happening in the park. I was somewhat intimidated by what hip-hop represented in terms of masculinity: the style, the leather coats and all that stuff; a kind of proficiency with Black vernacular language that I didn't have, that I saw as something that Black men developed over time. By the time I get into high school, I'm performing a different style of heterosexual Black masculinity: I'm wearing my pink pastel shirts and matching pink socks and my penny loafers. And I happened to go to a high school, Brooklyn Tech, that was so big and so diverse there were many different performances of Black masculinity. So I was the preppy dude, at least to the extent that I could afford it. There were some cats who were just straight-up hardcore hip-hop dudes, wearing the shell [toe] Adidas. We had Five Percenters in the mix, who presented another version of masculinity. And then of course you had athletes and things like that.

So to what do you attribute the narrowing of the tropes that we start to see in rap, beginning in the early '90s? Because before that, anywhere from the mid-'80s to the early '90s, the homeboys and the weirdos and the revolutionaries — all sorts of cats — kind of coexisted alongside some of these more gangsta tropes that really took over after.

As early as '85, you could have Whodini and Schooly D, Boogie Down Productions, Public Enemy and LL, early Heavy D & the Boyz, all on the same bill, and it's just a hip-hop concert. And in those early days of N.W.A, they might have been packaged on one of those tours also. But once gangsta rap becomes the sound of hip-hop, once it begins to sell records, once folks start paying attention to the sales of hip-hop ... the only thing you can talk about is gangsta rap.

You can think about it explicitly with the success of Efil4zaggin, which changes everything: no radio play, no music videos, very little promotion. The day it drops, the album's No. 2 on the charts, No. 1 two weeks later. Folks are like, there's a formula here. It's what has always been the case with Black music, and Black culture more generally: Once something breaks through and challenges conventions about what we think white people will buy, everyone wants to reproduce that logic. And gangsta rap, more powerfully than I think we've ever seen in any form of Black musical expression before it except maybe rock and roll, created this idea that the only way that you could break through was this particular trope of the gangsta, this LA gangbanger.

And it's complicated, right? Because I don't think that, to the extent that white kids are listening, they see an Ice Cube or Dr. Dre and actually think, "That's a drug dealer." It's a much more complex construction of Black masculinity. That being said, it is the dominant construction of Black masculinity at that period of time, and I think the culture suffers for it. When you think about some of the really great, successful hip-hop artists [of the late '80s], Big Daddy Kane is a throwback artist in that he is a music-and-dance dude. He's Michael Jackson for the hip-hop generation. He's Sammy Davis Jr. for the hip-hop generation. He is as concerned about his bars as he is his clothes and his dance routines. Hammer, of course, took that to a whole other level.

With the emergence of gangsta rap, dance disappears, except for scantily clad women dancing in the background. Think about the rich choreography of Whodini, or even Run-DMC. That virtually disappears because, you know, gangstas don't dance. Thugs don't dance. The people who get hit hardest with that are Big Daddy Kane, or even, say, an LL — who has to rethink his image, and so you get "Mama Said Knock You Out" — because LL was as good a dancer as Big Daddy Kane was.

Makonnen is definitely right there, growing up smack-dab in the middle of that gangsta era, living on the West Coast in LA as an adolescent. He talked to us about growing up kind of performing different masculinities: He hung with the gangbangers, but also the beauticians, because his mom was a beautician. He hung with the nerds and the weirdos. But when he started rapping and making it big, he began to experience a lot more friction with how he presented himself. How do you understand that, through the lens of "legible" and "illegible" masculinity?

We would think that someone who could draw from experiences of beauty parlors and hanging out on street corners with gangbangers would be someone who could present something important and unique to our experience to the larger public. And of course, that's always going to be a challenge. There's a way in which even early Kanye, circa 2003, 2004, 2005, was a kind of weird, queerish cat. And he consciously worked against that persona because of the perception of that. You think about his beef, even as it was staged, with 50 Cent. You know, 50 Cent is the core example, ground zero, for hypermasculinity in hip-hop in that moment. Kanye is almost the direct opposite. And he almost has to take on some of the totems of what 50 Cent represents in order to be accepted. So if someone like Kanye, who I think was naturally comfortable in that space, feels the need to change up, what do you do if you're a young cat like Makonnen, trying to figure out how to fit into this game?

The thing that's fascinating to me about his fractured relationship with Drake is the fear of proximity. Drake is a big star, and Drake is an enterprise, and I think, because he's that star, Drake could actually withstand a lot of things. But I'm sure the people around Drake were a little concerned about the proximity to Makonnen at this moment in time. There's no Lil Nas X yet. There's no Lizzo yet. Things are much more complicated in that kind of moment.

Do you think hip-hop's attitude or approach to that idea of legible masculinity has changed or evolved in the last decade?

I think for some of the more elite artists — and I don't mean that in terms of their skill set, but in terms of the money they have — they have a little bit more latitude to play with their identity, in part because they're not solely a function of hip-hop audiences buying their music. They sell their wares in very different markets.

What's been interesting is that someone like Lil Nas X isn't illegible to anybody, right? I think part of the reason why his queerness was easier for some audiences to swallow is because his project was "queer" in and of itself: This was a Black guy making a country hip-hop song. I'm talking queer here not in the sexuality context, but taking the literal definition of queer — something that is strange and unusual.

I've often been struck by the folks who have been able to move in these kind of queer hip-hop spaces. Again, I'm not talking about sexuality — the sound is kind of off the grid. It's often people who possess a skill set that transcends them simply being rappers. When I hear Lil Nas X, I hear pop star — I don't hear rap artist. Lizzo is the same thing: We wanted to attach her to hip-hop, but that's not really what she is. Meshell Ndegeocello: People didn't know what to call her back when Plantation Lullabies dropped. She was a "rapper" because of her style, the deep voice. Then you listen to her music and you're like, this is not rap music. She's conversational with the style, but it's reductive to say that she's just a rapper.

Even before Makonnen blows up with the "Tuesday" remix featuring Drake, he really has this uncanny ability to travel across a lot of different scenes in Atlanta. He's collaborating with this young "New Atlanta" scene bubbling up, but at the same time he's making songs with some of the biggest trap producers in the city, like Mike WiLL Made-It and Metro Boomin. Can you talk about how his mobility between these different scenes might relate to what you refer to as "hip-hop cosmopolitanism" in your book?

This idea of being cosmopolitan, the idea of not having a country, not belonging to one place — people are really suspicious, generally, of folks who have a kind of ability to move through different spaces and be taken seriously, and to be legible in those spaces. By definition, those are folks who are "queer," because most folks don't have that kind of capacity. And it's not surprising that people who do, in fact, embrace a queer identity have an ability to perform different versions of themselves to be able to connect to different audiences. I think, fundamentally, people are afraid of that. Because for someone who can fit in these different kinds of spaces and communities like Makonnen, the question then becomes, "Well, are you authentic when you're with me?" If you can be this over here and that over there, who are you, actually, when you're with me?"

Whenever you have folks who are outliers, groundbreakers, they're never going to benefit from the sacrifices that they make in their careers to acknowledge who they fully are in that moment. Sylvester never really benefited from coming out the way that he did. But Frank Ocean benefited from Sylvester a generation later.

The fact of the matter is, there's never one authentic self. There are always multiple authentic selves. And the people who are most successful, folks who have social capital in the broadest sense, are folks who can negotiate different kinds of authentic selves depending on who the audience is and what spaces they're in. Mainstream hip-hop wasn't allowed to develop that kind of cosmopolitanism. Thirty years ago, if you didn't look like a hip-hop artist, not only wouldn't you be taken seriously within hip-hop, you wouldn't be taken seriously within the white mainstream, who themselves wanted to consume some idea of what authentic hip-hop and authentic Black masculinity was.

I wonder where you see Drake fitting on the scale of legible and illegible forms of Black masculinity.

Drake is an artist who's always been challenged by these questions of authenticity. Audiences don't know what to do with Black men who are too emotive. And in hip-hop — other than anger and rage, and to some extent, reflection — there wasn't a whole lot of range of emotions that you could express.

And so Drake comes along, and he's so emotive. You can't think of another rapper, ever, who begs. He's like the Keith Sweat of hip-hop: his interiority, the way that he is always looking into himself and trying to create another context and understanding for failed relationships. How many songs are like, "We broke up and we're not friends anymore, and I'm hurt by that"? Dudes feel like that all the time — vulnerable about failed relationships and going forward. [But] cats don't put that in their music, at least not hip-hop artists. It was risky for him to break the mold of how much emotion he could bring into his music. And to his credit, he became Drake because of that, because he was an outlier. There was a space for that in the culture that, say, Ice Cube didn't have back in the early 1990s. I think because [Drake is] already kind of a question to some folks, Makonnen becomes an interesting challenge for that.

He might have felt, because there are so many questions pertaining to his authenticity and his masculinity, that maybe he has something to protect, and something to lose.

Right, absolutely.

This vulnerable, emo side of Drake, this thing that he brings to hip-hop on a level that we kind of haven't seen before him — he's gotten credit for that. But he's also gotten questions around whether or not it's truly sensitive or sincere, in terms of how he feels about women. Is it possible that the whole "vulnerable Drake" is just another level of game, of player, that Drake is putting across?

I think it's "both/and." It's easy, particularly when people are kind of nipping at you about it, to fall back into a kind of traditional notion of gender and men and their relationship to women, whether it be sexual objectification or other things — to kind of shore up your reputation from time to time. And because it's not something that is so heinous that anybody needs to cancel him, he's become adept at deploying that when he needs to.

Why do you think queerness poses such a threat to hip-hop's legible, and obviously very narrow, forms of masculinity?

I think [there's] always been a long-believed premise for some Black folks, that if Black women are too out in front in the public, it's a comment on the failure of Black men to be leaders. If Black queer men or Black trans men are too prominent and visible, it is a comment on the failure of Black men — quote-unquote, "real, strong," heterosexual Black men — and by extension the Black family, to produce men in that way. This is part of the narrative that we've historically heard from the Black church, which remains one of the most influential institutions in Black communities.

Hip-hop is absolutely connected to those sensibilities. And because it's a young art form, both in terms of how old it is and the age of the people who primarily consume and make it, it's also an art form that's not often self-critical in the ways that, as a 35- or 40- or 50-year-old, you can be self-critical of identity construction, and what's homophobic and what's not. [But] I think hip-hop has an opportunity, because it has historically pushed the boundaries of how we think about Blackness and Black life in this country. The way it's changed the narrative about just things like police brutality — we don't give it the credit that it deserves for that because it wasn't an organized political movement, but who was talking about police brutality in the way that we talk about it now before Toddy Tee's "Batterram," or N.W.A's "F*** the Police," or Public Enemy's "911 Is a Joke"?

Folks wanted to blame hip-hop for sexism and misogyny, and clearly it was a conduit for its expression in American society. But the only place where we had substantive questions and conversations about that was in hip-hop: Other institutions in the Black community weren't taking up that question. So I think hip-hop still has some potential to push the conversation about how we think about sexuality in this moment. When you talk to anybody under the age of 18 now, they think very differently about sexuality than when I was 18, or even worse, when my parents were 18.

I want to throw in one last question about Makonnen. When he decided to come out, he did it in a tweet, right around the time of Trump's inauguration. Talking to us, he said that for him, the industry really kind of dried up after that. He had already severed ties with Drake and OVO, but even people that he had collaborated with in the past, he just didn't hear a lot; that breakthrough period around 2014 is still the peak of his career.

Today, less than a decade later, you have artists like Saucy Santana — a queer artist whose expression is very feminine and mainstream-viable, signed by a major label and being pushed and promoted in a way that I don't think we've really seen in hip-hop, even more so than a Lil Nas X. I guess I'm curious: What does the recent major-label embrace of artists Saucy and Lil Nas say to you, if anything, about hip-hop becoming better allied with queer artists, or anyone besides just heterosexual Black men?

Makonnen performs at the LA Pride Music Festival and Parade in June 2017 in West Hollywood, Calif.
Chelsea Guglielmino / Getty Images
Getty Images
Makonnen performs at the LA Pride Music Festival and Parade in June 2017 in West Hollywood, Calif.

I mean, if we're honest, allyship is good business at this moment, in ways that I don't think had been revealed to us back then. I mean, think about where the heads of the American imagination are in January 2017. There has been a disrupting force in American politics, and everybody was trying to recalibrate. That recalibration kind of finds its balancing act with George Floyd in 2020. And whether we're talking about racial allyship or queer allyship or trans allyship, the power of social media to call people out and to hold corporations accountable created a mechanism which — and I hate to describe it this way — but allyship becomes monetized. It becomes commercialized. And at least at this moment, it allows for a flourishing of a multiplicity of identities to be expressed in popular culture in ways that we hadn't seen before.

Whenever you have folks who are outliers, groundbreakers, they're never going to benefit from the sacrifices that they make in their careers to acknowledge who they fully are in that moment. Sylvester never really benefited from coming out the way that he did. But Frank Ocean benefited from Sylvester a generation later. The thing about Makonnen that I think is important is that the story hasn't been fully written on his career. [Whereas other] folks never got an opportunity for a second act when audiences initially decided, "We're not ready to deal with this quite yet."

On paper, in a lot of ways, they had a lot in common. Makonnen was very much representing, and pioneering in some ways, that emo sound on SoundCloud that Drake was doing as a mainstream artist. And maybe that was some of what drew Drake to Makonnen artistically, originally. It almost seems a shame that they weren't able to have a more fruitful creative relationship.

Yeah. You know, what's frustrating about that is, if they actually could have developed a more fruitful relationship, the culture would be further along. What hip-hop is would be further along in its trajectory, had we been able to play that out.

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Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.
Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.