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Social Studies

Bring on the Pensive White Boys

By Vincent Williams | Posted 5/18/2005

On rainy days, I often find myself listening to pensive white boys singing about love. Ben Folds, John Mayer, Maroon 5—if it’s cloudy and I’m driving through the city, it’s a fair bet that there’s some introspective relationship stuff on my car stereo. Truth be told, none of these cats even sing that well, but, to me, that’s part of the charm. The cracking voice is just another level of their vulnerability.

Now, this is not to say that I’m depressed when I listen to the pensive white boys. No, no, if something’s really wrong, I go to the big guns: Donny Hathaway or Sade or Cassandra Wilson. But Ben Folds has a level of goofiness about him that I like because it reminds me of when I was goofy. Well, goofier, anyway.

Dreary days tend to be quiet days, and I like these guys because they fill the space with some sounds that make me think about my own youth. I mean, who hasn’t had shitty relationships and stupid arguments? Who hasn’t fought over T-shirts and said hurtful things based on secrets you learned in a moment of vulnerability? Who doesn’t have regrets over things they did, and things they didn’t? These young men remind me of me when I was a younger man, and their lyrics remind me of that time in my life.

This is the thing, though—I’m a hip-hop kid. I was 17 the first time I heard People’s Instinctive Travels and Paths of Rhythm, and since then rap music has been my personal soundtrack. Most of the time I was making snide comments, and during those stupid arguments, I was listening to Brand Nubian or Main Source. And as a card-carrying child of the boom-bap, I think I should be able to reminisce to some hip-hop relationship songs when it’s raining outside.

This tends to be a problem, however, because hip-hop just doesn’t do relationships that well. I’ve thought L.L. Cool J’s “I Need Love” was silly for almost two decades now. And I don’t want to knock cuts like my wife’s unofficial theme song, Blackstar’s “Brown Skin Lady.” Like all of Common’s “my black queen” material, a) it’s a little too abstract for my tastes, and b) it all sounds suspiciously like the dude at the poetry slam trying to pick up girls who wear mud cloth and smell like incense.

And then there are all the hip-hop songs about fucking. There are a lot of hip-hop songs about fucking. While I vote “yes” on fucking, I don’t really feel that comfortable with the crassness of most rapping on the subject. Everybody’s sticking and pumping and, hell, just call me Ol’ Grandpa, but I think there should be more involved than some money changing hands. Put it this way—the classic love song formula is “I don’t have as much money as he does, but I love you so you should be with me.” On the other hand, the standard hip-hop formula is “I have more money than him, so you should be with me.”

Oh, there are exceptions of course—an Eric B. and Rakim’s “Mahogany” here, a J Live’s “Like This Anna” there. Unlike the original, the remix of Tribe’s “Bonita Applebum” is quite the relationship song, and the Roots’ biggest hit, “You Got Me,” is eloquent on the intricacies of love. But even these MCs display the emotional detachment or “cool pose” that Richard Majors and a host of other social critics have spoken of so eloquently when addressing black manhood.

You know what the most honest hip-hop relationship song I’ve ever heard is? The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Me and My Bitch.” Yeah, yeah, I know, the title is a little problematic, to say the least, but, y’know, it’s personal in a way that all the aforementioned material isn’t. The relationship he describes is dysfunctional, abusive, a little crazy, and unlike any that I’ve ever experienced. I respect the tune, though, because it’s wholly realized and Biggie is completely candid with the details in a way that is much more Here My Dear-era Marvin Gaye than Rapper Superlover. When you listen to Biggie talk in “Me and My Bitch,” it feels like he’s talking about a real person, and, through extension, that makes him a real person.

And, frankly, that’s what it’s all about. So much of society’s proscribed definition of black masculinity is seen in such hypersexualized, hyperviolent, hyperactive terms that there is no room for the humanity of something as banal as feeling guilty over not feeling guilty over cheating or Sunday morning eggs. So, because I don’t really know much about canary yellow diamonds and I don’t really spend that much time talking about the size of my dick and I can’t say something like, “I saw Kenya in her eyes” without snickering, I have to listen to pensive white boys sing about love on rainy days.

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