When the lyrics to Jay Z‘s “Holy Grail” were released last June — just days before his Magna Carta Holy Grail album — one particular part grabbed headlines: his use of the famous refrain from Nirvana‘s 1991 hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Once the audio hit, we heard that it was also Justin Timberlake, not just Hov, singing the band’s lyrics — while Jay name-dropped lead singer Kurt Cobain in his first verse. But that didn’t change the question. Why were two of music’s biggest names repurposing Cobain’s famous words two decades after his death?
Hov and JT weren’t trailblazing with their “Teen Spirit” interpretation; they were actually continuing a longstanding trend of hip-hop’s homage to the late Nirvana frontman, who was found dead in his home on this day in 1994. Cobain had taken his life on April 5, but it was on April 8 that the news broke and the world learned of his passing.
In both his life and death, Cobain represents some of the very pillars hip-hop is built on: rebelliousness, innovation and voicing a generation. His disinterest in and complicated relationship with fame has become a hallmark of his rap relatability — including songs like “Holy Grail.”
“F–k the fame, keep cheating on me, what I do, I took her back/ Fool me twice that’s my bad, I can’t even blame her for that/ Enough to make me wanna murder, momma please just get my bail/ I know nobody to blame, Kurt Cobain, I did it to myself,” Jay raps, expressing feelings often echoed by others.
While reflecting on a difficult period in his life, Timbaland told MTV News in 2007, “I really think about Kurt Cobain, and why he really killed himself … Let me explain something to America: money don’t make you happy.”
Tupac, who was vocal about the plights of fame, referred to Cobain in a 1994 interview. “The whole world’s gonna owe me an apology, ’cause I went through this and ain’t blow my brains out like Kurt Cobain,” ‘Pac said the year of his sexual assault trial. “And I should.”
Surely, the most common acknowledgement of Cobain, even more so than in interviews, comes in lyrics. Dozens of rappers — from Lil Wayne to 50 Cent to Kanye West to Kendrick Lamar — have woven his name into their rhymes. The references range from creating imagery (“My favorite color is red, like the blood shed/ From Kurt Cobain’s head when he shot himself dead,” Eminem rapped on “Cum On Everybody”) to an understanding (“Bloody ink on my pen spelled suicide/ Kurt Cobain even died ’cause you scrutinize,” A$AP Rocky said on “Phoenix”).
Many have repurposed fashion trends that he started, too. In recent years, Kanye, Rocky, Kendrick, Wiz Khalifa, Pharrell and more could all be seen rocking flannel shirts — often tied around their waists. It’s a look that became immensely popular during the grunge movement that Cobain fronted.
Still, in the end, hip-hop’s connection to Cobain has more to do with what he embodied than how he looked.
In 2011, Lil Wayne told MTV News he was a fan of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” as a kid. “I probably felt at that time I was rebelling, and I can associate myself with that, and relate to things he was talking about,” he said.
It’s safe to say that Weezy speaks for more than himself with that one.