America! I’m Sam Lansky, Professor of Pop, and it’s Thursday, which can only mean one thing: We’re all due another hearty serving of Pop Think!
In this week’s lesson, I’ll be exploring the hip-hop leanings of my favorite country superstar, the inimitable T-Swizzle (that’s Taylor Swift for the uninitiated). In case you hadn’t noticed, Taylor’s been crying teardrops on her 808 — and I’m ’bouts to expose why this is a true-life thug story.
Ladies and gentlemen: Class is now in session.
Credit: Getty Images
Question: Why is Taylor Swift so hood?
No, really — I’m serious. Has anyone else noticed that the country songbird’s hip-hop swag is off the charts? Despite her long-standing position among heartland parents as the squeaky-clean chanteuse beloved by tweens the world over, Taylor’s been inching her way closer to the heart of hip-hop, one well-curated performance at a time.
This is not to say that the Hip-Hopization of Taylor Swift is a new development. As Complex nicely recapped in a recent feature, Taylor’s been on this grind for a minute or two. She first hinted at her desire to cross over into hip-hop as early as 2008, when she was promoting her sophomore record, Fearless. Then, as Taylor told MTV News in a 2008 interview, one of her big aspirations was to sing the hook on a huge rap song; she mentioned T.I. and Kanye West as possible duet partners. (Later, she would come to rue the day she ever invoked the good name of Yeezy — but we won’t dwell on that.)
The most tangible early indication of her crossover appeal came with the 2009 release of her promotional video for the CMT Music Awards, “Thug Story,” a mostly parodic but also kind-of f’reals collab with T-Pain, which had her spitting rhymes over a crunked-out reinterpretation of her own track, “Love Story.” “I’m so gangster, you can find me baking cookies at night/You out clubbing, but I just made caramel delight,” Taylor raps, while T-Pain delivers a series of Auto-Tuned moans. It’s a prime example of the self-consciousness that makes Taylor so lovable — her charming awareness of how little authentic hip-hop cred she has actually ends up granting her some.
Read more about Taylor Swift’s swag after the jump.
Maybe it was just her rising clout in the industry that gave her more of a platform to really go for broke, but Taylor’s rap fixation only seemed to escalate in 2011 — she rapped to Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” during a radio show appearance and cited Jay-Z as her dream collaborator. For her live shows, she began covering rap tracks — first Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” then Pras’ “Ghetto Superstar,” a little “Unpretty,” R&B, courtesy of TLC, and even Nelly’s “Just a Dream.” (Nelly was one of the first big rappers to team up with a country star on a smash single, 2004’s “Over and Over,” featuring Tim McGraw — no wonder Taylor looks to him for inspiration.) Most recently, she duetted on stage with the Harajuku Barbie herself for a little “Super Bass,” then with T.I. for a rousing cover of “Live Your Life,” while Usher joined her on stage in the ATL to perform “Yeah!” (Ush later described Taylor as “crunk”; given that “Yeah!” brought crunk-rap into the mainstream upon its release in 2004, it seems to me that there could be no higher praise to bestow upon T-Swizzle.)
So it’s a simple, empirical fact that Taylor Swift is kind of a G — but why has hip-hop embraced her so openly? My suspicion is that rap superstars like Nicki Minaj and T.I. see in Taylor one of the same things that’s scored them all their No. 1 hits: Taylor’s got all kinds of grind. So many fixtures in the pop mainstream seamlessly transitioned from Mouseketeerdom to huge record deals with major labels, but Taylor built buzz the old-fashioned way: word-of-mouth promotion, gigging locally and low-profile releases on an independent label. Taylor refused to be a puppet for someone else’s vision, so her first two releases were via Big Machine Records, the then-little-known label that has since joined the Universal family — because Taylor turned down deals with majors, insisting that she needed to sing her lyrics and perform her music.
Because, lest you forget, Taylor’s songcraft is virtually unparalleled, and though she’s a fine vocalist, it’s always been her writing that really shines. Even on her debut, she has writing credits on each song, and penned several without the help of any co-writers. Likewise on Fearless and on Speak Now, she composed every song herself! Unlike most pop stars, who are often rarely expected to have a hand in crafting their own songs, it’s expected that rappers will write their own rhymes. (Let’s not get into the whole ghosting thing. That’s for another time.) Taylor, it appears, evaluates her artistry by the same criteria. Moreover, she’s never been skittish about blowing up an ex’s spot in her songs — “Dear John” being a prime example, or see MTV News’ nifty Speak Now lyrical cheat sheet for more — and hip-hop artists have a storied history of giving voice to the spurned with some hard-core lyrical slaughter.
And like the many rappers who keep writing verses about life on the streets long after they’ve left them behind, Taylor’s music retains its every-teen origins in the stories she tells — the nerdy, unpopular girl-next-door persona is as much a part of her narrative as (don’t laugh!) being shot nine times is a part of 50 Cent’s. Taylor has mastered the art of utilizing the girl she used to be to make herself a more accessible and likable public figure — so her music will resonate all the more powerfully with the kids who are still quietly eying their crush from the back of the bleachers. Taylor gives a voice to a community who doesn’t always get a chance to speak now (if you’ll pardon the pun) — which is exactly what hip-hop has always been intended to do.
Taylor is the perpetual underdog — the awkward teen who defied her haters to become a beloved superstar — and this is, in itself, a country-fried twist on the rags-to-riches tale that hip-hop celebrates by exploring the grit of the ghetto alongside imagery of extreme privilege.
So, OK, Taylor Swift’s story may not be a thug story, exactly. But it still stands to reason that the thugs would adore her as much as everyone else does.