Tracing hip-hop's encouraging, mature response to the grotesque insensitivity of Rick Ross
"This shit sound crazy!" That's rapper Future, on the intro to Rocko's "U.O.E.N.O.," off the latter Atlanta rapper's mixtape Gift of Gab 2, released in February. Thanks to 21-year-old ATL producer Childish Major's swinging, dying battery-sounding beat — recalling soundcapist Tim Hecker as much as it does filter-rap hero Mike Will Made It — and a catchy, quotable hook ("You don't even know it"), "U.O.E.N.O." has become a steadily rising street hit. It's the sort of song that plays out of car speakers and pops up on mixtapes, but has no radio or Billboardpresence, for the time being, at least. But due to a few loaded lines from Rick Ross, "U.O.E.N.O." is also one of the most controversial rap songs of 2013.
See, once Childish Major's cloud-trap production sunk in, and Future's goofy charms subsided, it was this Ross line that stuck to your gut, and not in a good way: "Put molly all in her champagne, she ain't even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that / She ain't even know it." Ross was brashly describing rape: Drugging a girl's drink, sending her into unconsciousness, and then having sex with her. A month after the song's release, as the profile of "U.O.E.N.O." rose, it was the subject of vehement debate and organized protests, which ultimately led to Ross losing a sponsorship deal with Reebok.
However, when you get past Ross' typical idiocy — or edit him out of the narrative, which was literally done with a remix of the song — a lot of good has actually come out of this situation. Ross' lyrics were offensive, without a doubt. But they became useful in this discussion when they were used to represent the reality of how most males don't understand consent issues in this country. Rap reflects some of the awful, need-to-change aspects of our society and not the cause of them, and this was a shocking reminder of popular culture's complicity in rape culture.
Plus, the "U.O.E.N.O." controversy turned into an example of hip-hop policing its own problems, which was refreshing. On April 10, Rocko announced that Ross would be removed from "U.O.E.N.O." He then offered up the promise of a number of official remixes of the song, which would make the Ross version negligible. He also promised, in an admirably hardheaded, don't-throw-him-under-the-bus way, that Ross would make an appearance with a new verse. Don't hold your breath, but Ross actually has a chance to redeem himself. He'll probably just sing about selling pounds and pounds of cocaine and murdering people per usual, but still.
The day after Ross was removed from "U.O.E.N.O.," Reebok dropped Ross' endorsement deal. The day after that, Ross offered up a proper apology for his lyrics. A telling line: "As an artist, one of the most liberating things is being able to paint pictures with my words. But with that comes a great responsibility." Typically, Ross was stubbornly late to admit wrongdoing, but the apology, coupled with Rocko's mature decision, and a wobbly, but well-intentioned discourse was truly encouraging. It was the hip-hop insiders — the artists themselves and the big businesses that help fuel the major-label machine — that responsibly resolved this.
Fortunately, producer Childish Major's stunning production survived this all relatively unscathed. Major has wisely and appropriately stayed out of the discussion, which is impressive because it's got to be bizarre to find out that the beat you handed over to one of rap's biggest stars came back affixed with date-rape lyrics. Childish Major has become an in-demand producer almost in spite of the controversy. A few days after Ross was dropped from Reebok, Juicy released a Childish Major-produced single titled "Ain't No Coming Down," an ambling Ennio Morricone-sounding slab of club rap He's also working with Young Jeezy and their collaboration, "Talk That Talk," is supposedly out soon. Childish's close collaborator Rome Fortune released his Beautiful Pimp mixtape around the same time as "U.O.E.N.O." and it's one of the year's best — a full-length demonstration of Childish's ability (along with collaborators DJ Spinz and C4) to concoct beats that blur the borders between avant-garde and "street."
No doubt, the increased attention on Childish allowed Rome, an exciting regular-dude rapper who can find the pocket of even the most bizarre beat, some much-deserved shine. The so-called "New ATL" scene, which circles around molly meme-grabber Trinidad James and extends to Philly transplant Sean Falyon, spaced-out rinky-dink trappers Migos, weeded elbow-thrower Two9, among others, has its own Clams Casino in Childish Major.
And the "U.O.E.N.O." beat lives on, as well, shaking off it's "that song with the rape rap" reputation. Remixes from 2 Chainz, Wiz Khalifa, A$AP Rocky (who, according to this video interview, was the artist Childish imagined when making the beat), Joelle Ortiz, Usher, and this morning, Black Hippy, have all appeared. The desire to hop on a buzzing beat and make it your own is nothing new in hip-hop, but all these artists toying with "U.O.E.N.O." has the effect of burying the original Ross version and offering up an endless series of correctives. In the case of ScHoolboy Q's verse on the Black Hippy "U.O.E.N.O." remix, he literally rewrites Ross' offending lines: “Molly in her drink but she asked me to,” Q raps.
Undoubtedly, when all of these MCs walk into the booth to riff on "U.O.E.N.O.," they are being more mindful about what kind of lyrics they spit out into the world. And it's also clear that Ross' idiotic lines have birthed a lively discussion about issues of consent in pop music, have result in an encouraging example of hip-hop governing itself, and have propelled a new innovative beatmaker into the world of mainstream rap production. Not a bad ending for something that began as one of hip-hop's most hopeless, seemingly irreparable missteps.