Pop Music, Black & White

Sasha Frere-Jones’ “A Paler Shade of White“:

By the mid-nineties, the biggest rock stars in the world were rappers, and the potential for embarrassment had become a sufficient deterrent for white musicians tempted to emulate their black heroes. Who would take on Snoop, one of the most naturally gifted vocalists of the day? Of course, a few did—there have been white rappers and several commercial, if generally unappealing, blends of rock and rap. But, in the thirty years since hip-hop became widely available, there have been only three genuinely popular white rap acts: the Beastie Boys, whose biggest selling album sold to kids who were more taken with the Led Zeppelin samples and the lewd jokes than with the rap music; Vanilla Ice, an anomaly who owes much of his success to his vertical hair and the decision to rap (in “Ice Ice Baby”) over “Under Pressure,” a song by David Bowie and Queen that has proved immune to destruction; and Eminem, the exception who proves the rule. A protégé of Dr. Dre’s who spent part of his youth in Detroit, he had to be better than the local black competition simply in order to be accepted—a fascinating inversion of the racism that many blacks have encountered in the workplace.