Part of rap’s genius is in its ability to work through a combination of egos, embracing self-importance while also challenging and changing identity. Big Boi crosses his arms and becomes Daddy Fat Sax; Lil Wayne blinks and becomes Young Tunechi; RZA bows his head and becomes Bobby Digital, etc. Personality is often fragmented within the identity of the artist, and the strongest art work out these personalities in ways that often confuse us. Look once and Mykki Blanco is “the 6’ 2” black American glamazon that is the American rapping sensation.” Look again and she’s that man buying wavvy with a tattoo that says “Pony Boy.” Look again and she’s “Richie Rich with a clit in the middle.”
But this context of art doesn’t belong to rap alone; it’s been a part of art and identity since artistic license started being claimed. But in the age of the near-impossibility of self-mythologizing, with our notions of artistic identity tied down with finding the “authentic” or “true” identity of an artist, we tend to place somewhat unfair aspirations on a critical part to dissect the artist rather than the work. As Whitman’s grandeur is explored into the 21st century, it’s rap that’s been able to embody and explore seamless ego inflation with cultural anthropology, and while the essence of fluidity of identity may be old, the action itself has become much more difficult in the Facebook age. It’s now a matter of whether or not the listeners allow themselves to be a willing participant in the illusion and are willing to work to find value within that construct, knowing full well how the trick works.
That’s not to say that, while being a transgressive form, rap hasn’t marginalized queer voices; “queer rap” as an identifier does allow for a platform for marginalized voices within rap to be heard. But maintaining a label like “queer rap” tends to unfairly separate a rapper like Mykki Blanco from the rest of rap; you’re presented with a picture that says, “here’s ‘queer rap,’ and then here’s everything else.” I wanted to avoid writing another piece on “queer rap,” but it feels like where rap’s traditionally homophobic rhetoric has marginalized one voice, separating what we label as “queer rap” also marginalizes it from the rest of rap.
As both Cosmic Angel: The Illuminati Prince/ss and Betty Rubble: The Initiation have shown, Mykki Blanco makes great rap by way of turning club bangers into incredibly inventive lyrical wordplays, mixing with both rap’s traditional transgressiveness of “problematic” language and gender fluidity, infiltrating the darker, homophobic spaces in an attempt to make us converts. But is it enough to be as transgressive as I want to project it as? Even philosopher Judith Butler acknowledged that performative gender has a much safer place within theater due to our recognition of it as distinct from reality. But again, rap is not pure theater; it’s been tied to its reality so succinctly (much like Leadbelly’s past was tied to blues) that so much of rap is as much about maintaining the sincerity of your threats as about pushing the limits of how many threats can be made. It’s always sincere, but it’s not always willing. We forget this in ourselves, that humanity is capable of making promises on “being good to its word,” while turning the moment of pulling the trigger into a time-warped montage. Blanco highlights what we should learn from rap by embodying the presence of being either/and. It’s part of the magic, the “David Blaine”-type shit, the confusion of our expectations with the simultaneous confusion of our realities.
Adverting my sort of armchair theory on transgressiveness, while this is all very interesting on the subject of ego, Mykki Blanco’s real strength is in the music itself. She’s been wanting to project herself in line with someone like ICP rather than A$AP Rocky, but this kind of disregards that Blanco is a far better rapper than any sort of cult-rap/outsider-rap association given. Across Betty Rubble, her style readily moves from subverted glitch-club aggressiveness like “Crisp Clean” and “David Blaine Bitches” to the R&B/gansta-booty ballad “Ace Bougie-Chick.” Another of rap’s genius is in the bucking of a certain Creative Writing cliché that goes along the lines of, “don’t litter your pieces with references/ephemera from the present age, for you will date your material.” Whether it’s references to shoes, weed, whatever, the strongest rappers have been both of the moment and timeless. For Blanco, it’s either by way of throwing out Instagram references or by using Wikipedia and Google to form Latin verses for “The Initiation.” Having previously declared from Cosmic Angel that the passing of the crown was “Nas gave me a perm,” Blanco’s amalgamation of influences both fights and frequents the logical progression from Nas/90s rap on, and again, that conflict of dualities is where Blanco finds her strength.
Authenticity feels both like a distraction and an aspect furthest from the truth when it comes to understanding (and enjoying) art, especially in rap. Personality fragmenting or gender blurring doesn’t necessarily constitute what’s been referred to as an “identity crisis.” Mykki Blanco seems pretty comfortable in any presentation, and she’s pretty able to make us feel uncomfortable with the lack of absolutes. It’s the rest of us who are having the crisis.