Originally Appears in Issue 10 of One More Robot
De La Soul recently released a new concept record under the guise of First Serve, a fictitious rap double act consisting of friends Deen Whitter (De La Soul member Dave) and Jacob ‘Pop Life’ Barrow (Posdnuos). The album – also titled First Serve – follows the duo as they cut rap songs in Deen’s Queens, New York basement, dodge overbearing mothers and struggle to ‘make it big’ in the music industry.
Stepping into made-up avatars half their age, the 40-something year old rappers have made a new run for relevance, using alter egos to recapture their youthful exuberance. First Serve is the first De La Soul album of any kind in eight years and suggests that Dave and Posdnuos aren’t as keen to embrace their forties as some of their peers, going as far as giving interviews in character to promote the record. This got me thinking about the various ways rappers have used alter egos in the past, and by that I mean those who inhabit fully-formed alternative personas, and not just taking on nicknames for the sake of it (The RZA’s wikipedia page cites nine AKAs, for example).
But why do rappers feel the need to switch to alternative guises? For some it’s a way of neatly separating the wide-ranging subject matter they cover. When Eminem was at the peak of his popularity, his monstrous creation Slim Shady was just as famous as its architect. Slim was supposed to represent the more unhinged side of Em’s persona, with Marshall Mathers being the day to Slim’s night, leaving Eminem somewhere in the middle, presumably. Giving the responsibility for some of the awful things he was saying about his mother, girlfriend and himself to Slim, Em perhaps hoped the use of an alter ego would just underline the fictitious, sensationalist nature of his lyrics. It didn’t work.
Cut to 10 years later and Em’s successor in supposedly destroying the sensibilities of America’s youth is Tyler, the Creator. Thus far, Tyler’s two albums have been presented as elongated therapy sessions with his psychiatrist, Dr TC, played by Tyler via voice altering software. So on both Bastard and Goblin we get back-and-forth conversations played out as the Odd Future leader uses his creation to delve into his delicate psyche. It’s not an altogether original concept, but it sure gets to the point.
Then there are those who don’t quite get it right. T.I. tried to play both sides of his persona off one another on T.I. vs. T.I.P. – T.I. the big businessman and T.I.P. the unreformed street hustler. And yet, all the album’s singles came from the supposedly hard-as-nails side and not the more commercially minded half. It just confused who T.I. was; splitting one whole human being into two half ones when his rhymes were never so dense they required compartmentalisation so as not to confuse us simple listeners. And I can’t even get a hold of the Nicki Minaj/Roman Zolanski conundrum. The demon inside her, or so she says, to me Minaj seems pretty demonic all of the time.
Personally, I could do without the alter ego thing for the most part. Ice Cube didn’t need to explain his transformation from AmerKKKa’s most wanted to most cuddly by lumping his changing personality into different subdivisions. He just got older; people change, and most of us do have several different strands to our personality. The human experience is complex and rarely schizophrenic