Like Jaws on the cusp of carving up a delicious carnivorous snack, Jxmmi’s face slowly emerged from the haze of blunt smoke that had just escaped his mouth as he digested The Breakfast Club host Charmalagne Tha God’s comparison comments about Migos and Rae Sremmurd. According to urban radio’s most controversial iconoclast, Migos was just above the Tupelo, Miss. natives’ collective. They both had hits on hits and were comprised of sub-30 black men. This was 95% of rap’s constitution, but today the arbitrary comparison fell on Swae Lee and Jxmmi’s ears. Swae brushed it aside, as any real G would have done. But today, Jxmmi had time for it:
“See, you one of them type of niggas, bro.”
Expensive frames, adorned with one blood red tear on the right spectacle, hid his expression, but the protruding veins in his one visible hand exposed his irate stature. Swae, sensing the escalating tension immediately broke into a chorus of “Bro,” repeating the cautionary warning louder and louder each time; Charlamagne was none the wiser — the radio host simply looked on, slightly amused. Jxmmi let Swae continue for a little while he sat mystified, recalculated what he was going to say, then spoke. “I fuck with the Migos,” he said, tranquil. “Real heavy. Them is family, bro.” Swae Lee, finally relaxing, puffed on the joint and let Jxmmi have the floor.
The entire situation transpired over thirty-four seconds, but, in that time frame, it captured the opposite extremes that constitute the hottest rap duo since Outkast — arguably even bigger (I said what I said). Swae, the easy-going, docile, ladies’ man, and Jxmmi, the fast-talking, chain-smoking, mustache-twirling used car salesman. Swae sings, Jxmmi yells. Swae’s fanbase stretches to the moon, Jxmmi’s tags along. One could survive without the other. Or maybe he couldn’t. They are brothers after all. But there’s something endlessly analyzable about them and how they’ve reframed the media’s perception of post-adolescence but pre-adulthood African-American men.
The Wire is one of television’s highest-rated series in HBO’s history. Over the course of five seasons, a complex narrative is crafted through Baltimore’s highest and lowest citizens. The story’s focus may remain centered around police officer Jimmy McNulty and his collective of troublesome law cohorts, but the real heart of the show comes from the African-American presence that paves the streets with blood.
These characters laugh and cry, love and hate, celebrate and mourn, yet even though some have redeeming qualities, the narrative reminds you time and time again that they are the violent underbelly of Boston’s population. Everything bad that happens comes from these dealers (spoiler alert: also, a politician or two) that operate in their best interests, more than willing to use violence to meet their ends. Heads get blasted into pieces on the regular. Over time, we become conditioned to the fact that when African-Americans are on screen, death usually lurks around the corner, at any time, any place. Fan-favorite Omar, the homosexual drug dealer who builds a mythos as large as Odysseus, gets gunned down by an African-American child while buying liquor at the grocery store. D’Angelo Barksdale, another drug dealer that wished to turn his circumstances around, gets choked out by another black man as he picks out a library book while in prison.
In his article “10 Years After Its Premiere, ‘The Wire’ Feels Dated, and That’s a Good Thing,” The Atlantic‘s John Hendel said that, “The HBO show is a valuable artifact from the post-9/11, pre-social media revolution era.” In terms of technological prowess and manpower issues that plagued the Baltimore police department, that is true. But in terms of the world’s perception of black men, it’s hard to see a difference. We’re still seen as the aggressors, the drug dealers, the problems with everything wrong with society. Marlo Stanfield, the series’ cold final villain, reveled in the power of stature and exploded when it could be taken away. His infamous “My name is my name” quote is the predecessor of the term “clout” that is one of the biggest phrases used today.
Swae Lee and Jxmmi seemingly come from another world. There’s no trace of animosity in their music or demeanors. Unconcerned with the clout or violence that The Wire showrunners would have believed two young African-American men would publicize, the two have made a career out of the type of feel-good music that feels realistic and not forced. When you hear a Rae Sremmurd song in a party, you know there’s nothing happening on the dance floor that isn’t supposed to. They don’t operate like that.
Rae Sremmurd burst onto the scene with childlike bliss. “No Flex Zone” was the world’s first exposure to the group’s contrasting styles. The high-pitch vocals made them sound like kids displaced from time, their appearance confirming that they were the teenage stars that aged late. The world was entranced with their dream-like video and nursery-rhyme saccharine tune. These kids weren’t out for blood and mischief, they were crooning about the good times they wished to have. Maybe not through their lyrics, but they weren’t meant to be taken at face value. The energy exuded as they pranced around like maniacs in the video made them the go-to group of 2014.
“No Type” came next and it became an even bigger hit than the first. In the accompanying film, Swae and Jxmmi went to a carnival and treated two ladies to a welcome, respectable date. No gimmicks pulled at all. The song wasn’t innocent, but the video had the best intentions. Their marketability swooned tremendously. They weren’t flexing cartoonish large guns to the camera for street cred; puerile enjoyment was the focus of their artistry.
The mechanics of the Rae Sremmurd machine offer a glimpse into what makes the collective work so well and why it’s become so successful. Swae Lee is the more easy-going of the two, combined with his effortless charm rendering him able to sell salt to a slug. He’s the vocalist of the duo, regularly incorporating melodies into his raps. He typically, as of SR3MM, sings in a heavenly vocal pattern that floats on top of the production, dipping its toes into its waters. Jxmmi, by contrast, is much darker, visceral, and more energetic. His raps come fast and furious, often acting as the track’s much-needed grounding once Swae lifts it into the stratosphere. They’re both absolutely necessary because, without one, the experience would be inauthentic, robbing us of the entire picture.
In a way, that’s largely indicative of the black experience in America. Swae represents the loftier, worldly side of the black man that shakes the hands and smiles in the faces of corporate America. He has the good time and is the one that people remember once we leave the room. Then, there’s Jxmmi, the time when the blood rushes to our faces in anger. He may be arrogant and standoffish, but he’s not unreasonable. Without this side, we’d get walked over. But with it and the nicer side intact, we have a picture of equality that makes our personalities complete.
Rae Sremmurd is consumed as one entity by blogs, save for when they shower Swae with praise while wishing for Jxmmi to step his game up. Hedonistic raps separate them from the fatalist air of their contemporaries and they throw up just about every red flag that America aims at African-American men. They’re not moving units, committing felonies, or rapping about it. They’re not dangerous, shooting guns, and committing domestic violence (of the latter, they’re the ideal of their age group). They make music for partying with Capuchin monkeys named Naya. For crashing Ferraris into the fence. For doing 160 miles an hour on an interstate highway, using “Shit, Sremmlife!” as the excuse when the cop inevitably pulls you over. (Jxmmi got off with a warning during this episode.) Without trying, they’re, aside from Chance The Rapper, probably the only “good” guys in hip-hop.
Chance The Rapper in 2012 was much different than this modern, PG-rated iteration (not that anything’s wrong with that). On Acid Rap, he explored sounds across the globe for a profanity-filled, drug-laden psychedelic escapade. We didn’t know how he could evolve, but we monitored closely. Somewhere between then and 2016, he became a scout leader. His image became pristine and transparent, with his political ties and social work becoming more integral to his star than his music.
Somehow, the term “black boy joy” became associated with him. Of Chance and his relation to the term, VIX said, “His idea is to help strip black men of the stereotype that black men can only be angry or tough.” The Root even compiled a list of 12 instances of “Black Boy Joy” in GIF form that featured others carrying this new torch, featuring a wide variety of marketable artists and athletes such as Cam Newton, Steph Curry, Donald Glover, and Jaden Smith. In this list, surprisingly, there’s no mention of Rae Sremmurd when they may be the biggest movers in the Black Boy Joy movement thus far.
Chance The Rapper often gets called inauthentic, mainly because of his 180-pivot to social justice warrior from angsty young adult. When he operates in the Black Boy Joy space, it feels as if there’s an agenda behind it. While his fanbase is lucrative, it often questions whether he’s truly happy or if he’s masquerading as so for a deep-seated agenda. Rae Sremmurd, on the contrary, are never seen as unhappy, always in the midst of a frenetic event. Always smiles, always promoting the turn-up instead of violence. If that’s not black boy joy, I don’t know what is.
In the midst of this dark month of turmoil, consisting of the deaths of XXXTentacion and Jimmy Wopo, two artists with bright futures ahead of them that were extinguished with unexpected bursts of gunfire, Rae Sremmurd stands out as the antithesis of negativity. Their turn-up music and nonchalant personalities stand in contrast with America’s perception of them as angry black men on the verge of violence at any moment. They don’t get the props that they deserve as well. While we’re reciting their lyrics back word-for-word at the next function, let’s all throw a glass up for Rae Sremmurd and how they continue to make black men look better in the eyes of White America.
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