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Russ Vitale is many things to many different people: an outspoken musician, a quick-tempered wordsmith anxious to prove himself, and even an idol to self-made creatives looking to spurn a path to success. Although his sophomore album Zoo has just released (September 7), he is still at the onset of his career. His debut, There’s Really A Wolf, which released in 2017, was recently certified platinum in April. He frequently spills about how he did it all with no features, going as far to place himself in the elite conversation with some of hip-hop’s paragons. “Humbly speaking, there hasn’t been a debut in hip-hop that successful in a long time, period,” he said to Billboard in an interview from this April. “You don’t have to like me or the music, but on a number-based thing, name 20 more successful hip-hop album debuts as far as number-wise.”
As you can tell from watching either one of his Everyday Struggle interviews, particularly the one featuring a passionate dialogue with DJ Akademiks about not posting the 25-year-old rapper’s first-week sales, along with a tense exchange about personal skills to moderator Nadeska, Russ lacks a timid bone in his body. His decisiveness makes the air in any room that he’s occupies heavier. Throughout his verbal skirmishes with two of Everyday Struggle‘s former triumvirate, Russ argued that the backlash he gets and the controversy he’s frequently embroiled in aren’t his fault. He’s telling the truth, too. There’s a double standard that Russ is unconsciously exposing, that of white rappers being complacent in their place in the genre as opposed to other races.
To be technical, Russ isn’t white, he’s Sicilian, but hip-hop generalizes whiteness. Due to heterochromia, one of his eyes is a lighter shade of brown than the other. His hair flows in the wind in long, brown waves. He’s about as far from the traditional African-American body associated with the genre as can be. He speaks with an eloquence and assurance that comes with not allowing society’s measurement of a person’s confidence affect how he carries himself. His approach to both rap and celebrity echoes similar manners of many genre stalwarts, mainly A$AP Rocky whose unceasing projection of cheekiness has commanded both attention and respect since 2011. But whereas Rocky gets celebrated for his bravery, Russ gets criticized at every turn. All signs point to his skin color being a possible reason for blame.
White rappers have been integral to hip-hop’s rise ever since the early 1980s-era MTV videos of “Rapture” by Blondie and “Rappin Rodney” by Rodney Dangerfield. The Beastie Boys signed to fledging label Def Jam in 1986, helping to usher in the mainstream era of hip-hop as a global entity. Soon after, Queens duo 3rdBass, the larger-than-life Vanilla Ice, and the collective known as Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch further bolstered the genre’s quota at the turn of the decade. The 1990s saw a further explosion of Caucasian rappers fighting for a spot amongst already crowded ranks; MC Snow’s “Informer” proved to be one of the catchiest records of 1993, and both Limp Bizkit and Insane Clown Posse carved their niche amongst rap’s enormous reach later that decade.
While these paragons have been accepted into rap’s story by historians, Russ stands on the opposite end. He’s had his fair share of success, like many of his contemporaries, but the culture rejects him. After an old interview surfaced featuring his much-maligned sentiment that producers are responsible for the current state of hip-hop, a throng of the genre’s biggest beatmakers took to social media to make public their grievances with the Sicilian lyricist. Metro Boomin even created a card with the phrase “Russ is Whack” emblazoned on the front and posted it on Twitter; with over 173,000 retweets, the degree of people that agree with him showcase a public disdain for Russ as well.
It’s clear from analyzing the headlines surrounding Russ that his ability to invoke the ire of his peers and the culture he inhibits isn’t something that worries him, but something he welcomes. New-age rap has made attacking Russ a running gag, something that rappers like SmokePurpp and Lil Pump have made the pinnacle of their early careers. Back in November of last year, after Russ voiced concern on Twitter about the glamorization of drug use on social media in response to the sudden death of Lil Peep due to drugs, Purpp responded, calling him a “bitch” after telling him to “shut the fuck up.” Being that Wiz Khalifa made a similar announcement about lean being “lame” only a month prior, it’s interesting to note the different reactions to both artists: not an eyebrow was raised in Wiz’s direction.
Russ’ reaction to these attempts at assaulting his character is indicative of what differentiates him from his white contemporaries. While Russ may cast a shot or two at his adversaries in interviews, he got to the essence of the problem during a recent freestyle with Hot 97’s Funkmaster Flex. “Can’t even tell y’all apart, lil who? Young what? / Another dick-riding clout chaser screaming ‘fuck Russ’”, he spat with vigor. While artists like Mac Miller, Macklemore, and G-Eazy seemingly play rap’s background and refrain from voicing cultural criticism, Russ has no qualms speaking out on what he feels is right or wrong. Then, when he receives backlash for his thoughts, he’s willing to go even harder. His approach to celebrity is much more confrontational than the more appreciative nature of his peers. How he carries himself in interview situations confirms this.
Mac Miller (R.I.P.), Macklemore, and G-Eazy are all accepted by rap, to varying degrees. Their realms of influence don’t reach outside of their respective fanbases. When Mac Miller wanted to test his flexibility, he made use of jazz conventions to circumvent the constantly changing paradigms of rap. Macklemore, at the height of his popularity, pushed the culture’s ability to embrace ideologies without discrimination. G-Eazy largely keeps to himself; his current rap scuffle with Machine Gun Kelly was seen as a schoolyard scrap being egged on by the culture in good spirit. No matter what Russ does, it reaches everyone. They’re frequently ready to sharpen their pitchforks and rush in for the kill. At a September 2017 show, he wore a shirt that said, “How much xans and lean do you have to do before you realize you’re a fucking loser” and drew swift backlash from both genre stalwarts and fans of rap who felt that the shirt was insensitive. Even when he minds his business, he seemingly leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths.
With all things considered, although it may not be widely discussed, it has to do with the double standard that exists for white rappers. Being a part of the culture is supposed to be enough; criticizing its structuring isn’t tolerated. Why else could Wiz Khalifa say that his 2017 album Laugh Now, Fly Later was “not for lean sippers” without backlash, but Russ can’t express concern for drug use without being verbally assaulted? Many of rap’s white iconoclasts, aside from Eminem who is admittedly a unique case, tend to move with the genre’s ebb and flow, whether consciously or unconsciously, to avoid being on the receiving end of the kind of swift hate that Russ receives.
What could destroy careers only strengthens Russ’ resolve and fanbase. He continuously stokes the fires of animosity, his latest being on “The Flute Song,” the adventurous, confident lead single from Zoo. “They ain’t upholding the code, the industry full of some hoes,” he raps in the first verse, echoing one of his well-known beliefs that the industry is watered down. Not only is he an artist, but he paints himself as a tastemaker. Even with much of new-age rap against him, he pushes on without worry.
Through a string of controversial moments, Russ is unknowingly showcasing rap’s unconscious disdain for white rappers. When they aren’t outspoken, hip-hop applauds them. Once they speak out about their beliefs about the state of the culture, they become enemies. Given that excessive confidence has been one of hip-hop’s cornerstones since its inception and has played a continuous role in the establishment of artists for decades, this manner of using it to socially blackball a white rapper isn’t just subtle racism, it spits in the face of the culture we know and love. Yet, Russ readily embraces his role. His last album, There’s Really a Wolf, went platinum without any features. It’s a fact that Russ frequently repeats in interviews because many don’t understand the gravity of that achievement; he, an enemy of rising rap culture, achieving what most don’t without the help of anyone else. With his achievements in the face of what he and other white rappers knowingly and unknowingly go through, his cockiness finally makes sense.
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