Illustration and Animation by Andrew J. Nilsen
Adam Giacomini remembers the very first time he heard Kreayshawn's "Gucci Gucci." Giacomini, known to listeners of Bay Area radio station KMEL as DJ Amen, was eating lunch one day this spring with a local hip-hop manager at Original Buffalo Wings on Lombard Street in San Francisco. The manager, who goes by Stretch, cued up the song on his iPhone. Even through tiny speakers, the marauding beat and Kreayshawn's impetuous yapping about fashion-obsessed bitches and Barbies who work at Arby's struck a decisive blow.
"I was just like, 'What the hell is this?'" Giacomini remembers. He laughs, recalling the song's most memorable line: "I got the swag and it's pumping out my ovaries."
KMEL soon added Kreayshawn — a virtually unknown white female rapper from Oakland — to its annual Freshman 10 list of promising local artists. (She was the "wild card" 11th.) In May, the equally perplexing video for "Gucci Gucci" — white girls in thrift-store bling passing blunts with black boys — racked up more than two million YouTube views in two weeks. Shortly thereafter, Kreayshawn became the latest Bay Area rapper to join a major-label roster, signing a deal with Columbia Records reportedly worth more than $1 million. With the ensuing orgy of exposure, millions more would soon hear "Gucci Gucci" and face that same confusion Amen did.
"She had something that was so different that people were either going to love it and accept it, and look at it as the next hippest thing to come out of the Bay," Amen says, "or it was just going to be too wild and out there and they wouldn't understand."
Kreayshawn upends much that is expected about hip-hop. She's white. She's female. She raps about bisexual encounters. Her visual style comes off more hipster pixie than ghetto queen.
Her crew, the White Girl Mob, is also bewildering: Group DJ Lil Debbie's narrow body, bobbed hair, and pale countenance so closely resemble Kreayshawn's that the two were confused for each other before they met. Their looks clash with the fact that they talk and behave like rappers raised around the rough parts of Oakland. Third member V-Nasty has even sparked controversy over her unrepentant use of the word "nigga." She and Kreayshawn (who doesn't use the word) explain that in the neighborhoods where they were raised, it was used casually, without regard for the skin color of the person on the receiving end. Many blacks and whites who know her agree. But others, especially outsiders, are enraged at what they see as a white girl tossing around a cutting slur with a painful history.
Kreayshawn's innate shock value — her seeming visual and sociological contradiction, and the freedom it implies — is key to her appeal. Along with Berkeley rap provocateur Lil B, she's at the center of a new hip-hop generation that pairs reckless creativity with online mythmaking and ignores the old rules about who you should be, what you should wear, and what you can become. But as with the last generation of Bay Area rappers to flirt with national fame — the hyphy movement — it's not clear that the outside world is ready.
To understand the hip-hop exemplified by Kreayshawn, Lil B, and the L.A. collective Odd Future, you must understand "swag" — that stuff Kreayshawn says is coming out of her ovaries. Track after track, swag emanates from the mouths of these emcees, most of whom are barely out of their teens. Hashtagged, it punctuates fans' tweets. Chanted, it booms from the throngs at live shows. Swag is a boast, a confirmation, and a commendation; it is usually a noun or verb, although it works as a modifier, too. Technically short for "swagger," the precise meaning of the word seems to elude even those who use it regularly, but what can be said is this: Swag today often refers to an attitude, a poise — one that allows for the joyful havoc wrought by hip-hop-making kids in the Bay Area and elsewhere.
Originally, the term referred to trappings of hip-hop masculinity — status symbols like cars, jewelry, and clothing. So-called swag rappers such as Jay-Z and Lil Wayne bragged about what they got and how they got it. But for a younger generation, swag took on a broader meaning. Raised in the Internet age, these kids feel free to appropriate fashion, language, music, and attitudes stripped of historical and cultural contexts. The materials they used to construct self-images no longer had to be colored gold or chrome or gangsta. Swag evolved into an encouragement of this freedom. Like a Tumblr blog in which each photo, scrap of text, or embedded video is posted without context, contributing a single point to the overall aesthetic, the swag life encourages you to take cultural artifacts that speak to you — be they punk rock or crunk rap, secondhand sweaters or designer shoes — and fit them like novel bricks into the multicolored wall of your own image. Swag is about attitude and originality: Even though "Gucci Gucci" might seem to attack high-fashion labels like Louis Vuitton, Kreayshawn — who owns some Louis herself — says she's just against wearing them like everybody else does.
"It's an emotion; it's how you feel," Lil B says. "Anybody can have swag ... it's just about what you think. That could be wearing a piece of tape on your ass and ripping it off and there's that little line [without hair] and you walk out with it. And it's like, 'This is me. The people that respect me respect it.'"
This liberalizing attitude toward self-definition allows for the rise of an artist like Lil B, an acquaintance of Kreayshawn who worked with her on a few videos. Through his persistent online self-promotion and without label support, he has elevated himself to international notoriety. He's built an obsessive fan base and attained grudging acceptance from the mainstream rap world, all while challenging attitudes at the core of the culture. That's what he would call "swag."