Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and the Hip Hop Train

Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus and the Hip Hop Train

Two of America’s Lingering Pop Stars Have Adjusted to the Times With Approaches Befitting Their Current Personas


Two weeks ago, DJ Khaled released the single “I’m the One“, a swirly and skeletal track featuring Quavo, Chance the Rapper, Lil Wayne and an anthemic hook by Justin Bieber. Then, sometime earlier today Miley Cyrus dropped her first single in almost four years, “Malibu“, with an accompanying music video. The content and narrative behind each of these developments could not be more different, especially when considered with their past and current flirtations with hip hop.

I should clarify at this point that I don’t really give much of a shit one way or another about either Justin or Miley. In my opinion, their biggest accomplishment is that they both appear to be fairly adept at nurturing their gargantuan fan bases over a more sustained period than most celebrities their age. Undoubtedly, they’re both talented performers and each has a couple of songs that are pretty good. In the end, I feel the same about them as I would a pet fish: without any abiding affection or ill-will, I’ll be sure to check in on it once in awhile, but I’m probably not gonna notice for a long time if it disappears.

Don’t let me pet-sit, is what I’m sayin’. (JantaneeAquarium)

That said, “I’m the One” is a fantastic song. A lot of that is down to Khaled’s restrained behaviour, taking a note from his success with the uncluttered, suggestive production of “I’m On One” six years ago as opposed to his typically shitty attempts at playing the quiet game. Not to mention the fucking roster: Quavo, Chance and Weezy, capturing a (likely unintentional) microcosm of the current radio hip hop scene. Quavo talks shit till it almost sounds poetic, Chance plays at being the hyper kid who’s too smart for his own good, and Wayne’s the elder statesman who… shows up. If that’s not 2017 pop-rap in a nutshell, tell me what is (besides Drake, obviously).

All things considered, though, I’d be remiss not to say how much Bieber himself brings to the track. Always reliably smug but just slick enough to pull it off, his drippy vocals and grown-man trills lend an already good song a central drive. It’s an earworm that will only piss you off if you take too long thinking about how it probably was as easy as it sounds to come up with. No lie, I think it might be the best thing he’s ever done, solo or collab and, as it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 four days ago, it’s not something we’ll soon be rid of, so get used to it.

Then there’s Miley. Keeping fairly shtum (for her, at least) during the interval between Bangerz and now, Cyrus seems to have swung a clunky 180 on the lifestyle of weed, wackiness and wobbly arses that she has been subsisting off of for the past few years. Speaking to Billboard a week ago, Cyrus claims to be moving away from the hip hop-infused sound and atmosphere she lovingly co-opted for much of her early twenties. Then again, she defends her new singer-songwriter vibe as “not granola”, adding, “I don’t listen to Ed Sheeran and John Mayer and stuff.”

So, what the fuck does that leave? The answer, apparently, is “Malibu”, a song so innocuous and vapid it makes “Shape of You” sound like a battlecry. And, look, it’s not actually a bad track, by any measure. It has some sunny guitar strumming bolstering it and Cyrus is possessive of a naturally inviting cadence that, if not enthralling, is pleasant enough. But “We Can’t Stop” it is very much not; nor – for that matter – is it anything like the psychedelic banshee-squall she’s demonstrated in her many recordings with The Flaming Lips. It’s closest antecedent, sonically and in its subdued attitude, is something akin to Hannah Montana on valium. It’s not so much a step as an unconscious collapse backwards, artistically speaking.

Don’t get me wrong: much like “I’m the One”, I fully expect this song to top the Billboard chart in the coming weeks, but let’s move past that angle as a metric for either songs’ value to the more pressing matter of the circumstances Bieber and Cyrus now find themselves in. About the same age and with a similarly extensive pop pedigree beginning in their teens, both of these chipper white kids decided at some point in their careers to start fucking with hip hop. Or maybe they didn’t decide to, maybe it was a confluence of managerial influence and the shifting tastes in what gets airplay. Maybe it was a total accident. Either way, Miley started twerking onstage surrounded by African-American backup dancers and Justin’s cultural appropriation became so heavy that there’s an episode of Atlanta where he’s played by a black guy.

What, you think I’m getting weirdly racial about it? Did I mention that “I’m the One” is the first hip hop song in seven years to debut at No. 1 on Billboard. You know who the last person to do it was? Eminem. No shit. Meanwhile, Miley’s Bangerz sent Mike WiLL Made-It platinum and used a Future feature on a pop song before everyone else was doing it. There was, clearly, a symbiosis to this, where Bieber and Cyrus got to crib what the cool kids were tahm bout while maintaining their core (read: white) fans, while any in the hip hop sphere they exploited got a leg up in mainstream success.

Where we are now is the strangest part of it: Bieber has unequivocally steered into this persona, while Cyrus has jumped ship. There’s an obvious incentive as far as credibility and finance behind Bieber’s thinking, but what about Miley? Turns out, there’s a moral component to her abandonment of rap and its surroundings, saying in her Billboard profile that, “what pushed me out of the hip-hop scene a little… was too much “Lamborghini, got my Rolex, got a girl on my cock” — I am so not that.” And, honestly, who could blame her? When you look at these reasons while considering so much of the content of “I’m the One” – not just the song itself but the ogling music video accompanying it – it’s clear Cyrus has a fair point. Love it or hate it, hip hop comes with several hang-ups, not the least of which are materialism, objectification and a not-so-subtle undercurrent of misogyny.

The most offensive thing about this image is the idea that Ludacris is interesting enough to hold the attention of four women. (Eif Rivera)

And sure, you can look at Cyrus’ aboutface on this matter – considering this is the same environment she thrived in three or four years ago – as opportunistic or hypocritical, but at what point does hypocrisy merely become realisation? She can be going about this the wrong way and still be right in her reasons, and what she says about the state of the lyrics and attitudes inherent to hip hop – regardless of whether you’re a fan of rap or not – is pretty undeniable. It’s also a potent critique of not just hip hop but the entire music industry that Bieber, a man in the same position, isn’t struck by these same issues in his continual embrace of the culture.

I know a lot of this sounds like I’m being severely critical of two fairly inoffensive musicians, which isn’t my intention. Even moreso, a lot of this could read as a scathing indictment of hip hop culture in general, which is not only perniciously racist considering its origins but just straight up crazy because (most of the time) it’s my favourite genre of music. The intent of this piece, ultimately, is excavating some honesty, not just about the state of hip hop but the results that come from those who engage with it. It just seems worth acknowledging what both Bieber and Cyrus – and a lot of other musicians – have spent a good amount of their career doing, which is wave-riding into fucking oblivion until there comes either a breaking point or a point of no return.

The degree to which anyone is culpable, for listening or contributing to this, is up for debate, especially when it has yielded some good music. In fact, one of the most complicated aspects of this whole situation is asking at what point does good artistry defend Bieber’s appropriation, and is Cyrus’ artistic regression justified by her good intentions? On the heels of that question, though, this thought undoubtedly lingers: how much longer can Bieber keep doing this, and how long can Cyrus last now that she’s stopped?

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