I like “Swagger Like Us.” Sort of. Its goals are minimal: Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, T.I. and Kanye trade bars about their mutual awesomeness over a sampled hook courtesy of M.I.A's “Paper Planes.” The sort of manufactured “posse cut” that's been in vogue for the past few years, with little connection between any of the artist's involved other than their massive popularity and inflated senses of self. Yet it works, not through any inherent creativity or effort, but due to the simple arithmetic that paring three talented rappers (and one self-proclaimed Louis XVI-caliber “King”) to a good beat invariably makes for a decent song.
So yes,”Swagger Like Us,” is partially a success. It'll inevitably be a radio staple from now until Thanksgiving, ensuring T.I.'s continued placement within rap's elite, despite a career strategy predicated on having a surfeit of swagger so as to mask aggressively mediocre lyrics and bland, proficient raps. Which is, ultimately, the thing that bothers me most about the song and by proxy, the muddled drift of hip-hop in the 00s. The idea that “swagger,” a non-musical quality, somehow became a substitute for aptitude or new ideas. This isn't a beauty pageant. Last time, I checked rapper's weren't getting graded on their congeniality. * After all, these guys are professional musicians and presumably performers, confidence isn't just expected, it's required.**
T.I & Co. squandered the opportunity to make a classic record, all because they felt the urge to trumpet their inherent security, a move that ironically reeks of frightening insecurity. Were we not living in this alternate, Biff Tannen-run 2008, all four of these dudes would've gone into the studio together, with enough blunts for a Broadus family BBQ, conceived a concept (maybe), and gone into the booth, one by one, to desperately try to outdo each other. Instead, we get a played-out topic, (e-) mailed in rhymes and Jay-Z's disturbing revelations about his thwarted ambition to wear skinny jeans.
Skinny Jeans…No ..Foppish Burberry Scarves…Come to Papi
I'm not saying this song needed to be the new “Live at the BBQ” or “Flava in Ya' Ear” remix. But even held up to “John Blaze” or “Banned From TV,” “Swagger like Us” seems laughable. Kanye leads off spewing auto-tune gibberish about how his swagger is 100,000 trillion. I'm not sure what the fuck that's supposed to mean, nor what unit of measurement swagger is measured in. Hectacres? The Kelvin Scale? Pastel Hermes sweaters? Then The Great Rapsby proceeds to tell us that he's Christopher Columbus and we're Pilgrims. Which is ridiculous. I mean sure, I've been known to wear bonnets, kill turkeys and associate with wise compatriots named Squanto, but in the end, I'm just not sober enough to be a Pilgrim.
Then after a Kanye rip of an old Jay-Z line and the trenchant tidbit that he's both “the shit and the urine,” Jigga steps up to let us know of his denim trials and travails. The verse is pure paint-by-numbers Sean Carter, force-feeding us the obvious. We learn that a) he likes Range Rovers b) Yankees hats and c) that we can't pay to learn his swag. An admission certain to kill his fledgling mail-order Swag Academy. In fact, it's Lil Wayne who delivers the song's best verse, despite dropping no memorable lines and bragging that he has a “swagger dagger.” First music critic to call this an “Arthurian metaphor” wins a stuffed Birdman doll. As for T.I., he's typically bland. He lives “revolutionary,” he's nothing less than “legendary,” his “flow is colder than February” and naturally, he has “extraordinary swag.” The guy might be adequate on the mic but he's just gangster milquetoast, filled with toothless, tepid punchlines and the dim-witted idea that “swag” can substitute for skill.
And yet still, “Swagger Like Us” remains pretty decent and one of the year's more listenable radio singles. But listening to it, it's impossible not to question why it didn't turn out better and why the Internet age has led so many rappers to treat their art with an increasing disposability. To say nothing of that increasingly absurd notion that swag is some kind of rarefied commodity that somehow makes people more creative, clever and better at rapping. Then again, I hear it makes you look fantastic in a pair of skinny jeans.
* Just vice-presidents.
**Lest you wind up on Anticon.
Video: “John Blaze” (Complete with Rae in Snoopy Sweater)
Video: “Banned From TV”