Corny. Hip-hop is plagued with this word, and rarely does anyone have a concrete denotation to back it up. “That line was corny.” “That beat was corny.” “That rapper is a cornball.” It sometimes seems to simply stand in for any rap someone decides they don’t like, but upon further examination, the word has more to unpack here.
There seems to be an entire category of rappers that have lively fan bases while still being widely recognized by the community as “corny.” I have chosen four rappers for further examination of the “corny” category: Hopsin, Macklemore, Logic and Childish Gambino.
I placed Hopsin first on this list because he is the least popular of the four and probably the most widely criticized for being corny. Hopsin’s fans praise his impressive rhyme schemes and refusal to conform to hip-hop norms, but this very rebellion seems to attracts criticism from the rest of the hip-hop community that he is “trying too hard.”
Hopsin openly criticizes drug use, calling it a waste of time and a magnet for losers. He has gone on a string of disses towards other more successful rappers like Drake, Kanye West and even Kendrick Lamar. He used to wear contacts that made his eyes look demonic and would sport them in every music video and performance. His beats reeked of intense ’90s nostalgia and he was accused of using similar flows in many songs. The heart of all these criticisms is that Hopsin comes off as pretentious, sitting on an undeserved pedestal with other arrogant hip-hop “purists.” Consider the following excerpt from his song “Ill Mind of Hopsin 5”:
You been brainwashed by a fake life that you’re used to livin’
When I say the word “fun,” what do you envision?
Probably drinkin’ and smokin’ out with your crew and chillin’
With clueless women you tryin’ to bang, bumpin’ New Edition
Is that all you think life really is?
Well, if so, then you’re a fuckin’ idiot
Matter of fact, you don’t even deserve a brain—give me it!
When combined with his extremely literal approach to discussing ideas and his use of “gimmicks” (the creepy contacts), it is not hard to see why Hopsin’s persona and music has earned him the title of corny. To his credit, he has evolved over the years, relying less on dissing or being “weird” for publicity and using more varied flows on more modernized beats. But for many, he will still stand as a cornerstone of corniness in rap.
Despite winning a Grammy, Macklemore has garnered more hate from the hip-hop community than the rest of this list. This isn’t to say that he has the smallest fan base—it is quite the opposite. But the people who hate him, hate him a lot. Granted, Macklemore is more of a culturally incendiary presence nowadays. In a genre that is systematically overlooked by the Grammy’s every year, it is hard to watch another white musician win (beating out Kendrick Lamar) with the music that is listened to more by the pop crowd than the hip-hop heads.
But Macklemore is more significant to this list because the traits he is criticized for begin to reveal a pattern in what people call “corny.” He is primarily accused of being “preachy.” Take the song “Same Love” for example. To some, it might have felt refreshing to have a rap song that addresses homophobia in America, but to others, it was not only a pseudo-deep use of moral high roading, but also an exploitation of a struggle that Macklemore had no personal stake in. “When I was in the third grade, I thought I was gay,” he says in one line, and to many this is a weird way of him side-stepping the elephant-sized privilege in the room.
Beyond the frustration many experienced as Macklemore temporarily became the face of mainstream hip-hop in America, we have this idea of being “preachy,” which seems synonymous with Hopsin’s problem of “trying too hard.” The sensation of undeserved pretentiousness, or in this case, piety, must only be amplified by Macklemore’s mainstream success.
Logic is, to me, the most disappointing artist on this list. A young, intelligent rapper from Baltimore who was finding a lot of traction with his mixtapes, Logic hit pay dirt with his first fully commercial album “Under Pressure.” But his last two albums, particularly his most recent, “Everybody,” have earned him the title of a certified cornball. Logic has become the epitome of the “preachy” rapper who doesn’t quite have the insight to back up his self-imposed gravitas.
Logic is also criticized specifically on his writing process. He has been accused of recycling his own flows and rhyme schemes repeatedly. He has been called a “biter,” one who uses other people’s flows and schemes without credit. “Everybody” was criticized for being not only self-important and psuedo-wise, but also heavily derivative of Kendrick’s “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The natural comparison of the two only makes Logic’s flaws all the more apparent. Whatever his ability to actually spit is, Logic has fallen to the same traps as the previous two on this list, underlined by his apparent lack of ability to evolve.
4. Childish Gambino
Childish Gambino (aka Donald Glover) is the most interesting case of corniness because, in the eyes of many, he has effectively grown out of it, garnering five times the respect of his younger self. The first major thing to note about young Donald Glover is that he seemed to be a comedian above all else. He had a popular YouTube Channel comprised entirely of funny skits, played a character on NBC’s “Community” and performed stand-up comedy on the side.
The foundation of humor and a general attitude of goofing around was reflected heavily in his early music. “Freaks and Geeks,” one of his first songs to get people’s attention, is made up almost entirely of set-ups and punch lines. Seriously, 70 percent of the song is made up of couplets. This started to be thematically frustrating when he stopped the constant braggadocio and turned to his emotional side. On the last track of “Because of The Internet,” in a torrent of anxiety and introspection, Gambino articulates his darker feelings through the same kind of punchlines such as “I bought friends like TBS” or “[We] hide the deepest desires and wear a mask like a lucha…”
While this juxtaposition of themes and execution seems to be at least partially intentional, his reliance on these “Dad Joke”-like bars seemed to cause people to write him off as corny. However something happened with Childish Gambino, something that didn’t really happen for any other rapper on this list: growth. His music gradually became more complex from the production to the lyrics, and his most recent album, “Awaken! My Love,” was not even a rap album all. Instead, he opted for an electronic funk/soul track list.
Not only was his music better, but everything was better. Donald Glover won a Golden Globe and Emmy for his new television show “Atlanta” while simultaneously starring in multiple summer blockbusters as well. The new waves of respect and love from the media drowned out any whispers of the remaining haters still calling him corny.
When you discard the idea that “corny” refers to music that is just bad by looking at “corny” rappers with strong fan bases and real talent, some interesting patterns reveal themselves. First and foremost, the word corny has no strict definition, but it is rather a schema influenced by the zeitgeist and your own personal experiences. Secondly and subsequently, a lot of what corny means is tied to persona. Every rapper on this list is considered “soft” for instance. Even Hopsin with his occasionally violent lyrics and demonic contacts came off as more cartoonish than legitimately threatening. This is considered a deviation from the stereotypical rapper, but more importantly, all of these rappers seem to highlight these attributes as part of their persona.
They seem to even claim, in typical rap braggadocio, that these differences make them better than their competitors. Logic raps about being mixed race on multiple albums. Gambino constantly references the duality of his nerd/rap audience. Macklemore makes not only the songs with the goofiest topics of the group but also a song preaching about gay rights, an issue that the rap community has been notoriously insensitive to. Hopsin, as previously discussed, built his initial fame on the back of telling other rappers they were unworthy of their fame, a fame that he, however, deserved.
So whatever your opinions of these artists, being called corny has allowed them to act as interesting case studies for the attitude of hip-hop culture in general.