The "G" in G-Eazy must stand for "getting away with it."
Gerald Gillum, or the rapper G-Eazy, is a rather handsome 25-year-old devil. He is toweringly tall, prone to leather jackets and greased-back hair, and as fair as the driven snow. Staring back at you from the cover of his latest album, These Things Happen, the San Francisco Bay Area rapper and High Times magazine's Best New Artist of 2013, G-Eazy looks fashionable but casual and unpretentious, as if posing for the camera as he's turning up. And if his lyrics capture his lifestyle, he's bound to endanger himself as well as others. "I'm in a section with seven Kate Mosses around me," he offers. "I swear I can't only touch one/Whiskey no rum."
This is probably why the kids—more of them every day, really—love him so much.
Maybe he's got another problem: Though we seem to be past the point of expecting musicians to qualify as role models, American listeners are now embroiled in heated debates over appropriation politics. The continuous cherry-picking and plundering of African-American experiences and aesthetics in order to provide outsiders with wider cultural cachet (and cash) have boomed, thanks to the amplification of social media. Tweens, teens and 20-somethings latch onto the latest bit of slang or perceived dance craze, hoping to look cool or edgy. If you don't twerk on Instagram, you've never really twerked.
The sticky wicket of conflating black culture with rap culture notwithstanding, such appropriation has become a critical flashpoint in hip-hop. Listeners have lobbed reasonable and unreasonable arguments at white hip-hop artists with increasing frequency, invoking charges about intersectionality and imitation. That might seem to make G-Eazy—"the Johnny Cash of hip-hop," he's been called—an easy target, but he's somehow avoided most of those allegations. While a profile from The Guardian led with talk of appropriation, it quickly dismissed it. His "music," the piece noted, "is not like Macklemore's or Iggy Azalea's" because "it is discernibly hip-hop."
Sure, whatever that means.
Her Wilhelmina modeling contract in one hand and major label record deal in the other, Iggy Azalea has come under repeat scrutiny for offhand and often ignorant comments, unfortunate lyrics and imitated flows that many attribute to systemic racism: Take what you need of what's not yours, and sell it fast. The Aussie transplant has become Public Enemy Number One for those concerned with capitalizing on something that never belonged to you or your history.
Seattle's Macklemore used to hold that title. Mercifully between album releases and with fewer gaffes now under his thrift-shop belt, he hasn't earned the same level of scorn in recent months, though he accumulated a sizeable backlog of it with his last record and its award-winning popular singles: "Don't hate Macklemore because he's white," defended a Slate headline.
Still, he's been able to deflect greater criticism by expressing humility and deference. In a recent radio interview, he went so far as to assert that he'd not have been as successful in the sordid music business if he were a black man. He even wrote a song denouncing "White Privilege." Meanwhile, Iggy's ill-advised stance of stony silence and intermittent tweets of defiance haven't won her many converts.
But again, barring a few easy interview questions, G-Eazy hasn't really faced the appropriation firing squad like his peers, even if he's just as complicit in flowjacking as Iggy. He often comes across as a dopey, Wiz Khalifa acolyte or a more adenoidal Drake. These Things Happen recalls the aesthetic of Noah "40" Shebib as heard on Drake's Take Care and Nothing Was The Same. There's very literal appropriation here, too, as his "Complete" lifts the hook from Ginuwine's mega-hit "Differences," sped up and re-recorded yet still instantly recognizable.
G-Eazy isn't a rap radio star yet: If you know him at all, it's likely from his mostly online hit "Tumblr Girls," a rather successful attempt to capture a millennial zeitgeist.
Built around tripping trap beats and synthesized moans, the song conjures the same bacchanalian worlds of lustful trysts and heavy narcotics as The Weeknd's patently perverse records. It's sleazy and lascivious, with frequent references to cocaine (ab)use. When Instagram and Twitter direct mailboxes offer kids instant portals to human sexuality in ways even Google can't, "Tumblr Girls" is, conceptually and sonically, brilliant to the point of demonology.
G-Eazy produced These Things Happen largely by himself, working only with a handful of relative hip-hop unknowns. His primary studio cohort, Christoph Andersson, proves to be an adept, beat-making mimic of radio killers, something noteworthy given his teenaged beginnings with slick electropop.
In spite of the indie status, These Things Happen's first-week sales ran just a few thousand shy of Iggy Azalea's The New Classic, an impressive feat for an ostensibly underground album, even one with major-label distribution. What's more, his songs generate millions of SoundCloud and Spotify plays, evidence of his viral rise. So where's the backlash?
That is where some of these broad appropriation arguments begin to fall apart.
While there's little doubt that his conventional good looks and sense of style have aided his career as they have with countless pop artists, nobody appears to be coming for his neck for it, as they have with Iggy. Perhaps the difference can be measured by only an Adam's apple. "Difficult women," as Iggy seems to be labeled, are far too often punished for holding their ground. Despite his lyrics, is G-Eazy quiet enough to steal what he wants without criticism?
Instead, G-Eazy's contemporaries appear keen to align themselves with him. He's selling out headlining tours of his own, but he's also opened for Lil Wayne, T.I. and 2 Chainz. The ubiquitous Rick Ross spits a few of his characteristic bars on the remix of These Things Happen single "I Mean It," while mad genius A$AP Ferg drops a memorable feature on "Lotta That." The most high-profile rapper to slight him is old-school legend Scarface.
Countering that nay was a solid aye from Bay Area neighbor E-40. A blessing of a co-sign, the regional icon's appearance on G-Eazy's "Far Alone" remix adds clout, history and credibility to the original version's Bay Area storytelling. G-Eazy has often cited hyphy music as an influence; teaming with the man most strongly associated with it doesn't hurt.
He has struck this enviable balance between being independent and being an insider, then, which insulates him from the barrage of thinkpiece outrage and Twitter pile-on. With accessible songs and considerable cool, he's cultivated a youthful fanbase that identifies with him. G-Eazy is the perfectly coiffed, expertly engineered product of three decades of hip-hop in America, designed as a protean, party-loving superman with the modesty of an everyman.
What's more, he is proof that allegations of unfair appropriation by rappers can have less to do with simply being white and more to do with any number of accessories—being a music industry byproduct, being a nice politically correct dude, simply being a brash woman who got famous rapping. He's not yet famous enough for ire, not boisterous enough to be boycotted.
Getting away with rapping while white, it seems, is Eazy enough, but only for some.
This article appeared in print with the headline "White wrapper."