No homo tweaks this dynamic because it allows, implicitly, that rap is a place where gayness can in fact be expressed by the guy on the mic, not just scorned in others. In the very act of trying to "purify" an utterance of any gayness, after all, the no homo tag must contaminate it first—it's both a denial and a flashing neon arrow. This isn't to suggest that saying no homo is a radical act, but there's an appealing sense in which the phrase refuses to function as tidily as some of its boosters might like. This is especially striking in those cases when rappers add nohomo to statements of sexual pleasure we'd otherwise have no reason to think of as gay. "No homo, I go hard," Chamillionaire rapped on a recent mix tape, implying that an erection is inherently homosexual. Even more absurdly, when Cam'ron named a song "Silky (No Homo)," it was hard to decide what he was disavowing. The emotions of sadness and longing expressed in the lyrics? Or the tactile sensation of silkiness itself?
Often, no homo appears not just as a disclaimer but as a punch line, a See what I did there? that flaunts one's cleverness. "Just shot a video with R. Kelly, but no homo though," Lil Wayne rapped in 2007. In this line—a sly nod to both a music video co-starring Wayne and Kelly and to the R&B singer's alleged sex tape—no homo isn't an afterthought; it's the keystone that holds the whole joke together. A funny side effect here is that the no homo vogue doubtless encourages rappers not only to scrutinize everything they say for trace gayness, but to actively think up gay double-entendres just so that they can cap them off with no homo kickers.
Beyond this, there's a sense in which no homo, rather than limiting self-expression in hip-hop, actually helps to expand it. We see this play out in the rhymes and personas of the term's most famous practitioners. Cam'ron and the Diplomats are, ironically, among the most homoerotic MCs in rap. They wear pink and purple furs and brag regularly about how good they look. In the video for "Pop Champagne," Jim Jones and Juelz Santana giddily douse each other with frothy white geysers of bubbly. On Cam'ron's "Hey Ma," he describes having sex with a female paramour with seven vague words—"She was up in the Range, man"—but when the girl leaves, he immediately calls Santana to narrate the act in detail and, in a sense, to enjoy and consummate it fully. Similarly, Lil Wayne has been photographed kissing his mentor, the rapper Baby, on the lips and cultivates a shirtless, slithering, rock-star-worthy air of libertine sexuality. Kanye West attends runway shows, keeps an entourage of designer-clad dandies, and blogs regularly about design. When these rappers say "no homo," it can seem a bit like a gentleman's agreement, nodding to the status quo while smuggling in a fuller, less hamstrung notion of masculinity. This is still a concession to homophobia, but one that enables a less rigid definition of the hip-hop self than we've seen before. It's far from a coup, but, in a way, it's progress.