In August, 2005, three weeks before his nationally televised declaration that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," Kanye West made a statement he'd later describe as braver and more difficult than his attack on the White House. Hip-hop, he told MTV, was supposed to be about "speaking your mind and about breaking down barriers, but everyone in hip-hop discriminates against gay people … I wanna just come on TV and just tell my rappers, tell my friends, 'Yo, stop it.' " Taking on Bush was a perfectly hip-hop move, but taking on homophobia, West feared, could be career suicide. Undeterred, he revisited the subject in a November 2005 interview, discussing his love for his openly gay cousin, not to mention his conflicted but evolving attitude toward his interior decorator. West's call for tolerance remains the highest-profile rebuke of gay-bashing that hip-hop has seen.
But old habits die hard, and last week, West amended his position somewhat on "Run This Town," a new Jay-Z single on which the Chicago rapper is a featured guest. "It's crazy how you can go from being Joe Blow," West begins his rap, "to everybody on your dick—no homo." No homo, to those unfamiliar with the term, is a phrase added to statements in order to rid them of possible homosexual double-entendre. ("You've got beautiful balls," you tell your friend at the bocce game—"no homo.") No homo began life as East Harlem slang in the early '90s, and in the early aughts it entered the hip-hop lexicon via the Harlem rapper Cam'ron and his Diplomats crew. Lil Wayne brought the term into the mainstream, sprinkling "no homo" caveats across cameos, mix tapes, and his Tha Carter III LP, which was 2008's best-selling album. (Jay-Z has used the word pause in a similar way.)
The term's appearance in hip-hop coincided with the rise of the so-called "down-low brother," a closeted black figure often demonized as a disease-spreading boogeyman, invisible by definition and thus potentially, frightfully, everywhere. Saying "no homo" might have started as a way for rappers to acknowledge and distance themselves from the down-low phenomenon. As the phrase has spread, many have decried no homo as depressingly retrograde, a pigheaded "That's what she said" for homophobes. But the term functions in a more complicated way than a simple slur. As society becomes increasingly gay-tolerant, hip-hop is reassessing its relationship to homosexuality and, albeit in a hedged and roundabout way, it's possible that no homo is helping to make hip-hop a gayer place.
I once asked Method Man whether he thought we'd ever see an openly gay gangsta rapper. He grew visibly agitated. "You can't be fuckin' people in the ass and say you're gangsta," he responded. As Kanye West has observed, gay and hip-hop have traditionally functioned as mutually exclusive terms, Venn diagrams that don't touch (and get really testy at the suggestion that they might, you know, want to). In 1989, Big Daddy Kane summed up the reigning attitude: "The Big Daddy law is anti-faggot." When DMX insulted rivals 10 years later by rapping, "Y'all niggas remind me of a strip club/ 'Cause every time you come around it's like I just gotta get my dick sucked," hip-hop was still so aggressively understood as hetero-centric that it was inconceivable to DMX that there might be anything the least bit gay about his fantasy of a roomful of men fellating him.