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.
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.