In Justin Bieber’s new single “Boyfriend” he brags that he’s gonna “swag, swag, swag on you.” This is just the latest high-profile appearance of the hip-hop slang term—which, as you may remember, Jay-Z has claimed credit for. On the Watch the Throne track “Otis,” he boasts, “I invented swag.” Did Jay-Z really invent “swag”?
Probably. As when we looked into Jay’s bizarre boast that he could plank on a million dollars, Jay’s facts seem to check out. While he was not the first rapper to brag about his “swagger”—as he seems to imply when he samples his “I guess I got my swagger back“ line from The Blueprint (2001)—he does appear to have originated “swag.” The first usage of “swag” we could find among thousands of different tracks came not on The Blueprint but two years later on The Black Album: Jay-Z used the shortened term on both “Public Service Announcement“ (“Check out my swag, yo / I walk like a ballplayer”) and “December 4“ (“My self-esteem went through the roof, man / I got my swag”).
Of course swagger has been used as a noun to mean “braggadocio” since long before Hov, and “”it has been a term of art in rap since at least the early ’90s. Sadat X of Brand Nubian used the word on “Slow Down” from One for All (1990)—albeit referring, more traditionally, to a strut—and later described a “kid with mouth swagger” on the hit “Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down“ from In God We Trust (1993).
Jay-Z started bringing the “swag” in 2003, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the word started to catch on. Up-and-comer Soulja Boy, just 17 at the time, was the first rapper to really fall for swag. “She likes my swag,” he brags repeatedly on “She Thirsty,” from his debut album Souljaboytellem.com. On “Swag,” an early Soulja song that's available on YouTube but appears never to have been released, he repeats the word over 100 times.
Swag really caught fire in 2008. That year T.I. and (once again) Jay-Z released the monster hit “Swagga Like Us,” based on a sample from M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes“ (“no one on the corner has swagger like us”) from 2007. The song featured not just Jay-Z but Lil Wayne and T.I. bragging about “swag.” The following year, Soulja Boy had a hit with “Turn My Swag On,” a phrase that soon caught on with everyone from Gucci Mane to Willow Smith (who swagger-jacked the phrase—or perhaps just it used as an homage—in “Whip My Hair“).
Between 2010 and 2011, “swag” became a major hip-hop phenomenon. Weirdo rapper Lil B, who is also the originator of the Based God meme, became heavily associated with the term through tracks like “Wonton Soup.” (Lil B may also be responsible for bringing “swag” to Justin Bieber—the two have expressed their mutual admiration.) Meanwhile Young Jeezy sampled Soulja Boy’s “Pretty Boy Swag” on “Dope Boy Swag,” and new group Cali Swag District made it big with “Teach Me How to Dougie.” Sean Fennessey wrote about “Odd Future and the Swag Generation“ for Pitchfork in 2010, and Sean Combs briefly changed his name to “Swag,” in 2011. All Things Considered called swag “Hip-Hop’s Word of the Year“ in 2011, and in an article about Odd Future The New Yorker noted that swag had become “a noun, an adjective, a verb, and an all-purpose expression of agreement or endorsement.”
Journalists and music fans have been proclaiming the death of swagger for at least a couple years, usually whenever an article tries to explain the concept to a broader audience, but the word seems to be as prominent as ever. In fact, journalists began declaring “The Decline of Swagger” as early as 1892.
Does Jay-Z know that he offered the wrong “proof” in “Otis”? Surprisingly, the answer to that question is also yes. While searching for any earlier "swag" that might predate Jay-Z's, we heard of a bet the man himself made with Josh Eells, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone. Eells told us the story in an email:
We were standing around a parking lot on a break during a video shoot. There were a couple of Porsches parked nearby. Jay was smoking a Cuban cigar. He started talking about how one of the songs on The Blueprint was the first time “swagger” was ever used in a hip-hop track. ”I’m a hip-hop historian,” he said. “It’s a fact. It was the one that goes, ‘My bucket is fitting incredible. Nike Airs check. Do-do-do...whatever those words were. I guess I got my swagger back.’ With that line, ‘swagger’ was born in hip-hop. I challenge you to find one before that.”
I asked him what he’d give me if I found one. “One of those,” he said, pointing to a Porsche. “Or one of these,” he said, taking the Cuban out of his mouth. “You pick.”
I went home and did some digging, and found that Brand Nubian song [“Slow Down”]. We were on the phone about a week later, and I asked him if he remembered the song. “Uh-huh...” he said. I quoted the line to him. “Oh shit!” he said. “Hahaha. You got me. Thank you. I won’t be saying that to anyone else.”
Four months later, “Otis” came out.