E.via - “삐까 Chu~! (Pick Up! U!)”
Hip hop is often considered a man’s world, and when women do rap, they usually have to prove themselves somehow to convince everyone they can hang with the boys. This might consist of demonstrating technical skill or upping the ante on male rappers’ combative, aggressive lyrics and attitude (often using sexuality as a weapon to fluster or unnerve men). In fact, you can pretty much divide most of hip hop in half, with one side associating good rapping with technical ability and the other with realism and toughness (and, of course, there is much overlap). Doing either of these things well all but guarantees that you will be considered a good rapper, and everyone who can’t is a mere civilian, woman, or child.
What both of these signifiers (technical ability and charisma/attitude) connote is control, power, and mastery, and the reason why certain groups of people have failed to be taken seriously as rappers—and one of the reasons, for instance, that only now are there gay rappers who are gaining exposure and critical attention—is that within society, and on an extra-musical level, they maintain an incomplete, conditional relationship with control, power, and mastery. So hip hop’s always-vigilant attitude towards power (e.g. the medium’s revealing obsession with who is or might be a “bitch”) is both wholly figurative, serving as a purely aesthetic component, and an example of the way hip hop’s coded aesthetics spill out and interact with the dynamics of society that have nothing to do with the music. It’s both of these at the same time, which is why you cannot easily change the socio-political attitudes within hip hop by ignoring the aesthetic game at play. And there are positive elements to this dynamic too: hip hop is notable for being a space in which black men can enforce rules that they have played the dominant role in creating, and if white men, for instance, want to enter this space, they must, to some degree, bend to these rules and pay the proper respect (a complete inversion of the dynamics outside of hip hop).
This song by female Korean rapper E.via is notable for belonging to a completely different world than the one described above. E.via uses rapping in a way that does not communicate at all with the world of North American hip hop—can you imagine her dropping a guest verse on anyone’s record? Nonetheless, what’s immediately apparent is that she is really, really good at rapping. I mean, whatever technical ability might mean, she seems to have it. More than that, it sounds effortless to her, as if she is exerting no strain to prove herself. Listening to E.via is like if you caught your kid sister—more interested in Hello Kitty and anime than anything “street”—rapping absentmindedly one day, and she sounded as amazing as Nicki Minaj.
What’s interesting about this odd juxtaposition is how alien it sounds according to the rules of hip hop in the United States. E.via uses her great technical skill, impressive from a conventional standpoint, not to convince us that she’s “hard” or worthy of standing among men but for completely different ends altogether. At various points, her voice squeaks into a cartoonish squeal of glee, interrupting her otherwise flawless flow: in the first verse, she slips out of Korean to utter “oh my God!”, as if she were casually commenting on how self-impressed she is at that moment, as if this miraculous rapping ability just accidentally came out of her and gives even her a surprise. This all runs deeply contrary to what any male American rapper would do: it effaces any sense of power and control E.via’s rapping might connote and replaces it with the girlish sense of wonder, akin to the way we might stereotypically imagine a young girl reacting to a cute puppy, losing control in the face of something joyfully adorable.
At other times, E.via is clearly addressing the listener or some imagined other (the person who, in a conventional hip hop song, would be on the receiving end of a battle rap): the phrase “nal ddarawa” appears throughout and means, more or less, “follow me,” suggesting E.via’s control over the listener. “Yo, wait a minute now,” she says at another point, but she smothers what might be a gesture of commanding presence in a conventional rap song with overwhelming cuteness as her voice leaps up in uncontainable joy. She doesn’t occupy the world of masculine aggression and mastery that conventional hip hop trades in but a more feminine world built on fun and pleasure, game-playing and joy (how else to describe the little, ascending “bba ra ba ra ba ra bam” that shows up midway through the first verse?).
The relationship between E.via and conventional hip hop is similar to the one outlined between camp and mainstream culture by Susan Sontag, who wrote: “The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to ‘the serious.’ One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.” Hip hop, for all its adventurousness, is obsessed with this seriousness. It’s a wonderful coincidence, moreover, that Sontag uses the word “dethrone,” given that the biggest hip hop album of recent times is titled Watch the Throne (which is, needless to say, quite a serious album, even as it is also a playful one). E.via isn’t willing to play the game of conventional hip hop, and don’t believe that this is because she is Korean, as there are plenty of Korean rappers who flex serious in a manner wholly consistent with North American hip hop. Her playful cuteness rejects the very rules that hip hop is built upon, the rules that dictate who is “good” or not and who can gain entry to the privileged space.
In this sense, she is somewhat like Ke$ha, who uses rapping without attempt to be “good” at it in a conventional sense. But the thing is, E.via is actually really good at rapping. It’s just that she doesn’t use her ability to prove how “hard” she is or to hang with the boys. She uses it to fail at that, most wonderfully so, and that is the essence of camp. That her song is so joyful makes her implicit argument convincing. This is the type of song no North American rapper would make today. It references both Pokémon (in the play on the name “Pikachu”), and its title is also a reference to kissing (“Chu” is the Korean sound of kissing, like “mwah,” as in the f(x) song of the same name). In other words, it’s not exactly “cool” from the perspective of conventional hip hop, but yet, E.via’s skill is undeniable. It has the effect of bending us towards the world created in this song, even as we recognize its incongruence, and that’s the very definition of creativity.
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