In my first piece on the subject of corniness in hip-hop, I pointed out which factors in an artist’s music or persona contributed to the “corny” label being applied to them. But can an artist minimize or completely remove that label once it’s on them through self-reinvention?
While some artists may never completely shed the corny label, there are many examples in today’s game of rappers making themselves significantly less corny. From Childish Gambino to Rich Brian, we’ll take a look at popular hip-hop artists in recent memory who have upgraded their image to something edgier and more refreshing.
Donald Glover’s journey to musical stardom is one of the greatest evolution stories in the history of rap. The beginning of his life’s story is wild enough: a Black kid from a Jehovah’s Witness household in Stone Mountain, Georgia showed creative promise in school and got himself into New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Once in college, it gets more fascinating. The scrawny, awkward teen got into music and released mixtapes under his actual name, including his first one titled The Younger I Get which he has since disowned in a 2011 SPIN interview for sounding like “a decrepit Drake.” As he worked out the kinks in his music, he sharpened his screenwriting to the point that a script he wrote for The Simpsons (a show he recorded the audio of as a kid and was voted “most likely to write for” in high school) caught the eyes of David Milner and actress and producer Tina Fey.
Once roped into the NBC Universe by Fey, Glover wrote for the tv show 30 Rock and starred in the cult-classic sitcom Community starting in 2009. He also released his first mixtape Sick Boi under his new stage name born of a Wu-Tang Clan name generator: Childish Gambino. The mixtape kicked off the first era of Gambino’s musical career, defined by emotional honesty and nerdy, sometimes cringy punchlines culminating in his first album Camp which famously received a 1.6 out of 10 review from Pitchfork. Despite some aggressive criticism, songs like “Heartbeat” and “Bonfire” showed promise.
From his awkward boyish looks and the name generator story to his geeky comedy as both a solo act and as part of the group Derrick Comedy, Glover did not give many people a reason to take Childish Gambino seriously. Lines like “You can kiss my ass, Human Centipede,” and “Something crazy and Asian, Virginia Tech” from his Camp album didn’t help either. But the difference between Gambino and other rappers with questionable direction was his commitment to growing while being himself. His rapping noticeably improved on the mixtape ROYALTY and he continued to sharpen his worldview and sense of self leading up to the ambitious Because The Internet.
This album marked the next era of Gambino music as he upgraded his singing ability, his bars, and found creative ways to work his screenwriting into his music-making. “Urn” previewed his great falsetto (3 minutes into that video) before we got the timeless hit “Redbone.” Songs like “Worldstar,” and much of his next project, the STN MTN [Stone Mountain]/Kauai double EP, gave us his view of American culture before his Emmy-winning show Atlanta and the hit music videos for “This Is America” and “Feels Like Summer.” By the time his next slew of projects hit us, including the album Awaken, My Love!, the foundation was laid for the world to suddenly love Childish Gambino.
Rich Brian, real name Brian Imanuel, got his start in rap under the name Rich Chigga. Along with the tacky racialized joke of his stage name, his earliest work including singles “Dat Stick” and “Who Dat Be” were shamelessly parody-like in style. Brian’s saving graces included his boldness, legitimate rapping ability, as well as his surprisingly deep and confident vocal delivery. Despite winning over some of rap’s biggest names as Rich Chigga, Brian demonstrated respect for the culture and his craft after gaining some popularity.
In his shift from goofy Asian rapper to serious artist, Brian dropped the Rich Chigga moniker and became more of himself with the stage name Rich Brian. His music followed suit, with self-produced works and more honest, introspective raps such as the transitional single “Glow Like Dat.”
Rich Brian’s music and image, helped along by his strong social media game and 88Rising partnership, presented a humble honesty that made it easier to acknowledge the truth that Brian was a unique and above-average artist. Among other topics, his takes on sadness, fame, and coming of age became more sincere and artful, with sounds ranging from lo-fi and atmospheric to trap-influenced pop raps like the song “100 Degrees” on his latest album The Sailor. He has the same tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, but taking himself seriously without leaning on the fact that he’s a young Indonesian guy with a deep voice is what shifted Brian’s image from corny to respectable.
Another example of an actor-turned-rapper is Jaden Smith. While his journey toward hip-hop stardom has surface-level similarities to Childish Gambino’s journey, a number of other factors worked against Jaden Smith, namely, his image as an aloof rich kid fueled by his abstract social media posts and the reality of Will Smith being his father. Despite a publicly-known childhood of privilege and being Will Smith’s son, Jaden Smith has managed to make the rap world take him seriously as an artist.
After teaming up with his dad for the critically-reviled 2013 film After Earth, Jaden took a major step away from the film world to focus on his music. In 2014, he released the mixtape The Cool Cafe: Cool Tape Volume 2, a follow-up to his 2012 mixtape The Cool Cafe. Along with releasing it through his own app, Jaden’s conceptually-driven approach to music started to show around this time, with the CTV2 cover making use of the sunset color range that defines Jaden Smith’s most notable projects to date, the albums SYRE and ERYS. After CTV2 came the 2015 EP This Is the Album and singles in 2016-2017 including “Batman,” “Fallen,” and “Falcon,” leading up to his breakout hit “Icon” which Smith has received a platinum plaque for.
Despite edgy, futuristic messages in his art that many find confusing or rough around the edges, Jaden Smith has successfully convinced the hip-hop world of his ability to rap, produce, and create unique art worthy of discussion, regardless of how much praise or criticism it draws. Considering the mixed reviews Childish Gambino’s Camp received, it isn’t a crazy idea to think Jaden Smith can soon become a critical darling on his own terms.
If either of the rappers in this video stand apart from the rest, it has to be Big Sean. He didn’t start out with a nerdy image fueled by an early acting career or satirical work, but despite the early success with GOOD Music, many listeners knocked Sean’s output for having too many elementary or corny bars. It was clear he could rap and put together impressive verses, but Sean’s charisma and playful approach to music early on made some of his sillier bars very hit-or-miss. Depending on what you think of Big Sean, lines like “You niggas ain’t shit, pissed,” from 2010’s “Supa Dupa” or the “I give her that D, ‘cause that’s where I was born and raised at” from 2012’s “Mercy” are fire or corny. Regardless, it’s clear that Sean has always been a clever rapper, but he hasn’t always been one that people looked to for serious content.
It was likely a combination of Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse and serious life changes that made Big Sean’s music noticeably more personal and reflective with the albums Dark Sky Paradise in 2015 and I Decided in 2017. He still runs into criticism for not having the lyrical or storytelling prowess some of his A-list peers have, but Sean has maintained a consistent quality in his discography since his maturation and has given us quality rap moments such as the the DSP cut “One Man Can Change The World,” his refreshingly thoughtful feature verse on YG’s “Big Bank,” and his latest singles “Overtime” and “Single Again.”
Critics will always have something to say about his art, but the truth is Big Sean has grown up, makes music that reflects his growth, and still does elite sales numbers. Whether or not the hip-hop community is collectively impressed, Sean’s shift has been convincing enough to keep us listening and take his art more seriously.
Shedding the corny label is difficult. It’s already a rare occurrence for a successful rapper to start out with a corny image, and it’s even rarer for a corny rapper to successfully move past their first impression on the public. As stated in the “Corny Debate” video, the label is far from an artistic death sentence. However, artists that have or are on their way to making their image less corny prove that all hip-hop artists can choose a path of taking their craft seriously and giving the culture something unique, valuable, and lasting.