Desiigner’s ‘Panda’ is the number one song in America right now. His detractors say he’s ripping off Future, but the controversy surrounding the 19-year-old New Yorker’s rise to fame is rooted in something much bigger. Andrew Friedman unravels the latest episode in New York’s history of borrowing from other rap regions.
Desiigner’s rise to fame is the stuff of legend. ‘Panda’, the Brooklyn rapper’s breakout hit about a black and white car that may or may not actually exist, was one of the first things he ever recorded. He bought the beat from a producer in England for $200. The track was good, and after earning a little local buzz, it somehow made its way to Kanye West. Yeezy ended up repurposing ‘Panda’ into ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2’ on The Life Of Pablo and signing Desiigner to his label, G.O.O.D. Music.
Since that bump, ‘Panda’ has become ubiquitous. This week it topped the Billboard Hot 100, making it the first #1 by a rapper from New York in a decade. Kanye’s interpolation sits around #50 in the chart (impressive for a track not pushed as a single). Meanwhile, every rapper on Earth is rushing to record their own ‘Panda’ freestyle, from Lady Leshurr to Lupe Fiasco to Meek Mill.
To say ‘Panda’ is inspired by Future would be putting it extremely lightly. Desiigner’s woozy, subtly Auto-Tuned raps juxtaposed with hype ad libs are the best Future impression imaginable. When Kanye debuted ‘Father’ at his Madison Square Garden listening party for The Life Of Pablo, most fans assumed that was Future talking about his broads in Atlanta.
New York has a checkered history of capitalizing on the music of other regions
The awkward fact is that ‘Panda’ is now, by official metrics, more successful than any single Future has ever released. Future has never charted higher than #5. Granted, Future was already famous when the chart compilers began folding streaming numbers into their figures, so it’s not a direct comparison. But Desiigner has the hottest song in the country right now, and though Future has three singles in the current Hot 100 (‘Low Life’ with The Weeknd at #21, ‘Jumpman’ with Drake at #25, and ‘New Level’ with A$AP Ferg at #100), he’s still yet to return to the heights of last year’s all-consuming DS2. It’s hard not to feel like Desiigner is eating Future’s food.
Last week, someone I respect expressed surprise at the disdain people have for Desiigner. After all, they reasoned, Future is an extremely influential artist; of course there will be imitators. And that’s fair on some level. While biting is generally frowned upon, it’s also ingrained in rap history: Snoop Dogg lifted a lot of E–40’s slang, Master P lifted Tupac’s whole style, and Shyne was a bootleg Biggie. On ‘Rapper’s Delight’, Big Bank Hank is literally spitting Grandmaster Caz lyrics, and even says Caz’s name in the track. Right or wrong, Desiigner is not the first rapper to break out with a version of another artist’s sound.
But this goes a little deeper than lack of creativity. The bigger issue is that Desiigner is a Brooklyn rapper who sounds like an Atlanta rapper, and New York has a checkered history of capitalizing on the music of other regions of late. Before a weapons charge landed him in jail, Bobby Shmurda (and his GS9 partner Rowdy Rebel) rode Chicago-born drill rap to success. A$AP Rocky borrowed his style from Memphis. While French Montana is obviously influenced by Harlem’s Max B, he also came up trapping alongside Waka Flocka Flame.
The problem goes back decades. Hip-hop caught on fast after its inception in the late ‘70s in the Bronx, and while a skeptical and pretty racist music industry saw it as a fad and limited its investment, rap continued to grow and develop its own machinery. A network of labels, distributors, promoters and A&Rs came together on the fly, rooting the industry in the five boroughs, and hip-hop was biased towards New York from that point on. During the time when it seemed like anyone in the tri-state area who could hold their own in a cipher was landing a major deal, independent rap labels were popping up across the country. But while the indie hustle could be profitable, the majors offered a whole other level of success. The best shot at getting New York’s attention was to sell thousands of tapes out of your own trunk. The second best shot was to sound kind of like the rapper in your city who was selling thousands of tapes, and hope a label that lost a bidding war for them would sign you instead.
The results of that approach have been mixed. That kind of bandwagon-chasing gave us the likes of Boss (highly underrated), YAGGFU Front (amusing) and Chingy (likeable but ridiculous). But at least the talent was somewhat credible and often local. Things get more dicey as artists are signed further from the source, and that’s an increasingly important now that the internet allows trends to transcend geography. A decade ago, an A&R looking to sign a bootleg version of Future would have at least had to get on a plane to find one. Now they can just get in a cab.
There’s no reason to hate an artist strictly for not rapping like where they come from, but New York rappers aren’t held to the same standards as everyone else. The myth that rap peaked in 1994 still carries a lot of weight in the city, as does the idea that no Southern rapper in their prime can spit except J. Cole. Brooklyn’s Maino beefs with Trinidad James, someone swings at iLoveMakonnen while he’s on stage in Manhattan, and Philly’s Lil Uzi Vert gets reprimanded because he doesn’t want to rap on a DJ Premier beat, all in the name of authenticity. So when a fake Future from Brooklyn jumps over the actual Future, it’s as if the local artist doesn’t have to pass the “real hip-hop” test that everyone else does. There is a long history of New York looking down its nose of the rest of the country while simultaneously outsourcing its development to the wildly creative youths of Atlanta and Chicago. ‘Panda’ is just the latest caper.
Desiigner has shrugged off the comparisons, saying he and Future are “both blessed in our ways”, all while unveiling his second single, ‘Pluto’ – which happens to be the name of Future’s 2012 debut album. Future has mostly stayed quiet on the issue, but this past weekend he called out a low energy crowd in Syracuse by joking that they “must be Ciara or Desiigner fans or something”.
This particular clash won’t matter if Desiigner can’t duplicate his success. The G.O.O.D. roster is a mixed bag, and signing to the Pusha T-helmed label doesn’t guarantee much (although it significantly pushes back the ballpark release date of a diss track called ‘Father Suck My Dick’). Future has long since proved his talent and his staying power; he could drop another classic in two months.
But we’re going to have this conversation again if Kyng scores a crossover hit before Young Thug.
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