For a while there, T-Pain fell out of favor. People just got really sick of his robot voice, I guess. And I’m not about to make a T-Pain playlist, but recently, the dude has been back in the papers for his views on homophobia in hip hop, and I’m pleased as punch to see him around again. He’s even got a new single to go along with his publicity surge, and it’s actually pretty awesome! Let me tell you about T-Pain’s cover of Lorde’s 2013 hit, “Royals.”
“Royals” hit hard last year. The song spent nine weeks at the top of Billboard’s Top 100, certified quadruple platinum, and took home Best Pop Solo Performance and Song of the Year at the Grammys. It was hailed for its everygirl attitude, its rejection of materialism and conspicuous consumption. The song has heart, and, paired with the video especially, its message comes through: that rich fantasy shit doesn’t reflect my life.
Soon after its success was cemented, people began running analyses critical of the song. A popular one, from Feministing, “Wow, that Lorde song Royals is racist” blew up and started a fiery (as these things go) conversation about the lyrics.
“While I love a good critique of wealth accumulation and inequity, this song is not one; in fact, it is deeply racist. Because we all know who she’s thinking when we’re talking gold teeth, Cristal and Maybachs.”
As defensive people pointed out, Lorde also cites less racially-charged symbols of excess, such as pet tigers, ball gowns, private islands, and so on. Too bad for those people, then, that Lorde herself declared the song a critique of hip hop.
LORDE: (Laughing) Basically, I was just sort of reeling off some of the things which commonly mentioned in hip-hop and the Top 40. I did get a little ridiculous on it but, you know, the sentiment’s there.
I don’t want to talk too much about Lorde, because while her song throws a blanket judgment over hip hop, she’s not really the problem. Lorde is wrong, but what’s actually a problem is people who like the song and agree with the criticism.
Think about Macklemore. The dude is pretty lame, and tone-deaf in some areas, in such a way that one could call him “problematic.” But his fans are the bigger problem. “Same Love” is just a boring song; it’s fans, industry, and the media that made it the gay-rights anthem it so unrightfully is. And there’s the actual problem: the fact that so many people listen to it. That’s not Macklemore’s doing, however happy he may be about it.
“Royals” is in the same position. On its own, whatever, I’m just sick of hearing it, but the conversation it brings up in the US is gross, and racist, and I’m definitely sick of hearing that.
So, T-Pain covered the song. In the same way that Angel Haze covered Macklemore’s weenie song “Same Love,” in that it’s completely different, and totally stunts on the original. Where Lorde turns up her nose at diamonds and wanting money, T-Pain revels in his diamonds, his liquor, his great house. Where Lorde’s song criticizes the archetypal hip hop obsessions, T-Pain’s says “fuck you, kid,” and turns her archetypal thoughtful white girl song into the archetypal hip hop track. Haters gonna hate.
And they do. Haters fucking hate this cover. It’s hilarious, especially when the New Zealand Herald gets all butthurt about their golden child’s song being desecrated. The whole song is amazing, and, I’ll say it again, hilarious.
And every song was like
Work hard, play hard, money over everything
Cowboy hat and a hubcap on the chain
We don’t care, started from the bottom, now we’re here
It’s funny enough that T-Pain’s cover turns “Royals” into a hip hop party anthem, but it goes much deeper than that. The cover addresses the thesis of Lorde’s song. Rap isn’t just about fancy cars and partying and shoes; all of that is there, but they’re symbols of an ideal. The preoccupation with consumer goods and leisure has to do with a moving up, building and chasing success. The last line references the Drake song “Started From the Bottom,” which is even more explicitly about those themes (Also, keep in mind that Lorde was signed to Universal when she was fucking 13. She did not start at the bottom. Her talent was nurtured for years before she actually hit the scene).
While T-Pain’s cover makes efforts to be vapid and embody the values “Royals” disdains, it also references the significance of those values and consumer culture touchstones. Its sound is muddled and the lyrics are indecipherable, in stark contrast to Lorde’s rather stripped and enunciated song.
Seems like yesterday we was drinking Crown Royal
We ain’t really give a fuck
Now they try to hate on us
And I just party on my bus
Let me see you get loose, girl
Everything is on me
So, nigga, come through
Let me live that fantasy
The modified hook is so good, and a masterful reversal on many fronts. Compare the lyrics of this part. The first line is the greatest play on the original I can imagine. A declaration that the “Royals” character will never be rich, and doesn’t need it, turns into a boast about T-Pain’s liquor cabinet. “Now they try to hate on us” is a direct shot at Lorde’s moralizing song, and it seems like he’s taken it as the basic shit it is, as T-Pain’s reaction is to “just party on [his] bus.”
“Let me see you get loose, girl,” seems targeted as well, especially paired with “everything is on me.” Lorde doesn’t need to pout over her lack of cash, T-Pain is an accommodating dude and willing to share the life. Don’t be jealous, and don’t hate. Let T-Pain live that fantasy. Maybe gold and Cristal don’t mean anything to you, Lorde, but T-Pain is living the fucking life over here, and I’m having a lot more fun listening to him talk about it.
The thing about hip hop consumerism and excess is that, really, it’s an expression of the American spirit. What does success mean in this country? Living in a big house where everyone has their own room. Having a nice car, being married with a bigass diamond ring. This is completely worthy of criticism — you shouldn’t need money to be a successful person, and it’s messed up that our country works that way. But for some reason, a lot of people only think about this when they’re confronted with Black people having a good time and celebrating their wealth. T-Pain’s cover is a rebuke of Lorde’s criticism and the racist conversation it perpetuates, and a tribute to the not-so-empty excess of hip hop.