Imagine this, it’s 2019, and you are a fan of rap music. You keep up with new releases, you maybe post about the artists you like, maybe you have some favourites. There is no better time to be you right now. It feels like every week some of the most insightful writers on the planet come out with a fresh new perspective on the way the world works, and what it’s like to be them. Or they come out with a banger that you can play at your next barbecue with the lads. Life is Good! Occasionally something is a big enough story to make headlines, or be brought up on hip hop podcasts you listen to. A song by Eminem has leaked online, and a lot of people are talking about it. It’s a collaboration song for the new Joyner Lucas album, who is a rapper you’ve heard a couple songs from and are maybe paying a bit of attention to. Whether you like him or not, Eminem is a very big deal, so you listen to this song. It’s a four minute storytelling song where Eminem and Joyner Lucas speculate how hard it is to be gay, ending with a suicide. You, being well-versed in rap culture, are confused. Eminem has been in countless controversies for his homophobic lyrics the entire time you’ve been alive, and since his character in this song ends up taking his own life, you come to the conclusion that these two Straight men known for their lyrical ability have made a song about being gay that does not really resemble any song you’ve heard by a gay person before. The song gets made fun of by nearly everyone who isn’t a core fan. Eminem will be fine, he’s Eminem. But Joyner Lucas? He’s a joke now. Someone who through 2018 seemed like he would go on to dominate the planet ended up not having the spark he needed to really set the bonfire. It just leaves the question: How did we get here? What led Joyner Lucas to decide to do this? What do you even do after making this? Let’s take a look at the Rise, Fall And Decay of Joyner Lucas.
Joyner Lucas is an interesting case. He’s what many have dubbed a “Youtube Rapper” which is a pretty specific type of rapper where they blow up predominantly on youtube and facebook with a focus on fast technical flows, big concepts, and trying to bait the cultural conversation into talking about them. Other examples of youtube rappers are Token, GAWNE, and Dax, but Joyner Lucas is probably the most mainstream name out of them. From posting remixes of popular songs in 2016 and original tracks in 2015 through 2017, Joyner slowly built up buzz over the years. His mixtape 508–507–2209 got a fair amount of critical acclaim when it came out, and 16 year old me really, really liked it. He had this underground spitter label on lock until he released “I’m Not Racist” On November 29, 2017. The video depicted a white man being racist in the first verse before being corrected by a black man in the second verse. Joyner Lucas had already gained the attention of people like Eminem behind the scenes, and had a few viral tracks here and there, but I’m Not Racist was the first time the mainstream public were actually discussing a Joyner Lucas song. The song was essentially propelled into the forefront of discourse by everyone getting mad online and accusing everyone else of misinterpreting it.
I’m not here to give my I’m Not Racist hot take, because people who know more about USA race relations have done that already. I think it has a lot of problems, but instead of talking about that I want to talk about why people had so many arguments over this song. Joyner Lucas’ stated intention was to have a racist white guy say racist things, then have the black man correct him and have them begin to understand each other. This is also sort of clear in the lyrics overall. But aesthetically, for those that watched it once on their facebook wall, left a comment, and proceeded, what they saw was two people with the same voice give a verse in the same structure, for about an equal amount of time and intensity, delivered by two people on equal levels on opposite sides of a table. They end it by hugging and saying they now understand each other. Aesthetically, assuming this is presenting the two as equals is an understandable judgement. If you go to the comments section now, the discussion isn’t about race, it’s about the song, telling other people they interpreted it wrong. So some people think it’s a white racist getting put in his place, some people think it sympathises with racists and lays a portion of the blame for racism on black people.
In the context of Joyner Lucas’ career, this is basically his big break. And since the thing that gets him the most buzz ended up being songs like this, Songs with a big Social Message, he made more, and I think that’s where things start to fall apart a little. Because while these storytelling socially conscious songs were what went viral, he also wanted to be considered a super hot fire spitter. I feel like these torn goals resulted in a bit of an identity crisis within art. In the immediate weeks after I’m not Racist, Joyner Lucas dropped 2 remixes: one to Gucci Gang by Lil Pump, one to Bank Account. Both of these remixes have Joyner rap about how dangerous he is (talking about guns and murder), but it’s mainly focused on how he’s superior to other rappers, on the Bank Account remix he even goes on a tangent asking his favourite rappers from the 90s and 2000s to come back because he’s sick of the current rappers.
So in the wake of I’m Not Racist getting a lot of people arguing, a lot of people checked out what he was doing and he was able to ride the wave of hype. These remixes both got over 70 million views. It seemed like for a moment that Joyner was going to be actually really big. I have no source for this, but based on the youtube numbers of those remixes, they would probably have charted on the Billboard Hot 100 if they got released to spotify and itunes at the time. He was a fire spitter with a socially conscious edge and also a unique take on the rap scene by bragging about his own sobriety and deliberately rejecting drug culture. The only thing he needed to solidify himself as a mainstay in the rap game was a hit single, which could be followed up with a massive album. Joyner Lucas actually *says* this on his Gucci Gang remix. So Joyner gets to work and doesn’t release anything for a couple months, and then he comes back with…
A collab song with Chris Brown. I know late early 2018 was quite a while ago, but hmm It was fresh off a thing called the #MeToo movement was also a Year dubbed “Year Of The Woman” where we all vowed that we were going to hold domestic abusers accountable. And it turned out perfectly! Nobody Who Has Harmed A Woman Was Famous That Year! Now I will never say that Chris Brown isn’t a famous celebrity, but at the point in time before Freaky Friday came out, it had been four years since Chris Brown had even touched the top 10, and a few people had said he was on his way out. That ended up not being true, but in terms of someone who has started building his career on being socially conscious, it maybe wasn’t the *best* ally he could have formed. When facing criticism on this decision to make a whole album with this man, he posted a video complaining about how everyone brings up that Chris Brown is a woman beater, but not that he’s a great dancer.
It started to kind of clue into those paying attention that maybe Joyner wasn’t the most woke of individuals? If you go back through his old music you can find like a bunch of slurs and stuff, the guy definitely had a “fuck everyone” attitude about it. Joyner Lucas had found his angle, he was going to be offensive, we was going to be in your face, he was gonna be as hardcore as it gets and nobody could tell him shit.
Then he released Frozen, which was a song about texting and driving. Similar to the format of I’m Not Racist it has Joyner Lucas rapping from the perspective of fictional characters, this one starting with a dead little girl child who has been hit by a car, and the commentary is just so potent, with killer lines such as:
“Look What You Did, I’m Fuckin Dead, Damn”
That’s exactly what I would say if i was a little girl who got hit by a car. “Look What You Did I’m Fuckin Dead, Damn”. Needless to say, this did not provoke massive debate like I’m Not Racist did. The gang of people who are super into texting and driving must have missed it. However you spin it, “Don’t Text And Drive” is not a controversial statement. It did not really need pointing out it’s kind of one of those things that everyone agrees is bad but still exists. It would be like making a song about why you shouldn’t vape. Everyone knows vape is bad for you but we do it anyway, so get off my lawn, old man! Frozen is not really a Joyner Lucas song. Yes it’s a song, and yes, Joyner Lucas made it. But there is no human to this song. Very little can be learned about Joyner himself from this song. This concept could have been Joyner talking about his own friend who died due to texting and driving, if he has any. The song is basically characters just explaining that they are dead, with nearly no thoughts about the situation and definitely no feelings. It’s basically Just:
“Look What You Did I’m Fuckin Dead, Damn”
It is an anti-texting and driving ad.
After this he released another Chris Brown collab. And what we see here is very quickly, one after the other, is Joyner Lucas being fine with beating women as long as you can sing, and also up on a high horse about what you morally should make the decision to do. Add this to his superiority complex about mumble rap, and the conversation around Joyner Lucas started to shift.
Memes started to crop up around the place talking about how Joyner Lucas is what we consider “corny”. He was grouped in here with people like russ, logic and Hopsin, which probably aren’t who Joyner wants as peers, considering he started fights with both Logic and Hopsin over random shit that doesn’t matter. Corniness is a very loose term and gets thrown around a lot but a good definition tends to centre around people who might be overly preachy about things, or might have delusions of grandeur about their impact or fame. Hopsin often gets called corny for being on a massive high horse about drugs. But Joyner really wasn’t at liberty to worry about his reputation. Chris Brown went to jail and the collab album had to be put on the backburner for a while, and was canned soon after. Frozen didn’t take off at all. His career needed a massive boost if he wanted to stick around in the game. It was nine months since I’m not racist had come out, and there was still no single that signed an album was coming. It might have actually been over here, if it weren’t for a very rare second shot at fame, in the form of a certain man who had been watching him since 2015. A man by the name of Eminem.
Lucky You was the single off Eminem’s 2018 album Kamikaze, and it’s really good! This song peaked in the top ten on billboard, making it Joyner Lucas’ commercial peak, and this is about as good as it gets for Joyner. The Eminem influence in Joyner’s mixtapes is quite noticeable, and being able to spit on a song with him must have been a really big moment for him. But it may have also been another straw on the camel’s back. In this song Joyner talks about how good at rapping he is, but also how bad at rapping other people are. The song has a lot of criticisms of the current rap game how people all sound alike and are slaves to trends and how this culture sidelines artists who dedicate their life to the craft. It’s really good. This positioning had Joyner primed to be either a return to form for the rap game, bringing things back to bars and wordplay and insight, or it could be something entirely new! Either way it showed that people were ready for him to buck every trend, to be different to all those melodic trap rappers, he’s bringing real rap back!
Joyner followed this song up with a melodic trap song, aligning with the current trends of the genre. This was the lead single to his album ADHD. I see this as a weird career move because in the song, titled “I Love”, he continues to talk shit about other rappers, re-enforcing his dissatisfaction with the rap scene as it is, but also with the sounds and aesthetics of the exact people he’s complaining about. So the only people who would enjoy it sonically are people who also like the rappers he’s directly shitting on, and the only people who would like it lyrically are the people that are tired of the sound he’s imitating on I Love. It’s not even a mean spirited parody. This is just his sound now. I think the intention here was to create a hit single to follow up with a killer album, but that didn’t quite happen. Critical reception to this song was mixed and it failed to chart at all, and blowing a lot of the groundswell that would have been lended to Joyner from Lucky You. I Love is what I personally see as the beginning of the end, as it will be nearly two years of dropping singles and trying to get attention before ADHD actually releases. It’s pretty interesting to see how he attempts to make headlines with these singles, but he unintentionally makes headlines in 2019 when he tweets in support of R Kelly in the wake of the Surviving R Kelly documentary. Joyner Lucas took these tweets back after immense amounts of backlash as well. Joyner Lucas vows to study what he’s talking about before commenting in future, and maybe in future, before accidentally defending a pedophile, doing some research. His next song is about how much he misses Michael Jackson, who was famous for definitely not being a pedophile.
Devil’s Work feels like a second attempt at capturing the I’m Not Racist buzz, where Joyner goes to a funeral home and wishes dead people he liked were still alive, while wishing people he dislikes death. So basically he says he wishes Tomi Lahren was dead so XXXTENTACION could come back to life. Tomi Lahren takes the bait and gets mad, people laugh at her, and then move on. The thumbnail to this video is Michael Jackson’s face, and it was released on the anniversary of his death and pretty shortly after the Leaving Neverland documentary. This video doesn’t really amount to much more than nakedly baiting controversy. There is little to no actual commentary in the track beyond “This person good, this person bad”. I was gonna make a video at the time about this song, but it faded from public consciousness too quick and nobody cared anymore. All it really left was Joyner Lucas with the baggage of having publicly defended Chris Brown, R Kelly, XXXTENTACION and Michael Jackson in rapid succession. He would go on to take 6ix9ine’s side against trippie redd in that beef if you care. The point is Joyner Lucas barely gives a fuck if someone is a good person or not really. Like he’s 5 for 5 on that shit he’s basically lost any pretence of being socially conscious so really all he has is the bangers and generic rap songs he previously spent years talking shit about
His next song is a collab with Logic which gets people to talk about it because this is the height of Logic’s fame and also they had a beef which they resolved because it was dumb and logic seems like an actually cool guy. This is the only song to chart off the album, and even at the beginning of the video it has a little information segment about people with ADHD. This is cool but we are three singles in and only just finding out this is a concept album. We do not hear about the concept again for another 10 months until the album comes out. In that time we get six more singles, he loses a beef with Tory Lanez, and that brings us to March 2020. ADHD Comes out with NINE singles spanning over nearly two years preceding it. If you are a Joyner Lucas fan, you have been waiting two years for a project with five new songs on it. The album sells a modest 39,000 units, debuting at number ten and then falling off in 13 weeks. These aren’t horrible numbers, but I’m sure there’s an alternate reality where Joyner plays his cards right and gets a top 5 album, or at least one that sticks around. Most mainstream artists do better than this. The Kid LAROI got to #8, NAV got to #1, Polo G got to #2, Lil Durk got to #2, it feels like he could have done better, especially when the track that got the most buzz from the album was never released. It was called What If I Was Gay, in collaboration with Eminem, and I see it as the culmination of every problem that had been bubbling under the surface for years.
The basic outline of What If I Was Gay is that it tells the story of Joyner Lucas saying he feels very alone and depressed, and that he’s different and not alike to his peers, and that being gay is making him struggle with his religious ties. Eminem hops on the second verse and goes on a homophobic rant saying that being gay is a choice before revealing that Joyner’s character has taken his own life. Eminem’s character also struggles with his own faith, not because he presumably just bullied a guy into suicide, but because he is… also gay. There’s a lot to unpack here.
There’s debate as to whether straight artists should openly talk about societal prejudices like homophobia in their art, or if they should just platform people instead. Some say that since you will never truly know what it’s like it’s not really your story to tell, while others say it’s better to bring attention to something than stay silent. What nobody suggests you should do is speculate what it would maybe be like if you were oppressed and make a song about how that would hypothetically make you feel. Rolling Stone asked “Who is this song for?” And I really can’t answer. The song plays almost as a retread of his 2016 track “I’m sorry” which also is two verses on either side of a suicide but this sing swaps out talking about depression for talking about being gay. But there’s a bigger reason why i find this song egregious, and it’s that this concept nearly has something. Joyner Lucas and Eminem both have a history of homophobic lyrics, mainly Eminem. If he had a verse on a song where he addresses his past homophobia, deconstructs it and how he came to say what he said, similar to how he’s made songs apologising to his mother, it could be a really potent moment in his career. If he analysed the background that led to homophobia and also tried to place himself in the shoes of those affected by it, it could be something! It’s the type of deep thinking I’m sure he’s capable of, but he deliberately doesn’t do that. With the framework of this being a fictional gay character bullying another fictional gay character into suicide, it makes all the homophobia contained to gay people alone. Whether straight artists should discuss societal homophobia is a good debate to have, but straight artists discussing internalised homophobia from within gay people is something that any smart person would steer a million miles away from.
Internalised homophobia is definitely a real thing many LGBT people struggle with, however the stereotype of the homophobe being secretly gay is long entrenched in culture and it’s also quite harmful. This is because it places the blame for homophobia onto gay people, when in reality, the vast majority of homophobic oppression is at the hands of straight people. In this Joyner Lucas song, where he speculates about what it would be like to be gay, Zero Percent of the homophobia comes from straight people. When you combine this with how surface level Devil’s Work, I’m not Racist, and how ill informed the motive behind Frozen was, it makes you wonder: Does Joyner Lucas actually have anything to say? Because I feel like that is the core of the problem with Joyner Lucas. Joyner Lucas has no thoughts about his own life. He has no observations or interesting things to say about himself, so he makes songs from a range of different perspectives to try and appear interesting, but none of these perspectives are informed by real world experience. The deepest he goes with anything he’s actually experienced is that the four skits in the ADHD album depict him being treated shittily for having ADHD, which would be good if it was presented with any comment beyond “having ADHD sucks”. He views himself as higher than other rappers, but on songs like Goldmine he has no problem doing a bad Gunna impression. It is something I say a lot is that you will never be cooler than the people you steal from. He ends up lower than the melodic trap rappers that own who they are by trying to entertain this dream of being an eminem like figure who is a provocateur and storyteller but ends up being neither, because Joyner Lucas is not Eminem. And it is not 2002 anymore. And Eminem had fun sometimes. The core of Joyner Lucas and what made him stand out is how he’s different to other rappers, but he’s only different by being in denial about his own ability to comment on the society he lives in. The problem is not the culture or the society or the rap game or the label or the Chris Brown haters, the problem is Joyner Lucas. As long as he stays the same person, he will never make a good project. Hip hop fans noticed it very early on, and he managed to keep it going for a while, but I think it’s over now. Joyner Lucas is fucking garbage at music and shows no signs of improving. It’s likely he will essentially migrate back to youtube and operate at Hopsin levels of fame from here on out. We probably won’t see headlines from him ever again. And it’s a shame! Back when it was a character, the sociopathic hedonism of 508–507–2209 was a cool character portrait of someone who will be a piece of shit at all times who doesn’t give a fuck about anyone. But once we all found out it’s not fiction and he actually is just an abuse-enabling fuckwit who probably doesn’t realise how depressing his life actually sounds on the mixtape, it gets a lot less fun. And I think that’s the lesson to take away from the Rise, Fall and Decay of Joyner Lucas. He was very focused on reaching for something to say, or some clout to chase, some way to get attention, some rapper to tear down or start beef with, he never had fun once as far as I can tell. I think Joyner Lucas’ story would be less depressing or deeply poisoned to me if I felt like he was enjoying himself and making the art he wanted to make, but he didn’t, and the result is he pissed away years of his life on an album nobody will remember, blowing his one shot at fame three times, and despite his claims he will go down as an underdog who never lost hope, I think he’ll go down in history as the guy who made that I’m not Racist video. Hopefully the next lyrical miracle avoids the same pitfalls, and this whole thing can be avoided in future.