Hip-Hop and the 'Taylor Swift Effect'

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Taylor Swift (left) and Nicki Minaj sing together at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday, Aug. 30, in Los Angeles. Photo: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

In the 1993 film A Bronx Tale, Calagero asks Sonny: "Is it better to be loved or feared?"

Taylor Swift manages both.

Whether it's removing her entire catalogue of music from Spotify or gathering in four awards at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sunday (including a controversial Video of the Year), Swift is a formidable - and, yes, feared - force in music and the music industry.

As for love, when Swift and Nicki Minaj embraced on the VMA stage on Sunday, it was just the latest of many intriguing public displays of affection between Swift and the hip-hop world. Time and again, Swift is referred to in disputes or in discussions about hip-hop, and what has become its habitual appropriation.

Sunday's hug seemed to quell a Twitter feud in which Minaj criticized the VMAs (on Twitter) for not being inclusive in its nominations and being culturally biased:

Although Swift was not named, she took exception:

That touched off a storm of think-pieces.

Zeba Blay of the Huffington Post made her headline hurt, saying something many were thinking: "Taylor Swift's Tweets To Nicki Minaj Are Peak 'White Feminism.' " It wasn't long before Swift apologized and Minaj accepted.

So when Swift came on stage during Minaj's VMA performance, it may have disappointed some, but it shouldn't have been surprising. The reconciliation was great for ratings and good for business.

"They have a stake in smoothing things over and getting all their audiences in sync," said Dustin Kidd, sociologist of popular culture and associate professor at Temple University.

"She's a pop star that's at the pinnacle of the game and her career," said James Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University and author of The Hip-Hop Underground and African American Culture: Beneath the Surface.

"Clearly," Peterson said, "Nicki Minaj didn't want to sustain an argument with her." No one does.

Swift's relationship with hip-hop/rap was solidified after the infamous Kanye West VMA interruption of 2009.

Peterson called it the moment Swift's career "blew up." The sympathy she garnered made her America's sweetheart and made West the villain. And for many, it introduced Swift to the hip-hop audience.

Swift's present 1989 tour is, like most of her tours, full of guest stars. In Seattle, it was Fetty Wap. The two sang his hit "Trap Queen" together, with Wap and Swift grinning from ear to ear.

It's not unusual for artists to expand beyond their genre, whether for the music's sake or to broaden audience appeal. But Swift, who has stepped away from her country beginnings into pop, has done nothing but prosper. And that is one reason hip-hop artists have cultivated good relations with her.

"She's at the top," said Peterson. "Remember, hip-hop is pop culture now, so if you're an artist invested in commerce and record sales, then affiliating yourself with Taylor Swift will put you on the map in ways no other affiliation can."

Recently, rappers such as French Montana, Young Buck, and Minaj have revealed they either want to work or will be working with Swift. And her hip-hop collaborations include work with B.O.B., T-Pain, and more recently Kendrick Lamar.

The hit song and video "Bad Blood" featured Lamar, whom Peterson calls the most "substantive hip-hop artist of the moment." The collaboration, he says, further adds to Swift's "authenticity and credibility."

It helps that she's also a huge Lamar fan. ("I think Taylor Swift is a hip-hop head," said Peterson.)

Videos of Swift rapping to Lamar or Young Buck's lyrics circulate around the Internet. In a Vibe interview last year, she said that 2004 track "Fireman" by Lil Wayne was the first rap track she memorized, and that she listened to Minaj, Wiz Khalifa, and The Game, among others.

She has also developed a relationship with Jay Z and Beyoncé, moving her music from Spotify to Jay Z's streaming service, Tidal. As Swift gains "edge," rappers gain pop appeal. A win-win? Maybe.

In a Billboard survey of 50 top U.S. music executives, Swift was most often named as the first artist they'd sign if they had the chance. Seventy percent of respondents said they did "root" for her. With the question "Which genre of music do you despise the most?," rap was most frequently named. It's a small, possibly skewed survey. But the results resonated with Minaj's complaints of cultural bias in the industry, the high barrier to entry for hip-hop artists, and Swift's undeniable influence.

"If you're with Taylor Swift it means that you've arrived," said Ann Fishman, author of Marketing to the Millennial Woman.

Fishman says there are almost 40 million millennial women in the United States - a number surpassing the populations of countries like Canada, Australia, and North Korea. This is the audience on which Swift has a stronghold. Fishman says these women connect with Swift's confidence, success, and ability to connect with her fans "in their language sincerely." Sincerity, or the appearance of it (who knows these days? P.R. is magic), may be what she has particularly mastered.

Not to say Swift doesn't also feed into the cultural appropriation machine. But even there, she is the lesser of many pop evils. Collaborations with Miley Cyrus, for example, result in rappers becoming caricatures of themselves, while Cyrus herself presents a shallow and misguided interpretation of black culture.

In her blonde-haired, blue-eyed pop stardom, Swift may be how many Americans still want to see themselves, and see their country, all inclusive and fluffy, even if it may all be a guise. And, whether she wants to or not, she has become a gatekeeper for all things white and mainstream.

Through Kanye West, rappers saw the power of being on her good side by witnessing the implications of being on the bad. West's 2009 VMA interruption triggered a "black man attacking an innocent white girl" narrative that created lasting bad feelings.

Six years later, while accepting his VMA Vanguard Award, West gave a convoluted speech in which he referred to a night that changed his legacy and Swift's: "I think about it when I'm in the grocery store with my daughter and I have a really great conversation about fresh juice . . . and at the end they say, 'Oh, you're not that bad after all!' And like I think about it sometimes. . . . It crosses my mind a little bit like when I go to a baseball game and 60,000 people boo me."

sballin@phillynews.com

215-854-5054 @sofiyaballin