Justin Bieber “is white,” and boy does he wants us to know. In case we weren’t already aware of the demographic categories he falls under (Caucasian, pubescent), he is kind enough to remind us at the very end of his new video, “Speaking in Tongues.” This is no ordinary music video though—nay, this is Bieber’s first venture into the freestyle rap game, taking on the moniker “Shawty Mane.” After his rhymes are through, Mr. Mane takes the time to introduce himself:
“I’m Justin Bieber. You guys might know me as the guy who sings ‘Baby,’ you know, uh, I’m a singer, pop singer. I’m white.”
Then he pauses for a bit. He lets that last word settle—and even throws a little echo effect on it, so we hear a faint _white, white_—as if to give us some time to wrestle with that earth-shattering fact. Yes, Justin Bieber/Shawty Mane, you are white, and it is incredibly uncomfortable (and perhaps sociologically intriguing) that you felt it necessary to restate that. Your blunt approach to race does not align with my sterilized, tween-friendly preconception of you, but oh well. Onto the rap itself.
On October 13th Bieber tweeted a link to the freestyle, which was cool because “who knew i could rap lol..” The video, which is super grainy and oddly color-saturated, shows us Shawty Mane in his element: rapping in the studio and walking around aimlessly on city streets. Borrowing a beat from Cam’ron and Vado’s “Speakin’ in Tungs,” the young pop star lays down some surprisingly fluid original rhymes. Now, if you are slightly skeptical of his ability to do so, just wait until the fourth line when you hear him speak the phrase “yellow bone”—slang referring to a desirable, light-skinned black female—and consider your suspicions confirmed. This is not Bieber-original material and it didn’t take long for the Internet to figure that out. Turns out his entire first verse was cribbed from some Canadian rapper named Tory Lanez, snatched up practically verbatim and filtered through Bieber’s own squirrelly flow.
Which brings me to the undeniable fact that Shawty Mane does, indeed, have decent flow. Disregarding the grating timbre of his voice, the kid has a natural sense of rhythm and a smooth, if cloying, delivery. “Sack like a sacker, hello Mr. Brady/Tell him leave his hair to the guy who sings ‘Baby’/Baby, come and try to save me/Lately, I’ve been hearing these things that sound crazy”—at his best, the verses just sort of unspool with that yelpy lilting rhyme, and they feel organic even when they are so brazenly not his own.
Then again, that he pulls it off at all has far less to do with his vocal stylings than it does with his general persona: Justin Bieber has got some poise. If nothing else, this video is an exercise in confidence, a confidence that has far outgrown his 16 years of existence or his five-foot-something stature. Shawty Mane commands your attention in a weird, ineffable way, and if I had to place him I’d say he lies somewhere on the spectrum between 1) that one popular kid who dominated conversation in the middle school cafeteria and 2) Floyd Mayweather sauntering into the ring. Probably closer to the former.
It’s a charisma that manages to overcome all of my deeply ingrained biases, because Mr. Bieber is very nearly the antithesis of everything I look for in good music. Yet somehow I found myself helplessly hypnotized by this video. I really wish he were easier to dismiss, but he isn’t—to his credit, Shawty Mane is the proud owner of some preternatural, premature swag. It has something to do with how perfectly he has tailored his image of juvenile nonchalance. Although it seems like that nonchalance takes a lot of work. For one, he has to dress the part: wardrobe ripped straight out of a Disney Channel special (bright t-shirt, puffy vest) with a calculated bit of urban flair (skinny jeans, high-tops). He’s also dressed himself up with all these little details, or rather, all these little tics: the hands fluttering up to ruffle his impeccably coiffed mop, the twitchy fingers constantly adjusting his big horn-rimmed glasses, the weight shifting nonstop from foot to foot. He is literally never not doing something. Based on this video alone, you could dub him the rap prophet of the Adderall generation (and I say that only half-facetiously).
Maybe he is spending too much time tending to his image to write his own lyrics, because even the ones that aren’t stolen—apparently he lifts a Weezy one-liner somewhere along the way—just work a little too well to be believably his. Which is not to say that they’re staggeringly fresh. Standard tropes of self-aggrandizement and fame-is-tough catharsis, yoked together with plenty of internal rhyme and kiddy zeal. Shawty Mane gets aggressive and sassy at the mic, at times resembling a small dog barking and straining to snatch something just out of reach. He also does a little “yabba dabba dabba” scat thing that I guess has something to do with speaking in tongues but just comes off as kind of adorable. As for the actual words, it is definitely worth mentioning that he takes a stab at NFL quarterback Tom Brady (about hair, no less), but most of this is pretty tame filler. He does say “caca,” though.
Perhaps the only really egregious dud is the conclusion—“And my mane hangs down / I’m a puppet, got strings”—which is really just a confusing mixed metaphor. Justin Bieber, I just don’t know whether you are a lion or a marionette or both. But I do know that you’re still a kid, and that’s okay: I always hear his voice right on the verge of cracking at “I’m tired of the fame / Are you proud of the pain?”