Elvis Presley’s 75th birthday is upon us, and I can’t stop thinking about Lil Wayne. Comparing the long-departed King to the soon-to-be incarcerated Best Rapper Alive might seem ludicrous to some; certainly Presley’s accomplishments outstrip those of Dwayne Michael Carter. But there’s a logic to the association.
Both artists leaped to stardom out of a troubled South: Elvis on the verge of the civil rights movement, Weezy in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Both gained fame on the strength of vocal performances that took established styles (rockabilly and urban blues; syrupy rap) to startling extremes.
Both combined a dandyish sex appeal with the classic American charm of someone getting over -- sneaking across the sturdy boundaries of class, race and region by deploying a talent that delighted its owner by coming naturally. Both have been compared to space aliens.
Rock music can be defined many ways: One is as a Southern-born, blues-based, multiracial, male-dominated genre exploring such risky subjects as sex, drugs and the high life in general while still aiming for a youth-driven mass audience. On those terms, rock’s era of dominance begins with Elvis’ “Hound Dog” and ends with Wayne’s “A Milli.”
Presley was the dark-lidded white boy whose illicit race-crossing sound enacted a musical era that paralleled the most transformative period in American race relations since the Civil War. Wayne isn’t as historically influential, but as the most aggressively gifted representative of the Dirty South, he might be the last crucial voice in the cultural conversation leading up to the Obama era.
I don’t believe in the term “post-racial,” but I do think pop has entered a new phase, in which rock is no longer the defining force in American popular culture. Weezy’s desire to be a rock star, embodied in his often-stalled Coldplay and Lenny Kravitz-influenced album “Rebirth,” seems like the rock era’s last transgressive gasp as it gives way to a new kind of hybrid that hasn’t yet completely emerged.
Wayne even has a protégé, Short Dawg, who also calls himself Elvis Freshly. Old gods die hard and are always available for resurrection.
Lil Wayne’s ambition seems very much like Elvis’ own -- compulsively expressive, he breaks through barriers seemingly almost by accident, propelled by the pleasure of hearing his own voice. This distinguishes him from the more driven and ideological earlier “new Elvis,” Eminem, and from Jay-Z, who prefers to model himself on another enduring star of white crossover music, that savvy adapter of jazz styles, Frank Sinatra.
Considering Elvis in light of these rap legends in the making allows us to acknowledge an important truth: This latest Presley anniversary comes well into the hip-hop era. As it happens, 2009 was the 20th birthday of “Fight the Power,” the Public Enemy song in which Chuck D announced that classic rock’s claim to the American musical throne would no longer hold. “Elvis was a hero to most, but . . . " the rapper shouted in that preacherly baritone, ending the sentence with an expletive and an explosive word, “racist,” that knocked the King off his pedestal.
Chuck D offered a mild corrective to his incendiary words in 2002, when Glenn Gamboa of Newsday asked him to respond to the 25th anniversary of Elvis’ death. “Elvis’ icon status in America made it like nobody else counted,” the rapper explained, noting that the singer’s admiration for pioneers like Fats Domino and B.B. King, whom he considered friends, indicated that “my heroes were probably his heroes.”
As the Nirvana ‘90s gave way to the new century of Britney Spears, there was little sign that pop’s pattern of elevating white stars above the artists of color who inspired them would cease. It seemed right that Chuck D had modified his stance toward Elvis himself without compromising his view of the consequence of declaring him rock’s one and only king.
Eight years later, though, the sands have shifted somewhat. Young men with guitars still reap profits (Nickelback is forever), but their cultural importance seems negligible. Instead, women singing R&B offer fresh perspectives while rappers vie for attention on their remixes. The Black Eyed Peas, the most ubiquitous pop group, present a vision of America that’s not just black and white but also Latino and Filipino. Tech-savvy producers such as Dr. Luke and Timbaland take us into territories that seem almost post-human. And the generation gap isn’t typified by raw new sounds, but by shooter games and avatars.
The South’s newest crossover sensation, Taylor Swift, might very well have been relegated to the role of screaming teeny-bopper during the King’s reign.
This seems like a good time to approach Elvis anew, not as King, but as what he was in his own time: a serious boundary-crosser who made it his mission to combine what others thought should stay separate. He might have been a good mama’s boy at home and a sin-troubled freak in his personal life, but in the studio Elvis was as free as any singer has ever been.
He always managed to sound like someone breaking down a wall, not only on the much-celebrated Sun sessions but even as he drifted into a morass of nouveau-riche self-indulgence. And for that reason, he remains iconic.
He’s not just the King of Rock and Roll, but the champion of pop’s power to liberate the soul in any era.