Not long ago, scrolling for a movie, I saw that “Notorious” was on.
How can you resist Cary Grant as an American spy in Rio recruiting Ingrid Bergman to seduce and betray a Nazi played by Claude Rains?
But it turned out to be a very different “Notorious,” one about the rise of gangsta rapper Biggie Smalls, aka The Notorious B.I.G., his artistic relationship with Sean “Puffy” Combs at Bad Boy Records in New York and the bloody East vs. West feud between Biggie and Tupac Shakur, a star in L.A. who spent his final year at Death Row records.
Like the 1946 “Notorious,” the 2009 gangsta rap saga offered sex, strife, danger, gats, Champagne, a strong immigrant mother and trust issues. Crack replaced uranium as the perilous substance. The movie climaxed with Tupac getting shot in a car on the Las Vegas Strip in 1996 and then, in retaliation six months later, Biggie getting shot in a car in L.A.
Little did I know, as I brushed up on gangsta rap history, that the topic would soon spice up the overture to the 2016 presidential race.
Gangsta rap used to be a reliable issue for politicians, but they were denouncing it. Now Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida is praising it — and right at the moment when Republicans are pushing the argument that guns don’t kill people; it’s a culture glorifying guns and violence that kills people.
The ubiquitous 41-year-old — who’s on the cover of Time as “The Republican Savior” — looked as if he needed some saving himself as he delivered the party’s response to the State of the Union address in English (and Spanish). He seemed parched, shaky and sweaty, rubbing his face and at one point lunging off-camera to grab a bottle of water. He needed some of the swagger reflected on the Spotify playlist he recently released featuring Tupac’s “Changes,” as well as Flo Rida, Pitbull, The Sugar Hill Gang, Kanye, Big Sean, devoted Obama supporters Jay-Z and Will.I.Am, and a Foster the People song about “a cowboy kid” who finds a gun in his dad’s closet and goes after “all the other kids with the pumped up kicks.”
Rubio told GQ that he loved the documentary on Tupac, “Resurrection,” and his song, “Killuminati,” and that 30-year-old hip-hop is now “indistinguishable” from pop. (Sorry, Tipper.)
He said that Tupac, who loved Shakespeare and called “Romeo and Juliet” “serious ghetto,” wrote poetry. Tupac’s “Changes” lyric — “You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do what we gotta do to survive” — could be an anthem for the busted Republican Party.
Maybe Rubio is siding with West Coast rap in an early bid to nail down California’s 55 electoral votes. But in The Atlantic Wire, Elspeth Reeve argues that, message-wise, it would make more sense for the ambitious GOP senator to go with B.I.G., who had “up-from-his-bootstraps small-business acumen” and a mom who immigrated from Jamaica and ended up, as Biggie rapped, pimping an Acura with “minks on her back.” Tupac’s mother and stepfather were Black Panthers.
Asked by BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith about this recently, Rubio said that he was in school at the peak of Death Row music and preferred it.
He demurred when asked if he had learned any life lessons from Tupac — “I don’t listen to music for the politics of it” — and noted that mostly, rappers were not “condoning a certain lifestyle” as much as reporting on “what life was like in South Central.”
One-upping Paul Ryan and his heavy metal playlist, Rubio noted that the real name of Pitbull — also born in Miami to Cuban parents — is Armando and that Tupac has a lyric citing Bill Clinton and “Mr. Bob Dole.”
In 1995, Dole railed that human dignity is demeaned when “sexual violence is given a catchy tune.” And, in 1992, Dan Quayle met with the daughter of a Texas state trooper who was fatally shot by a man who said he’d been listening to Tupac’s “2pacalypse Now,” with lyrics about “droppin’ the cop”; Quayle said such songs should not be published.
Rush Limbaugh mocked Tupac when he was shot in 1994 outside a New York studio where Biggie was recording; and he recently re-broadcast his 20-year-old rant about America losing its soul: “Look at 2 Live Crew’s ‘Me So Horny.’ You know what that’s about? It’s about the destruction of the female vagina by a bunch of men having a good time.” (Sounds like a description of retrogressive Republicans in 2012; when the Violence Against Women Act passed the Senate on Tuesday, Rubio voted against it.)
But other Republicans are so frantic to make their party less white and more hip that Rubio’s exegeses on gangsta rap are music to their ears.
Right now, Marco is like a paper doll, trying on different outfits of style and substance as the party oohs and aahs. As Nicolle Wallace, the former adviser to Sarah Palin, gushed to George Stephanopoulos: “He’s modern. He knows who Tupac is. He is on social media.” And “he’s close to the younger Bushes.”
Who could ask for anything more?
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.
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