Andre 3000.

On the final late night summer edition of the Come Up Show, we had a discussion about the best smiles in rap on the chat boards. Chedo was kinda joking when he said he was going to start a contest about this (not everyone agreed with my –still standing– vote for SHAD), so a post featuring some of the best grinnage in the game is the next best thing. Who has the best smile in hip-hop?

Smiling? In Rap? Peruse through some of your favorite rap artwork– photography, promo shots, concert posters, etc–for a K-Lis challenge:  find one smile for every ten pictures. If you score better than those numbers, e-mail me or better yet leave a comment below, because I definitely want to know who you’re listening to that dares to bust out the pearly whites more often than pout, and as always, what you have to say about it.

It wasn’t exactly difficult to put together a list of some of the best smiles in hip-hop, maybe because the people who do smile make such an searing impression. That said, wasn’t easy to come up with a substantive list of smilers either, since the number of smiling rappers is low. But I assure you that if you dig deep enough, you are sure to find a smile or two behind even the toughest gangstas.

Sorry to burst some bubbles, but impressions of “toughness” and violence in rap are, after all, the illusions of a glamorized show designed to shock and entertain, and the scowl laden art work that historically and currently trends the cover-art market is an integral part of the inner clockwork of this perpetuating communication (and stereotype). Bad-ass imagery is “fabricated” or “theatrical” in the sense that those posed images aim to project a very particular brand the artist or album attempts to convey, and in the case of hip hop and rap, common tropes of power, un-fuck-wittableness, and hardship keep the bubbles and fuzzies to a miminum. Hence the lack of easy breezy facial expressions.

But I’ve gotta say this. For me, album cover pouts can set up a mental hurdle because they create a conscious disjunct between the way I feel when I listen to the music–happy, energized, enlightened–and the “blleh?” feeling I get when I look down the album cover it came from. How and why is it that the same music that makes me feel so good has a guy on the front cover sending all sorts of bodily encoded “fuck you for buying this album” messages? That enjoyable confusion may lay at the heart of my love and continuing fascination for rap; that is, the rap artist’s ability to attract millions of fans by shouting every “in-your-place, bitch!” curse and abuse that should make me cower. I haven’t entirely ruled out masochism or slave-mentality as a possible explanation for this appeal, but more likely, it has something to do with rap’s ability to feed that hunger for authority and assertiveness that lies sleepily within us all, in some more soundly than others.

There are equally as many people turned away from rap by its tendency to lyrically condescend and offend as there are those who are drawn to it. Many people (mostly non-fans) think of all rap and hip hop broadly and unilaterally as an aggressive, degenerate and violent music. And the scowl plays into this stereotype, big time. If I was to judge most hip hop albums by their covers (as many, many people do) I might think there isn’t a happy or celebratory moment encased in their zeros and ones. Maybe this is the intended artistic and social message, to keep outsiders as outsiders. But my own experience indicates that an indifferent gaze doesn’t necessarily mean an indifferent artist, and certainly not necessarily indifferent music. Ironically enough, you simply have to listen to get the full picture.

This is why live performance can be such a surprise– Hi-Tek, for instance, is a smile MACHINE in concert. Any one who’s been to a Tek concert has got to know what I’m saying. The man just can’t contain himself as he pounces around with this crazy energy having the time of both his life and ours. But when I went to collect a photo of Tek for this post, I couldnt’ find a single “official” shot of that money grin anywhere. What gives! This is the good stuff!

What is it about a smile that gives someone away? What effect does a smile have on you when you see it? I may be imagining things, but it seems to me that smiles are becoming a lot more common in rap and hip-hop imagery, and I’m glad. The world seems a lot sunnier when we Smile.

Shad is a smiley emcee.

J.R. voted Jada, who might as well sell lollipops with this photo.

Flying Lotus.

In each of their eras, Pharcyde has always been expression full. I was reminded of these guys when reading Chris Rock’s 25 best rap albums list. He ranks their landmark album, Bizarre Ride II: The Pharcyde (1992) as no.5.

Ye has a lot to smile about in 2010.

Ms. Hill. One of the few hip hop artists that smiles 99.5 percent of the time behind the lens.

West coast Gangsta goes West Coast Cowboy at the CMT awards show.

Doesn’t Common look how Common sounds?

Def Jam founder and audio wizard Rick Rubin alongside Jay Z.

Yes Yes Ya’ll. This is, in fact, LL Cool J in a Santa Suit.

To restore dignity: LL save the Santa suit.


The Fresh Prince & DJ Jazzy Jeff – classic.

Mos Def.

Fuck you! (ooh ooh ooooh!)

“No matter what you’re facing, smile.”

J Dilla.