This week, a professional streamer who goes by the name of ‘Ninja’ broke the all–time streaming record on the video–game streaming platform Twitch. 628,000 people tuned in live to an evening of him playing the online shooter Fortnite, albeit with special guests Drake and Travis Scott (under the usernames “johnwick” and “cactus_jack92”).
While this clearly demonstrates the game’s staggering mainstream appeal and success, what struck me was how seamlessly two of modern rap’s giants forayed into the world of competitive online gaming, a realm typically associated with pre–pubescent, nerdy teenage boys. Placed alongside the context of the Black Panther soundtrack, where a comic book movie was able to mobilize multiple platinum selling hip–hop artists towards a common goal, it demonstrates that once–derided ‘nerd culture’ has well and truly arrived. It is no longer incongruous to have serious opinions about trap music and to be pretty handy at Smash Bros.
However, one area of this culture that still carries a vaguely negative stigma is anime, perhaps due to its alarming tendency to sexualize almost anything, the impenetrable 500 episode–long series, or simply the fact that it is a cartoon. Whatever the reason, most people still have to go through a process of coming out of the anime cupboard or simply restricting themselves to the Studio Ghibli movies because they’re “actually really good.” Yet, fear not anime fans, for the same adoption by the mainstream that gaming and comic books has undergone is well underway in a seemingly unlikely place: hip–hop.
The primary source of inspiration for hip–hop anime references is undoubtedly Akiro Toriyama’s Dragon Ball Z. The dubbed version of DBZ ran on the most basic of cable TV bundles from around 1998 to 2008, so anyone around the age of 20–30 is likely in the minority if they haven’t at least been exposed to one of the show’s 291 thirty minute episodes.
For those uninitiated, the series follows the warrior Goku, a light hearted and good natured “Saiyan” (an alien from a lost planet) and his attempts to defend the Earth from various threats with the help of his family and friends. When invoked, he stands for all that is righteous and strong, be that physical strength, their own rapping prowess, or as Rap Genius’ YouTube video suggests “just good weed.” Vegeta, another Saiyan, Goku’s one time nemesis and friend is often, alongside the comically weak Krillin, the butt of many of rapper’s puns. Other villains are also evoked, such as the iconic Frieza and the candy–pink Majin Buu, most famously referenced in “Pink Matter.”
A subject that anime broaches much more than western cartoons is the idea of personal progress and training to be the strongest version of one’s self. This seems totally analogous to honing one’s craft and is perhaps the reason why anime seems to have stolen the hearts and minds of so many rappers. Anime series in general, following the lead of DragonBall Z’s ‘Super Saiyan’ invoke an idea of a transformation, a level-up into a much better and more powerful version of oneself. This is characterized by the classic, spiked-up blonde hair and blue eyes surrounded by white aura. Within the show, Super Saiyans are unassailable and the transformation is only brought about by a kind of emotional trauma and truth; it takes Goku’s best friend, Krillin, to be murdered in front of his eyes for the transformation to occur.
Knowing this, lets consider just how good Frank Ocean’s penmanship on “Provider” is (hot take: his best song); “Are you a natural blondie like Goku?” Goku’s hair is jet black, but when he transforms into a Super Saiyan, he is shown to to have blonde hair, implying that his ascended state is his most natural and intuitive form. My second favorite reference is Busdriver’s “Worlds to Run” featuring Anderson Paak., where he says “I remember when Vegeta snapped Bardock’s neck”— the best bit about this is that it didn’t happen, revealing a true fan of the series…
Here's an hour of music from mainstream rap artists, that all reference DragonBall Z in a manner which would require at least some knowledge of the show. Some of your favorite songs might be on here without you realizing it.