TiK ToK,” a zippy and salacious celebration of late nights and mornings-after by a new artist named Ke$ha, has spent the last few weeks zooming toward the top of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. Along with “Rapture,” the 1981 hit by Blondie, it’s one of the most successful white-girl rap songs of all time.
Actually, that depends on who you ask.
“TiK ToK” is sung in the chorus and rapped in the verses, enhanced by Auto-Tune in a few places, in keeping with its electro-pop production. There are even a couple of ad-libs by Diddy, and a line that appears to be borrowed from Jermaine Dupri.
“I’ve done the country, done the pop-rock, done the super-hard electro,” Ke$ha (pronounced KESH-uh) said this month, taking a breather in a Midtown Manhattan hotel between performances for the pop radio station Z100. “I was like, whatever, throw some rap in there, why not?” Slouched deep in a cushioned chair, she was dressed like a hippie pirate, with matted dirty blond hair and black makeup streaming from her right eye in precise darts.
It would be tough to surmise from looking at Ke$ha ““ 22 and rangy, with a model’s figure and a Sunset Strip attitude ““ but “TiK ToK” is something of a milestone in contemporary pop: the complete and painless assimilation of the white female rapper into pop music.
If she’s rapping at all, that is. “I never thought of her as rapping,” said Barry Weiss, chairman and chief executive of RCA/Jive Label Group, who signed Ke$ha. “I just thought of it as her particular vocal phrasing on certain songs.”
A burgeoning pop star who is primarily a singer, Ke$ha is nevertheless a pioneer. “TiK ToK” and the hand ful of other rap-influenced songs on her debut album, “Animal” (Kemosabe/RCA), to be released Jan. 5, are the product of a world in which hip-hop is such lingua franca, so embedded in the pop slipstream that it’s possible to make songs that are primarily rapped but are not widely considered to be rap songs.
It’s all part of the continuing deracination of the act of rapping, which used to be inscribed as a specifically black act, but which has been appropriated so frequently and with such ease that it’s been, in some cases, re-racinated. The very existence of the casually rapping white girl reflects decreasingly stringent ideas about race and gender.
This has happened before. In the same way that, at the turn of the last decade, rap-metal provided a space for white men to rap without being explicitly compared to their black peers, club-oriented electro-rap has, in recent years, become a haven for white women.
At least for a couple of them.
This has been a banner year for white-girl rap, as these things go. There was the debut album by the Philadelphia rapper Amand a Blank, the relentless and suffocating “I Love You” (Downtown). On “Boom Boom Pow,” the pummeling Black Eyed Peas hit, the surprise twist was a rapped interlude by the group’s singer, Fergie. Even the country-pop singer Jessie James tried it out on “Blue Jeans,” a song that practically owes a publishing check to Dem Franchize Boyz for appropriating the cadence and concept of their 2004 song “White Tee.”
The white female rapper has been one of the last frontiers in hip-hop, but Ke$ha is reframing the conversation. “Her talky, blonde-y, white-girl rap thing, there’s no one else doing that right now,” said the producer and songwriter Lukasz Gottwald, aka Dr. Luke, who signed Ke$ha to his imprint and executive produced “Animal.”
“White rappers who try to sound black,” he continued, are “so uninteresting, so unimaginative.” Citing examples of white men who’ve worked a different path ““ the Beastie Boys, Beck, the raplike moments of Weezer ““ Dr. Luke said there was room for Ke$ha to try the same thing: “Being that she was willing to do that, and she liked it, I’m in support of it. A whole record of that might get annoying though.”
Few others have even bothered to try. Debbie Harry of Blondie excepted, the most notable white female rapper has been Tairrie B, who was signed to Ruthless Records, the label headed by Eazy-E of N.W.A. Her 1990 debut album, “Power of a Woman,” made a brief splash, but she gave herself over to heavy metal soon after, and her tough-talking attitude made for a template with few followers, Ke$ha very much not among them. “I’m not thuggy,” Ke$ha said. “I’m trying to go for the lost-member-of-Whitesnake vibe.”
Since then the white-girl rap legacy has been thin and not particularly proud: fizzled major-label curios (Icy Blu, Sarai, Lanz), indie-rap and hipster-rap curios (Uffie, Princess Superstar, the stunningly good Invincible), foreigner curios (Lady Sovereign, Macromantics, Yelle, Peaches), VH1 reality show curios (from “ego trip’s The White Rapper Show” and “ego trip’s Miss Rap Supreme”). There was the great Northern State plague of 2002, in which three Long Island women briefly and inexplicably became critical darlings, and the following year, the virtually self-parodic rap verse on Madonna’s “American Life.”
And that’s pretty much it. Even if Ke$ha were looking for influences, there are barely any to choose from.
Ke$ha, whose real name is Kesha Rose Sebert, was raised in Nashville by her mother, Pebe, a singer-songwriter with a hand ful of credits, including “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Cand le to You)” ““ written with Hugh Moffatt, then her husband ““ which Dolly Parton took to the top of the Billboard country singles chart in 1980.
After a call from Dr. Luke, who’d heard her demo, Ke$ha moved to Los Angeles to begin working on music. (The initial call came while the Sebert family was hosting Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie during a taping of the reality show “The Simple Life.” Richie answered, and hung up.)
After an extended period of songwriting and partying, Ke$ha caught a break, singing the hook on the Flo Rida single “Right Round.” But although the song was a No. 1 pop single in the United States and elsewhere, Ke$ha wasn’t credited on the song domestically, received no payment for her work and did not appear in the video.
“You have to be patient, you have to do things right,” she said of declining to be in the video. “If you want to be a legitimate artist, it’s more important what you say no to. I knew he would want me to be some sexpot, shake my booty and whatever.”
Ke$ha was signed to RCA soon after “Right Round,” on the strength of her singing. “When we signed her, the rap thing never entered our minds,” Weiss said. But it wasn’t far from Ke$ha’s: two songs on “Animal” that she’d mostly completed before her contract, “Backstabber” and “Boots & Boys,” show her trying out the style, which she picked up again while recording new material.
“I love the Beastie Boys ““ that’s probably why “˜TiK ToK’ happened,” Ke$ha said. “Rap in general has never been my steez, but I like it.”
In the studio with Dr. Luke and the producer Benny Blanco, it took only three takes to get right. “I was kind of jokingly white-girl rapping over it, and they thought it was sick,” she said. Similar sessions led to the sinuous, fevered “Slow Motion” ““ a version of the Juvenile song of the same name ““ with the Oscar-winning Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia. It didn’t make the album, maybe because it could pass for actual hip-hop: Ke$ha at her rapping best, surrounded by rappers.
And however Ke$ha might be positioned, it won’t be as a rapper. “I don’t think they put that word on her at all,” said Richard Palmese, executive vice president of pop/rock promotions for the RCA Music Group. “She’s a pop singer with a lot of edge.”
While the song has been a success on rhythmic pop radio, a format that favors dance-oriented hip-hop and R&B alongside uptempo pop, it wasn’t promoted to urban radio stations, or to BET. Cat Thomas, program director of KLUC-FM in Las Vegas, a rhythmic pop station that was an early adopter of “TiK ToK,” said the song is “more about the feel and the lyrics than the delivery.” In other words, its popness trumps its rapness.
Some have compared Ke$ha, unfavorably, to Uffie, who is signed to the influential French electronic music label Ed Banger and whose sass-rap predated Ke$ha’s by a couple of years. “I understand why people need to make that association,” Ke$ha said, “but it’s not like, “˜Yeah, let me just listen to Uffie and rip that off.’ ” At one point Dr. Luke held discussions with Uffie’s camp about producing her debut album, he said, though it never panned out. (Perhaps sensing the moment, though, Uffie recently announced that her debut album will be released this spring.)
If anyone should feel fleeced by “TiK ToK,” though, it’s Lady Gaga, who probably hears significant chunks of her hit “Just Dance” in its melody and subject matter.
But Lady Gaga doesn’t rap (at least not yet), leaving Ke$ha unchallenged as a double threat, even if her singing, which gets more than equal time on “Animal,” is still something of a secret.
“I can sing,” Ke$ha said, “and you don’t know that yet.”
There are a pair of video clips on YouTube of Ke$ha performing country-rock songs, impressively, with her brother, Lagan, in a Nashville bar in 2006, moments that are more vibrant than much of her album.
“I love country music so much,” she said. “That will hopefully be a phase of my career, way later.” In between now and then, though, is a blank slate. “I can’t even predict what that’s going to be,” she said of her next album. “I could make a polka record.” Could happen.