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In the Occupy age, America's highest income brackets have proved unsympathetic. Alas, class discrimination persists even in that most liberal of institutions: hip-hop. Consider the curious case of Asher Roth.
Roth's early years resembled those of Silver Spoons' Ricky Stratton. By his own admission, Roth was the child of well-to-do parents. They footed the bill for their precocious son to attend Pennsylvania's West Chester University, where he enrolled in search of $1 pizza and sorority trim. Instead, he got a taste of unmitigated bile: The MC's debut single, 2008's "I Love College," was greeted with contemptuous guffaws from hip-hop fans who disproportionately value gravitas over skill. That Roth was a pretty good rapper — concise and unflashy — didn't seem to move his critics (including fellow white rhymers Apathy and Copywrite).
"Have I been unfairly criticized?" Roth asks. "Absolutely not. There are people who want to take cheap shots on some Floyd Mayweather shit, but it's a cold world."
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As we talk, Roth's tour bus is headed to Columbus, Ohio, where he'll perform before several thousand apeshit coeds at Ohio State University. "The most rewarding thing about my quote-unquote job is seeing these kids who just want to have to fun," he says. "We were just at Syracuse. Those kids went buck when 'I Love College' came on."
The fittingly named Final Four Tour has culminated in more than one epic stage dive ("I've cleared five-foot gaps, man. I can jump"), but otherwise, Roth mostly avoids rock-god showmanship. What's striking is how genuinely grounded he seems. Whereas his stylistic forefather, Eminem, is cold and unknowable, Roth is hospitably engaging. After years of enduring vitriol well beyond the critical pale, the 26-year-old appears at peace with himself.
Part of that is evolutionary. It seems that hip-hop's first and most unfairly railroaded "frat rapper" has staggered onward — if not always rejoicing — to adulthood. He offers this up as proof of his newly attained maturity: "Do I chug beer all the time? No. I might enjoy slowly drinking a craft brew. Instead of smoking six blunts a day, I now enjoy smoking through a vaporizer."
It took a rocky learning curve for Roth to achieve this turnaround. 2009's Asleep in the Bread Aisle was a failure on every level except, interestingly enough, an artistic one. It sold zilch; critics were so derogatory they seemed to have a personal stake in Roth's failing. Pitchfork's Ian Cohen, with characteristic smarm, called it an exercise in "hedge-betting callowness" and "failed jokes."
Yet Asleep in the Bread Aisle was not charmless. Roth talked about what he loved — even if what he loved was keg parties and lacrosse — over beats that were alternately loopy ("Lark on My Go-Kart"), rangy ("His Dream"), and seductive ("She Don't Wanna Man"). Yes, he was an affluent Jewish suburbanite. He was also a fun character and pretty damn auspicious songwriter.
With another, apparently more ambitious album on the horizon, Roth place in hip-hop's broader picture remains up for debate. For better or worse, he started a conversation that is still raging: Where do well-heeled whites belong in a genre that has always been so loud and prideful in singing the woes of America's underclass?
In fairness, the "well-heeled" tag is a little misleading. As he explains to New Times, Roth's life wasn't always so sun-strewn.
"I was sleeping in a living room closet when we made Asleep in the Bread Aisle," he says. "I remember thinking, 'We have our work cut out for ourselves.'"