I have never seen the 1988 film A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master. I have, however, watched the video for the Fat Boys’ “Are You Ready for Freddy?”—a song from the film’s soundtrack—more than once. A few years removed from the Fat Boys’ prime, it’s a strange and befuddling piece of music that actually features guest vocals from Robert Englund, in character as Freddy Krueger. “Are You Ready for Freddy?” is one of the more extreme specimens of a peculiar form of late-20th-century cinematic detritus: the end-credits rap song—in a movie that otherwise has little to nothing to do with rap—that summarizes or otherwise comments on the plot of the movie that you have just watched.
I call this the wrap-up rap, and it is a musical genre that I have long found equally fascinating and repellent. This weekend brings the release of Men in Black: International, the fourth film in the Men in Black series. I have not kept up much with this franchise, although I did see the first Men in Black back in 1997; I don’t remember much about it aside from the fact that it made a ton of money, and that its theme song—an exemplary entry into the wrap-up rap canon—became a No. 1 hit, officially marking the beginning of Will Smith’s solo career. (The song was never released as a single in the United States, but topped the Hot 100 Airplay chart.) “Men in Black” even won the Grammy for Best Rap Solo Performance in 1998, beating the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize,” Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” and Busta Rhymes’ “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.”
No performer is more indelibly associated with the wrap-up rap than Will Smith. By my count, he has at least four on his résumé. In 1999, he enjoyed another chart-topping hit with “Wild Wild West,” the truly awful title track to the awful movie of the same name that cannibalized both Kool Moe Dee’s “Wild Wild West” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” in service of rhymes like “Any damsel that’s in distress/ Be out of that dress when she meet Jim West.” In 2002, he released the vaguely nu-metal-ish “Black Suits Comin’ (Nod Ya Head)” for Men in Black II (or MIIB). And, currently at a theater near you, Smith can be heard performing a mind-boggling rap version of “Friend Like Me” (“Watch out! It’s the genie with the attitude”) over the closing credits of Aladdin, while DJ Khaled shouts encouragement.
The wrap-up rap is an inherently ridiculous genre. Comedian Demi Adejuyigbe has made a number of parody videos of the form, including hilarious imaginings of Smith rapping over the end credits of Oscar nominees Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, Moonlight, and Get Out. So how did Will Smith find himself in this situation, as a 50-year-old, unfathomably wealthy man rapping about being a genie (“When I’m out of the lamp, man/ I’m out of control!”) in the year 2019? The answer lies in a strange convergence of the cultural history of the wrap-up rap and the remarkable career trajectory of the erstwhile Fresh Prince himself.
In certain ways, wrap-up raps partake in a tradition far older than hip-hop itself, namely the film or television theme song that usually preceded the dramatic work in question and helpfully established its context. Famous examples of this include “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” the Brady Bunch theme song, and, of course, Smith’s own theme song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which should probably count as his earliest foray into the genre. But the wrap-up rap found its true flourishing in the 1980s and early 1990s, not just in curiosities like the Fat Boys’ Freddy collab but also MC Hammer’s “Addams Groove” (from The Addams Family), Tag Team’s “Addams Family (Whoomp!)” (from Addams Family Values), Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap” (from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze), Tone Loc’s “Ace Is in the House” (from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective), and many others. Not all of these technically appeared over the end credits to these films (incredibly, “Ninja Rap” occurs within the diegetic world of the movie itself), but they all effectively serve the same function: to describe in some manner the film in which they appear, and to goofily appeal to that most prized category, Moviegoers of All Ages. (For this reason, I don’t consider tracks like Ice-T’s “Colors,” from the movie of the same title, or Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise,” from Dangerous Minds, to fit in this category, if only because they take themselves seriously and are actually good. Meanwhile, a song like Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page’s “Come With Me,” from 1998’s Godzilla, does not qualify, either, because while it is appropriately stupid it is not actually about Godzilla.)
All of these songs are either products or unseemly backwash of a time when hip-hop was still being treated as a punchline by much of mainstream consumer culture. Readers of a certain age may recall when “rap” was used to sell Fruity Pebbles and The Legend of Zelda, when the music made parents uncomfortable and so the advertising industry gamely made it into a joke—cheekily linking the music to the blandest corners of consumer culture, after all, was a way of both exploiting and defanging it. This was, of course, roughly the same period when Will Smith’s own career was in ascendance, as one-half of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. Smith’s work with DJ Jazzy Jeff resulted in a handful of memorable recordings (peaking with 1991’s “Summertime,” the best piece of music Smith has ever been involved with) and a bunch of other stuff that hasn’t aged all that well. (Tracks like “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” maintain sentimental value in certain quarters, because people listened to them when they were kids, which is exactly the audience they were made for.) At his best, the Fresh Prince was basically a PG-rated version of Slick Rick, a clever, mildly irreverent storyteller with a handsome charm made for MTV. (For his part, DJ Jazzy Jeff is a legitimately great and important hip-hop musician who too often got reduced to being tossed out the front door, but that’s for another time.)
When Smith moved to television in the title role of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the show was threading a delicate needle. The NBC sitcom premiered five months after the debut of In Living Color on Fox, a groundbreaking show whose success suggested that television comedies could no longer treat hip-hop culture and the people who made it and consumed it as the butt of jokes. And yet, NBC, the nation’s oldest major broadcasting network that still had the top-rated show in the country with The Cosby Show, was clearly anxious about its foray into rap-adjacent programming. A New York Times article that ran shortly after the show’s premiere, titled “ ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ Puts Rap in Mainstream,” described the show’s goal as “finding a tone that preserves the grittiness of hip-hop without alienating a mass audience expecting laughs” and quoted producer Benny Medina as reassuring that “Will is not threatening.” (Juice Crew rapper and Bridge Wars veteran MC Shan has long claimed that he was in fact the first performer under consideration for the title role, a fascinating pop cultural Sliding Doors moment.)
From late 1993 until the summer of 1997, Will Smith didn’t release any new music, focusing instead on his acting career, as the success of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and films such as Bad Boys and Independence Day turned him into an A-list leading man. When he returned to music with “Men in Black,” hip-hop had changed considerably, and Smith’s attempts to slide back into the role he’d carved out in the late 1980s—the rapper you can take home to your parents—felt out of step and frequently opportunistic. In the late 1990s, Smith’s music was huge, but he was a persistently irksome figure to anyone who cared about hip-hop as anything more than a vehicle for lucrative culture-industry synergy. Eminem famously feuded with Smith over Smith’s weirdly prurient insistence that rappers shouldn’t swear, but Smith really did say this sort of thing a lot, often seeking to bolster his position as hip-hop’s foremost respectability politician by bragging about how much money he made.
On that last count, he wasn’t wrong. Here is a woefully incomplete list of seminal 1990s rappers who had fewer No. 1 hits as a lead artist than Will Smith (counting “Men In Black”): the Notorious B.I.G., 2Pac, Nas, Missy Elliott, Jay-Z, Lauryn Hill, Dr. Dre, and every single member of the Wu-Tang Clan combined. Still, clutching your pearls over other rappers swearing when you’re rapping about aliens and steampunk cowboys and whatever’s going on here is fairly insufferable, even if it’s nice that you can afford the pearls. Smith’s successes even spawned some unfortunate imitators: Two years after the success of “Men in Black,” LL Cool J released the spectacularly bizarre “Deepest Bluest” for the soundtrack to Deep Blue Sea, in which LL spends four-plus minutes pretending to be an actual rapping shark. (“Killer for centuries, the Gotti of the deep/ in the next millennium, I’m still gonna creep.”)
The heyday of the wrap-up rap has long passed, which is for the best, and one of several reasons Smith’s return to the game with “Friend Like Me” is so cringe-inducing. But, lest we end this on a cranky note, it wasn’t all bad. The single best entry into the genre came in 2006, with Kool Keith and KutMasta Kurt’s “Grandma’s Boyee,” an end-credits opus penned for the cult comedy Grandma’s Boy. Kool Keith is one of hip-hop’s most brilliant weirdos, and his approach to the title track of this very stupid and remarkably funny film is hilariously literal, like someone freestyling a bizarrely detailed Wikipedia plot summary in a rambling, off-kilter fashion. As the song goes on, it becomes clear that Kool Keith, who otherwise has nothing to do with this movie, has watched it carefully and intently, even passionately, and definitely more than once. It’s a labor of love, a self-consciously absurd piece of music that imbues the wrap-up rap genre and the film itself with the exact level of seriousness that each deserves.