SICK WHEELS

Tesla is not cool. Just ask hip hop and R&B

Tesla’s hip-hop cred
Tesla’s hip-hop cred
Image: Reuters/Rescue Media
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Celebrities flaunt their Teslas. Lionel Richie, will.i.am, and Brad Pitt all drive a Model S—custom suicide doors, matte paint, and matching rims optional. Pro skateboarder Tony Hawk tricked out his Tesla with black-satin-wrapped chrome and 1,200 wattage speakers. Electronic DJ Deadmau5 had his painted Ninja Turtle-green.

Teachers in San Francisco preschools say their students, who can barely hold a conversation, look up and shout, “Tesla, Tesla” when one drives by. Elon Musk’s marketing has captured the world.

Yet hip-hop artists, generally speaking, aren’t too impressed. Cars crowd their lyrics, but Teslas are hardly around. In the Rap Genius database, Tesla sputters behind nearly every model except Toyotas, despite being one of the world’s top automotive marques.

How is Honda lapping one of the world’s hottest carmakers? One reason is electric cars just aren’t that popular yet. Sales of electric cars amount to less than 1% of the US market. Even in New York, only 1% of cars sold in the states were electric in 2017. (California is the outlier, with electric cars capturing 5% of the market last year.)

And there’s timing. Tesla has been around just 15 years. Benz and Bentley, which top the list of most-reference car brands in rap lyrics, have a century or more of automotive caché. Tesla’s first electric car, the Roadster, arrived in 2008, followed by the Model S sedan and Model X SUV several years later. Tesla’s clientele at the time were the bourgeois bohemians of Silicon Valley. Which is to say, not cool. Few, if any, of its customers are ever likely to have heard Chance the Rapper, or attended a Future show.

Then there’s the East Coast-West Coast rivalry. Rap’s musical epicenter has migrated over the years. Car preferences followed. California’s car culture favors old-school lowriders on the streets of Los Angeles: Chevys, Oldsmobiles, and Cadillacs. On the East Coast, an urban aesthetic, hard winters, and sweltering summers mean “Jeeps, Lex Coups, Bimaz, & Benz” rule the streets. More recently, the south has been the most influential force in popular hip hop, a place where warm weather keeps vintage Caddys on the road, and brand-new Bugattis and Maybachs roll through the streets of Miami. In any case, Tesla never had a chance to shine on this timeline.

But Tesla does have its fans among hip hop musicians. The most ardent is Los Angeles-based Jaden Smith, son of movie star Will Smith. The 20-year-old name-drops Tesla in more than half a dozen songs, and cites Tesla’s Elon Musk as an inspiration: “I want to be that person who can change people’s lives so drastically in every way as well.” His lyrics on the 2017 album Syre, which Pitchfork called “some of the worst in rap [of the] year,” are littered with references potentially composed while driving his falcon-wing-Model X such as:

Riding to Metro, we boomin’ (yuh)
All the MSFTS come together in a Tesla
And we zooming

Were you goin’ fast son? Yes, sir
It was that autopilot on the Tesla
Heart palpitating so my chest hurts
Probably see it through my sweatshirt, yellin

Similarly, YouTube bro Logan Paul raps often, and ineptly, about the brand.

That said, Smith and Paul do have some more…respected company. Kendrick Lamar says “You can not test no King in a Tesla” and Tyler, The Creator says he traded up for a Tesla after crashing his McLaren. Both are from Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Florida-based Kodak Black sings, “I like the Tesla better when it drive me,” and the chorus to Travis Scott and Quavo’s “Black & Chinese,” calls out Tesla’s self-driving feature as “lit!”

Maybe Tesla isn’t fully cool yet. It’s not surprising. Silicon Valley’s creations are not dissimilar from Crocs in the fashion world: hopelessly uncool outside their clique at first, then beloved by millions. Sometimes brands like Apple breakthrough and define the mainstream. Yet there is one Valley company that already has street cred. Among the automobile brands  hip-hop artists idolize, it’s fast overtaking Benz and Bentley. And they don’t make a single car.

The $62 billion, raid-hailing company Uber is ascendent. It appears 61 times per million words in Rap Genius, comparing favorably to 71.2 times for Bentley and 105 for Benz, while lil’ Lyft gets just 2.9 mentions. No other way to get around is growing as fast. Watch out Tesla.