Missed what I’ve been doing with Music Video Anatomy? For the most recent installments, I covered WA$$UP (와썹 and Bermuda Triangle! We’re back on our bullshit this time and talking about Zico and hip hop masculinity!
Title: Tough Cookie (Feat. Don Mills)
The most iconic setting of Tough Cookie really is Zico in the bathtub and I think it’s what everyone thinks of if they’ve seen the video before.
However, I can’t stop thinking about how this video is set in different working class settings (a warehouse, a garage and its parking lot) and luxe-ish nightclub and barber shop settings. Fadeaway, an 1LLIONAIRE collab video with a bunch of heavy hitters in Korean hip hop that we’ll tackle later, has a similar but more polished feel when it comes to the juxtaposition of scenarios/settings.
I don’t know that Zico or the MVs director ever talked about why they chose the settings that they did, but I think it really does work for the understanding/presentation of hip hop as something simultaneously linked with Being Poor but also having success and excess.
The best things about “Tough Cookie” for me are the beat across the song and then the fast-paced rap Zico delivers at one point in the last third of the track. (It’s very good!)
The lowest point of the song? In the version that I listened to on Spotify – not recently, so that may have changed – Zico drops a slur he really had no business using in the first place, rapping that (translation from here):
Rappers these days don’t have the skills
so they all have a snap back fetish
You`re such a f*ggot bitch
It’s peak fragile masculinity in hip hop and Korean rappers do not corner the market on this considering how men like Andre 3000 and the late, lovely Prince embody/embodied an accessible and visually queer-friendly masculinity… but exhibited some level of homophobia over the years.
There’s so much to loathe in this video, but the styling – for Zico, Don Mills, their backup dancers, and the extras standing in as part of their “gang”.. “Tough Cookie” is hood cosplay on display and it makes sense because of how this was at a point where Zico was trying to break free from his image as an idol – because even hip hop-themed groups like Block B still had to stick with a particular almost squeaky clean image.
“Tough Cookie” is all about excess, about swag, and about a perception of what a real hip hop star should look like. Seeing Zico in the bathtub full of cookies, clothed only (apparently) in gold chains, bracelets, thick rings, and grills while flanked by video vixens, I have to laugh. I always do. Because this is peak hip hop as performance art. Zico is no more a gangster than I am, but those are the visuals he reaches for in “Tough Cookie” to stand out.
In previous pieces, we’ve talked about the way that some gatekeepers in Korean hip hop came for RM and Yoongi’s throats back in 2013 and explicitly attacked their apparent lack of masculinity and how that was apparently out of place in hip hop. We’ve also talked about Zico himself back in “Bermuda Triangle” back in March and how his understanding of Blackness shapes one key line in that song and is part of a historical trend in Korean hip hop.
Today, however, we’re going to talk about fragile masculinity in hip hop and how that seems to have informed Zico’s “Tough Cookie” from start to finish… and where that masculinity is now.
One of the biggest things that stands out about “Tough Cookie” is the way that this music video seems like Zico is thumbing his nose at the idol industry that would ultimately make him into a household name in Korea – as right about now, Zico seems to be a pretty big deal even outside of idol and hip hop circles. Zico’s start as Nacseo (doodle/scribble in Korean) in the underground communities is well-known and he’s referenced it in his own work and has built his reputation up on crossover appeal.
However, it definitely wasn’t always like that. From my research, I know that idol rappers – especially ones who were underground and therefore “authentic” to hip hop – are treated with some level of distrust and are dismissed. Even now. In a 2018 interview with Tamar Herman for Billboard Magazine, Zico revealed some of the struggles he faced as an underground rapper turned idol rapper:
Zico personally struggled as well; as an underground rapper turned K-pop star, typically known as idols, he faced criticism of selling-out. “There were a lot of prejudices and biased views of me when I started off as an idol group member,” he recalled. “That really can’t be helped, but I just steadily did my thing and enjoyed it, not letting the stigma hinder me and my music. People started to turn around and began to accept me.”
When I watched the first few episodes of Show Me The Money 9, the latest season of the popular mnet hip hop vehicle, what stood out to me was how idol rappers were almost immediately set up against the ideal image of a “real” rapper.
Stray Kids’ Changbin and PENTAGON’s Wooseok were in the first episode of the season (and Changbin made it to the second). For Changbin’s appearance, we actually got a really interesting if frustrating moment where some of the other rappers were asked about Stray Kids and about idol rappers.
One contestant, Veiniyfl even says, while grinning, “An idol rapper? Don’t care about them except GD [BIG BANG’s G-Dragon]”.
(Veiniyfl has made an appearance on my site before, by the way: he’s the SMTM 9 contestant who used the n-word in his audition and delivered a half-assed apology in IG stories about it.)
G Dragon, like Zico, is an idol rapper who’s had to balance the divider that’s assumed to be between his audiences. He can’t be “just” a pretty boy for the idol crowd because the rap fans won’t respect him or see him as authentic, but if he’s “too hip hop”, he risks losing the audience that launched him to stardom. It’s a complex place to land considering that these dudes want to have their cake and eat it too. They want the idol mega stardom, but… they also want the respect within their local hip hop communities and the money that will bring them (because of their swag-focused understanding of hip hop).
Anyway, “Tough Cookie” looks and sounds the way it does because hip hop culture worldwide spawns a specific form of fragile masculinity that makes everyone weak. It’s bop-adjacent and all, but I’m glad that Zico is clearly so much more comfortable in his own skin and in his position in the industry now because that song is… a mess and the video makes me shout.
And not in a good way.