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‘Dave’ Is Too Sad To Redeem Lil Dicky

Screenshot: FX

I have found myself in a bit of a pickle: I watched both seasons of the FX television show Dave, written by, created by, and starring Dave Burd, more commonly known as the rapper Lil Dicky, and have been forced to admit to myself that I enjoyed it quite a bit.

The cause for my annoyance is pretty straightforward. I happen to think that Burd’s rap career was one of the most damaging cultural forces of the 2010s. If you’ve never heard a Lil Dicky song, that’s probably because you somehow managed to make it from 2013 to 2018 without ever being in a room with three or more white guys for more than 15 minutes. Scientists are still examining the data, but it is believed that the words “Yo, have you seen that new Lil Dicky video?” were at some point spoken in 99 percent of all frat houses in America during that time period.

The problem with Burd becoming massively popular with upper- and middle-class white kids across the country wasn’t the mere fact that he is white, but that he was one of those white rappers whose artistic vision didn’t extend beyond repeatedly pointing out that he was a white guy who was rapping, and wasn’t it so crazy and funny that a white guy was doing raps??? He was a comedy rapper who could only make jokes at either his own expense or the culture onto which he’d successfully latched himself. One of his first big songs, called “White Dude,” was a rudimentary stab at satire that includes lines like, “Happy that my name ain’t stupid/Dave coulda been Da’quan with a few kids.” His biggest hit is probably a song called “Save Dat Money,” which is all about how Lil Dicky, unlike all those other extravagant rappers, saves money. If Lil Dicky has any lasting cultural impact, it’s probably thanks to a song he made with Chris Brown called “Freaky Friday,” which used the idea of a white guy saying the n-word as a punchline and certainly helped convince a great many white American youths that they would be totally justified in saying it themselves.

So you can imagine my surprise at discovering that much of Dave‘s 20 episodes are concerned with advancing exactly the sort of critiques that I have long held against Burd’s music. The show, which tells a lightly fictionalized story of Burd’s attempts to become a rap superstar, often holds its title character and his talents as a rapper in utter contempt. The show is not at all shy about advancing the theory that Lil Dicky was never much more than an offensive persona invented by an artistically bankrupt narcissist who had to fall back on cheap and grotesque humor in order to avoid grappling with what it actually means to be a white artist in a predominantly black art form. Multiple episodes shine an unkind light on Dave’s self-absorption and skill for cultural appropriation—at one point in Season 2, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (playing himself) is brought on to call out Dave’s blaccent and unrestrained self-regard. Throughout the show, Dave treats his friends and collaborators like shit, has universally awful fans, and can’t make any music that doesn’t suck.

The show’s most interesting and meaningful relationship exists between Dave and his hype man, Davionte Ganter, aka GaTa, who has been Burd’s real-life hype man since 2013 and portrays himself on the show. In the Season 2 finale, after Dave has gone to Rick Rubin’s house and had a vision of himself as a chef cooking and serving GaTa to a table of white diners, GaTa finally confronts Dave about the extractive and unequal nature of their relationship and the many ways in which Dave trades on the authenticity provided to him by GaTa’s black skin.

It’s easy enough to write all of this off as Burd mounting a cynical attempt at rebranding, which to some extent it inherently is. Burd wouldn’t be the first artist to go looking for accolades via self-critique, as there is in fact an entire cottage industry of televised autofiction dedicated to doing just this. But I don’t think Dave is quite following in this tradition. To the extent that there is much fictionalizing in Dave—in an interview with Vanity Fair, Ganter said his character’s argument with Dave in the Season 2 finale stemmed from dynamics in their real-life relationship—it’s done in service of presenting something of a redemptive fantasy.

One episode in Season 1 opens with a long, narrative music video in which Dave goes to prison for flashing his penis during a concert and then has to come up with a way to prevent a scary Mexican gang leader from raping him. Just as the video starts to reach its awful crescendo, the music stops and we are in a boardroom where Dave is playing the song for a room of horrified record execs, who point out everything that is offensive about the song and implore him not to release it. Later, Dave goes on The Breakfast Club intending to debut the offensive prison-rape song against the wishes of his record label and manager. But at the last second, a look from GaTa convinces Dave to keep the song unreleased, and he instead performs an impressive freestyle that serves as the final scene of the first season.

Season 2 ends with Burd crafting a similar fantasy for his on-screen self. After his big blow-up with GaTa, in which he tells his friend that he’s never offered to record a song with him because he finds his music generic, Burd scraps his plans to put on an elaborate, Kanye West–style VMA performance in favor of bringing GaTa on stage and debuting a duet with him. The song is of course about being good to your friends.

I must admit that this is all very good television. The show is consistently well-written and -acted, and through two seasons its writers have shown a real knack for building towards these big emotional beats that I find quite affecting as a viewer.

And yet my initial impulse was to scoff at my own enjoyment of the show. I wanted to feel like I was smarter than this, to understand that Burd was just trying to distance himself from his old character—there’s a reason the show is called Dave and not Lil Dicky—and in the process create a new one that would become a cuddly stand-in for his actual personality, gain him some fresh cultural traction, and improve his Q score. But the more I thought about this, the more it occurred to me that there are much easier ways to pull that particular trick (just ask Ted Lasso—excuse me, Jason Sudeikis), and that the points at which Dave runs parallel to and departs from Burd’s true life do less to rehabilitate his image than to highlight just how short he routinely fell as the real Lil Dicky.

Burd’s real-life appearance on The Breakfast Club happened in 2015, and featured him sweatily monologuing about his creative process, claiming that he had the potential to be a better rapper than Drake, and bragging about a girl wanting to eat his ass on tour. He even begged off rapping on air, only managing to spit one measly bar in front of a disapproving Charlamagne tha God. Real-life Burd was also not wise enough to keep his most offensive songs under wraps, as we all were subjected to the contents of “Freaky Friday” and the controversy it kicked up.

And there is no moment from Burd’s actual rap career that comes close to matching the triumph on display in the final scene of Season 2. Burd never performed at the VMAs in real life, and he never collaborated with Ganter on a song. In fact, Ganter admitted to Vanity Fair that he had spent years trying to get Burd to record a song with him, and that it only happened now for the sake of the television show.

This all left me viewing the show as something of a tragic tale. I didn’t get the sense that Burd was just attempting to score points with critics through self-criticism, or hoodwink audiences into thinking that Lil Dicky wasn’t as bad of a cultural figure as he once appeared. If he was attempting to do those things, I don’t think he succeeded. Because the feeling that two seasons of Dave ultimately left me with was something like pity. That’s a credit to the artistic vision that Burd managed to execute with Dave, which I think was not only an honest attempt by him to grapple with mistakes he made in crafting the Lil Dicky character over the years, but a reimagining of the character into something Burd now wishes it could have been rather than what it actually was.

Burd tried and failed to will his way into rap superstardom by deploying cheap, race-baiting jokes and courting controversy. Just six years ago, he was seriously talking about how he could one day be a bigger star than Drake. Since then he hasn’t managed to release any follow-up to his 2015 debut album, which did not sell and was almost universally ignored by critics. Ending up a successful television actor and writer is a perfectly fine consolation prize, but “Freaky Friday” still exists, millions of awful white bastards still bump Lil Dicky at their house parties, and the closest Burd can now get to absolution for all of that is performing a fake song at a fake awards show with his real friend.