So much mainstream music — not just hip-hop, but pop and country, too — appeals to the lowest common denominator. People want to get rich without working for it, have stupid fun without repercussions and have sex without emotional entanglements.
Roth aims a little higher than the conspicuous consumption fantasies that dominate the charts — and that's the problem. Mediocrity is nothing to celebrate, either. But he does it with such a genial demeanor that it seems mean to dismiss him.
This late in the game, it's absurd to talk about Roth like he's an anomaly. Even people who know nothing about hip-hop can name the Beastie Boys and Eminem, and there are plenty of white rappers working just outside the mainstream: Buck 65, Sage Francis, Northern State and Why? — to name just a few. And if you're looking for a Jew from Philly, there's Princess Superstar.
No, it's not that there's a lack of rappers with a lack of melanin. But the void that Roth aims to fill is that of the middle-class, middlebrow kid who grew up listening to hip-hop — loving the rhymes and energy, but not relating to the street culture.
He taps into that demographic with his hit "I Love College," which celebrates Miller Lite, dollar pizza slices and getting naked with random co-eds.
Roth's stated lack of ambition is what makes him so hot right now. And make no mistake, he's blowing up. "Asleep in the Bread Aisle" debuted at No. 5 on Billboard's Top 200 chart and was iTunes' most downloaded album for more than a week, while "I Love College" has been streamed more than 40 million times on his MySpace page.
Roth, who dropped out of West Chester University to infiltrate the more fertile hip-hop scene in Atlanta, may insist that he just wants to have a good time, but he's inadvertently exposing hip-hop's double standard. You'll hear it clearest in the chorus, where he outlines his priorities: "Drink my beer and smoke my weed/but my good friends is all I need."
When someone like 50 Cent raps about dealing drugs, hooking up with women and hanging with his homeys, he's seen as a thug. But with a dude like Roth, it's just seen as good, clean fun.
That doesn't mean nothing else is on his mind: The sappy "His Dream" pays tribute to his dad, and "Fallin' " recounts Roth's epic journey from teenage Jay-Z fan to "Gettin' on the mic, I'm a wizard like Merlin/Breakin' barriers, tearin' walls like it's Berlin."
That's the other thing white people like about Roth's flow, and it's the same thing they like about Eminem: They can understand what he's saying, even if his rhymes are often more forced than they should be.
Roth doesn't try to duck the comparison. On "As I Em," he raps, " 'cause we have the same complexion and similar voice inflection/it's easy to see the pieces and to reach for that connection."
In some ways, it's fitting that so many Jews want to claim him as one of their own. If you're scanning the charts for a Jewish-sounding name, there's none more likely than Asher Roth of Bucks County. But the rapper's quick to correct that assumption: He may have inherited a Jewish-sounding surname from his dad, but his mom's Presbyterian, and he doesn't consider himself a member of the tribe.
For many casual listeners, it's easier to imagine Roth as a Jew than, say, the black rapper Shyne, who has reportedly become more devoted to his faith during his incarceration. However, the easiest thing to do isn't always the right thing to do.