On May 23, Gawker.com published an article titled “The Old Person Guide to ‘Swag.’” Posted days after Sean “Diddy” Combs changed his name to Swag for a week, the inquisitive piece sought to better understand the slang term that has recently managed to gain more popularity after being ubiquitous in hip-hop’s lexicon in the past few years. Writer Adrian Chen starts off with his own pedestrian (no shots*) explanation of Swag, and then cites an example given by The New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh before taking the case to a jury of “live young people” on Twitter for a verdict.
While a few of Gawker’s panelists offered decent answers, they failed to scratch the surface or add substantial layers to Chen’s account. Swag has historically been a much more fluid and complex concept. With that in mind, XXL tapped one of its resident Swaggologists to provide Gawker with the comprehensive breakdown they’ve been asking for. All Swag Everything. XXL Presents… A Swagged Out Person’s Guide to ‘Swag.’ Swag! —XXL Staff
B.S. (Before Swag)
Swag‘s DNA can be traced back to hip-hop’s formative years. In the 1980s, Dana Dane’s Kangol, Slick Rick’s chains and Run-D.M.C.’s Shell Top Adidas sneakers, fedora hats and leather jackets all exuded swag. They simply called it fresh, or fly at the time.
Though it’s never been a fully hip-hop-centric word, Swagger had its run as the term du jour MCs favored whenever boasting on record. “My swagger’s Mick Jacker, stones is rollin’,” Ghostface Killah rhymes on “The Champ” off of 2006’s Fishcale.
As it’s been the case before (family/fam, whore/hoe), hip-hop took ownership of a word, Swagger, abbreviated it and turned it into slang. Swag! Here’s where it gets a bit complicated. Though Swag rose in popularity in the late 2000s, it didn’t symbolize the death of Swagger as the two are still interchangeable to this day. The birth of Swag coincided with the beginning of the terms’ perpetually evolving meaning. B. S. (Before Swag), more times than not, the term was used to reference someone’s aura, flair, style, or fashion sense. Now, as Sanneh wrote, Swag is a noun (swag), adjective (swaggerific, swagnificent, swagtastic, swagged out, swagless) and verb (swag it out) used to describe a person’s personality, walk, flow, fashion sense, etc, etc. The emergence of Swag also coincided with the growing popularity of Swagger Jacker, a term used to describes a person who steals someone else’s style, flow, etc, etc. XXL Magazine features a monthly column titled Swagger Jacker, in which the publication lists lyrics MCs borrowed from previously released recordings.
Death to Swag
Swag’s omnipresence led to its share of protesters. In 2008, T.I., Jay-Z, Lil Wayne and Kanye West released “Swagga Like Us”— a song that fittingly speaks on Swagger in the traditional sense, borrows a line from M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” for its chorus, and features West Swagger Jacking Ghostface’s “My Swagger’s Mick Jagger” line during his verse. That same year saw the release of Soulja Boy’s “Turn My Swag On”— a smash hit that eventually peaked at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100. Meanwhile, Styles P came forward as one of Swag’s most vocal antagonists. “It’s not even the use of the word that bothers me, it’s the abuse of the word that bothers me,” Styles exclusively told XXLMag.com.“I mean, ain’t nothing wrong with having style, swag and all of that, but I think all the guys are starting to be so focused on the look and the way they are so much, that it almost make them like girls.” The anti-swag movement failed to spread. In 2009, T.I. and company, including a very pregnant M.I.A. took to the Grammy Awards stage for a historical performance of their award-winning “Swagga Like Us.”
With Soulja Boy and Lil B leading the charge, Swag morphed into an ad-lib, a form of cosign in the same way Chuch and Word are used. As Chen mentioned, Soulja and Lil B sprinkle “Pretty Boy Swag” and “Wonton Soup,” respectively, with Swag ad-libs at the end of practically every line. In conversation, one might say: I’m feelin’ that jacket. Another person might echo the sentiment by saying: Swag. The term’s elusive definition is also slowly, but surely making it meaningless as it can now be used in too many contexts that are increasingly becoming disconnected from one another.
[Editor's Note: See XXL's Swagtionnary below for a list of Swag synonyms used in various contexts.]
Swag Synonyms): Attitude, Aura, Awesome, (Da) Bomb, Charisma, Chuch, Confidence, Cool, Disposition, Dope, Essence, Fashionable, Fire, Flair, Flavor, Fly, Fresh, Funky, G, Game, Gnarly, Groovy, Hip, Hot, In Vogue, Jib, Major, Mojo, Personality, Pimp, Rad, Sharp, Smooth, Steez, Stupid, Style, Suave, Swell, Trendy, Vibe, Walk, Word, Zen
P.S.: Swag isn’t dead. Swag!
*You might wanna ask “live young people” about no shots.