These days, it seems like so many rappers want to become actors that we've dubbed a new term for them: raptors.
Outkast's Andre “Dre 3000” Benjamin and Antwan "Big Boi" Patton will star in this summer's "Idlewild," a movie musical set in the South during the Prohibition era, and Benjamin has said he may be leaving music to pursue a career in film.
But "Idlewild" is only the latest movie to feature hip-hop stars moving into acting. While such artists have been appearing in films, primarily of the urban genre, since the 1980s, the breakthrough into "mainstream" films and roles has taken some time.
“Hip-hop has become mainstream, and become a very visible part of American entertainment," said “Hip Hop Matters" author S. Craig Watkins. “For those who see hip-hop as a huge cultural industry, the move into film is a major development in the continuation of this trend."
Watkins believes the use of rappers and hip-hop stars in films is often an attempt to entice young people back to theaters amid a box-office slump.
"It's an effort to reinvigorate the industry," he said. "Youth culture drives so much of the entertainment business today. Hip-hop is a proven force in youth culture."
Indeed, Eminem's 2002 biopic, "8 Mile," directed by Curtis Hanson ("L.A. Confidential," "Wonder Boys"), was a blockbuster hit.
But the formula doesn't always work. When Eminem's protege, top-selling rapper 50 Cent, starred in his own biopic, "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" last year, it was a box-office disappointment.
In fact, several recent "raptor" success stories have had little to do with the younger demographic — and have involved far less stereotypical roles and films.
Ice-T, who got his start as one of the first rap act crossovers playing a cop in 1991's "New Jack City," is currently reprising that role on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
Hip-hop artist Mos Def appeared in this year's "16 Blocks" playing a witness to Bruce Willis' cop, following roles in "The Woodsman," The Italian Job" and "Monster's Ball."
And after appearing in 2003's blockbuster action movie “2 Fast, 2 Furious," Atlanta-based rapper Ludacris had a breakout role in this year's Best Picture Oscar-winning “Crash,” in which he played a thug carjacker.
“He has very good acting chops,” said Lee Cagle, programming director for 95.5 “The Beat,” Atlanta’s hip-hop radio station. “He’s very versatile, not only from the movies, but look at his videos. They always have a very comedic flair to them.”
UC-Davis film professor David Laderman said Ludacris’ appearance in "Crash" lent credibility to the film about race relations in Los Angeles, and that rappers in general often give a feel of authenticity to the movies they star in.
“John Singleton [Boyz n the Hood"] is always trying to deal with the black experience and does so in an uncompromising way,” Laderman said. “It has opened some doors for mainstream-type films to use rappers in acting roles.”
Indeed, Singleton has played a major role in this trend since 1991's "Boyz n the Hood," which starred rapper Ice Cube. The director has gone on to include rappers in eight of his films, from "Higher Learning," about race relations at a California college campus, to "Four Brothers," an action film with Outkast's Benjamin.
Laderman also credits the increasing trend of rappers appearing in mainstream movies to the commercialization and increased accessibility of hip-hop culture, and the integration of different media by large media conglomerates.
“Film, television, music videos, they’ve all become financially more synergized because there’s these huge media companies that have their hands in different media industries, and that facilitates this trend.”
Certainly, all of these rappers and hip-hop artists are hoping for a Will Smith-style breakthrough into acting.
And why not? Surely "Men in Black" paid a lot more than rapping the lyrics to "Parents Just Don't Understand."