John Cena currently represents just about everything that hardcore pro wrestling fans hate. Aging Gen-Xers who grew up with the aggro bad-boy gristle of the Attitude Era can't stand his colorful kid-friendliness. Diehards with a vested interest in the main event grit their teeth when yet another up-and-comer falls to the midcard after losing a feud with him. And nearly everybody who's been watching the WWE for the past ten years, even off and on, have to be impressed by Cena's failure to change as a character even a little bit.
For somebody so supernaturally talented at what he does, people find it difficult to relate to Cena. Kids love him because of his borderline-superheroic resilience; adults chafe at him because he lacks inner conflict, ambivalence, or even the slightest hint that his long-dormant asshole side will corrupt him and, belatedly, give him a bit of an edge.
The strangest thing about this, though, is that John Cena is secretly weird as hell. When he first arrived in the WWE, he was a whitebread musclebot who seemed destined to lag behind Dave Batista, Randy Orton, and Brock Lesnar among the big callups of 2002—basically the 1983 NFL draft class of pro wrestling. Cena wore trunks that corresponded to the local city's sports teams for cheap-pop purposes… and that was about it. That was the entire extent of his personality at that point.
Then, in an attempt to avoid cutting their losses on a talented yet charisma-deficient prospect, the writers caught wind of the fact that Cena liked hip-hop and turned him heel, transforming him into an unlikable pseudo-Everlast circa House of Pain. And so he'd 8 Mile his way through feuds, merging battle-rap punchlines and textbook pro wrestling promo work in ways that made the two schools of shit-talk feel separated at birth. For this early stretch of his career, that persona didn't just make him a midcard cult favorite, it made him an actual recording artist.
Keep in mind that in 2004, the concept of a rapping pro wrestler had been very recently defined by novelty detritus like Randy Savage's Hogan-baiting Be a Man, which is nowhere near the kind of Kool Keith-via-Space Ghost lunacy that one would hope for from a 50-year-old Macho Man. So Cena's actual by-god available-in-stores album You Can't See Me—it dropped in 2005, although its title is still one of Cena's go-to's in his overstuffed portfolio of catchphrases—was some kind of weird miracle.
Its many nuances have been widely deconstructed and analyzed elsewhere, as both track-by-track breakdown and ranked listicle. It's fun to think about some strange alternate-universe version of Cena in which he's a modestly successful battle-rap type with a cult following among those who like their shit "lyrical, but not, like, super-abstract scientifical stuff." You Can't See Me in particular feels like it's made for older heads who cackle at punchlines where thirty-something MCs make disparaging remarks about skinny jeans and Auto-Tune, people who always crack jokes at the expense of Juggalos while secretly admitting that the musical lineup at the Gathering has some pretty amazing guests on the regular. ("Dude, they got Above the Law and Dayton Family in 2010!")
In the TV-PG world of WWE, it's easy to wish for that grimier, weirder, "Doctor of Thuganomics"-era John Cena. Last year, Cena contributed his first new rap verses in nearly ten years to the soundtrack to the WWE 2K15 video game. He co-headlined with Wiz Khalifa to drop afterthought punchlines that did just enough to maintain his hip-hop connections—"We all day fam, hotter than a sauna/I'm not from Chi City but I'm Common on the corner"; "I say you're just a friend 'cause my biz is the marquee." It's almost enough to make you forget that his original rap-promo gimmick could be pretty engaging sometimes, if unsurprisingly a little too heavy on the "haha ur gay" jokes. But what's been even more under appreciated is just what a small yet bizarre place Cena has in the wider world of hip-hop, particularly at the independent level.
For one thing, there's "The Time Is Now"—the lead cut from You Can't See Me and the song that's drowned out by thousands of disaffected fans chanting "John Cena suuuuuucks" during his every walk to the ring. The song's intro has become memetic for fans, with its opening Lil Fame "Amadou!" sample from M.O.P.'s "Ante Up" transformed into "Rapadoo" by mistake. That non-word has become one of a dozen shorthands for John Cena wins yet a-fucking-gain, and the audio punchline to countless parodies of said tendency.
What gets overlooked in this whole situation is that this beat, the one that's accompanied more than a dozen World Championship victories and a notorious prank call, comes courtesy of producer Jacob Dutton, better known as Jake One. If the name doesn't ring bells, the beats he's made for 50 Cent, De La Soul, or MF DOOM probably would. Or the ones he's made for Scarface or Busta Rhymes or Prodigy or Dilated Peoples or Kardinal Offishall or Freeway, or M.O.P. themselves, who popped up on Jake One's White Van Music in 2008. Out of all those legendary artists, only 50 Cent has had a bigger popular success with a Jake One beat than Cena. For Jake One, whose work as a producer is firmly in the uncompromising lineage of Pete Rock and DJ Premier, that has to seem pretty fucking weird.
It gets weirder. Cena wasn't yet permanently installed in the main event scene in 2004—he had high-profile feuds with recognized veterans like The Big Show and Booker T over the U.S. Championship, but it was something more of a tertiary title than the special "Open Challenge" attraction Cena made it earlier this year. That could be why a couple of his guest-verse outliers from that period have been widely overlooked, despite being released on the now-dormant Definitive Jux, which was about as much indie-rap-cred as anyone could have circa 2004.
How Cena became semi-labelmates with El-P, Cannibal Ox, and Aesop Rock isn't discussed much, probably because his work there was more or less remix and b-side duty. But he wound up with some bizarre associations during his time on the label.
The Perceptionists' "Champion Scratch" is probably the less weird of Cena's two Jux cuts, or at least the one that's easier to explain. The supergroup of Mr. Lif, Akrobatik, and DJ Fakts One all hail from Boston, which is geographically the closest rap scene to Cena's hometown of West Newbury, Massachusetts. And Akrobatik's a total mark—he calls himself "the Rap Tony Atlas" on this cut, and one memorable line on 2003's Beatminerz-produced "Always Bet on Ak" big-ups himself by marveling "Who ever thought this young brother from Dorchester/Would come to be the Next Big Thing like Brock Lesnar." Add it up and Cena's appearance makes at least logistical sense.
Lyrical sense is a bit harder to come by, though, since Cena's only appearance is on a clean edit, and for a future record-breaking Make-A-Wish celebrity, your dude sure likes him some toilet talk. Literally: "Y'all're stuck on sloppy [shit] like some toilet tissue/[edit of unknown bad word], put your mouth on the hole that I [piss] through."
Cena doing a solid for a crew full of regional cohorts is all well and good, but showing up on a Murs remix is even more of a blindside effort, especially when the song also features Chicano rap eccentric Chingo Bling and fucking E-40. Weirder still is that Cena gets the last verse. On a track where the "H-U-S-T-L-E" in question involves Murs dedicating himself to indie-rap pavement-pounding, E-40 going over his coke-dealing history, and Chingo Bling repping the work ethic of his people ("America would shut down if Mexicans took the day off"), Cena decides to start "fillin' you in on a different struggle, the struggle that takes place in four corners, y'know."
Never mind the absurd contrast: Cena's Hustle, later to be grouped with Loyalty and Respect in his personal t-shirt credo, really stands out in that it makes the difference between his 2004 self and his 2015 self sound miniscule. "A true hustler fall on his face and keep risin'/So just when they counted me out, I surprised 'em." In other words: #LOLCENAWINS.