Anyone who thought Michael Moore went too far with charges against President Bush in his movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" is advised to avoid the new hit single "Why?" by New York rapper Jadakiss.
Among a litany of questions raised in the song, one has drawn particular attention: Against a thudding, almost hypnotizing beat, the 29-year-old artist growls, "Why did Bush knock down the towers?"
It is a sucker punch of a line, one that -- even in a song that catalogues societal ills -- feels like it comes out of nowhere. From a fringe conspiracy-theorist blogger, it could be easily dismissed or ignored. But Jadakiss, aka Jason Phillips, enjoys vast popularity. His album "Kiss of Death" debuted three weeks ago at No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and "Why?" is a Top 20 single on the hip-hop charts.
There has been no shortage of pop songs attacking Bush, of course, primarily over his handling of the war in Iraq. At a Kerry-Edwards fundraiser last week at Radio City Music Hall, John Mellencamp performed the song "Texas Bandido" that includes the line, "He's just another cheap thug that sacrifices our young." The Beastie Boys go after Bush on their new album, rapping: "Maybe it's time that we impeach Tex / and the military muscle that he wants to flex." Rickie Lee Jones targets the president in her song "Ugly Man." And bands ranging from Social Distortion and Sum 41 to Foo Fighters, Green Day and No Doubt have lent songs to two "Rock Against Bush" CDs.
But blaming the president for the destruction of the World Trade Center represents a quantum escalation of the rhetoric. "Obviously it's only a metaphor," Jadakiss says in a telephone interview Thursday from his tour bus outside of Toledo.
"But on the same note," he adds, "I think that before 9/11 the intelligence agencies weren't communicating a lot of the important information. And ultimately, at the end of the day, he's the boss. The buck stops with him."
The rapper known to his fans as Kiss sounds like he's undergone a bit of media coaching since July 9, when he told Billboard.com: "I just felt [Bush] had something to do with it. That's why I put it in there like that. A lot of my people felt he had something to do with it."
That his explanation for the line has changed slightly in the past week may be due to the anger it has aroused. On his Fox News Channel program, for example, Bill O'Reilly called the song an "atrocity" and Jadakiss a "smear merchant."
Conservative African American social commentator John McWhorter is equally scornful. "Ever since the '60s, the essence of black authenticity is outrage," he said. "As reasons for alienation recede, it has become okay for black people to be outright incoherent in their alienation. So he can say anything he wants as long as he's angry. He's not an intellectual, he's a rapper, so of course he's going to have stupid things to say in his lyrics. Jadakiss knows as much about geopolitics as someone shopping at Wal-Mart."
Jadakiss says he never thought the song would cause a furor or be picked up by mainstream media outlets. "My songs never really reach the ears of white America," he says. But now that this song has, he says he's ready for whatever results.
"Let 'em come at me," he says of critics. "I ain't done nothing that Michael Moore ain't done. Everybody ain't gonna like it, but as long as they hear it, my job is done. I want them to hear it and think about it."
Jadakiss has plenty of supporters, who say the song voices the doubts of many young people, particularly young African Americans. "A lot of folks are really skeptical about the president and the whole gangsta manner in which this administration has rolled," says Bakari Kitwana, author of "The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture." "It's not the first time that people are hearing of government involvement, or at least complicity, with 9/11. These theories have been floating around for a while."
Kitwana argues that young people are suspicious of the administration because of "a wide belief that Bush stole the  election."
Clearly Jadakiss's label, Interscope Records, was prepared for trouble.
MTV says it received a video for the song with the Bush reference taken out. Some radio stations continue to play the edited version, but others are responding to listener demands to play the original.
Asked about his label's decision to omit the Bush reference from some radio and video versions of the song, Jadakiss sounds a bit beleaguered. "Well, you know how the politics are today," he says. "The censorship is crazy." No matter what version of the song has been played, however, hip-hop stations and the music cable channels have received few if any complaints, and the song has barely raised an eyebrow among its intended audience.
The BET channel is playing the video in heavy rotation -- the version that includes the Bush reference. "There was never any question that we would leave that line in," says Stephen Hill, BET's senior vice president of music, talent and entertainment programming. "Our viewers are people who believe in the First Amendment, and they recognize that this is the artist's point of view. We've had no negative feedback about the song."
At the Baltimore rap and hip-hop station WERQ-FM (92.3), the song is a top-five most requested staple. Music director and midday personality Neke says the station plays the edited version of the song because that's what the label sent. But she emphasizes that the station's listeners "are well aware of what the cut-out lyrics are." Neke adds that listeners aren't surprised by the lyric because many think there's some truth to it.
"It's like going over to your aunt's house and everyone is thinking that her potato salad is the worst," she says. "Finally someone says it's awful and everyone gets mad at him for saying it, but you know he's right. People think things all the time, they just don't come out and say it."
The Bush administration, for now, is steering clear of the melee. "The White House doesn't do music reviews," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said yesterday when asked about the song. "We are confident that the heart and soul of America knows that the terrorists are responsible for the horrors of 9/11."
For his part, Jadakiss is treating the controversy as an ongoing civics lesson. He says that when he votes this fall, it will be his first time.
Any chance Bush will get his vote? "Let's just say I'm a Democrat," the rapper responds tersely.