Childish Gambino " Sweatpants" (2013)
You do you is a construction wherein a personal pronoun or proper name appears as the subject of a form of do followed by the direct-object version of the original pronoun or name:
1) I just had to cut her off. You do you. I do me.
(Srsic & Rice 2012)
2) Trump does Trump: What you see and hear depends on where you stand.
The phrase means something like ‘be yourself’ or ‘do what you want,’ and it is typically identified with contemporary youth/millennial culture and vernacular; see, for example, Pulitzer prize winner, Colson Whitehead's 2015 Op-Ed.
Who says this?
According to Whitehead (2015), “Do you certainly sallies forth from black vernacular.” There has been practically no formal corpus work done on this construction, so the claim is hard to precisely verify; however, some of the earliest attestations of the construction are from turn-of-the-millenium Hip Hop tracks such as 'Do You' by Funkmaster Flex feat. DMX (2000). Additionally, the construction shares a tautological structure with other idioms adopted from the black vernacular like 'haters gon’ hate' and also has a similar meaning and usage to black vernacular phrases ‘do your thing/thang’ which has been in use for much longer. Nowadays, this construction is prevalent among younger speakers with no clear correlation to race, and, as far as we know, there are geographic effects on its distribution.
The main verb of the construction, do, may be inflected for tense and aspect using inflectional morphology like the -ing suffix. Tense and aspect may also be expressed using modal verbs like might, will, could etc.:
3) a. I’m doing me.
b. You’ll do you.
c. I might do me.
d. Back then, I did me.
The main grammatical idiosyncrasy of this construction is that, while the pronoun after do necessarily refers to the same entity as the pronoun before it, it cannot have reflexive morphology and maintain the same meaning. That is to say, You do yourself means something very different.
While you do you, which we have taken as the prototypical example of this construction, is interpreted as issuing an invitation or granting permission, the construction is also available in sentences that make a statement or ask a question, both in main clauses and embedded:
4) a. I’m gonna do me.
b. I told her that you’ll do you and I’ll do me.
c. Did you do you?
d. Is it alright if I do me?
The predicate can be modified:
5) a. You just do you.
b. You go ahead and do you.
c. I always do me.
The construction seems to be available to all first and second person pronouns regardless of number as exemplified in (1) and the following:
6) a. ...all I want to say is y’all do you because more crap needs to be called out...
b. Cuss word are unnecessary. But y'all do y'all dawgs
c. We do us, you do you, no one takes a bullet in the back.
(Shades of Blue ‘Cry Havoc’ 2018)
However, the construction becomes much more marginal with third person pronouns (author’s judgment):
7) ?? I do me, he do/does him.
The exclusion of third person and the unexpected occurrence of a non-reflexive pronoun referring back to the subject are qualities that you do you shares with a potentially related construction involving contrast (see Horn 2008). This other construction is exemplified with a first and second person pronoun in (8) and with a 3rd person pronoun in (9b):
8) a. He nods but I’m not sure he believes me. I’m not sure I believe me.
(Sandra Scoppetone I’ll Be Leaving You Always, 1993, p. 82)
b. You told me, that’s the important thing. Besides, you don’t fancy you like I do
( Sue Margolis, Neurotica, 1999, p. 272)
(examples from Horn 2008)
We see that, as in the case of you do you, in this construction as well the third person demands a proper name or else is less acceptable:
9) a. Jeff doesn’t run for glory. He runs for Jeff.
(Advil Commercial, cited in Ward 1983)
b. Jeff doesn’t run for glory. He runs for ??him/himself.
You do you seems to bridge the meanings of a generic invitation to behave as one desires (e.g. ‘do what you want’ or ‘help yourself’ -- see below ) and a directive to be true to one’s authentic self in a more abstract sense (e.g. ‘be yourself.’). The construction can tend more toward one or the other of these interpretations depending upon the context. In the Childish Gambino lyric in the epigraph above and example below, the phrase is practically synonymous with ‘be yourself;’ the rapper means that he is better at being authentic and real than the addressee:
10) Don’t be mad cuz I’m doin’ me better than you doin’ you
(Childish Gambino, "Sweatpants," 2013)
On the other hand, consider the situation in which one was invited to go exercise with a friend and expressed a desire instead to stay inside and watch TV. If one were met with you do you, its meaning resembles ‘suit yourself’ or ‘do what you want.’ There is, however, still a component of the personal-authenticity meaning. In the situation above, you do you might be taken as a passive aggressive insult on the basis that it implies being a couch potato is more authentic to the addressee than being active.
For some speakers, however, there is a usage of you do you that is pretty much devoid of any personal-authenticity implications. Imagine if one were to ask a friend to take a snack from their refrigerator. If met with you do you, the phrase has a meaning nearly identical with the general invitation: ‘help yourself.’
As with the construction illustrated in (8) and (9), You do you has an inherently contrastive flavor; that is to say: ‘You do you. Don’t do anyone else.’ This notion is tied to the sense of “personal authenticity” elaborated above, and this contrastivity is a property that you do you shares with another construction involving non-prototypical uses of non-reflexive pronouns: Be you. Be you shares the property of preferring proper names to third person pronouns and has a very similar meaning to ‘be yourself’ except that be you is specifically contrastive:
11) Don’t be Sylvia. Be you.
(e.g. a mother talking to her daughter who has started adopting all of the interests and mannerisms of her new best friend, Sylvia)
The Be you construction seems to have been in general parlance for longer than you do you, since constructions like “Let Nixon be Nixon” have been in use at least since the 1970s or 80s (e.g. Tom Shales’ 1984 Washington Post article ).
Nowadays, the construction in (11) could be rephrased with you do you:
12) Don’t do Sylvia. Do you.
As discussed above, one phenomenon that bears some resemblance to you do you is Contrastive Focus Pronominals as discussed in Horn (2008).
Additionally, there is the X gonna X construction where X is a proper name or other non-pronominal such that the whole phrase means something like 'X is gonna be true to X' (note that the second X functions as a verb in this case). There are abundant examples of this construction in the written record as in (13):
13) We could focus on the brass tax and pretend that the Pope’s gonna pope and we need to live with that.
Note also that it occurs in both main and embedded clauses as in (14a-b) respectively:
14) a. Oliver gonna Oliver?
b. But when he gets home to Star City, he lies to Felicity about it because Oliver gonna Oliver.
This construction of course also bears some lexical and structural similarity to haters gon/gonna hate also discussed above.
In Popular Culture
Page contributed by Oliver Shoulson, July 8, 2020.
Please cite this page as: Shoulson, Oliver. 2020. 'You do you'. Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America. (Available online at http://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/you-do-you. Accessed on YYYY-MM-DD).