In many ways, Hip-hop is popular culture. It encompasses many elements of culture such as art, dress, literature, music, etc. In saying that, below is an interesting post, written by Jordan Lafferty, that is a part of this blog for enjoyment purposes. The essay is entitled, Lyrical Genius Trumps Bitches and Hoes.
Over the years, Hip-hop has been a subject of scrutiny, controversy, and importance. To one person it is their entire life, and to another it is blasphemy and ignorance. To each individual Hip-hop has a different meaning. To me, Hip-hop as a whole is not important. However, there is an aspect of Hip-hop that has taken over my own personal repertoire; it is rap music. Although most people in my generation may believe that Hip-hop is synonymous with rap, it is not. Rap is one of seven aspects that form Hip-hop. As KRS-One (Kris Parker) said, “Rap is something you do; Hip Hop is something you live” (“The Music Tip”). In other words, Hip-hop is a lifestyle or culture that incorporates art, dance, literature, fashion, film, music (rap), and language. I did not grow up with a passion for any of the aspects of Hip-hop, except rap. Rap is poetry knocking at the door of my eardrum. It reintroduced storytelling back into popular music and presented innovations in recorded sound. The storytelling within rap is what I love. There are many understandable arguments against the lyrics of rap; however, every art form will have its critics. You do not have to enjoy every rap song or artist, I don’t, but there exists artists, lyrics, beats, etc. that make you pause for a moment just to take in the brilliance. Throughout the course of this paper, I will discuss some of the lyrics heard in rap, a Lyrical MC, poetry, and how the lyrics have changed throughout the past thirty years. Hopefully, by the end of my paper you will understand why I appreciate rap and how its lyrics have transformed, yet held its roots.
I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. As a child, my parents subjected me to classic 60’s-70’s music and alternative 90’s rock. I heard a few rap songs though the Top 40 radio station and I remember my dad b-boying (breakdancing) in a joking manner; at the time I was unaware that some of the Graffiti and fashion styles I saw were aspects of Hip-hop. Overall, this was the extent of my exposure to Hip-hop until I was nine years old. In the third grade, my neighbor, Jared, introduced me to rappers Eminem and Lil Bow Wow. Soon after that I heard Hip-hop artists such as Ja Rule, DMX, Andre 3000, and 50 Cent. I enjoyed the music and began to listen to rap from that point forward. I listened to the current popular rap and I also downloaded 1980’s and 1990’s rap songs. As I listened to more songs, I realized that the lyrics of the songs were the main reason I enjoyed it. In most songs, the lyrics connected and formed a story or a message. I was hooked and began to listen to rap music every day. Over the next few years of my life, I expanded my knowledge of rap and listened to a wide variety of artists. Jacquez, my best friend, is from Birmingham, Alabama and he introduced me to southern rap. I learned quickly that techniques such as chopped and screwed, which involve slowing the tempo and scratching, never really caught my attention. I felt that it took away from the lyrics. I found that no matter the demographic origin or content of the verse I still had a fascination with the lyrics and how they were delivered. A verse could seem like it meant nothing, but the message underneath the apparent references would actually be extremely powerful. Rap is unique to the human mind because it encompasses a combination of early childhood facets such as nursery rhymes and lullabies. In other words, since our births we have been subjected to music and rhyming. Over time, rap lyrics have covered politics, oppression, competition, love, partying, poverty, corruption, and violence. With all of these topics, one may ask what the original bases of rap lyrics were.
Originally, in Hip-hop music the DJ (Disk Jockey) was the star of the show and the MC (Master of Ceremonies) would hype the crowd. As Hip-hop music developed, the MC’s (rappers) role expanded. A rap group used by DJ Grandmaster Flash called the Furious Five is credited with switching the focus from the DJ to the MC. The five would rhyme back and forth with one another during DJ Grandmaster Flash’s parties (Garofoli 36). In 1979, rappers cemented themselves in Hip-hop with the hit single, “Rapper’s Delight” (Garofoli 37). In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s it was common to hear a rapper talk about his microphone skills and his DJ. However, the lyrical content in “Rapper’s Delight” is not drastically different than that of some Hip-hop music today. Within the song, the Sugarhill Gang rap about their clothes, cars, televisions, money, women, and rhymes. Hip-hop originated in some of the poorest areas of New York and as a result, many of the first lyrics of rap had to do with underprivileged “social conditions” (Hess 14). As cliché as it sounds, rap music is a way for people to express themselves and be heard. The bases of Hip-hop music’s lyrics are the struggles of the hood, the glamour of life out of the hood, and personal skills. In this regard, rap can often times be more autobiographical than other genres of music (Hess 48). As rap matured in the 1980’s, violence became more prevalent in the lyrics.
In the early 1980’s rappers such as LL Cool J, Kurtis Blow, and Run-DMC were popular. As the mid-late 1980’s approached, rappers such as Ice-T, Public Enemy, Eric B, and Rakim grabbed the Hip-hop music spotlight. In comparison, the early 1980’s rappers lyrics were labeled “storytelling rhymes” and the mid-late 1980’s rappers lyrics were labeled “tough” and truthful (Garofoli 38-39). The mid-late 1980’s rap lyrics contained verities of gang violence, poverty, and drugs. Most of N.W.A (Niggaz with Attitudes) lyrics exemplify the mid-late 1980’s label. Some lyrics in the late 1980’s also introduced political messages in rap. Public Enemy had “rewritten the rules of hardcore rap by proving that it could be intelligent, revolutionary, and socially aware” (Erlewine). They released songs that had political ties such as “Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need” and “Fight the Power”. MTV censored “Gotta Give the Peeps What They Need” because it proclaimed the words “free Mumia” (Gaynor). Public Enemy was referring to activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, who had been controversially sentenced to death for murdering a police officer in 1981. Different from Public Enemy, N.W.A glorified the criminality, violence, cruel language, and profligacy of a gangsta. N.W.A’s debut album, Straight Outta Compton is often considered the commencement of the gangsta rap era (Erlewine). By 1990, rap music and a parental advisory sticker were concomitant.
Although 2 Live Crew released their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be in 1989, it wasn’t until 1990 that it made a splash in the Florida court system. It was the first album to be considered legally obscene due to its lyrical content; however the ruling was later overturned (Watrous). Every song on the album contained profanity and explicit imagery. For Example, the song entitled “Me So Horny” voices the exact line “Girls always ask me why I fuck so much / I say, what’s wrong, baby doll, with a quick nut” (“Me So Horny Lyrics”)? To some, lyrics like those used in “Me So Horny” take away from the lyrical genius exhibited in other rap songs. With profanity becoming common in rap, the early 1990’s also introduced more playful lyrics like those used by MC Hammer and Kriss Kross (Garofoli 39). In time, rap became more profitable and its potential was undeniable. As rap commercialized, the gangsta rap lyrics that began in the late 1980’s took off.
In the mid 1990’s rappers such as Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G., and Dr. Dre (a member of N.W.A) were at the top of the charts. Their songs contained “hard” lyrics about life on the streets, gang affiliations, hustling, etc. (Garofoli 40). The lyrics were creative in how they were delivered, but the references to felonious actions caused uproar in society. Specifically, Tupac and B.I.G. used lyrical depictions to detail murders and high mortality rates of black males in urban America (Hess 64). Through media hype and beef between artists, an East Coast vs. West Coast battle ensued. B.I.G.’s lyrics branded music as a savior from a life of crime (Hess 55). Tupac’s lyrics in “Hail Mary” are, “I ain’t a killer but don’t push me / revenge is like the sweetest joy next to getting pussy” (“Hail Mary Lyrics”). The lyrical content of their songs were often inappropriate to most. However, if you strip those couple lines in “Hail Mary” of their upfront reference to revenge and female genitalia, there exists a brilliance of comparing the euphoria of appropriate retaliation to the ultimate pleasure; sex. There subsists a poetry that in its own right is virtuoso. After the death of two of rap’s heavyweights (Tupac in 1996 and B.I.G. in 1997), gangsta rap was losing some popularity.
By the late 1990’s the emphasis of lyrics seemed to be “boastful rhymes about money, cars, and fashion labels” (Garofoli 40). Rappers like Mase, Diddy, and Jay-Z gained popularity and shifted Hip-hop music into the new millennium. The 2000’s brought southern based rap to the mainstream and rappers such as Outkast, Lil Wayne, Ludacris, and Lil Jon emerged. The lyrics of the artists did not change much, but more emphasis was placed on “catchy refrains” (Garofoli 41). Lil Jon had very little content to his lyrics and instead preferred to yell and repeat himself over beats. Lil Jon can be considered an example of a Party MC. A party MC is more focused on getting the audience involved than the lyrical content (Beef). Often times, a party MC wants the crowd to dance, shout, and celebrate. Opposite of a Party MC, a Lyrical MC is focused on their lyrical content and they have a specific reason behind their words throughout most of the song. A Lyrical MC may also want the crowd to be involved and having a great time, but the words used have a deeper meaning. For example, the first Hip-hop beef between Busy Bee and Kool Moe Dee displays a Party MC vs. a Lyrical MC. According to rapper Ice-T, Busy Bee was a “celebrity club rapper” who could “rock the party”. Kool Moe Dee was a “serious” rapper who wrote lyrics. Kool Moe Dee stated when referring to rap battles that, “the Party MC will look like he won, but if you look at it when you got the tape home; you would probably get more poetical value from the other guy (Lyrical MC)” (Beef). A Party MC will make sounds and rhymes that excite the crowd, but a Lyrical MC uses intelligent analogies, metaphors, and wording. Lyrical MC’s existed in the early 2000’s, but commercial Hip-hop was centered on the gangsta rap and the Party MC at that time. As the new millennium’s first decade was coming to an end, Hip-hop experienced some vocal innovation.
T-Pain, Kanye West, and T.I. all used some form of distorted vocals (synthesizers) in their songs (Garofoli 41). The lyrics used in commercial Hip-hop were a cultivation of lyrical content used in the past. In today’s Hip-hop, the lyrical content is wide-spread and there exists an anything goes policy. Commercial rap has continuously changed its general lyrical content and style over the past thirty years. However, if you look deeper you will find that the lyrics are still connected to their original roots. There may be more profanity and violence, but rap is still brilliance hidden by symbols, idioms, and analogies. To this day, you can hear about the tribulations of the hood and the appeal and gluttony of life out of the hood. You can also hear political rap songs. Positive Hip-hop music is not dead.
In 2010, Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar released a song entitled “HiiiPoWeR”. The song’s lyrics pertain to the HiiiPoWeR movement. The three letter “i”s in HiiiPoWeR represents heart, honor, and respect (“Kendrick Lamar-HiiiPoWeR Lyrics”). In the first verse alone Lamar raps about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, his African roots, standing up for what you believe in, and Government policy. Lamar raps, “Visions of Martin Luther staring at me / Malcolm X put a hex on my future, someone catch me / I’m falling victim to a revolutionary song” (“Kendrick Lamar-HiiiPoWeR Lyrics). In just one line he makes many statements. First, he mentions Malcolm X right after Martin Luther King Jr. This is interesting because the two civil rights activists had somewhat contrasting styles. Martin Luther King Jr. was a nonviolent activist whereas Malcolm X was neither for nor against violence. Malcolm X stated, “It doesn’t mean that I advocate violence, but at the same time, I am not against using violence in self-defense. I don’t call it violence when it’s self-defense, I call it intelligence” (“Kendrick Lamar-HiiiPoWeR Lyrics”). When Lamar mentions having a hex on his future, he is stating that revolutionists tend to have a curse of being killed for their beliefs. Also, the negative light that Malcolm X is sometimes given today may affect his and other revolutionary’s future. He then raps, about needing someone to catch him. This could be a reference to when Malcolm X was shot; he fell down and there was no one on stage with him to catch him. It has been said that Malcolm X might have survived the assassination if he had not fell down on his neck (Kendrick Lamar-HiiiPoWeR Lyrics). Another interpretation is Lamar simply needs to be caught because he is becoming a revolutionary, which as discussed, can be dangerous. The poetry and depth of Lamar’s lyrics is beautiful. A few lines can possess so much meaning. The chorus follows the first verse and throughout the song it makes references to Huey Newton (co-founder of the Black Panther party), Bobby Seale (activist), and Fred Hampton (revolutionary in the Black Panther party). In verse two of HiiiPoWeR, Lamar continues to cleverly dive into complicated subjects with his lyrics.
In verse two, Lamar commits to following Malcolm X’s views over Martin Luther King Jr.’s. Realizing that this is not popularly regarded as correct, he apologizes to his mother. Lamar states, “Sorry Mama, I can’t turn the other cheek / they wanna knock me off the edge like a fucking widow’s peak, uhh” (Kendrick Lamar-HiiiPoWeR Lyrics). He makes a Bible reference by responding to inequality, hatred, and racism with the words, “I can’t turn the other cheek”. Lamar then uses the analogy of people removing the widow’s peak on the edge of their heads to represent the cultural ignorance that pushes him over the edge or makes him angry. In continuing with the Bible theme, Lamar compares hate to the devil later in the verse. Towards the end of the verse, he discusses the history of racism with the simple statement, “Who said a black man in the illuminati / last time I check, that was the biggest racist party” (Kendrick Lamar-HiiiPoWeR Lyrics). The illuminati have been rumored to exist and run the world for years. Racism is omnipresent throughout history; therefore, if the illuminati ran the world then they must be racist. There have been reports that rapper Jay-Z is in the illuminati. Kendrick Lamar is making the point that if a black man was in the illuminati, then the world would not oppress minorities. The ending of verse two encourages people to break the “mental slavery” of today’s society; further implementing a belief in Malcolm X’s teachings. Lamar proclaims, “So get up off that slave ship / build your own pyramids, write your own hieroglyphs” (Kendrick Lamar-HiiiPoWeR Lyrics). Verse three ties together all of the thought-provoking history and powerful ideas that HiiiPoWeR divulges.
In verse three, Lamar discusses the controversial deaths of President John F. Kennedy, Tupac Shakur, and Fred Hampton with the lines, “And I want everybody to view my autopsy / so you can see exactly where the government had shot me / no conspiracy, my fate is inevitable”. He ends the song on a positive note suggesting that the HiiiPoWeR movement has had success stating that “…we got off those slave ships / got our own pyramids, write our own hieroglyphs” (Kendrick Lamar-HiiiPoWeR Lyrics). In other words, people are thinking for themselves and taking action to correct problems. Through just a few examples in each verse of one song you can see all of the meanings that lyrics can have. Kendrick Lamar’s song, HiiiPoWeR, is contemporary poetry.
Rap lyrics have changed in many ways over the past thirty years. Commercial rap has changed its lyrical content focus multiple times. However, all original facets of lyrical content have had a permanent presence somewhere in Hip-hop music. A lot of rappers still look at beef and rapping as a competition to prove their skills. Hip-hop and competition have gone hand-hand for years. In the early 1980’s, dance crews would battle each other to prove themselves. In a way, Hip-hop is about competitive greatness. Who can get to the top or be the best. It is unfortunate that some lyrics, actions, etc. give Hip-hop and rap an undesirable connotation. The inappropriate and degrading lyrics that have attributed to negativity around Hip-hop hide the impressiveness of most lyrics. According to poetry scholar and Hip-hop enthusiast Michael Dowdy, rappers are gifted artists with the potential of achieving what active contemporary poets often attempt to create; a public space of united action, prospective change, and community. Any extensive study of contemporary poetry is incomplete, if it does not include Hip-hop music (Dowdy). It is not a stretch to refer to a rapper as a poet. Different poets are enjoyed by different people all around the world. In relation, some people enjoy Party MC’s while others prefer Lyrical MC’s. Hip-hop can offer something to every age, race, and gender. Profanity does not make Hip-hop music ignorant. Instead, it expresses truth, emotions, and a culture insensitive to disputed language. For those who do not appreciate the language or lyrical content in one song, there is always another rap song that would pass their personal morals test. For example, Hip-hop artist Flipsyde’s 2005 song “Happy Birthday” promoted anti-abortion. The song received some commercial success and contains no profanity. Further, Hip-hop music’s lyrics are relatable. I connect to rap because it is poetry and I enjoy lyrical symbolism. Although stereotypes may indicate so, you do not need to be a gang member or criminal to relate to rap. There are multiple ascetics in Hip-hop music.
In closing, Hip-hop music is controversial, heavily debated, misunderstood, and poetry. The lyrical content may change often, but the roots of rap lyrics are ubiquitous. With any art, there exist multiple critics. For me, the language in Hip-hop music does not hinder its message. The way in which ideas are delivered is poetic genius. It is an aesthetically pleasing form of poetry. I do not relish every rap song, every lyric, or every artist; but, I recognize that it is art. Poetry is defined as the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts (“Poetry”). By definition, rap in its purest context is poetry and an art form. Hip-hop music is my favorite art. I am a fan of the Lyrical MC and I respect the Party MC. The Lyrical MC stimulates my mind, but I know that others favor the Party MC. Kendrick Lamar’s song HiiiPoWeR was not diminished because of his profanity. Profanity, used by many throughout the world, could never prevent a message as strong as that in HiiiPoWeR. I do not support women being deemed bitches and hoes; in fact I am against it. I do, however, firmly believe that Hip-hop music, in most regards, is lyrical brilliance breaking down the conventional thoughts of poetry.
Beef. Dir. Peter Spirer, Casey Suchan, and Dennis H. Hennelly. Prod. Quincy Jones III. By Peter Alton. Perf. Ving Rhames. Image Entertainment, 2003. DVD.
Dowdy, Michael. American Political Poetry in the 21st Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.
Erlewine, Stephen T. “N.W.A.” AllMusic. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://www.allmusic.com/artist/p77/biography>.
Garofoli, Wendy. Hip-hop Culture. Mankato, MN: Capstone, 2010. Print.
Gaynor, Shawn. “Chuck D Takes on MTV.” The Public I. Nov. 2002. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://publici.ucimc.org/2002/11/chuck-d-takes-on-mtv/>.
“Hail Mary Lyrics.” MetroLyrics. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://www.metrolyrics.com/hail-mary-lyrics-2pac.html>.
Hess, Mickey. Is Hip Hop Dead?: The Past, Present, and Future of America’s Most Wanted Music. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007. Print.
“Kendrick Lamar-HiiiPoWeR Lyrics.” Rap Genius. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://rapgenius.com/Kendrick-lamar-hiiipower-lyrics>.
Lamar, Kendrick, and Alori Joh. “HiiiPoWeR.” Section.80. J. Cole, 2010. MP3.
“Me So Horny Lyrics.” MetroLyrics. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://www.metrolyrics.com/me-so-horny-lyrics-2-live-crew.html>.
“The Music Tip.” 10 Favorite Music Quotes. 17 Dec. 2009. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://themusictip.com/10-favorite-music-quotes/>.
“Poetry.” Dictionary.com. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/poetry?s=t>.
Watrous, Peter. “In Rap Group’s Album, Graphic Sexual Lyrics.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 09 June 1990. Web. 25 Apr. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/1990/06/09/us/in-rap-group-s-album-graphic-sexual-lyrics.html?src=pm>.