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Well, he was smilin’ like a vulture as he rolled up the horticulture
December 4, 2010 7:07 AM   Subscribe

Out on bail, fresh outta jail, California dreamin’
Soon as I stepped on the scene, I’m hearin’ hoochies screamin’

What a surprise to read that couplet on "The New Yorker's" website, in an article about Jay-Z's new book. It also discusses Adam Bradley's "Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop," an academic study that respects rap lyrics as serious poetry.

For years, I suspected that there had to be beauty in hip-hop lyrics. I know that, to many here, that's as obvious as it is true. But I have a very difficult time finding my way into rap. As much as I'm interested in what it may be doing lyrically, I can't get into hearing it performed. I know that will sound absurd to many people (it's an oral tradition!).

All I can say is that I've tried and I failed. Recently, I posted this much derided comment about a rap lyric I didn't like (and still don't like). Luckily, "The New Yorker" has helped open a window for me. I know it's ironic that a middle-class, intellectual white boy can't appreciate rap until it's discussed in "The New Yorker," but -- honestly -- I didn't know where to look for good examples of rap lyrics. This article has showed me the way.

And the subject of the article dovetails nicely with two other books I've read recently. As the article mentions, Jay-Z's book is very similar to Sondheim's. And it's also similar to this wonderful dissection of Shakespeare's mechanics.

(See also: http://www.metafilter.com/97315/I-realized-it-is-basically-insane-to-make-any-kind-of-judgment-about-rap-without-hearing-it)
posted by grumblebee (82 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ignited it, and said, "I hope the vapors don't insult ya."
posted by MNDZ at 7:24 AM on December 4, 2010


I went to The Coup in ABQ in spring of 2002, and when we got there we found out that it was free! Unfortunately, my friend had a seizure before the Coup started. She was fine again in short order, but they made her go to the hospital for their own liability reasons, so she and her BF missed the show. And the show was Awesome!
posted by MNDZ at 7:30 AM on December 4, 2010


I know it's ironic that a middle-class, intellectual white boy can't appreciate rap until it's discussed in "The New Yorker," but -- honestly -- I didn't know where to look for good examples of rap lyrics.

I don't think it's ironic. I think it's pretty much expected.
posted by Stagger Lee at 7:35 AM on December 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Wow this Jay-z book sounds awesome. Having dedicated several academic poems to him in my MFA dissertation (it is I, mon ami!) I have long believed him to be the best lyricist in rap, and therefore I say unto the doubters--*brush/brush!*
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:41 AM on December 4, 2010


Early recordings of Jay-Z reveal a nimble but mild-mannered virtuoso, delivering rat-a-tat syllables (he liked to rap in double-time triplets, delivering six syllables per beat) that often amounted to études rather than songs.

This bothers me. If he did that before recording his debut, how do we know? So are there any examples of this in his recorded work? Because I know enough about music to understand these words but I can't visualize (well, auditorize) what they mean. I mean, triplets, okay, I've heard those rapped. But sextuplets? Six notes to a beat? I'm lost.

Any help?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:15 AM on December 4, 2010


I know it's ironic that a middle-class, intellectual white boy can't appreciate rap until it's discussed in "The New Yorker," but -- honestly -- I didn't know where to look for good examples of rap lyrics.
Yeah. I think "middle-class, intellectual white boys" are pretty much the target audience these days, as was the case with jazz in the '50s. Sasha Frere Jones is, in many ways, a contemporary avatar of an earlier generation of (white, male) cultural critic who found validation and authenticity in digging the black man's music. The parallels really are uncanny.
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:15 AM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


I want to preface this comment by admitting that I have not clicked on any of the links in the post so feel free to chastise and/or ignore me if this is covered in any of the material. Also, I don't intend to belittle rap music in this post (which I'm fully aware sounds like an equivalent to "I'm not a racist but...).

The idea of accepting rap and hip hop lyrics as literature was being discussed ten years ago when I was working on my B.A. in literature. I know that probably isn't surprising to anyone, but I did study at an agricultural / engineering university in North Carolina lovingly referred to as "Moo U", so if the undergraduate students were talking about it there, then it certainly has been floating around even longer than that.

My point is not simply that rap lyrics as poetry has been around for awhile but that this is a discussion which isn't actually going anywhere.

I remember that one of my classes actually had a visiting professor from UCLA come in and give a lecture on hip hop lyrics as poetry. When this professor asked for questions, one of my classmates asked "Now what?." The professor shook his head and asked for clarification, and my classmate clarified "So rap lyrics are poetry now. Now what?"

The professor hemmed and hawed and then talked around the question for a bit, mumbling about a greater appreciation of rap, which, I guess, is ok because there really isn't an answer to that question.

So, yes, I totally agree that rap lyrics, the same as 'poetry', can be beautiful and haunting.

But I don't know where the discussion is going beyond "rap is awesome."




Also, the obligatory link to Chris Rock on Rap Music
posted by FunGus at 8:17 AM on December 4, 2010


the best of the best rap-as-poetry: Aesop Rock
posted by Mach5 at 8:25 AM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


And now some of my favorite Jay-Z stanza.

I do this for my culture
To let 'em know what a nigga look like...when a nigga in a 'rosa.
Show 'em how to move in a room full of vultures.
Industry shady it need to be taken over.

Label owners hate me--I'm raisin' the status quo up.
I'm overchargin' for what they did to the Cold Crush.
Pay us like you owe us for all the years that you ho'd us
We can talk, but money talks, so talk mo' bucks.

*
I've been sinnin since you been playin wit Barbie and Ken and them...
You can't change a players game in the 9th inning.

*
But like, fifty-two cards when I'm-- I'm through dealin'.
and now fifty-two bars come out, now you feel 'em.
Now, fifty-two cars roll out, remove ceiling
In case fifty-two broads come out, now you chillin
with a boss.

posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:27 AM on December 4, 2010


gnfti: Jay's first recorded appearance was on Jaz-O's 'The Originators' (it's pretty different from his usual style these days).

(This collaboration also provides the genesis for Nas' scathing 'From 'Shawn Carter' to 'Jay-Z'? Damn, you on Jaz' dick!', from 'Ether.')
posted by box at 8:28 AM on December 4, 2010


I love Aes, but my rap-as-poetry fav might be Mike Ladd.
posted by box at 8:33 AM on December 4, 2010


"So rap lyrics are poetry now. Now what?"

Now you do close readings of rap lyrics, learn about the relationship to the West African griot tradition, compare uses of rhyme and meter in different eras of rap, study the difference in metrics between east coast and west coast and dirty south, look at the political implications of the lyrics, understand how figurative language is used in rap, look for examples of synecdoche, etc. etc.

Or you could be an uncultured dick and say "Land sakes! So rap is poetry now! My goodness, what will these ivory tower academics think of next!" Call it in to Michael Savage, you'll get a bigger audience.
posted by fleetmouse at 8:34 AM on December 4, 2010 [22 favorites]


Now you do close readings of rap lyrics, learn about the relationship to the West African griot tradition, compare uses of rhyme and meter in different eras of rap, study the difference in metrics between east coast and west coast and dirty south, look at the political implications of the lyrics, understand how figurative language is used in rap, look for examples of synecdoche, etc. etc.
Although, to a more cynical ear, this sounds like a classic act of cultural appropriation. Because what "taking rap lyrics seriously as poetry" really says, arguably, is "this music is no longer yours. We'll take it from here, thanks."
posted by Sonny Jim at 8:51 AM on December 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


I always find reading printed collections of lyrics which accompany music (any music - rock, rap, jazz, country, whatever) to be of extremely limited value (unless I simply want to decode what the singer is saying). The words are usually not designed to be heard or read independently of their musical backing (even if they're performed acapella), which often robs them of a lot (all?) of their power; Steve Allen used to capitalize on this to get cheap laffs by reading the lyrics to songs like "Be Bop A Lula" as though they were poetry, which is really missing the point.

I don't know any of the songs quoted in the article; they're probably great, but to me the lyrics just sit there on the page/computer screen, curiously inert and lifeless, minus the music.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:59 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Cultural appropriation is not intrinsically bad. It's easy to do badly; art changes its meaning with its context, so you need to correct for that or else you'll end up, eg., taking a lyric that was meant to be satirical and making it sound like a straightforward endorsement of violence and sexism. But this book looks to be a sincere attempt to make an art form accessible to a new audience. This doesn't have to exclude the old audience. Why would it?
posted by LogicalDash at 8:59 AM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sonny Jim: "Although, to a more cynical ear, this sounds like a classic act of cultural appropriation. Because what "taking rap lyrics seriously as poetry" really says, arguably, is "this music is no longer yours. We'll take it from here, thanks."

Eh? To me it sounds like, "Wow, here's this thing I learned how to appreciate and derive joy from." I don't see how this takes ownership away from rap.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:01 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


tmfl;dfr
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:18 AM on December 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


For years, I suspected that there had to be beauty in hip-hop lyrics...I didn't know where to look for good examples of rap lyrics.

A little research would have gone a long way. I mean, you could have simply asked a few more questions of who to listen to, did a little bit of research on Wikipedia and a few rap sites...

Thieves, creepin
in the midnight evenings, saw through the misty regions
Go to your house, take a vial for the demons
Moon in, the lunar eclipse
Prophets stand in the midst of the seven candlesticks
I can't take it, beauty that was once sacred
is now gettin facelifts, fake tits, and fake lips
Cold embraces
Memory erases, from the slaveships
My princess, I used to spot her from a distance
Holdin my infant, burnin incense
The moment intent, for her to step into my wife tents
Now we step in pre-sents, for your ebony prince
The smell of frankencense; once treated like a pharoah
With royal apparel, annointed with myrrh and aloe
We used to wallow, amongst the mallows
We had herd sheep and cattle, now we battle
Used to pass over Brooks of Qe'ron
Towers of Lebanon, the pool of Gechron
We used to sing songs, upon Mount Hebron
How is gold turned to bronze, and shhh....
How is gold turned to bronze


-Killah Priest, From Then to Now

Mighta took some time but most good things do
Manifest when the time is true
I admit I was nervous cuz things get changed
Something about my lifestyle makes love so strange
So many angles and tangled components
Everybody wanna touch just for the moment
But you put a new hue in my blue
Added a perspective to my concrete views
'Bout tossin caution into the breeze
Followin' emotion like streams to the seas
Top priority believe you me
Like love how you feel, you alright, whatchu need?
It's more than your lips on the nap of my necks
Or your hands on my breast, with your leg on my thigh
Or the look in your eyes as you slide inside
It's the way you make me wanna live instead of die

For you I'd dive into a treacherous sea
Bring you Neptune's jewels to keep you happy
I would fly into a merciless sun steal you the sky
Cuz you're the one


- Neptune's Jewels, Mystic

Dreams be the ashes burned thrashing in the wind
Flying from the burning bush flung from her fingers
and it hung in the air, in this moment of truth
then it crashed into flames like the end of our youth
We gettin trapped in extractions, reality bites back
We casually fight, lackin the insight to spite that
Opposites attract, but if not we stay honest
she told me that its better to be critical than conscious
My sister, your fist is more symbolic than you know
And use it as a weapon if he calls you a...
hold up, did I mention i'm a pisces,
and all these other fish up in the sea would ever love you like me?
Inhale, the imagery, a queen walkin steadily
Hips sway sweetly to an old soul melody
I hold this memory close, she kept walkin


- Sagaba Remix, Blue Scholars
posted by yeloson at 9:18 AM on December 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


This doesn't have to exclude the old audience. Why would it?
Sure. You'd hope not, but the precedents aren't exactly encouraging. This is what I was getting at with my jazz analogy. Appropriation—in this case, academic appropriation—is a subtle process, and it's hard to predict outcomes when it's still happening, but at some point the momentum shifts to such an extent that the cultural object switches hemispheres.

Ask yourself: is Shakespeare as "popular" now as it was in the nineteenth century? What influence do you think the twentieth-century academic appropriation of Shakespeare had on its appeal to or intelligibility by popular audiences?
posted by Sonny Jim at 9:20 AM on December 4, 2010


So, yes, I totally agree that rap lyrics, the same as 'poetry', can be beautiful and haunting.

But I don't know where the discussion is going beyond "rap is awesome."


Of course, I can't predict where this particular discussion is going to go, but the fact that you think it's a dead-end subject saddens and stuns me.

Unfortunately, I'm such a neophyte when it comes to rap lyrics that I can't, personally, move the conversation forward. But if we were -- say -- discussing a Shakespeare sonnet, I would never say, "Well, what can we say beyond 'it's awesome'?"

Because I know we could discuss its meter. Is it strictly iambic pentameter, does it employ trochees, pyrrhic feet or spondees? Anapests? Are there any short or Alexandrine lines? Are all the lines end-stopped or are there enjambments? Where are the mid-ine breaks and are there any epic caesuras? And, of course, how is Shakespeare using these metrical tools to enhance the affect or meaning of the poem?

Is the grammar naturalistic or tortured? Are there internal rhymes? Are the rhymes true or slanted? Are the words mono or multi-syllabic? Are the sentences long or short? Does the punctuation work with or against the meter? Does the poem employ assonance or alliteration? Does it use any standard rhetorical devices? Does it use any mirroring?

What sort of imagery does it employ? Does it use simile or metaphor? Extended metaphor? Humor? Irony? Thesis and antithesis?

Does the written language give you any clue how to speak it? Does it suggest a character? Does it suggest a motivation? Does it suggest another person who the speaker is talking to? Does it tell a story?

How does the historical and biographical context tie in with the poem?

None of this stuff is specific to Shakespeare. It's all stuff you can ask about any poetry. And, of course, with lyrics, you can ask a lot of questions about how they interact with the music.
posted by grumblebee at 9:27 AM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


A little research would have gone a long way. I mean, you could have simply asked a few more questions of who to listen to, did a little bit of research on Wikipedia and a few rap sites...

I did all that. I guess I got unlucky. I generally got told that I had to listen to it to appreciate it. I tried and heard noise. I don't mean to offend anyone. I realize that's MY limitation. But it isn't something I can just get over.

To get a sense of how serious a problem it is, note that I'm 45 and only recently learned to like some Rock and Roll. I'm the son of a guy who was born in the 1930s. My dad loves music, but throughout my childhood, he only ever played classical and early Jazz (e.g. big band). And I never rebelled. Instead, I ate up my dad's music and it's mostly what I listen to today. I just never developed an ear for most music written post 1945. So when friends tell me that I just need to listen for a while, and that then I'll grow to like it, I suspect they're right, but I have some steps I need to complete before I start on rap.

However, I DO respond to words. So even though I know that lyrics almost always lie flat without music, reading good rap lyrics might be a way in for me.
posted by grumblebee at 9:35 AM on December 4, 2010


Ask yourself: is Shakespeare as "popular" now as it was in the nineteenth century? What influence do you think the twentieth-century academic appropriation of Shakespeare had on its appeal to or intelligibility by popular audiences?

The amazing thing is that Shakespeare WAS relatively popular in the 19th Century. Generally -- almost universally -- non-academics lose interest in older stuff, even older stuff that was once popular with "the masses." Sometimes vogues for the past flair up, but they're usually short lived.

How many people listen to vaudeville today? Ragtime? Tin Pan Alley?

I will be AMAZED if anyone, other than academics and old people, is listening to rap in 50 years. That's just not how it works.

And I don't think it's a bad thing if "outsider" forms get appropriated by "insiders" and, so, die for outsiders. I mean, sure, that feels sucky if you've been a fan of the form for a long time. But that is often the engine that drives innovation and evolution. Once sheltered white boys like me start getting into hip hop, the form will lose its edge. It won't be dangerous or rebellious or revolutionary any more. GOOD! That will compel people with a revolutionary message to invent new forms!

Shakespeare and his contemporaries basically invented blank verse. It was new and thrilling and "street" (because it was English and not Latin or Greek). Not it's an archaic form. That's GOOD. That drove later innovations, such as free verse.
posted by grumblebee at 9:43 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


It won't be dangerous or rebellious or revolutionary any more. GOOD! That will compel people with a revolutionary message to invent new forms!

I think the cultural appropriation issue is where the history gets obscured in the process. Consider how few people recognize the black music roots of rock and roll... This issue becomes especially problematic when we talk about the issues of recognizing cultural contributions and roles in history. This goes everything from Iroquis contributions to the origins of US government structures to black folks contributions to science to the whitewashing of the Stonewall Riots and queer politics.

For music, specifically, it's a way in which the academics "become the experts" more than the participants or the communities of origin.

This -hasn't- yet started with hiphop, though given what we've seen with previous academia and art, it's not a hard guess this, too, will probably be the same route.

It's also probably worth noting that while there's always cultural drift in the sense of seeking newness- the act of "being revolutionary" is a cultural version of displacement- when your voice keeps getting stomped out you have to keep shifting your means of speaking. That's "good" perhaps in you get to benefit form new music forms, but not exactly good for the people doing it- how would/could the forms evolve without the constant pressure of being pushed out of it?
posted by yeloson at 9:56 AM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


I dunno. I'm waiting to see what Faze has to say.
posted by Obscure Reference at 9:57 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


he liked to rap in double-time triplets, delivering six syllables per beat

Pfft. Call me when he outdoes Paul Barman. Palindromes, alliteration, word play . . . and almost all of it filthy to boot. Of course, he's a white kid who went to Brown.
posted by yerfatma at 10:04 AM on December 4, 2010


My favorite rap stanza is by Kam, on Ice Cube's 1991 track "Color Blind:"

I'm fresh out of County on bail
Every time I get out, it seems like I'm right back in jail.
For some gang-related activity
'Cause every day different fools try to get with me
Over a certain color, or territory.
"Can't rehabiliate 'em," that's the sheriff's story.
So what's left?
The judge goes deaf
When you try to tell your side
And you ain't blue-eyed,
Boy, you better duck, 'Cause the book is comin'.
And just hand your car keys over to your woman.
'Cause there ain't no sunshine where you headed,
And this shit'll drive you crazy, if you let it.
Now, I got time to think.
'Cause they hit me with everything but the kitchen sink
And I ain't even shed a tear.
'Cause believe it or not, they got more love for me here.
Now picture that, but on a black and white photograph.
'Cause brothas, you don't know the half.
On the streets I was damn near outta my mind
But ever since I've been down, I'm color blind.

posted by mreleganza at 10:08 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Might want to give Saul Williams a spin, grumblebee.
posted by hermitosis at 10:09 AM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


I think the cultural appropriation issue is where the history gets obscured in the process.

I'm not going to argue that this is a good thing, but history ALWAYS gets obscured. Which is why we need historians.

History gets obscured for many, many reasons. Famously, it's written by the victors. But it also gets obscured by fading memories, false memories, fiction getting confused with fact and with people getting too caught up in the now to attend to the then.

100 years from now, how many people will understand the roots of 99/11, even though it's likely the world they'll be living in will have, at least in part, been created by what happened on that day? How many young people understand Watergate? How many know about democracies in ancient Greece? Above, I said that Shakespeare and his contemporaries invented iambic pentameter. No one called me on that. (It was really -- probably -- Chaucer.)

As for getting credit for stuff, I bet most people can hum the theme to "The Godfather" without knowing it was written by Nino Rota. They don't know that the snake-charmer song was written by an American. They don't know that many popular Christmas songs were written by Jews. (In fact, they don't know the important influence Jewish religious music had on songs by composers like Cole Porter and George Gershwin.) They don't know the debt that The Beatles owe British Music Hall songs.

I realize that Nino Rota and most British Music Hall artists aren't/weren't disenfranchised groups. My point is that this process happens to almost ALL artists. They contribute to culture and culture forgets about them -- but remembers their contributions.
posted by grumblebee at 10:21 AM on December 4, 2010


Also, this is a tangent, but: When we say one group or another "owns" an art form, what does that mean? We're not talking about intellectual property law.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:23 AM on December 4, 2010


And now some of my favorite Jay-Z stanza.

Um, at least get the lyrics right.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 10:44 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


After the Shakespeare discussion here, I'm surprised hermitosis didn't link to Saul Williams' Act III Scene II (Shakespeare)
posted by redsparkler at 10:49 AM on December 4, 2010


How many people listen to vaudeville today? Ragtime? Tin Pan Alley?

I had assumed it was more than just me. It would be a tragedy if people's experience with their own cultural legacy was limited to their lifetime and whatever is played on oldies stations.

At least we know Captain Kirk will be listening to the Beastie Boys a few hundred years from now.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:55 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


> Also, this is a tangent, but: When we say one group or another "owns" an art form, what does that mean? We're not talking about intellectual property law.

Is there still a debate over this? The idea that any group "owns" any art form is downright anti-art. If rap is an inherently "black" art form and any non-black rapper is simply engaging in cultural theft, then you have to say any black musicians playing or composing European classical music are doing the same thing. It's absurd.
posted by The Card Cheat at 10:56 AM on December 4, 2010


This bothers me. If he did that before recording his debut, how do we know? So are there any examples of this in his recorded work? Because I know enough about music to understand these words but I can't visualize (well, auditorize) what they mean. I mean, triplets, okay, I've heard those rapped. But sextuplets? Six notes to a beat? I'm lost.

Any help?


Yeah, here's his first release

It's a bit different from the way he raps now, right? One thing to understand is that rap, like any other type of music, goes through different popular style changes. In the early nineties rap was usually delivered a bit faster and the fast-stacato-type of rap was really popular. Check:
Das EFX - They Want EFX
Fu-Schnickens - What's Up Doc?
posted by P.o.B. at 11:10 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


(warning: I'm talking about something I feel I don't know enough about to articulate intelligently)

I think there's something a bit off in going to the Saul Williamses and Aesop Rocks of the world, which tends to be super predictable in threads like these. Now, as a disclaimer, I like both those artists quite a bit (Aesop is one of my favorite artists, and No Regrets can make me cry), and I feel like if I were trying to convince, say, my father that hip-hop has more merit than he believes, I would go to them. I understand why we go to them. They don't have a lot of the markers that cause people to be dismissive of hip-hop - it's an easier access point.

But I feel in a sense that this isn't the case that should be made. It's a bit like, "Here's the stuff that smart people like," or something, isn't it? I don't mean to offend anyone; I feel like I'm entering a minefield here. Again, I like those artists and understand why we use them as examples or entry points.

But the thing is, I think maybe we should point straight to the accessible stuff, because maybe pointing to those things allows people to go, "Ah, yes, I like Aesop/Saul/Talib Kweli, because they're different than that other garbage I hear. They aren't glorifying violence, wealth, misoginy, etc. That other stuff is worthless, but this stuff is okay." Doesn't it do that, a bit?

I think it's a bit more "right" (and I have no idea at all what I mean by that) to try and show people what's interesting and exciting in the other stuff. What's interesting in commercial hip-hop, what's interesting in violent hip-hop. That's a harder job, but I feel a bit when we go to those other examples, we're going to the examples that most conform to our own values, and maybe that's not how this should be done. And I think lots of commercial hip-hop is brilliant.

Let's take 2pac's Only God Can Judge Me, as a sort of random example. I find the second verse really powerful, here. He wrote this song after he was shot up in a recording studio lobby, and he decided he must have been set up by friends. Whether or not he really was set up is irrelevant; what matters is that he believed it and that what he is talking about is real to him. So here we have this guy talking about his life, and when he says,

How did it come to this?
I wish they didn't miss.
Somebody help me, tell me where to go from here.

we have somebody taking their pain and communicating it in a very direct way. It's from a life that I will never understand, and a value system that I find questionable (to put it charitably), but here he's transforming that pain into something that I do feel (as well as appreciate musically), and maybe we need to point that out, too, instead of just the stuff that I (speaking as a middle class white male) identify with more easily?

Or, here, let's talk less commercial that 2pac, but someone I found pretty hard to identify with, at first: Nas.. I don't find an emotional connection to this song as easily as the previous example: my admiration is more based on technical proficiency (and, again, it's musically wonderful). But here's what I found Matthew Gasteier saying about the album on wikipedia:

"Illmatic is the best hip-hop record ever made. Not because it has ten great tracks with perfect beats and flawless rhymes, but because it encompasses everything great about hip-hop that makes the genre worthy of its place in music history. Stylistically, if every other hip-hop record were destroyed, the entire genre could be reconstructed from this one album. But in spirit, Illmatic can just as easily be compared to Ready to Die, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and Enter the Wu-Tang as it can to Rites of Spring, A Hard Day's Night, Innervisions, and Never Mind the Bollocks. In Illmatic, you find the meaning not just of hip-hop, but of music itself: the struggle of youth to retain its freedom, which is ultimately the struggle of man to retain his own essence."

Now, see, that's what I feel I should be showing people.

Check out the clarity of the narrative in Notorious B.I.G.'s Somebody's Gotta Die, while being woven around some brilliant rhyming and wordplay. But then look closer at the story: there are some pretty understated elements of it that are critical to the theme of the song. It's not Shakespeare, sure, but it's not without some sophistication.

Even the braggadocio stuff can have tremendous value. I get a rush of energy from that stuff: I get energy from it! It's cathartic. I love it. I love Lil Wayne, for real. He's brilliant. Now, did I think about choosing a song where he doesn't compare the beat to a woman he's abusing? Of course. The misogyny is the hardest part for me to deal with (much harder than the glorification of violence or materialism). But the thing is: Lil Wayne doesn't come from where I do. I know that point is so obvious that it's tired, but to throw out what's wonderful about what these guys do because they don't have my value system...that doesn't seem like the right reaction to me. I feel like I should be looking at the shitty environment a lot of these guys come from and celebrate that they're turning that shit into something that is beautiful.

Blah blah blah.
posted by neuromodulator at 11:11 AM on December 4, 2010 [9 favorites]


Um, at least get the lyrics right.

Speaking of which...

The other book Kelefa Sanneh is discussing in that essay is another book Adam Bradley co-edited, called the Anthology of Rap, published by the Yale University Press, which aims to make Bradley's favorite argument: that rap lyrics are poetry. (Duh?) Bradley does this by presenting rap lyrics in the same way university presses typically collect traditional poetry: the scholarly anthology.

The book has tons of transcription errors, in part because the editors probably made heavy use of OHHLA.com (which is linked in this FPP), which is a wiki-style lyrics archive that listeners contribute to and is famously full of errors (a great many of which match the book's errors).

The always sublime Jay Smooth detailed the transcription errors he found and Slate published a series of articles on the book which include an initial review and then reactions and responses from Bradley, one rapper whose lyrics are included, and the members of the book's advisory board, some of whom want to distance themselves from this misguided and poorly executed effort.

The Slate articles in chronological order:

Fact-Check the Rhyme: The Anthology of Rap is rife with transcription errors. Why is it so hard to get rap lyrics right?

It Was Written: Why are there so many errors in The Anthology of Rap? The editors respond.

Stakes Is High: Members of the Anthology of Rap's advisory board speak out about the book's errors. Plus: Grandmaster Caz lists the mistakes in his lyrics.
posted by Rudy Gerner at 11:12 AM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Errr, that should read "maybe we should not point straight to the accessible stuff..."
posted by neuromodulator at 11:15 AM on December 4, 2010


If you can get over the violence and misogyny, I find rap to be both poetic and hilarious. I also get a lot of pleasure trying to decipher the lyrics, especially considering a lot of the brands and pop references are not overly familiar, and no one speaks like that where I'm from.

Sixteen in the clip and one in the hole, Nate Dogg is about to make some bodies turn cold

One of my all time favourite lines. A riduclously large clip befitting a ganster rapper. Accept no substitutes. But that's not enough! One extra bullet in the chamber, and now Nate's ready to get busy killing people.

One hit wonder notwithstanding, anyone else here think Ice Ice Baby is a hell underrated song? The lyrics are fantastic in parts.

Will it ever stop?
Yo, I don't know
Turn off the lights and I'll glow
To the extreme
I rock a mic like a vandal
Light up a stage and wax a chump like a candle


Wax a chump like a candle?! That's gold, Jerry! Gold!

Shay parlays on the fade, sliced like a ninja
Cut like a razor blade so fast
Other DJ's say, "damn!"
If my rhyme was a drug
I'd sell it by the gram
Keep my composure when it's time to get loose
Magnetized by the mic while I kick my juice
If there is a problem
Yo, I'll solve it!
Check out the hook while Deshay revolves it
Ice, ice, baby


And you have to love a song that has a last line:

Word to your mother

Just one more favourite I'd like to share... a deliciously clever block of lyrics from Kanye West's Gold Digger.

She was supposed to buy ya shorty Tyco with ya money
She went to the doctor got lipo with ya money
She walkin' around lookin' like Michael with ya money
Shoulda got that insured - GEICO for ya moneeeey

posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:30 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'd just like to say, and I'll always probably remain in the minortiy on this one, that I think 2pac did his best stuff before he joined with Death Row. 2pacalypse Now is as thought provoking as any rap album ever put out and covers more ground than most any ever will.
posted by P.o.B. at 11:44 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Should've linked that: 2pacalypse Now
posted by P.o.B. at 11:45 AM on December 4, 2010


The thing about the Anthology of Rap debacle is that it points out that printing lyrics without footnotes about what certain things mean undermines their credibility. I feel like in a scholarly work if you're not talking about what things are actually referring to is kind of saying they aren't referring to anything, which isn't true. Finnegans Wake doesn't make any sense until someone tells you what he's saying. And it turns out he's saying a lot.
posted by amethysts at 11:50 AM on December 4, 2010


2pacalypse Now is as thought provoking as any rap album ever put out and covers more ground than most any ever will.

God, yeah. You don't know how many Tupac fans I have to point out - "Uh, his first album was all political."
posted by yeloson at 11:51 AM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


There's another aspect I like that can be found in a few rap songs, not pertaining to the lyrics. I'm not sure if it's got a name because I've never studied poetry. I couldn't even write Haiku without have to Google for the rules first.

When a rap song just flows... the verses get an almost trance like quality to them.

NWA's Respect Yourself and LL Cool J's Mama Said Knock You Out are two that spring to mind.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 11:54 AM on December 4, 2010


But the thing is, I think maybe we should point straight to the accessible stuff, because maybe pointing to those things allows people to go, "Ah, yes, I like Aesop/Saul/Talib Kweli, because they're different than that other garbage I hear. They aren't glorifying violence, wealth, misoginy, etc. That other stuff is worthless, but this stuff is okay." Doesn't it do that, a bit?

I realize that some people dislike rap because they don't like the subject-matter of some of the songs. That's not the case with me. It's very rare that I like or dislike a song due to its subject matter, its "morals" or what it's "promoting." Yet when people hear I don't like rap, that's always what they assume. And so, to covert me, they say, "Oh, you'll like this one. It's not about violence..."

It fascinates me that so many people like songs because "they teach good values" or dislike songs because "they are sexist" or whatever. I don't mean there's anything perverse or wrong with such responses. They're just alien responses to me.

I know that I'M not sexist, and I know a song is not going to make me sexist. (Or, if I'm deluding myself and I actually AM sexist, I am skeptical that listening to a song is going to worsen the problem.)

What I LOVE about art -- when it's good -- is that it communicates points-of-view and feelings. If a work is going to help me get inside the head of a sexist person, then I want to be inside that head. As long as I'm getting a crystal-clear, non-cliched picture of what it's like in there. I feel very confident that I can walk around in that head without any risk to my own ideology or my feelings about women. I want to at least dip my toes into every nook and cranny of the human experience, even the ugly parts.

(I HATE jock culture. I am also an Easy-coast Jew with who is turned off by surfers. I don't drive a car and I don't even like cars. And yet I LOVE The Beach Boys. I love the way they shine a light on a particular world that's not my world. One of my favorite songs of theirs is "Be True to Your School," which is funny, because I hate school spirit.)

I'm NOT saying that rap is sexist or ugly. I'm just saying that my objection to it has nothing to do with a feeling -- even a false feeling -- that it is.

I just bring this up because if someone says he doesn't like rap, ask him why not, rather than assume it's because he thinks all rap glorifies sexism and violence and he hates things that glorify violence.

I don't like rap music because I don't like the SOUNDS. To me, it sound more like noise than music. I know that's just my untrained ear. Millions of people wouldn't enjoy something for decades if it was "just noise." But, thus far, I can't seem to find a way to enjoy it. And my response is a historically common one. People used to hate Rock and Roll because it was "loud." People hated Jazz because it was "syncopated." A genre of music comes with its own sounds and conventions, and if they are alien to you, it may be hard -- or even impossible -- for you to hear what enthusiasts hear.

In any case, having me listen to rap about Shakespeare or flowers or gun control or ice-cream won't make me like rap. For me to like it -- instantly, without years of retraining my ears -- I'd need to hear rap that doesn't sound like rap. If I heard rap that sounded like a Miles Davis song or a Gershwin song or a Mozart song, I'd probably like it. But then it wouldn't be rap.
posted by grumblebee at 11:54 AM on December 4, 2010 [2 favorites]


I like noise, but I don't think it sounds like rap.
posted by box at 12:01 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't take it, beauty that was once sacred
is now gettin facelifts, fake tits, and fake lips
Cold embraces


How ironic! This is a great metaphor for roughly 97% of commercial rap. Here, I take one meaning of "beauty that was once sacred" as referring to the beat, the sacred beat. That's what drives the ear to rap, and many other styles of music. It doesn't matter whether it's a modern rap Shakespeare or most of the usual rapcrap (sic) we hear on commercial radio and in the movies; the beat is what pulls you in. The ancients knew something about the beat; it was embedded in daily life, not kept separate with two commercials between every song, or a background of mindless, half-second image edits peppered along with for your multitasking viewing pleasure.

Yes, rap can create great poetry, and lest anyone think that crap can only be made from rap, there's lots in or own oral tradition that is pretty awful. My concern is that most people listening to rap - the general public - don't know a damned thing about the traditions tat rap comes from; they don't know *anything* about other musics; the haven't even *heard* any other musics. However, they have heard the word "poetry", even though most of them haven't ever been to a poetry reading, written a poem, or read a book of poetry, aloud (or even to themselves). And lest you think I'l speaking about your average college student, I'm not (but please do include a good many of them as a subset of what I'm describing, here). Also included are the millions of little kids who hear this stuff daily as ringtones and on the school playground - most of it rapcrap, and most of it listened to at the exclusion of any other kind of music.

Poetry? Sure, you can call almost anything poetry, but it would be nice to know a little bit about the history of that tradition, and a little bit about the history of the beat that drives both musical and poetic traditions, so that we don't end up with all of the above population having the wrong idea about what "great" poetry is - either in rap, or other traditions.

The stuff I've seen above (some I'm already familiar with), is good - some lines are great (and, yes, that's a subjective judgment, subject to criticism).

What I see in our (American) culture is a dumbing-down of many traditions, with the compelling innovation of words-to-beat-to-music that rap is, in its primary current forms, and the crass commercialization of the latter, contributing to that dumbing down. It's kind of like the mid- 20th century, where free-form poetry took hold, and any person, who was an ignorant-of-the-roots otherwise (and ever even read or heard a great poem) who could put a rhyme together thought they could become "great", or were "rating" their favorite crappy poem as great.

Now, before labeling me as an elitist, be aware that I see art all over the place, and that art can and does live in the everyday. It's just that I would love to see some responsibility on the part of the more knowledgeable proponents of rap, and rap poetry, do a little more to educate their audiences about tradition, and give credit to that tradition.

TS Eliot, Yeats, Chaucer, etc. are only one little snippet of what I'm trying to get at here. We need to use the drive of the sacred beat to get kids (and a lot more adults) doing what this person did. We need more adults and kids exposed to the basics of raps roots, not just the blues and jazz and rock-n'-roll, but the real deal. Can't you just hear the roots of rap, here?

So, let rap poetry develop, and give full credit to those who have created great rap poetry, but let's not let the general idea that most of the rapcrap we're hearing today is anything close to poetry (OK, calling it crappy poetry is something I can live with) - when all it is is the subversion of the sacred beat in service of misogyny, ignorance, commercial gain, and dumbing-down. It wouldn't be hard to make a whole room of people want to dance to a CornFlakes commercial, given the right intonations and backbeats. I don't want anyone calling that poetry, just like I don't want 97% of the rapcrap I hear out there today as poetry, or start to see the rapcrapians who created it calling themselves great poets, or have to endure ignorant fools like Kayne West talking about his loser music as great poetry. That would just be another insult to tradition and the sacred beat.
posted by Vibrissae at 12:08 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Well, grumblebee, than I do have a suggestion. You can put a theory of mine to the test, and it won't take years.

Pick a single rap album and start putting it on as background music. Like, when you're housecleaning, doing the dishes, doing anything except concentrating on it.

My experience has been that when we actively listen to something, we tend to look for interesting markers in the places we expect them to be, and if they're not there, we get dismissing. I think the nature of human attention, though, means that if you put on something and ignore it, your brain will pick out what's interesting on its own, eventually. Like the way we can't ignore something irregular in our environment, the way our attention is drawn to some weird noise in another room, your brain will pick up what is interesting all by itself, if you let it have an undirected relationship. It won't take training and it won't take years.

I would recommend maybe Beats, Rhymes and Life by A Tribe Called Quest, because I found that album really accessible musically when I wasn't as appreciative of lyrical finesse. Illlmatic by Nas might be a decent choice too. But I'd stick with one or two albums so that you can become familiar with them. I think if you put on Beats, Rhymes and Life ten times while doing other things, you would find yourself enjoying parts of it by the last listen.

(I won't be bothered in the least if you do not try this.)
posted by neuromodulator at 12:08 PM on December 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


The thing about the Anthology of Rap debacle is that it points out that printing lyrics without footnotes about what certain things mean undermines their credibility.

There are a few lyrics sites that seem to have an active readership that offer comments. I've picked up some really good nuggets of info here and there. I always neglect to favourite them, but sing365.com is one I remember. I'm pretty sure there are other similar sites.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 12:13 PM on December 4, 2010


There's another aspect I like that can be found in a few rap songs, not pertaining to the lyrics. I'm not sure if it's got a name because I've never studied poetry.

When a rap song just flows... the verses get an almost trance like quality to them.


Interesting. Having looked up the lyrics to one of the songs you mentioned, I kind of see what you mean. From LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out"

Don't call it a comeback
I been here for years
Rockin my peers and puttin suckas in fear
Makin the tears rain down like a MON-soon
Listen to the bass go BOOM

Part of it is the frequency of the rhymes (true and slant). It's hypnotic:

Don't call it a comeback
I BEEN HERE for YEARS
Rockin my PEERS and
puttin suckas in FEAR
Making the TEARS rain down like a mon-SOON
Listen to the bass go BOOM

Also, note the words, above, that I italicized. They have similar sounds. So that's another wave-like effect.

A third wave is alliterative:

Don't call it a comeback
I been here for years
Rockin my peers and puttin suckas in fear
Makin the tears rain down like a MON-soon
Listen to the bass go BOOM

And...

Don't call it a comeback
I been here for years
Rockin my peers and puttin suckas in fear
Makin the tears rain down like a MON-soon
Listen to the bass go BOOM

And...

Don't call it a comeback
I been here for years
Rockin my peers and puttin suckas in fear
Makin the tears rain down like a MON-soon
Listen to the bass go BOOM

There's also a semi-iambic rhythem going on in terms of the stress (just based on me reading it to myself -- I haven't heard LL perform it, so I don't know how where he places the stress). So your brain is able to somewhat predict where the next stress-beat will come. Whenever you feel you can relax into a beat, there's going to be a somewhat lulling effect.

DON'T call it a COMEback
I BEEN here for YEARS
ROCKin my PEERS and PUTtin SUCKas in FEAR
MAKin the TEARS rain down LIKE a MON-soon
LISTen to the BASS go BOOM
posted by grumblebee at 12:17 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


You might be interested in comparing the single version of 'Mama Said Knock You Out' with this live version, from Yo! MTV Raps Unplugged.

And, for a view of L's range, compare his style on 'Mama Said Knock You Out' with e.g. 'I Need Love.'
posted by box at 12:33 PM on December 4, 2010


Oh, and just to post some jaw-dropping lyricism: Cannibal Ox.

I think Madvillain's Madvillainy might be a better recommendation than A Tribe Called Quest as per my last post. Also, Oh No's Exodus Into Unheard Rhythms was made only using samples from Galt MacDermot's catalog, so might be an interesting reference on sample-based music.
posted by neuromodulator at 12:37 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, but Dr. No's Ethiopium is doper.
posted by box at 12:42 PM on December 4, 2010


The idea of accepting rap and hip hop lyrics as literature was being discussed ten years ago when I was working on my B.A. in literature.

I was just thinking the same thing. I think I had a class on this in high school, 12-ish years ago. Granted, I went to a great high school with some incredibly creative and forward-thinking teachers. But said high school was relatively elitist in academic outlook, and in the boonies of northern Louisiana, to boot. My (very white) eleventh grade English teacher could not have been the first person to connect these particular dots.

That said, I also rolled my eyes when Spring Awakening came to Broadway and everyone was all falling over themselves about Rock N Roll being ON BROADWAY and shit. Because Spring Awakening was totes the first musical to do that. For sure.
posted by Sara C. at 1:11 PM on December 4, 2010


I think there's a million better albums that Exodus, but I think the fact that it's sampled from one jazz musician might be interesting to someone who likes jazz but finds loop-based music uninteresting.
posted by neuromodulator at 1:13 PM on December 4, 2010


Following up about FunGus' post which I quoted in mine above - for all my "no doi" about Rap As Poetry, there was a next step there. Slam Poetry. I never got real into it and a lot of the spoken word stuff out there is immature/puerile/etc. But I also don't know enough about the world of poetry to know the good stuff that came out of that development, or how that is having an influence on more "serious" poetry today. But I would surmise that the "you got hip-hop in my poetry!" "you got poetry in my hip-hop!" moment did very much have an impact on both the way poets make poems and the way that scholars evaluate poems, 10-15 years later.

Grumblebee - I find your quest fascinating, because I'm on a similar one with less accessible post-swing jazz. I understand that people think Charlie Parker and Miles Davis are the best ever. They just sound like noise to me. What I'm doing about that right now is watching Ken Burns' Jazz documentaries. I haven't gotten to that era yet, but so far it's been a fascinating ride with at least as much music appreciation as historical narrative. I don't think there's a hip-hop documentary with that kind of scope, but maybe you could approach it from that direction?
posted by Sara C. at 1:44 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Neither one is Ken Burns' Jazz, but Scratch and Freestyle are two pretty good hip-hop documentaries.
posted by box at 1:46 PM on December 4, 2010


Vibrassae, the way you repeatedly call it "rapcrap" (I share your concern that just calling it "crap" would have had most of missing the point) compels me to take you very seriously.
posted by mreleganza at 1:58 PM on December 4, 2010


"Proper. What you say Hammer? Proper.
Rap is not pop, if you call it that then stop."

posted by iamck at 2:11 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Too many Urkels on your team that's why you're Winslow.
posted by morganannie at 2:35 PM on December 4, 2010


I get stoopid, I shoot an arrow like Cupid,
I use a word that don't mean nothin', like looptid


If that ain't poetry I don't know what.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:08 PM on December 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Civil Disobedient - it doesn't get better than Big Daddy Kane vs. Dolomite.
posted by yeloson at 3:28 PM on December 4, 2010


knowledgeable proponents of rap, and rap poetry, do a little more to educate their audiences about tradition, and give credit to that tradition.

Oh, the hip-hop tradition is ALL about this, but it's not explicit like citations in an academic paper, but just as serious. There is a stronger reliance on tradition that in any rock music or jazz because of the usage of sampling and record scratching. As you may have noticed, the hook in boom-bap joints is constructed from the vinyl manipulation of previous rapped lines relevant to the subject at hand.

The very basis of the hip-hop "beat" is an ode to black music tradition. In songs without a scratch hook, a vocal palimpsest is made over the sampled track. Within DJ culture, past compositions are illuminated through repurposing. If you listen to a lot of hip hop, you will hear many references to previous rhymes, but reinterpreted within an improvisational framework. It is analogous to Louis Armstrong quoting a well-known composition during a solo.

Knowledge of tradition and the ability to reference tradition is highly valued in the rap community, and yes, even Little Wayne knows this and makes references to his predecessors in his flows.

I think I realized why the subject of academic/scholarly analysis of hip-hop lyrics gets on my nerves. It is because the lyrics are only one aspect of hip-hop! The scholarly analysis falls painfully short because it ignores co-extant elements that are critical to hip-hop.

To be fair to your point though, and I actually think you illustrate it, kids today just don't know bout the four elements anymore.
posted by fuq at 4:06 PM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


It's a bit like, "Here's the stuff that smart people like," or something, isn't it?

Eh, I like lots of different rap artists, but depending on what a persons says they don't like, or would like to hear, I'll recommend different things. Want to dance? Want to sing along? Want to pick apart the lyrics? Then I have three different names for you.

When my partner and I first got together, he made me a rap cd that had a little of everything, and we ended up having a lot of good talks about it. Everyone's access point is different. For me it was a political appreciation first, and then soon it was about admiring or envying a skill that I don't have, and then it was about hearing other people's stories, learning about other people's lives. Just because someone might need to hear Saul Williams to understand why they should keep listening or give other people a chance doesn't mean they won't ever get around to liking Mickey Avalon.
posted by hermitosis at 4:07 PM on December 4, 2010


If I heard rap that sounded like a Miles Davis song or a Gershwin song or a Mozart song, I'd probably like it.

How about this or maybe this?
posted by mrducts at 4:09 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


And as a further response to Vibrissae this song, and indeed the entire project is an example of how mainstream rap incorporates an advanced knowledge of it's influences and repurposes it's roots to expose them to new audiences and keep notable works relevant in the tradition.
posted by fuq at 4:21 PM on December 4, 2010


Yeah, hermitosis, I totally agree with you. 100%. I just think there's a way of presenting hip-hop to non-heads that encourages viewpoints like Vibrissae's (which I disagree with), which I've been thinking about. I more was thinking out loud than trying to single out your suggestion. I have used Saul as my go-to "try this" artist, too.

Anyway, I wanted to present another song for flat-out lyrical love, not for rhyming but for what is communicated. El-P's Poisonville Kids No Wins is a track about watching someone self-destruct on substance abuse, and having watched one of my closest friends hit bottom on meth, I can say this is the real deal. I mean, this song very nicely portrays the state where distress/sympathy/sadness are replaced by anger. I've been there.

When a live wire lights little metal rail right
When a marvel of engineering steered me clear in to the plight
Right before the bodegas open
after the peak of night before the paper's delivered
I sat on the corner and sparked a light
The same corner I perched when I zone dropped on the block first
At almost 5 o'clock watching for sun spots or store clerks
Alone spot
almost kinda like the zone was forgot
As if the grid had been reset and couldn't catch to the clock
Or the stoop was stuck in the past a half minute and I sat in it
With a loosie Newpy drift out of my lips
taste; half minted

And I felt like a hundred bucks in the pocket of a gambling lush
at a wondershowzen flow with the droids of destructo luck
Fugitoid on the run again
the sky gleamed the maroonist coloring
Layered against the bluest tone from where the thunder lived
and there I was directly under it
Like some dejected little grey they told to stay and wait for the mothership
A cotton ball in a blizzard of mischief or brain prison
With a thought that rode on the bus and came for conjugal visits
and fucked it's way into my grey matter, the tattered territory
Stayed chattering and nagging till it demanded it yell it for me
And I tried to hold the thing back but the meditation was otherly
Fixated on what a friend said and relating it to my struggling
"Metropoloid void so damn smothering"
But we were children of poisenville and saw the seduction less repugnant
And reserved the right as the triggerman with the back up plan of self destruction
And I touched the type of chemicals that could pull me towards that function
It's the stuff I find hard for discussion
How the fuck do you explain your own self destruction and still remain trusted?

To answer the question
yes - the city wants you gone
and thats the only thing connecting us
but the connection is so strong
So how dare you assume that I'll sleep when you're dead
This is well outside the boundries of acceptable behaviour
I will not give you the go ahead and you will not be remembered fondly
I'm throwing down the gauntlet
fuck you this isn't your decision
and for all the holy fuck I give, your little spectacle is ended
But dont think for just one second you've honored your obligations to me
I'm serious look in my eyes
I don't find this funny
or whatever you imagine poetry and justice feels like when you combine them
I am not going to allow this on my watch buddy
nobodies impressed with your imagined sacrifice device or insurmountable regret
You are not uniquely pained and if you go we won't be sorry
and who the hell are you to put me through the banality of watching this
Cause many better men have gone for clearly better reasons
and I starkly must remind you that you have not even been trying
And that's the only thing remarkable about you
stop me if I'm lying

We are always outnumbered but we were never out militia'd
There's no dignity for criminals
no ministry for the wicked
In this town if you make a sound you're the leper with the most fingers
The League of Extraordinary Nobodies, the other teams bringing in ringers
No faith in the majority
no hope for the little ones
Sally pulled a pistol out
billy got a blunderbuss
So what the fuck are you feeling that makes your struggle so wondrous?
Enough to arrogantly pull what's left of the rug out from under us
I think not
you're in the same barrel all us other crabs are caught
And if I have to live, you have to live; whether you like this shit or not

Dedicated to the drowning, and the noble futility of the desperate friends forced to watch
And to my good friends who refused to allow it to happen to me
You know who you are, you know what I'm talking about
Believe me, man
I promise
posted by neuromodulator at 4:27 PM on December 4, 2010 [4 favorites]


Also:

Everybody go hotel
motel
hoilday inn
posted by neuromodulator at 4:35 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Paging Dr. Wolfe!
posted by falameufilho at 4:48 PM on December 4, 2010


To merely compare hip-hop to poetry is to shortchange it. While you might find things to appreciate in studying transcripts of the lyrics, you are eating uncooked food. An MC's delivery is inseparable from his lyrics, which is one reason that the cover song is a rarity in hip-hop Snoop Dogg's version of Slick Rick's "La di Da di" is the only notable one I can think of.

The delivery matters as much if not more that the lyrics, I'd argue (and never mind the beats and music). I'd think the lyrics of Bone Thugs N Harmony look like Esperanto on a page.

That's not to say that all MCS write their own lyrics; they don't. So studying pieces of paper will never allow you to understand the pleasures of Eazy-E, who had Ice Cube write most of his famous lyrics. And like a lot of really great rock music, sometimes really great hip hop has really stupid lyrics.

(On preview: El-P is a good example of why hip-hop that scans well on the page doesn't always make for good hip-hop, IMO. While I don't know that particular song, I have a couple of his CDs and think his flow is really damaged by how dense he makes his lyrics, especially since he isn't gifted with incredible rhythmic precision in his delivery. It's the same problem I have with Aesop Rock, who can be interesting but often sounds mushy. In that vein, I much prefer cLOUDDEAD).
posted by Bookhouse at 4:50 PM on December 4, 2010 [3 favorites]


Notorious Thugs
posted by neuromodulator at 5:24 PM on December 4, 2010


An MC's delivery is inseparable from his lyrics,

Maybe, depending on how gifted the MC is. Some MCs actually have multiple delivery styles, and generally there is a progression to most MC's style of delivery over the course of their career.

These types of things can be easily duplicated but that's not the reason they aren't:

DJ Quik - Quikker Said Than Dunn ~ Eazy E - Eazy-er Said Than Dunn

I think the real reason you don't see covers is that would automatically make them a 2nd rate "biter". Even at the beginning of Snoops version he tells people to "go eat a dick" if they don't like it, meaning the people who would be ready to shout out about they way he's stealing Slick Rick's thunder.
What's really inseperable here is the bravado (or machismo or ego or whatever you want to call it) from the MC. MCing has a long history of oneupmanship and testing-of-skill.
To do something else someone already has done is to basically anounce they have nothing original to offer themselves.
posted by P.o.B. at 5:58 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


I agree--this is part of the reason, I think, that hip-hop covers mostly come from artists who are already relatively established themselves. By the time Snoop did 'Ladi Dadi' or 'The Vapors,' he had gone from being one of Dre's weed carriers to almost singlehandedly carrying The Chronic--dude had nothing to prove at that point.

(One of my fave hip-hop covers, by the way, is Wu-Tang (well, really, RZA, Meth and ODB)'s version of Run-DMC's 'Sucker MCs.' 'Throw your blunts in the air for the god Iron Lung!' There was an AskMe about rap covers a while back... ah, here it is.)
posted by box at 6:12 PM on December 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


An MC's delivery is inseparable from his lyrics,

Maybe, depending on how gifted the MC is. Some MCs actually have multiple delivery styles, and generally there is a progression to most MC's style of delivery over the course of their career.


I guess I don't see how the two paragraphs relate to each other. Someone like KRS-One might change styles two or three times over the course of a song, but the delivery of each lyric is still inseparable from the lyric itself. Words on a page simply will not suffice.

Your point about covers I agree with.
posted by Bookhouse at 6:20 PM on December 4, 2010


And, for a view of L's range, compare his style on 'Mama Said Knock You Out' with e.g. 'I Need Love.'

Further to that comment, see I'm Going Back to Cali for something completely different to Mama Said Knock You Out. Fantastic intro - the first 0:31s are well worth a listen.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 7:51 PM on December 4, 2010


If I heard rap that sounded like a Miles Davis song or a Gershwin song or a Mozart song, I'd probably like it.

As a huge fan of both Wu-Tang and Miles Davis, I've always thought that Ghostface's "Marvel" shares a great deal of rhythmic similarity to Miles' "Milestones,", particularly in the way RZA (second verse in the song) moves from the rapid-fire staccato to the longer, looser rhymes, then back. Cannonball's solo leading off on "Milestones" responds to the same sort of structure from the rhythm section.
posted by GamblingBlues at 9:16 PM on December 4, 2010


If I heard rap that sounded like a Miles Davis song or a Gershwin song or a Mozart song, I'd probably like it.

Samuel Butler didn't like listening to Schumann but thought that he should, as if he had an obligation to like it.
I should like to like Schumann's music better than I do; I dare say I could make myself like it better if I tried; but I do not like having to try to make myself like things; I like things that make me like them at once and no trying at all.
You just need to know what you like and be happy with it, and you don't have to like everything. There are millions of hip-hop fans who aren't trying to understand or enjoy Gershwin or Mozart or Miles Davis. No one is scolding them for not trying hard enough.

Now, you could make yourself like hip hop. You could make yourself like any sort of music. You just need to force yourself to listen to it over and over until it's stuck in your head. But you don't have to and you shouldn't feel obliged to.
posted by pracowity at 10:10 PM on December 4, 2010


You just need to force yourself to listen to it over and over until it's stuck in your head. But you don't have to and you shouldn't feel obliged to.

This is true. Any music that sounds like "just noise" to a person is really just music from a genre you don't get yet. Heavy listening in any genre will teach you the subtitles. This even goes for "noise" like Tim Hecker or Earth or Sunn 0))). But life is short.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:46 PM on December 4, 2010


my brother William Buckholz wrote this fantastic book called Understand Rap, which Abrams books published. It's on amazon, for sale at every (?) Urban Outfitters, etc.

It's based on the site he created, Understandrap.com .

The site focuses a bit more on user submitting lyrics they don't understand, and users explaining the references and lingo that others have posted queries about, with many contributions from William. So there's a large variety. The book is all written by him, and sorted into sections based on themes, like Money, Drugs, Sex... It's hilariously written & dry, yet both the book and the site actually serve to explain and clarify what artists are talking about.

Here's where the
Wall Street Journal writes on Anthology of Rap and goes on to compare it to Understand Rap, with Understand Rap getting the vote!


Excerpt:

So if enabling pseudo- scholarship can't help hip-hop curtail its self-parodic tendencies, perhaps outright caricature can. To that end, instead of slogging through the 867 pages of the new poetic canon, just buy the CliffsNotes in the form of William Buckholz's "Understand Rap: Explanations of Confusing Rap Lyrics You & Your Grandma Can Understand." Compared with the Yale anthology, "Under stand Rap" has a lot to recommend it: It's more fun to read, it doesn't take itself as seriously, and there's no windy foreword by Skip Gates. Helpfully segmenting his material into common hip-hop themes (Drugs and Alcohol, Crime and Weapons, Skills and Pride, etc.), Mr. Buckholz archly interprets rap lyrics with a starchy formality, which often sounds like it could've come from the pens of Messrs. Bradley and DuBois.

So, for instance, when Xzibit raps that "We pop them toasters" in his song "The Gambler," Mr. Buckholz translates it to: "We squeeze the triggers of guns as casually as if we were attempting to discharge bread from a kitchen appliance before it had reached the level of warmth and crispiness associated with the setting we had selected."

Upon further reflection, maybe these two titles should serve as companions, as they have many similarities and one major difference. The simi lar ities are that both "The Anthology of Rap" and "Understand Rap" have an appreciation of the music, celebrate hip-hop lyrics and produce sustained laughter. If you suspect the difference is that one is a serious book and the other an unserious one, you'd be wrong. They are both actually unserious books. It's just that only one of them knows it.


The book has also been written up in the Chicago Tribune, Toledo Blade, SF Weekly, etc.

I'm really proud of what he's done and the work put into his book shows!.. I do believe it is error free in terms of lyrical accuracy and correctness of explanations (something which is harder to keep in check on the site with user submitted content). this thread is eye opening in terms of how this "industry" (for lack of a better word) / analysis has developed suddenly.

Please check out the book & notice it's great for holiday gifts !
posted by white light at 2:29 AM on December 5, 2010


[here I come with my customary derail]

Can anyone confirm that there's a Killer of Sheep sample in "Momma Said Knock You Out"? I can't hear it, but then I don't usually listen closely to it.

[/derail]
posted by pxe2000 at 7:03 AM on December 5, 2010


You just need to know what you like and be happy with it, and you don't have to like everything.

This is, of course, true. However, I've always had a bug up my ass about missing out on experiences that great numbers of people find beautiful. I realize that, given the total number of experiences and the relative shortness of my life, that bug is gonna be chomping at my hemorrhoids forever. But I'm just explaining the drive, not implying it's rational.

I carry around a list (in my head) of things I don't appreciate but am intrigued by. For instance, I suck at math, but my mathematician friends assure me that Calculus is beautiful -- many claim it's one of the most gorgeous edifices ever built by humankind. I can't ignore that. I just can't. It gnaws at me. I'm staring at meaningless symbols while my friends are seeing Jesus. I've started going here and, slowly, I'm working my way towards Calculus (starting, to my everlasting shame, with basic arithmetic).

I feel the same way about sports. I hate sports. I always have. I can't grok what people like about them. (I mean, I can understand it intellectually, but I can't get inside the feeling in any way.) But I'd rather not die having spent my entire life so cut off from an experience that is so meaningful to so many other people.

I'm an atheist who can't talk to lots of my atheist friends about religion. Most of my friends hate it, but I try hard to find ways to get inside religion. I'd rather not hate -- or be indifferent to -- something that so many people (people I know) find continually sublime. But I've never had an even remotely spiritual experience and I doubt I'm built to have them. Still, I try to grope my way towards an understanding of them via metaphor, music, ritual and fiction. I once askedMetafiler what experiencing God felt like. (Deleted: chatfilter.)

As for rap: it's everywhere. I hear it all the time. I hear it on TV; I hear it when my friends play it; I hear it in bars... Most people around me are either indifferent to it or enjoy it. I'm the one covering his ears. (Not literally. I don't want to cause offense. But -- God! -- I want to.)

So can you understand why I'd like to swap that negative experience for the positive one that so many other millions of people are having? At least while they're listening to rap, they are having a richer life than I am.

I can deal with the possibility that I'll never learn to like it. But I can't deal with not trying.
posted by grumblebee at 1:05 PM on December 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


No offense white light, but even though the book is meant to be light-hearted, I don't need more faux "lets take the blackety-speak and translate it into proper English so that you can properly understand the negroes" in book form.
posted by cashman at 7:19 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another possible avenue for trying to ease into rap is Gym Class Heroes; it's a rapper (Travie McCoy) and a band. Friends who don't generally like the sound of rap tend to like GCH a bit better, but it still might be too "noisy" compared to something like jazz.

If you want to give it a shot, my favorite song of theirs is Papercuts; it's a metaphor for writer's block, or any kind of artistic block really. It captures a lot of the creative struggle in a way that I deeply relate to: the blank feeling, the self-consciousness, the resentment, the hopelessness, the whole sense of wondering why you bother when it makes you miserable and knowing because it makes you more miserable not to, etc.

I particularly love the imagery of "until she comes back around like them ceiling fan blades"; it's succinct but says so much: as soon as I hear it, I'm lying on a bed staring up at a ceiling fan, feeling empty of ideas and purpose. I also like "I can't complain, I kind of like the pain," and I love that the song ends with "She says she loves me but / I don't try hard enough."

Lyrics:
She says she loves me but
She comes and goes when she pleases
When the door shuts
It's like another papercut
And I'm stuck with a hand full of bandaids
Until she comes back around like them ceiling fan blades
Claims she loves me but
She cuts me into pieces
When I'm sewed up
Here comes another papercut
Now I'm stuck with a hand full of bandaids
Until she comes back around like them ceiling fan blades

We met 22 years back
Fresh out the womb
Now she consumes me,
No room for self these days
And she's so demanding
Do this, do that
Don't forget to take your medicine
I hate it when her face is invading my head again
The welcome mat reads "please take off your shoes"
But she disregards the statement
I've grown accustomed to bending my beliefs to
Satisfy her needs
But I'm fed up
With plugging cuts everytime they bleed
So I dip my pen in the puddle
What a bloody mess its been
Trying to end this struggle
But I love her,
She's the reason for the lesions
Man I love her
I start bleeding when she's leaving
And every scar on my fingertip is a reminder of
All the lessons learned
On my missions to try to find her but
I'll sit alone until she comes back home
And I'll be waiting by the phone
"Hello?"

[On the Phone]
She don't live here no more
I heard she's staying down the street with the dead beat
That don't treat her right with two bad ass kids
Guilt and Regret
And I'm willing to bet
My last album that she's wishing she was kissing me

Man the nerve of this bitch
Pardon my French
But it's been 10 days
And I'm getting kind of light headed
Maybe I'll write her a letter in a gentleman's way
And send it with the hopes that she might get it
I can't believe I let her run all over me
But all I think about is
When she's here and holding me
I love her
She's the reason for the lesions
Man I love her
I start bleeding when she's leaving
And every scar on my fingertip is a reminder of
All the lessons learned
All my missions trying to find her and
I can't complain
I kind of like the pain
She ain't even got a name
She just lives in my brain
And says

She says she loves me but
(she really thinks that I'm an asshole)
She says she loves me but
(my ears are too big)
She says she loves me but
(I pick my nose too much)
She says she loves me but
(she says I never really listen)
She says she loves me but
(I take too many pills)
She says she loves me but
(I never pay my bills)
She says she loves me but
(I wait until the last minute)
She says she loves me but
(I don't try hard enough)



A song I like almost as much as Papercuts is Pillmatic (link goes to a Google search, at the top of which has a link that lets you stream the full song once), which is about Travie's addiction to pills. I can't relate to it like I can Papercuts because I've never had any addiction issues, but I've known a lot of people close to me who have and art is one of the few ways I might get some semblance of really feeling what they have felt; parts of it are especially heart-breaking to me because I either wonder if they've felt that way, or they've directly told me so in different words.

The line that really kills me is this: "So take two of these and call me in the morning / I'mma take four and finish this 40 cause life's boring."

Pillmatic song doesn't sound "noisy" at all to me; it's more drifty and atmospheric, I think, but I don't know that I have your definition of noisy pinned down so you might not like it either. Oh, and a warning: toward the end there's a break in the music for the brief sound of vomiting. I actually like that artistically -- it's raw and unglamorous and jarring and disgusting because it is what it is, and I think it does something to convey that it's not just words, not just a song -- but it might be a bit much for some.

There's a lot to like here about the rhyming, too, and word play. And of course "pillmatic" is a play on "illmatic."

Lyrics:
Pillmatic
Three Xanies down, I'm pounding Honey Browns
I'm pillmatic
The oxycontin got my stomach rotting
Pillmatic
I swear to God I'm not an addict
But I'm still at it, dag nabbit I'm pillmatic

Thinking back on when it all started
I found pink hearts in mommy's little pocket book
And took em
Popping when she wasn't looking
I guess it runs in the family
I'm liable to eat any pill you randomly hand me
Save the greenery
I'm looking for them labels reading
May cause drowsiness be careful when operating machinery
Beautiful pharmaceuticals
Residue in my cuticles
Sniffing them when it's suitable
Wishing they made 'em chewable

Catch me in the source with five pills next to my name
Like fuck five mics, I want five vic fame
If killing pain is the name of the game
Then I'm your number one draft pick
Dash quick to the closest medicine cabinet
Kill the whole bottle
Never played the role model position
I'm just living
So take two of these and call me in the morning
I'mma take four and finish this 40 cause life's boring

Keep the hydro unless it's codone behind it
Never have to roam far from home to find it
Writin' fake 'scripts like my doctor signed it
Till I spelled his last name wrong
This ain't a song for the kids like the last album
Put em to bed, go ahead and turn the Valium up
A couple meds to ease the pain of the papercuts
The doctor says slow down, maybe later but
40 milligrams, a 40 and I'm faded
This world is crazy so I stay medicated
Percoset, Ativan, and Klonopin
When my social lights are out
They turn them on again
I'll eat em till I'm born again
Oxycotin, orange juice and gin
Equals projectile wild style burner on a porcelain


Travie is incredibly clever and does some amazing things with rhythm, plus he's great at telling a story and I love those kinds of songs. (There's a touch of the story-telling at the beginning of Pillmatic, but another song, "Scandalous Scholastics," is a great example of it; it's a tongue-in-cheek song about a male high school student having an affair with a teacher. It's another one you have to Google and use the iLike link at the top of the results.) Gym Class Heroes' singles tend to be party music and I like that stuff too just for the cleverness, but Travie is really capable of some raw, visceral stuff. I've always wondered why he doesn't get more attention than he does.
posted by Nattie at 11:24 AM on December 6, 2010


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