Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome our next guest blogger, RDJ! Here he gets seriously analytical about some of his favorite lines in Hip Hop...
Thanks for the invite and the intro, fellas. Always a pleasure to sit in the blogger’s chair and drop some RDJewels for the Hip Hop Karaoke constituency.
I’m not just a hip hop enthusiast and karaokeologist: I’m also a lyricist (and composer,) mostly in musical theatre songwriting. So I value the ability to distill complex thoughts down into a tight little verbal nugget that conveys a whole world of character, narrative, emotion, and point of view. That’s a tall order. To be able to do that within the constraints of meter and rhyme is even more of a challenge. That’s just as true for Nas as it is/was for Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell or Stephen Sondheim or Oscar Hammerstein. For me, hip hop is definitely about having a good time, about social commentary, and about moving the crowd – but what keeps me coming back is the darts, the jewels, the lyrical swords (make sure you pronounce the ‘w’ in ‘swords’.)
So here, in no particular order, are some of the lyrics that still make me either smile with amusement or shake my head in amazement, no matter how many times I hear them. Obviously it’s tough if not impossible to separate out the actual writing from the delivery on a lot of these, but what I find amazing is the power, and ingenuity of the minds behind the voices.
Again, no particular order, and this list is FAR from complete.
1) “So I switched my motto /
‘stead of sayin’ ‘fuck tomorrow’ /
That buck that bought a bottle
Coulda struck the lotto”
(Nas, “Life’s A Bitch”)
“Life’s A Bitch” is an amazing song, with both AZ and Nas turning in flawless verses over a stunning beat – not to mention some elegant and bittersweet trumpet playing by Nas’ dad Olu Dara on the coda. It combines many different emotions, from celebrating the improbable “blessing” of reaching one’s 20th birthday, to fierce self-reliance and determination, to the despair and resignation of the chorus. Overall I find it to be an uplifting song, despite the title and the hook, maybe because of that very ambivalence: it affirms the self’s will to live amid a culture of death. This lyric from Nas captures that perfectly. You know he’s a young guy, but he sounds worldly wise, even philosophical. But what elevates it from a merely great lyric to a stunning lyric is the poetry of it. It SOUNDS so good coming out of his mouth, with all the internal rhymes and repeated consonants. It’s a complicated thought, delivered with crystal clarity in a very short span of time. That’s lyricism right there.
2) “Picture Phife losing a battle
Come on, get off it /
Put down the microphone, son,
Surrender, forfeit /
Did I hear something ‘bout a crew?
What they wanna do? /
You better call Mr. Babyface so he can bring out the cool in you /
Or it’ll be a sad love song being sung by Toni Braxton /
And I’ll dissect you like a fraction”
(Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest, “God Lives Through”)
Phife is one of the most likeable (and underrated) MCs of all time. It’s the last song on an incredible album, and it has the feeling of being a bonus track (was it?) – it’s loose and relaxed and even samples an earlier song from the same record. I may catch wreck for saying this, but I think ‘Midnight Marauders’ is Phife’s album. Not that Q-Tip isn’t in full effect throughout (excluding his fast-forwardable solo track “Midnight”), but just as Tipster was in the lead on the first two Tribe albums, I feel like Phife comes through as the group’s hungriest and most consistently on-point member on this one, on which he also boasts that he “might be three albums deep but I don’t wanna go pop”. Every single one of the Five Foot Assassin’s lyrics on ‘MM’ shimmers with gusto, humor, and a very endearing cleverness. While Tip is letting off some of his most ‘Abstract’ and off-the-cuff rhymes to date, the Phifer is both ferocious and funny. Here, on the final track, he just lets loose with a string of lines that are pure wit and bravado and totally appealing. Never mind the fact that you don’t exactly “dissect” fractions: Malik’s having fun with language and pop culture here in a way that few MCs, short or tall, can match.
3) “You could never capture the Method Man's stature
For rhyme and for rapture,
Got n****z resigning to master my style /
Never! I put the fucking ‘buck’ in the ‘wild’ kid, I'm terror
Razor sharp, I sever
The head from the shoulders, I'm better
Than my compeda’ /
You mean competitor? Whateva!
Let's get together!”
(Method Man of Wu-Tang Clan, “Shame On A N****”
When I first heard “Enter The 36 Chambers”, it was this second track that hooked me. “Bring The Ruckus” was so slow and grimy, full of obscure references (by comparison to anything I’d heard before) that I didn’t quite know what to make of it. But when I heard Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Method Man set it off on “Shame On A N****” I heard a kind of lyrical playfulness that blew my mind, and I knew then that I was listening to a bunch of unusual cats with unusual skills. Meth was like a combination class clown and total genius in this era. His verse is both intimidating and goofy, a balance I always find compelling. And his carefree, almost free-associative flow and delivery masks the extreme care he puts into his rhyme construction. “I’m better / Than my compeda’ / You mean competitor? Whateva” is just a completely inspired piece of word mangling. And really, this verse and this song are just the tip of the iceberg. Entire college poetry courses could be taught on the lyrical exploits of the Clan. Speaking of which:
4) “N****s wanna talk shit? I pop clips.
Bitch: I put my dick on ya lips.”
(U-God of Wu-Tang Clan, “Protect Ya Neck (The Jump-Off”))
The Clan’s most overlooked member spit this crudely straightforward little couplet on their much-slept-on 2000 album “The W”. I love U-Godzilla, for all his tribulations. His voice usually makes his verses worth the price of admission, and he just has this hilarious mix of being totally blunt and completely indecipherable. This is him in one of his blunter moments. Hell, it’s not Shakespeare, and generally I’m not a big fan of dick-on-bitch-lips threats, but this line tickles me every time. It also helps that it comes right after a rapid-fire, impenetrably dense Ghostface verse, and that RZA smartly changes the beat up right as the Golden Armed one gets started. So it’s like everything stops, and your ears stand up to hear what he’s going to say – and then it’s “put my dick on ya lips.” (And let’s face it: “I put my dick on ya lips” is a much more gentle image than “I stick my dick in ya mouth.” It’s sort of a gentle placing of the dick rather than anything forcible. I mean, this IS coming from the guy who rapped “My orchestra graceful, music ballerinas.” He’s a sensitive swordsman.)
5) “Kiss the pyramid, experiment with high explosive /
I lick shots at Jesus, slap-box with Joseph”
(Ghostface Killah, “Daytona 500”)
I mean, come on. What’s Ghost talking about? Who cares? This dude is a lyrical shape-shifter: he takes on the proportions of whatever he’s spitting. So in this case, he becomes a kind of Biblical super-antihero. Not bad.
6) “FUCK being hard, Posdnuos is complicated!”
(Posdnuos of De La Soul, “In The Woods”)
Plug One is one of a kind, and 1993’s “Buhloone Mind State” saw him at his most esoteric. He was pissed off, too, and he’s the kind of rapper who makes the most of feeling backed into a corner. For most of this album he spits lyrics that are heavily coded, but this one’s a clear and simple statement, a repudiation of the gangsta/hood clichés that were encroaching steadily on De La’s brand of middle-class bohemian hip hop at the time.
7) “Now you see that I’m sixty-eight inches above sea level /
Ninety-three million miles above these devils”
(Ladybug Mecca of Digable Planets, “9th Wonder (Blackitolism)”)
I know that Diggedy loves this one. “Blowout Comb” is a classic case of a slept-on brilliant follow up to a good-but-inferior hit record. (Faith No More’s “Angel Dust” is the quintessential rock example, in my mind.) And I just love how Ladybug mixes humble personal details with terrestrial physics and Five-Percent-Nation imagery. One of the sexiest lines in hip hop that isn’t about sex.
8) “A child is born with no state of mind /
Blind to the ways of mankind”
(Melle Mel on “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five)
This line starts off the final and most haunting verse in this pioneering social commentary anthem, and it contains so much wisdom. I always realize newly, listening to it, that there’s a faulty assumption in the way we mostly look at poverty and urban squalor and suffering in general – thinking that it has anything to do whatsoever with inherent racial tendencies. (Like there’s now a widespread belief that Native Americans are genetically predisposed towards alcoholism – as if the stress of genocide and dislocation isn’t sufficient to explain it.) We may not THINK we think this way, but if we examine our hidden beliefs, that subtle racism can sometimes be found – it provides a convenient explanation for why certain groups seem to have it so hard. Here Melle Mel reminds us, or me at least, that all children have infinite possibilities – until they get born into our physical world and inherit its cruelty and unjust distribution of opportunities. The rest of the verse is a sad litany of consequences, ending with a grisly suicide in prison. But without this opening line, the whole thing wouldn’t be as tragic, or as profound.
That's all for now. What, do you want more?!!!
See you on the 29th, when I can't wait to hear many more of my favorite lyrics performed by some of my favorite performers. Including me.
-da one dem call RDJ