Someone please tell me there’s a college class being offered somewhere called Hype & Hyperbole: Literary Devices in Rap Music. If not, and if you’re a college professor hurting for new ideas, I humbly request a shout-out in your curriculum liner notes. Thanks.
Hip-hop makes up about 40% of what I listen to these days. (Currently spinning: good kid, m.A.A.d. city.) In junior high and high school, I was in creative writing programs and wrote a ton of short stories, plays, skits, poetry, and fabulous nonsense in my free time. I liked using words as building blocks. Later on, when I started clocking rap music, I wondered how it took so long for me to latch onto it — I live for some clever wordplay, especially if it’s a vehicle being used to deliver hefty substance.
Rap, more than any other musical genre, is best suited for and adept at the kind of wordplay the literary world builds its cities upon. Show me The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, and I’ll show you the entirety of Kanye’s “Runaway.” Both are How to Use Juxtaposition to Make Your Point 101.
Last Friday, Eminem dropped an album while we were sleeping the long weekend away, so I sat down to listen during my last free evening. I barely made it through half of the intro track, “The Ringer,” before I was reaching for my phone to queue up the lyrics on Genius.
In between muttering damns and oooh shits, I blinked a vivid memory back into existence: I was 12, and my mother and a nightlight had just tucked me into bed. I had a very pink, flowered room — and a gigantic black boombox on my night stand. Every night, I liked to pop in a CD before bedtime and listen on a low volume before I went to sleep. I considered it night school. Sometimes it was dreamy, love-laden pop music that I was starting to connect with (#puberty), but I’d also started listening to more mature songs from alternative rock and hip-hop artists, trying to find out what they were talking about.
The memory that tackled me while listening to “The Ringer” was the night I had somehow coerced my mom to buy me The Marshall Mathers LP. (Oh, mom. Bless. You had no idea... This album’s Wiki page classifies it in part as horrorcore. I 200% shouldn’t have been listening to this album at all, but at that point, I was already watching South Park and 90s horror movies, so… wash? Eh, I still have trouble getting past the homophobic/misogynistic content.)
In the near-dark, I was bent over the side of my bed so I could keep the volume as low as possible and still hear the lyrics. With one hand, I held the album notes flat on my nightstand. The other hand held a flashlight aloft, and I’d toss it on my bed every few minutes to fiddle with the track buttons and run a verse back.
I played and replayed each song, wide-eyed and giggly and trying like hell understand what was being said. At 12, a lot of the references flew over my head, but not all of them. I was aware enough to know he was using exaggeration and shock value to say some pretty ballsy stuff — and he was playing Tetris with words in a way that I was absolutely jealous of and fascinated with.
What do I think of success? It sucks —
Too much press, I’m stressed,
Too much cess, depressed,
Too upset, it’s just too much mess
I guess I must just blew up quick (yes)
Grew up quick (no), was raised right.
Whatever you say’s wrong,
Whatever I say’s right.
You think of my name now whenever you say, “hi.”
Became a commodity ‘cause I’m W-H-I-
T-E, ’cause MTV was so friendly to me,
Can’t wait ’til Kim sees me! (x)
I haven’t made it to the rest of Em’s new Kamikaze; I’ve been too busy retracing my love of playing with words. Even thought it’s existed since I was 5 or 6, I don’t think I’d realized how fun language could be until I started paying attention to people who worked magic with it outside of books.
Hip-hop demands its artists be magicians. Look anywhere. The early chants of A Tribe Called Quest. The funky spellwork floating on top of a Busta track. The way Nicki Minaj seems to speak in tongues whenever the hell she feels like it.
I’m picky with every genre of music; I know there’s a small avalanche of rap artists I’m missing out on. Even so, I’ve heard a metric ear-ton of clever bars that pulled a verbal reaction out of me the first time I heard them. Here are five of my current favorites.
“Dark Fantasy” | Kanye West
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
The plan was to drink until the pain over,
But what’s worse — the pain or the hangover?
Fresh air, rollin’ down the window...
Too many Urkels on your team, that’s why your wins low!
2018 Kanye may be problematic, but his fifth studio album works on about five different levels. The first two lines above are a pretty solid summation of it: A celebrity posing a public, philosophical question about which thing causes the most harm: flat-out suffering, or the unhealthy thing you use to cope so you maybe suffer less? Drinking and hangovers are par for the course in that way — and how do you get rid of a hangover? Fresh air, duh.
While he’s commenting on how to mitigate pain, he’s also calling himself refreshing for the rap game. He sees where everyone else is falling short and delivers some logic: If you’ve got too many losers on your team, you’re gonna stay losing. I remember driving back from buying this album at Target — and friends, this 90s child was not ready for the “Urkels/wins low/Winslow” line. Instant classic.
“IV. Sweatpants” | Childish Gambino
Because the Internet (2013)
Top of the holy totem
A million was not the quota
My father owned half the MoMA
and did it with no diploma
Year off, got no rules
Trippin off of them toadstools
More green than my Whole Foods,
And I’m too fly, Jeff Goldblum!
Got a glass house in the Palisades — that AKA
White ‘hood, white hood — O-KKK?
I don’t remember who told me about Gambino, but this track was the first of his I heard. The whole thing is one zinger after the other — not aimed at anyone in particular — but the second verse is basically a big, flashing neon sign: “TRY AND BE MORE CLEVER THAN THIS SHIT. I’LL WAIT.”
The drug references about his “year off” with “no rules” are nice, but I won’t lie: The “white ‘hood/KKK” line blew my mind for a hot second, and it’s the reason this track is on the list. A black man celebrating earned privilege while invoking the Klan was the last thing I expected. Good thing I like having the rug yanked out from under me.
“Django Jane” | Janelle Monaé
Dirty Computer (2018)
Jane Bond —never Jane Doe.
And I Django — never Sambo.
Black and white, yeah that’s always been my camo…
It’s lookin’ like y’all gon’ need some more ammo!
I cut ’em off, I cut ’em off, I cut em’ off like Van Gogh
Now, pan right for the angle
I got away with murder, no scandal!
Cue the violins and violas…
Speaking of yanking the rug out from underneath, I did NOT know Janelle had bars! I should’ve paid more attention to the end of “Q.U.E.E.N.”
Truthfully, these lines aren’t even the biggest highlight of this track. (I mean, round of applause for, “Let the vagina have a monologue.” Y’all, I live.) I picked these, though, because they’re rich in content.
- “Jane Bond — never Jane Doe” — Janelle refuses to be anonymous or lose her identity. She’s as iconic as Bond.
- “And I Django — never Sambo” — Sambo is/was slang for a black person who purposely acts foolish to cater to the entertainment whims of white people. I think we all know who Django is. Clear?
- Style-wise, Janelle’s always worn black and white threads. If that’s the only thing you’re calling her out for, you’re gonna need to try harder.
- If you don’t get the Van Gogh line, educate yourself. And then laugh.
- Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder are two insanely popular shows created by Shonda Rhimes, a powerhouse showrunner who’s hailed as a maker of quality content involving people of color on and off camera. Scandal, of course, ended earlier this year. And HTGAWM stars a very particular Viola.
“Institutionalized” | Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp a Butterfly (2015)
Oh shit, flow’s so sick, don’t you swallow it!
Bitin’ my style, you’re salmonella poison positive
I can just alleviate the rap industry politics
Milk the game up, never lactose intolerant.
Kendrick is my favorite rapper, period. He’s real as hell, and a poet to boot. To Pimp a Butterfly is an album unlike anything else in modern hip-hop, and the lines I love most about it are full of fantastical metaphors that generate effortless pictures for the listener.
Here, we get a set of references to illness and cures. After quipping that his lyrical flow is too “sick” to swallow, Kendrick doubles down and advises that anyone trying to steal it from him will find themselves testing “positive” for illness as a result. He also thinks he can cure the genre of all the B.S. politics, because he’s so adept at rapping that he could “milk” up the game and leave no room for anything else so petty.
He’s not wrong. New album, please, K Dot.
“APESHIT” | The Carters
Everything is Love (2018)
I’m a gorilla in the fuckin’ coupe, finna pull up in the zoo.
I’m like Chief Keef meet Rafiki — who been lyin’ “King” to you?
Pocket watchin’ like kangaroos
Tell these clowns we ain’t amused
‘Nana clips for that monkey business,
4–5 got change for you.
I know, I already wrote about it. Hell, it’s Virgo season, I can mention Beyoncé however often I’d like… Facts, but “APESHIT” is actually on this list because of her counterpart.
Here, Jay gives us a menagerie of reclaimed animal imagery. Gorillas. Rafiki. Lions. Kangaroos. Monkeys. Other rappers coming for the “King” spot. People tracking what’s going in and out of his pockets. It’s all foolishness — “monkey business” — so Jay feels the need to let them know he’s got metaphorical banana clips to address that, if needed. (He’s also got some “change” to spend on on “4–5” — the guy pretending to be President — who he addresses further in the next bars.)
The point of the animal imagery is to take the tired, racist trope equating people of color to apes and flip it onto everyone else, fleshing it out into a savage, overdue clapback. Slide that underneath the title of the song and the theme of the music video, and realize what a full statement this song is about them building black culture and legacy independently of — actually, despite — white culture, which brushed all that “ape shit” under the rug in favor of curating a nicer narrative. I’ve got feelings about it.