“Kids and their darned, loud rock music!” That’s what my parents’ generation heard as they were jamming out on their walkmans and boom boxes. Now, the same folks who grew up going to big hair bands’ concerts are remarking about “Kids these days and their filthy rap music!” And who knows what kind of music my generation will be complaining about once we have kids.
The complaints against both rock and rap are pretty much the same: the music itself is loud and obtrusive and the lyrics are simply destroying every last shred of traditional values that humanity ever had, effectively stealing the innocence of our children.
I have to admit, for the longest time, I never really paid attention to any lyrics. Ever. I grew up listening to country music. As I got older, I remember going through an “oldies” stage: Little Richard, the Beach Boys, Elvis, Tina Turner. Then I remember in high school loving alternative rock, and of course I liked to get in car, turn up the bass, and listen to rap music really loud (maybe because that was the music we weren’t “supposed to be listening to”). And of course, there’s always the ever-present pop, which I do enjoy for what it is: mindless entertainment that can now be churned out by anyone with a computer.
However, I never really paid attention to what was being said; I simply enjoyed the beats and the music. And then one day I caught myself listening to the lyrics. And because I love to write, and I love how language can be used – tamed, mastered, or set free – I suddenly realized that song lyrics could be pretty awesome. Because it wasn’t just about finding some rhyming words for a beat, but it was about dancing with the words (pardon the pun) in order to get a message across.
I guess song lyrics are the only type of poetry that I enjoy (sorry, Frost). Maybe it’s because songs can fit so many moods, and hey, let’s not forget that the lyrics come with (hopefully) good music! I can listen to my favorite band any time of the day, and I do love classical and foreign music when I’m reading or studying (so that I’m not distracted by the lyrics). Pop can be fun, but it does have its (limited) time and place. And as Sir Elton John tells us, sad songs have their place too, because “it’s times like these when all need to heed the radio, because from the lips of some old singer, people share the troubles we already know.”
But lately, I have become completely fascinated with rap and hip-hop lyrics. I was only half-way kidding recently when I told someone that I wanted to drop German history and start doing the history of rap, its culture, music and lyrics.
Now, before I go any further, let me go ahead and say: I have not really researched this topic. Everything that follows is simply my opinion, which stems from my interest in rap. The conclusions are mine, and I’m probably wrong about a lot of things. If you know where I’m wrong, let me know. Or, what’s probably more likely, I’m just a little white kid who has completely missed the mark on most everything. Either way, these are my ponderings after all…
I wasn’t around when rap got started, but I’ve listened to some of the more popular remnants of the original stuff. And it seems like, back then, it was more about actually crafting the English language, using slang and local words and putting it to a beat to tell a story. And that message could be about most anything I guess. Today it seems like rap – or at least what I call “pop rap,” the famous stuff that everybody, including ironically rednecks – is more about listing how many cars you have and talking about how much money you have. Either way, I still enjoy rap lyrics…well, at least “pop rap” lyrics. Ludacris may not be mastering the language the same way Walt Whitman did, but I still consider it a form of poetry. And I’m (superficially?) fascinated with the vocabulary – how it’s tweaked (or twerked) and used.
Instead of just blabbing on and on, I want to provide a few examples that just might show (especially to any older readers, whose ears just can’t take all the ‘loud thumping!’) how interesting it can be. My personal favorite is the whole phenomenon around “making it rain.” Let’s go:
In 2006, the rapper Fat Joe put out a track (featuring Lil Wayne) called “Make it Rain.” The main part of the chorus goes, “Gotta handful’a stacks; better grab an umbrella; I make it rain…” The whole thing boils down to the fact that he has SO much money, he can throw stacks of bills into the air and let it rain down. The single was a hit, rising pretty high on the charts, and the phrase “makin’ it rain” caught on. And actually, the precipitation theme is still pretty prevalent today.
One thing I like about rap artists is that they often collaborate with each other (featuring each other in their songs) and they quote lines from other songs in their own. For example, in 2002 Lil Jon released the single “Get Low.” The song, which is about partying hard “from the window to the wall, til the sweat drops down my”….uh, testicles, became wildly famous (breaking into the top ten on the charts). Nearly a decade later, the phrase is still being used by other rap artists, like Ludacris (from Enrique Iglesias’s “Tonight”): “From the window, to the wall, gotta give you my all; winter or the summertime, when I get you on those springs, I’m gonna make you fall!”
Like I said, ‘making it rain’ hasn’t gone without use from subsequent rappers, singers, and kids across the nation. In 2007, Rihanna released one of her most successful singles, “Umbrella.” The rain metaphor can’t be lost – she doesn’t need a man to make it rain; the multi-millionaire star can handle that on her own. In fact, in her song, she offers protection and support to her man: “Now that it’s raining more than ever, know that we’ll still have each other, you can stand under my umbrella.” A lot of Rihanna’s songs seem to be about her being able to hold her own in the world. In essence, the empowerment of women.
Another song that really plays up the rain metaphor is “No Hands” by Waka Flocka Flame (2011). There are about three or four rappers featured in the song, so I don’t know who is saying what exactly, but the lyrics show that the message is all about showing off how much money they have: “DJ, this is my favorite song, so Imma make it thunda’storm.” And then, singing to a girl, “Those n*ggas tippin’ good, but girl I can make it flood cause I walk around with pockets that are bigger than my bus… ‘Rain Rain go away,’ that’s what all my haters say…My pockets stuck on overload, my rain never evaporates.” In that one, I just love how they even incorporated the ‘rain rain go away’ nursery rhyme into the song. I don’t necessarily endorse the message of blowing all your money on cars, jewelry, alcohol and strippers…and then bragging about it, but hey, they way they brag is interesting.
It seems to be that message, though – alcohol, partying, casual sex, lavish lifestyle – that’s the reason that rap is often condemned. And to me personally, it seemed that a lot of the people that were condemning rap music, were ones that grew up listening to rock n’ roll. So what is it that makes rock n’ roll – sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, remember – cool, but rap condemnable?
In 2007, Dem Shop Boyz addressed Rap’s heathen predecessor in their single “Party Like a Rockstar.” The song starts off with a (mocking?) “T-t-toally Duuude!” and then asks, “Now, who started this?” The song goes on to exemplify the partying life of a star and constantly alludes to many of Rock’s greats: “Do it like Ozzy!” “New pair of kicks so you can walk this way like Aerosmith.” However, not only do the Shop Boyz refer to famous rockers and their lavish lifestyles, they claim to one up the rockers. “Heavy metal” is referred to as only being in the rappers’ pockets ($$$). And: “Yeah, we da ShopBoyz, nobody coulda did it better; we on fire, da black Red Hot Chili Peppers…We rock hard.” And then, “I’m obscene, plus I’m ghetto, I’ll have your QUEEN in stilettos.”
The rappers seem to think they take the new “Rockstar” mantle quite well, making everyone party hard: “I got that gangsta, hood star, pop star, screamin “Totally dude!”… “I ride in fast cars, and plus my chick’s hott…black shades around my face lookin rockstarish.” And ultimately, fame and fortune are placed on the altar: “I’m gonna be the Grinch, Shrek, all I like is green. I am Bruce Bling-steen…MicK Jagger with my swagga!” And then they wrap it all up with: “Da Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame need another couple names: Shop Boyz, Lil Wayne, and Chamilitary Man…”
And of course, there is my favorite song, Lil Troy’s “I Wanna Be a Baller.” Ballin’ is another tweak of vocabulary that I think is awesome. It stems from playing basketball (b-ballin’), and especially being good and performing showy tricks while doing so. But now, ballin’ means living the good life. According to Urbandictionary.com (which is an awesome website to look up any slang word or saying that you may not know), “ballin’” is “to live a rich, upper-class life after growing up a poor, or ghetto, lower class life. Or, to perform illegal or shady actions to make and/or keep money.” So, ballin’ is a way to move up out of poverty and out of the ghetto. Lil Troy says, “I wanna be a baller, a shot caller.” And in his 2009 single “I Look Good,” Chalie Boy lets everyone know that “Ballin’ is a drug that I don’t mind abusing!”
I find it a little confusing that the same people that condemn such greed often have no problem with CEOs, or their heirs, having several multi-million dollar homes, jets, fleets of cars, etc. Is the difference that the fat cat CEOs don’t rap about the thirst for money, instead they just yearn for it just as greedily, but calmly in a suit and tie? I don’t know.
And it’s not that rap music is the only type promoting questionable values either. Plenty of country songs, for example, are about jealous spouses killing the other (Garth Brooks’s 1992 “Papa Loved Mama”), or driving while drinking (Jason Aldean’s 2011 “Dirt Road Anthem”).
And not all rap songs are about violence, drugs, and money, believe it or not. Take a look at “Live Your Life” (by T.I., 2008, featuring Rihanna – however don’t take a look at T.I. who was arrested on weapons charges). The song starts out with a special shout out to all the soldier fighting in Iraq. He’s addressing all of the new generation of rap stars: “Stop looking at what you ain’t got and start bein’ thankful for what you do got.” He then hands out some chastisement for those who forgot their roots: “I brought back to the hood, all you ever did was take away.” He continues:
I got love for the game, but, hey, I’m not in love with all of it; Could do without the fame, and rappers nowadays are comedy; the hootin’ and the hollerin,’ back and forth with the arguin: where you from, who you know, what you makin, what kinda car you in. Seems as though you lost sight of what’s important when you depositin the checks into yo bank account and you up out of poverty. Your values is a disarray, prioritizin horribly, unhappy with the riches, cause you’re piss poor morally. Ignorin all prior advice and forewarnin, and we’re mighty full of ourselves all of a sudden, aren’t we?
In the 2006 remix of “Walk It Out” by Unk, André 3000 (who, like dem Franchize Boyz, Shop Boyz, the Ying Yang Twins, Lil Jon, Ludacris, T.I. and many others, is from Atlanta) raps, “Your white T, well to me, look like a nightgown. Make yo mama proud, take that thing two sizes down. Then you’ll look like the man you are, or what you could be…I couldn’t give a damn bout your car.”
Anyways, I’m done. As you’ve surely noticed, I could go on and on about many different topics. But I don’t want you to fall asleep at the keyboard. I just wanted to share my interest in rap lyrics. Many people dismiss it all as simply “talking,” but, I do think that it takes talent to be able to rap. Of course, there is the kind that is simply done with computerized voice changers where the verses and choruses just repeat themselves over and over. But that’s the same with any genre. And it really is difficult to decide what is “good” and “bad” music since it’s all in the ear of the beholder.