Hip-hop from Wu-Tang Clan to Eminem
by Andrew Braverman
Hip-hop/rap has come a long way from the cheery flow of groups like The Sugarhill Gang, who rapped about “the rhythm of the boogie,” or The Fat Boys, who admitted “we may feel a little chubby / But don’t feel slump.” Nowadays, ambitious young MCs spit lyrics that seem both extremely offensive and lyrically basic to many fans of rap. Rick Ross discussed date rape in his “U.O.E.N.O,” and Soulja Boy claimed that women “wanna lick the molly off [him]” in his collab with Migos titled, “We Ready.” Many rap enthusiasts are outraged at these derogatory, controversial lyrics that permeate contemporary rap, claiming that the quality of rap/hip-hop has sharply declined. The elementary nature of lyrics today, as well as the monotonous, trashy instrumentals that accompany many tracks, support this claim.
Before considering the evolution of lyrics in rap, it’s important to first analyze the foundations and inception of the art of hip-hop. A derivative of James Brown-esque funk, R&B, soul and jazz, hip-hop originated in the crime-riddled streets of the Bronx in the early ’70s. A fusion product of spoken word poetry with influences of the preaching nature of the black church, hip-hop was initially (and is still officially) composed of four different parts: rap music, turntablism/DJing, breaking/breakdancing and graffiti art. Many of the great fathers of rap belonged to the latter three components of hip-hop. Grand Master Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Hollywood are all examples of the DJing constituent. Over the past couple decades, a trend that heavily favored the “rap” part of hip-hop culture became evident. Many remain ignorant of the fact that hip-hop contains three other elements because they’ve been all but severed from their association with the culture as a whole. Graffiti art and breakdancing have struggled to gain a national stage, while DJing hip-hop music is not what it used to be.
This new lifestyle quickly spread to other boroughs, primarily Brooklyn and Harlem. Soon after that, some hip-hop subcultures began to pop up in L.A. and spread throughout the West Coast. The rap portion of hip-hop was used as a form of expression, much like poetry. In the mid-to-late ’70s, ’80s and even early ’90s, we see this expression representing different things than it does now. Run DMC would spit about his fantastic flow and the Beastie Boys boasted about their lyrical superiority over all MCs. In the late ’80s moving into the ’90s, groups like A Tribe Called Quest showed how lyrical rap was still alive and well. They even popularized the sub-genre of jazz rap. Classics like “Bonita Applebum” and “Electric Relaxation” expressed the group’s anti-materialistic views and playful lyrical approach. Around the same time period, a group by the name of NWA came onto the scene, “straight outta Compton.” Their appearance, along with other groups like the 2 Live Crew, represents a revolutionary pivot in the entire hip-hop scene. Rap took a turn for a darker and more violent period, and also one chock-full of disrespect: “Gangsta Rap.” One of NWA’s more famous songs, “Chin Check,” began with a sample of a woman calling 911, then getting shot. 2 Live Crew touted their incivility towards women in particular in their hit “Pop that Pussy,” in which Brother Marquis rapped, “I like the way you lick the champagne glass / It makes me wanna stick my dick in your ass.” These lyrics would have shocked the early MCs and DJs who pioneered the genre. Censorship is nowhere to be found.
The unparalleled Wu-Tang Clan came to the stage the same decade, presenting a never-before-seen relentless flow that shocked the rap community. Widely considered the best rap group of all time, Wu-Tang avoided violent or disrespectful allusions and managed to create very intellectual lyrics about social commentary. If NWA was the epitome of violent “gangsta” rap in the ’90s, Wu-Tang would be the moderate center (and Lonnie Rashid Lynn, or Common, could have represented the virtuous, more-respectful side of rap in the ’90s). In one of his most famous singles, he rapped to a woman, “It’s important, we communicate and tune the fate of this union […] I never call you my bitch or even my boo, there’s so much in a name and so much more in you.” Growing up in a generation where the most prominent rap to bump was Eminem’s “Mockingbird,” or 50 Cent’s “Just a Lil Bit,” I considered the variety refreshing.
Nas, another talented MC, also debuted his talent in the ’90s. Fusing together lyrics that represented street life experience with a funky yet crisp flow, Nas was regarded as one of the best rappers of all time. Two more historically important rap artists were Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace (The Notorious B.I.G.). These two titans of the game sparked off the still-present East Coast vs. West Coast rap rivalry, with Tupac representing the West and Biggie representing the East. The Notorious B.I.G. sprinkled into his works echoes of “gangsta” violent rap as seen by groups like NWA. He also rapped about how he made it to stardom and his times of struggle (see “Juicy”).
While some considered Tupac a hypocrite for not practicing all that he preached in his rhymes, others considered him an intellectual who crafted some of the best verses of all time. As a young man, he preached pacifism, but entertained a notably violent life. Tupac’s intellectual proclivity is evidenced by his favorite literature (Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Sun Tzu’s “Art of War”). His purported penchant for these texts was obvious. For a while, Tupac went by the stage name “Makavelli.” Dr. Michael Dyson proclaimed, “Tupac helped to combat the anti-intellectualism in rap, a force […] that pervades the entire community.” Tupac was also known for the political sermons that he incorporated into many of his raps, a component that influenced rappers for years to come (e.g. Immortal Technique and his “The 4th Branch,” and “Freedom of Speech,” spewing anti-government hate and conspiracies). In “Words of Wisdom,” Tupac argues that the “lower class” was “made to feel inferior, but [they’re] superior / Pledge allegiance to a flag that neglects us / Honor a man who refuses to respect us.”
At the turn of the century, an unfortunate trend was witnessed wherein the violence and degradation of ’90s “gangsta” rap persisted, but lyrical flow and ability became more rare. The preaching and artful mastery that was so prevalent in so many of the pre-2000 MCs is, for the most part, nowhere to be found. Artists like Big Boi, Andre 3000, Ludacris and Young Jeezy continued to promote the “dirty south” rap movement, which was characterized by the drum machine rhythm and screamed lyrics. The work of T.I. provided a good example for the homogenous topics that began to consume popular rap. In the Atlanta-born rapper’s 2008 hit single “Whatever You Like,” listeners heard all about T.I.’s “stacks on deck” and his “Patron on ice.” He dehumanized women, sharing how this one girl’s “brain was so good, [he] swore [she] went to college.” Curtis Jackson (50 Cent) employed similar lyrical devices, and also enjoyed chronicling his drug-dealing exploits and arsenal of “pieces” (guns). Kanye West and Lil Wayne were two more artists who entered the scene in the 2000s, and shifted towards, more controversial music later in the decade when they released “Yeezus” and “Rebirth,” respectively. The former featured more electronic synths than rap lyrics, and the latter received near-unanimous negative reviews—so ended Lil Wayne’s foray into rock.
While Eminem undoubtedly offered up lyrics that are insulting/offensive towards certain groups—for example, he made frequent use of the word “fag,” and other homophobic slurs—there is no denying that he is a great MC. Many of his raps feature elaborate wordplay that is rarely seen in rap. In his recently released “Rhyme or Reason,” he spits “Too busy getting stoned in your glass house / to kick rocks” and “the king of nonsense and controversy is on, a / Beat killing spree, your honor, I must plead / guilty, cause I sparked a revolution.”
Not many rappers have had as much impact on the industry as Jay-Z, one of the top three wealthiest rappers alive, partially as a result of his former involvement with Def Jam recordings and Roc-a-Fella records. Jay-Z carefully placed vocal emphasis and grammar to formulate a unique, catchy flow. “I’m not a businessman, / I’m a business, man! / Let me handle my business, damn” he raps in “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.”
Rap today is dominated by a peculiar amalgam of characters, many of whom seem incapable of producing the linguistically intellectual verses of past decades. “Artists” like Chief Keef, Riff Raff, Gucci Mane and Rich Homie Quan have become national celebrities. Chief Keef repeated the word “boy” over 40 times in his hit “Love Sosa.” In 20 of the 44 unique lines in his crowning jewel “I Don’t Like,” he repeated the phrase (you guessed it) “I Don’t Like.” After pronouncing lines like “I got a bad bitch, yeah that bitch right” and “I gets lotsa commas / I can f*ck yo mama,” Mr. Keef had me thoroughly confused. Some lyrical rap is alive and well today. An example is rap group Pro Era, featuring Joey Bada$$, who raps lyrics resonant of the talent seen in another age.
Hip-hop and its lyrics have evolved and will continue to do so. Perhaps in five to 10 years we’ll hear people returning to rapping about it being “12 o’clock, midnight […] want[ing] a snack” and “head[ing] downstairs [too see that] the fridge was packed” (Jail House Rap). Perhaps rap lyrics will trend away from the topics of slinging coke, coitus with many different women and overall derogation. Who will be the next Wu-Tang or Nas? For now, unfortunately, I believe we are stuck in an epoch of rap defined by nonsensical, obscene and unintelligent lyrics. Nas puts it best in “Hip-Hop is Dead”: “everybody sound[s] the same, commercialize the game / [I] reminisce when it wasn’t all business.”