Hip-Hop Analysis: The Three Skills of a Rapper – Lyricism


Hip-hop is a very competitive as far as who’s better than who, who’s the GOAT (Greatest of All Time for those who don’t know), who’s more lyrical, etc. If you’re heavily involved in hip-hop and know a lot of people from different backgrounds, or even deeply involved in the online community you’d be involved in or notice many debates about rapper’s skill. There are lots of beefs and “my favorite rapper is better than yours”. At the end of the day, many hip-hop artists still have great music and should be recognized for making good, thoughtful, and clever art so this is really just chatter. However, there are still things to keep in mind when you analyze rapper’s skills.

The first of the three skills, and one of the two main ones that you can effectively measure (not numerically) is lyricism. Many listeners have a confused idea of what lyricism in hip-hop is and even further into that concept people have different definitions. Lyrics are defined simply as words of a song or literature with a songlike quality to them [according to google]. Lyricism is defined as an artist’s expression of emotion in an imaginative or beautiful way. Now obviously lyrics in hip-hop are going to be songlike, also emotions aren’t directly expressed in lyrics ALL the time in hip-hop. The “imaginative and beautiful part” is very important though. In hip-hop, lyrics stated bluntly isn’t imaginative or particularly beautiful unless it’s a clever observation. The importance of that particular facet of lyricism is that many people confuse positive subject matter speaking of the struggle as lyrical. A good example is Ed O.G.’s “Be A Father To Your Child”

While the song has a great intention in its message and is socially progressive, he’s not saying anything profoundly clever or complex, nor imaginative.

As far as what IS lyrical, there are tons of types for lack of better word. One of the more popular is wordplay. Wordplay is when you use the meaning or sound of words for ambiguity or other clever uses. The most popular example of this is the double entendre. These fly around back and forth all the time, but more recently it has been used in this song “Joyeria” which I posted on my single picks a while ago (shamelessplugcheckthoseout)

In this song he says, “So many letters from friends saying I sold out, ’cause their Dough’s out” where “Dough” is referring to their money and Doughmars the rapper who has left them. And that’s just one example, double entendres are rather common among rappers who invest more into lyricism. Some have even done triple entendres, though in many cases I feel they were made into that through overanalysis. Another example of lyricism, and rather underrated one, is poetic expression. When things are worded a specific way it fits that aforementioned definition of lyricism in “expression of emotion in an imaginative and beautiful way”. In Danny Brown’s song XXX he says

“‘Cause if this sh*t don’t work n*gga I failed at life

Turning to these drugs now these drugs turn my life

And it’s the downward spiral”

In these lines he’s not only expressing his pure desperation for one thing and one thing only, to be a rapper, but he’s also explaining how he felt like the only thing that he could fall back on was drugs. If you pay attention to the words in the latter half of the song, you’ll also notice that Danny uses a lot of location based words as if the drugs were taking him on an uncontrollable roller coaster through life and he can’t go back because now the drugs have him locked in.

The last example of lyricism I’m going to get into (because this isn’t a book, ya’ll would have to pay me for that) is imagery. Imagery is more of a poetry thing in comparison to the literature of hip-hop music, so if you ever read the words “poetic lyrics” on my blog this is usually one of the things I’m talking about. When I had a poetry class, my teacher stated that poetry was more profound when it was shown and not told. The same applies to hip-hop lyrics. When you can close your eyes and clearly imagine the setting the artist is creating for you then you know you’re listening to somebody with good imagery.  In this Death Grips song, The Fever

the song seems to be about some street druggie getting into crazy stuff which is also an allegory (another lyrical “type”) for some twisted path of self-discovery. In this song, MC Ride uses vivid imagery by saying:

“Let me off, screeching halt

Concussion blinding

Not my fault

Ankles tied to cinder blocks”

You can obviously imagine someone being captive in a vehicle, likely the trunk, being busted upside the head and dropped mercilessly into a river with blocks on their feet. With this imagery he not only describes the situation, but the feelings of the captive which carries over to the metaphorical meaning of the song.

This only scratches the surface of the deep concept of lyricism, which is what makes the art of rap music so interesting because you can do so many things with it. Other lyrical techniques include punchlines (usually similes), metaphors, vocabulary, allusions, concepts, storytelling, and some more that escape me at the moment. When analyzing the art of hip-hop knowing lyricism is extremely important because it’s practically pure literature. It’s a whole separate part from the sonic portion of the music, and there’s TONS of stuff that go straight over listeners’ heads and thusly are ignored by the masses and minimizes the respect and acclaim artists receive.

Peep the next of the Three Skills series, technique

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