The other day when I was lounging about, my winamp playlist on random shuffle, I came across Drake’s recent hit “Over”. It made me smile — I dug Drake’s signature droning monotone, which fit oddly well with the light orchestral sample booming in the background.
But something bothered me. Even with all the fancy electronic supplements and colossal record company polish, it didn’t feel like a song I could move to. I checked up the lyrics:
I know way too many people here right now
That I didn’t know last year, who the f**k are y’all?
I swear it feels like the last few nights
We been everywhere and back but
I just can’t remember it all
What am I doin’? What am I doin’?
Oh, yeah, that’s right, I’m doin’ me, I’m doin me
I’m livin’ life right now, mayne
And this what I’ma do ’til it’s over, ‘til it’s over
But it’s far from over…..
They were just kind of… stupid. Catchy, sure. But… stupid.
Which potentially leads me to a ceaseless rant about the degradation of modern hip hop and a reminiscence “the good ol’ days” that would bore your WWII veteran grandfather, but I won’t. What I would like to do is show you what I feel the difference between “good hip hop” and “everything else” is.
People will often say, “music is subjective.” or “different people have different tastes.” True, to a point. But the Grammys aren’t awarded to the “most subjective” artist. Likewise, there is such thing as good hip hop, and likewise there is such a thing as everything else.
As a disclaimer, I’m judging the quality of hip hop solely by its lyrical content and flow, not by any effort through mixing and post-process effects. We’ll ignore the rappers and fans whose music is designed for clubs and dancing, or any other purposes other than pure auditory enjoyment.
“Everything else” hip hop, unfortunately, permeates all areas of the industry today. Record producers, DJs and rappers now have millions of ways to mask “everything else” hip hop under a caked layer of heavy bass, synth, scratches, cuts, chops, screws, drops, and autotune. People don’t notice “everything else” hip hop because they ignore the lyrics and the flow in favor of the extra toppings. “That song is phat!”, someone will enthusiastically tell you. “It had such a mad beat!” But the lyrics are simple, nonsensical, or downright embarrassing. Here’s an example, from Lil’ Wayne’s Mr. Carter:
man I got summer hating on me cause I’m hotter than the sun
spring hating on me cause I ain’t never sprung
winter hating on me cause I’m colder than ya’ll
and I would never I would never I would never fall
Elementary school vocabulary, infantile repetition, and idiotic similes? check, check and check.
Even an otherwise good song can be foiled by a particularly stupid verse. Take Too Much by The Game, for example. A great hype song, crippled by this:
N***a I can’t be fucked, like a lesbian
I’m to hip-hop what Cartoon is to Mexicans
Gangsta rap tenet #346: if you use the word “lesbian” in a song, it better not refer to yourself.
Good hip hop, on the other hand, should send a cold shiver up your spine. Good hip hop paralyzes, it makes you sit in stupor, it forces you to soak in the masterful and painstaking craft of the lyricist. Good hip hop makes you forget everything around you but itself, and afterward, gives you an immense feeling of satisfaction. It inspires, energizes. Take this verse from one of my favorite Jay-Z tracks of all time, Justify My Thug:
They say an eye for an eye, we both lose our sight
And two wrongs don’t make a right
But when you been wronged and you know all along that it’s just one life
At what point does one fight? (Good question right!)
Before you knock the war, try to put your dogs in it
Ten-and-a-halfs, for a minute-and-a-half
Bet that stops all the grinnin and the laughs
When you play the game of life and the win ain’t in the bag
When your options is none and the pen is all you have
or the block, n****s standin tight, there’s limits on the ave
Tryin to cop or shot-call theyself cleansin in the cash
But can’t put they name on paper cause, then you on blast
Mr. President, there’s drugs in our residence
Tell me what you want me to do, come break bread with us
Mr. Governor, I swear there’s a cover up
Every other corner there’s a liquor store – f**k is up?
There is an overall structure to his rhymes, not just a meaningless collection of hyperboles. It reasons, it tells a story, all by itself. And it’s got a damn good beat.
Lupe Fiasco is one of my favorite artists in any genre; put simply, it is nearly impossible not to like him. Critics laud him as the most creative, innovative, mindblowing lyricist who has ever lived, and as such, I’ll let the great Wasalu Jaco end this article:
So through the grim reaper sickle sharpening, macintosh marketing,
oil field augering, Brazilian adolescent disarmament, Israeli occupation,
Islamic martyrdom, precise
Yeah, laser guided targeting oil for food bartering,
terrorist organization harboring
sand camouflage army men CCF sponsoring, world conquering, telephone monitoring
Louis Vuitton modeling, pornographic actress honoring string theory pondering, bulimic vomiting
catholic priest fondling, pre-emptive bombing and Osama and no bombing them
they breaking in my car again, deforestation and overlogging and
hennessy and hypnotic swallowing, hydroponic coughing and
All the world’s ills, sitting on chrome 24-inch wheels, like that.