“Turning something as common as language into a puzzle makes the familiar feel strange; it makes the language we take for granted feel fresh and exciting again, like an old friend who just revealed a long-held secret.”
—Decoded, p. 56
If you watch legal dramas in the United States, there’s a term of art you’ve probably heard before—hearsay. In the U.S. Federal Rules of Evidence, hearsay is defined as an out-of-court statement “offered in evidence to prove the truth of the matter asserted.” Basically, if a witness at trial testifies to a statement previously made outside of the courtroom, the statement is considered hearsay if the purpose of the statement is to prove what it literally says. If, for example, the witness testifies that Bob said, “Yo, son, I am the Notorious B.I.G.,” the declaration constitutes hearsay if its purpose is to prove Bob is really the Notorious B.I.G. Unless there’s an exception that allows it, such a literal statement would be inadmissible at trial. If, on the other hand, the statement is being used to show Bob’s mental state, that the dude is out of his mind and has gone insane thinking he’s the Notorious B.I.G., then the statement might be admissible for that purpose.
Under the evidence rules, there are many exceptions (it’s “hearsay”, but it’s admissible) and exemptions (it’s not even considered “hearsay”) for which out-of-court statements, written and oral, may be permitted as evidence. That’s where “verbal acts” come in. A “verbal act” is a word or phrase that has legal significance outside of what the word or phrase literally means. A statement showing consent, constituting a threat, or indicating acceptance or rejection of an offer for a contract are all examples of verbal acts. The words literally say one thing, but the significance goes beyond the literal, and can be indicative of a person’s apprehension of imminent bodily harm or their assent or dissent to an agreement.
In the past, rappers have compared the “rap game” to the “crack game” (drug game), and perhaps there is something to be said for that. But I think rap is often misunderstood in the same way that the legal profession is misunderstood. Lawyers, like rappers, are often compelled to say things for purposes other than “telling the truth”. When controversy arises, this fact makes people angry and confused.
Emceeing is a lyrical exercise comprised of verbal acts. Decoded speaks to this “not for truth” element in rap, although Jay-Z doesn’t equate the art of emceeing with the rules of evidence. That’s my own dorky spin on things. But he does make a point that we—politicians, rap fans, and music critics included—seem to forget: rap lyrics are not always offered for the truth of what they assert. In fact, simply pointing out the truth would often be dull and unimaginative. A line in a rap song will be offered for other purposes. In “I’m Bad”, when LL Cool J says nobody can rap like him and he’ll “take a muscle bound man and put his face in the sand”, he might actually mean he’ll bury a muscle bound man in the sand. Alternatively, he might be trying to show how mighty his wordplay is. Or both, who knows.
In Decoded, Jay-Z is intent on illuminating the nuances of his own lyrics while pointing out that emceeing isn’t nearly as linear and straightforward as we’d like to assume. Sure, there are some duds out there, and we can find examples of uninspired rap lyrics. But when rap is good, it’s very good, and deciphering a masterful verse—its layers of meaning, allusions, symbols, poetic devices, imagery, and so forth—can be surprisingly daunting. Rappers build on cultural references, punch lines, lyrics by other rappers and songwriters, even inside jokes. It just dawned on me this year that a song Ice Cube released in 1991 might contain a To Kill a Mockingbird reference. And I actually like rap! An unfamiliar listener might find rap lyrics completely impenetrable, a bunch of gibberish. Listening to rap can be like unraveling a code.
Two examples from Decoded are instructive. In the first, Jay-Z notes that rappers sometimes deliver their lines with a rhythm that is separate from the underlying “beat”. Over the song’s usual “four-beat measure by four-beat measure”, the rapper “adds his own rhythm”, either staying with the beat or chopping the beat into smaller parts. The beat, Jay-Z suggests, is like time. The flow, he says, is like life. “Flow is what we do with that time, how we live through it,” he says. In this way, a rapper’s purpose for a line might be rhythmic, focused more on flow and mood than on literal meaning.
The other example involves the track “Public Service Announcement” and how his first verse in the song “wasn’t blazingly unique”. That verse finds Jay-Z talking about the subject everyone claims is his favorite—how awesome he is. And he could have left it at that, since, after all, there are truckloads of songs with rappers telling us how dope they are. Nothing earth shattering there. But then he goes further to compare the16-bar structure of the typical rap verse to the set structure of a sonnet. Just as the sonnet’s subject matter is generally limited to love, there’s almost a whole category of rap verses that are limited to expounding on the rapper’s greatness, or dopeness. Since sonnet writers have to be inventive to tackle a well-worn subject within a confining structure, Jay-Z argues that rappers are doing the same. “It’s a test of creativity and wit,” he declares. Passing that test “becomes proof of the boast’s truth” (not to be confused with the literal truth of the boasts themselves; I’m not going to let him mess up my metaphor). Rappers have to make language fresh in order to captivate their listeners.
And then there is Jay-Z’s own lyrical acumen, which is also enlightening, whether he’s pointing out the alliteration in his verses, or making us aware of the cultural touchstones and inside jokes he employs. Jay-Z is especially fond of irony and multiple meanings. In “99 Problems”, he tosses off a seemingly offensive chorus (“I’ve got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one”) to humorous effect. The first verse admonishes critics for reducing his work to the formula of “money, cash, hoes”. The rest of the song plays on various shades of the b-word, but excluding those that pertain to women.
The second verse pits a driver “with a trunk full of trouble” against a biased, prejudiced police officer. Their standoff goes back and forth, with the officer trying to search the driver’s car, and the driver demanding a warrant, until at last the officer mentions that the K-9 unit is on the way. It is open ended, this saga, and the listener is left wondering about the outcome. Does the driver get away? Does the police dog sniff out contraband in the car? Who’s “right” in this scenario, and who gets to take the high ground—a driver with contraband who doesn’t want to be racially profiled, or a police officer whose racial profiling might help him to seize contraband? Jay-Z leaves it open for interpretation, and goes back into the chorus. If you don’t pay attention, though, you might miss that the driver even had the contraband. The only clue comes in the opening line of that verse, “The year is ‘94 and in my trunk is raw.” Missing that part undermines the tension and layering of the standoff.
Remember the movie Heat? The film cycled the word “heat” through a number of meanings. “Heat” signified “guns”, “pressure”, “police presence”, friction”, and several forms of “passion”. Words are so important, and in the movie, the police caught a break in tracking the bad guys because of the word “slick”. One of the bad guys liked to call people “slick”, and he did so during a heist at the beginning of the movie. “I got connections,” Method Man declared in Notorious B.I.G.‘s “The What”. So do all good rappers.