When people dismiss hip-hop as dance music, or racist music, or cheap music, or angry music, or idiotic music, or detached music, or lazy music, they clearly have no idea what the genre is about. Founded merely on someone talking quickly over disco beats, hip-hop’s essential element has always been its words, and those who believe otherwise need take their Toby Keith records and get the hell out of the room.
It’s fascinating, really, how introspective and confounding stories can be told through 64 bars of vivid imagery on top of chopped-up and rearranged grooves. But that’s why rap music has managed to not only survive, but thrive over decades. When done correctly, there may not be another genre in all of music that has more substance within its texture. Hip-hop’s most imperative element is its lyricism and the skill with which it is presented. From the type of honest and revealing storytelling that some have mastered to the wit-centric, mind-bending lines that ooze with double entendres and third, fourth, and fifth meanings, the best hip-hop will forever be contingent on the power of its lyrics. Here, PopMatters takes a look at some of the best to ever craft simple sentences and small stories within this particularly transcendent medium.
You can argue until you’re blue in the face about how her lack of hit songs diminishes her place in hip-hop lore, but you’re clearly not paying attention to her sheer lyrical prowess if you do. And besides, since when did ever having a hit automatically make someone a great lyricist, anyway? “We had to pause for station identification / Now ya know my name here’s some more information / Well, let’s see, what you wanna know about me? / MC L-Y-T-E / The Queen—Nah, that’s too corny / The Sexy—Nah, that gets the guys too horny / The Best—Now that sounds conceited / But what is true is true, so it has to be repeated”, she proclaims on 1988’s “I Am Woman”. Whoever said hip-hop was only a man’s game, anyway? The defense rests.
When he wants to be, André Benjamin is one of the fiercest Southern wordsmiths of his day. Unfortunately, the whole “when he wants to be” part of that sentence holds more weight than one may hope. He’s essentially left hip-hop behind in recent years for entrepreneurial opportunities and a desire to become a movie star, but man, when that dude is on, that dude is on. Take the first part to his final verse in “Aquemini” as proof: “My mind warps and bends floats the wind count to ten / Meet the twin Andre Ben / Welcome to the lion’s den / Original skin many men comprehend / I extend myself so you go out and tell a friend / Sin all depends on what you believing in / Faith is what you make it, that’s the hardest shit since MC Ren”. East Coast, West Coast, South, or North, Andre 3000 sure knows how to bend some minds. Come back soon, Dre.
A socially conscious rapper who’s the son of an English teacher, and you can tell. His voice has always been respected, his flow has always been admired. Maybe his best moment on record came from his 1998 collaboration with Mos Def, Black Star, and his overtly passionate warning to his detractors: “It’s a Small Wonder, like Vicki, why I’m picky / These n—-s suck like hickies / And still get the shit they slip in like Mickies / I’m sick of the hater-players, bring on the regulators / With the flavors like a farm team fucking with the majors / Like a river how I run through it, I do it so cold / Freezin’ up your bodily fluids, your style is old”. Goosebumps. That’s what he gives you. Goosebumps.
From somebody who once named an entire record AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, he is as violent as he is influential, angry as he is poignant. The one thing you can’t say about Ice Cube is that he never knew how to properly tell a story. Sure, he’s made the bulk of his career in movies and television over the last decade or so, but before that, the N.W.A stalwart was a force to be reckoned with in the hip-hop world.
His crowning achievement, “It Was a Good Day”, was as vivid as a five-minute West Coast hip-hop jingle could get. “Just waking up in the morning gotta thank God / I don’t know but today seems kinda odd / No barking from the dogs, no smog / And Momma cooked a breakfast with no hog / I got my grub on, but didn’t pig out / Finally got a call from a girl wanna dig out”, he raps during the track’s first verse. It reads more like a novel than it does a pop song. But that’s what Ice Cube was so good at: blunt realism that helped illustrate Michelangelo-like paintings with mere words. His verses were colorful. His attitude was spiteful. And his talent was exceptional.
The quintessential West Coast hip-hop star, Tupac Shakur was more of a personality than he was a wordsmith, though that doesn’t mean he wasn’t able to step up his game whenever called upon. “They say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice / I say the darker the flesh, then the deeper the roots”, he spits on “Keep Ya Head Up”, his ode to African-American women. It’s a heartfelt rhyme in a heartfelt track that came from an artist whose heartfelt attributes often went overlooked. Then again, that’s Tupac in a nutshell—so great for so many reasons that so many people hardly ever even consider anymore. Forever a hip-hop legend.