Hip-Hop Storytellers: The Vignette

[21 July 2010]

By Quentin B. Huff

Hip-hop, as a genre, is known for a great many things. As even the most casual listener is aware, those things are not always positive. There is, however, one skill hip-hop has consistently gotten right over the course of its tenure: storytelling. Rappers are great storytellers and often command dynamic technical prowess to turn their anecdotes into near cinematic gems. Fresh imagery, imaginative points of view, and surprise endings are chief among the tools employed by our best storytellers.

This article outlines the scope of a specific storytelling device that I’ve dubbed “The Vignette”. By “vignette”, I’m referring to short and descriptive tales that typically last as long as a single verse. Rappers construct vignettes as fables to illuminate a moral or ethical statement, to give advice, or to indulge flights of fancy. Vignettes generally operate in pairs or in threes, wherein a single rapper approaches as given subject from various angles. Sometimes, the contrasting vignettes are delivered by different rappers, their individual styles accentuating the complexities of their themes.

The “vignette” should be distinguished structurally and stylistically from other storytelling devices; mainly, the straightforward narrative. Songs like Slick Rick’s “A Children’s Story”, MC Lyte’s “Poor Georgie”, and Ghostface Killah’s “Whip Me With a Strap” tell stories in a direct fashion. While the themes of the straightforward narrative are no less significant than those of the vignette, there’s a tendency among straightforward narratives to advance a singular viewpoint. 

MC Lyte’s “Poor Georgie”, for instance, chronicled the feelings that Lyte, the narrator, had for Georgie, a handsome heartbreaker she’d met at a club. Across the song’s tender verses and a clever Jackson 5 sample mixed into the choruses, the Lyte and Georgie become close, so when Georgie dies in a car accident caused by his drunk driving, Lyte expresses her regrets, “I wish I would’ve told him how I liked him so much / how he made me feel with the slightest touch.” The song’s sense of tragedy, along with MC Lyte’s grief, supports the moral of the tale that “if you love someone, you should say it often” because “no one is promised tomorrow”.

The linear path of the narrative makes it more accessible for sequels. EPMD’s “Jane” series detailed the acts of a stalker, Redman’s “Supaman Lova” songs followed the rapper’s outrageous adventures as a playboy, and Atmosphere’s “Millie Fell Off the Fire Escape” (2009) added an intriguing bit of closure to De La Soul’s abruptly-ending ‘90s story of sexual abuse in “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa”. Vignettes, on the other hand, feature two or more verses that act as distinct examples that illustrate a single theme. They aren’t given to sequels because they operate in a cyclical or parallel manner. 

For this reason, the vignette deserves a spotlight in hip-hop’s storytelling tradition. In providing this spotlight, I’ve identified specific categories of vignettes that are popular among artists, and successfully executed. While such categories aren’t meant to be inflexible, they should guide us in understanding this facet of hip-hop’s storytelling magic.

Tales of Advocacy
Songs in the “Tales of Advocacy” category feature stories, or describe scenarios, that advocate a position to the listener. In this regard, they are a bit preachy and, notwithstanding the vignette presentation’s accommodation of multiple viewpoints, they might also oversimplify and paint the world monochromatically. Typically, advocacy tales will address the listener directly as “you”, and place the listener in situations that require decisiveness.

Young MC’s “Bust a Move” is a humorous tale that advocates self-confidence and moderate risk taking. Over a snappy guitar loop, Young MC offers a set of scenarios aimed at his male listeners (“This is a jam for all the fellas”). Each time, the mission is to strike up the nerve to talk to a gorgeous woman, to face the prospect of rejection in an effort to “cure your lonely condition”. “Go for it,” Young MC seems to say. The worst that can happen is a pretty woman says, “No.” At least you tried.

Of course, advocacy tales aren’t always bundles of joy and laughter. The more serious the subject matter, the more serious the lyricism, to the point that the song can move from concern to protest and anger .

NWA’s “F*ck the Police” fits the bill here, with group members Ice Cube, MC Ren, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre dramatizing the indignities of police brutality and racial profiling through the vivid mock testimony of their individual verses. While it’s pretty funny (to me, at least) that the group finds the cops guilty on all counts, dealing with law enforcement on such a combative level is no fun at all. “F*ck the Police” brings to life the unseemly side of the law, perhaps painting with broad strokes, but nevertheless making the point that unbridled authority needs to be checked, if not curtailed.

Admittedly, the song’s image of curtailment amounts to retaliation, as the boys in NWA take out their frustrations on the boys in blue. Ice Cube is determined to “swarm / on any motherf*cka in a blue uniform.” MC Ren will “smoke ‘em now and not next time.” Eazy-E asserts, “Without a gun and a badge, what do you got? / A sucker in a uniform waitin’ to get shot.” The frustration is palpable, but taking these potential solutions seriously is questionable, something more suited to Sam Greenlee’s novel The Spook Who Sat By The Door than reality. 

There’s a similar feel to another Dr. Dre-related tune, “The Day The N*ggaz Took Over”. Inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles Riots following the police beating of motorist Rodney King, and then the subsequent acquittal of the offending officers, “The Day The N*ggaz Took Over” goes for a present tense view of the confusion and mayhem of the moment. There’s definitely a touch of social reality in the song (“Bloods, Crips on the same squad”), but there’s also an awkward sense of glee about the looting that took place during the riots that brilliantly complicates its message (“Got a VCR, in the back of my car”). I say it “brilliantly complicates” because, after all, the big picture of the L.A. Riots is rooted in complexity and conflicting rationales. There are no easy answers.

Big Daddy Kane’s “Stop Shammin’” tweaks the serious, issue-oriented paradigm by adding cynicism and derision to the mix. Here, Big Daddy Kane can spot a phony a mile away, a popular theme in all of hip-hop. Over a pounding drum beat, Kane goes hardcore against fakers and frauds who are “more false than dentures”, people who perpetrate and pretend to be “real”. Kane first makes the case for his own credibility and authenticity, rhyming, “Yeah, I went from rags to riches, but I still rock the saggy britches” and “I don’t try to act brand new / eating escargot and using words like rendezvous”. 

The second verse gets more specific, demanding to know “why you wanna be what you’re not / and claim to have things that you know you ain’t got”. Hair care, skin bleaching, and interracial dating come under fire here, with Kane going for the jugular, “It’s quite obvious you don’t wanna be a Black man / So what’s next? You go and join the Ku Klux Klan?”  The verse ends with sounder observations, though, as Kane notes that rich folks are able to donate funds to foundations and charities but don’t contribute to schools and hospitals that might uplift communities. You know how this argument goes, and it’s impossible to win. Let somebody put up money for a school and then the critique is about location (“Why did Oprah open up a school on another continent?”) or curriculum (“Is Thomas Jefferson really worth five pages in the textbook?”). These are difficult, thorny issues, and Kane’s well-meaning piece calling out those who fake the funk can come off as caustic, given the gravity of it all.

Along the lines of “Stop Shammin’” is Ice-T’s “B*tches 2”, an alternate view of the B-word that advocates extending it to gutless men. In the first verse, Ice’s homeboy disses him to impress a pretty lady (and fails). In the second verse, the Feds catch a dude named Mitch (how convenient for the end rhymes!) with cocaine and PCP—and he snitches on his entire posse. In the final verse, a habitual liar and loser takes his aggression out on his wife and joins the police force to take even more aggression out on the unsuspecting public. Interestingly, the song doesn’t try to take the sting out of the word “b*tch”. In fact, it arguably sets out to sting more people, men as well as women, by casting a wider net with the pejorative.

Other advocacy vignettes aim the sympathy arrow toward the intended target. In Public Enemy’s “Burn Hollywood Burn”, for example, Ice Cube, Chuck D, and Big Daddy Kane tackled the plight of black actors and actresses in Tinseltown. Granted, this song doesn’t fit as a proper story, with identifiable characters and a discernible storyline, but I think its characterization of Hollywood puts it close to our discussion. It’s like a documentary with an agenda, set to music.“Many intelligent black men seemed / to look uncivilized when on the screen,” rhymes Big Daddy Kane.

As far as advocacy goes, the song definitely seeks the listener’s disdain for Hollywood stereotypes and limited opportunities for actors and actresses of color. “So let’s make our own movies like Spike Lee,” Big Daddy Kane suggests. Now, I have to admit it’s a little funny, seeing how things turned out, to hear the end of the song when Flava Flav is asked if he’d like to be cast as a “controversial Negro” and he actually says, “You mean somebody like Huey P. Newton or H. Rap Brown, right?” No disrespect to Flava Flav but, really? Huey Newton? And when the role turns out to be that of a “servant” who “shuffles a little bit and sings”, Flava’s adamant refusal to do something so silly and stereotypical is admirable but… well, I’m not sure everyone who says they wouldn’t play these parts would actually maintain their principles when faced with a real paycheck. 

I’m not judging it. If you gotta eat, you gotta eat. At the same time, I agree with Chuck D. and the rest of the rappers in the song when, at the end, they go to the movies and find that the feature film is Driving Miss Daisy. I wouldn’t want to watch that either.  I’m guessing they wouldn’t have liked Soul Plane back then either (wink). Also, I know what you’re thinking, and the answer is, “Yes, this song was released long before Ice Cube starred in Are We There Yet.”

I Got Issues

When it comes to issue-oriented vignettes, Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” sought awareness for women facing domestic violence and verbal abuse. In contrast to Ice-T’s “B*tches 2”, Latifah’s song looks to empower women through the self-respect it takes to reject outright gender slurs and physical pain.

The beauty Latifah makes of these ugly scenarios is in the way she links verbal abuse with physical violence. The pain might be inflicted in different ways, but ultimately the song argues that self-esteem is sacrificed in either case. The call for unity, which has been invoked so often for one cause or another it has lost its power, is consistently applied here. Latifah’s vignette calls for unity in male-female relationships as well as in female interactions with other females. The title plays a subtle role in this too, since the letters in “unity” are spelled out in the chorus, but it’s not an acronym. The individual letters don’t mean anything unless they are pronounced together when you say the word, much like individuals are stronger when they work together. 

Latifah shows zero tolerance for those who would disrespect women or for women disrespecting themselves. In particular, her depiction of domestic abuse is poignant, and made all the more powerful because she delivers it as a keen first person account (“I hit the bottom, there ain’t nowhere else to go but up”).

On 2008’s Absolute Value, Akrobatik’s “Kindred” impressively managed to parallel the plight of slavery with the tragedy wrought by Hurricane Katrina. Akrobatik’s voice seems well suited for battle raps, but “Kindred” provides a mixture of compassion and indignation. His first person approach takes us back to plantation life and, later, to New Orleans, Louisiana where Akrobatik fleshes out the despair of a man surviving on the top of his roof after the levees broke. Appropriately, Chuck D makes an appearance to introduce each of the vignettes, and through the vignette technique “Kindred” is a compelling example of hip-hop storytelling that advocates action and compassion.

Likewise, Brother Ali’s “Tight Rope” brings attention to the life’s situational struggles, where religious custom meets socialization (Verse 1), nontraditional family structure meets self-concept (Verse 2), and sexual orientation meets familial disapproval (Verse 3). Each vignette presents a unique struggle, but the tug of war between one’s identity and one’s environment is clearly in play.

The Cautionary Tale
The title I chose for this category reminds me of the movie Jerry McGuire. In the film, Tom Cruise’s McGuire, a sports agent, has an ethical epiphany that gets him ousted from his high power agency. McGuire ventures out as a solo practitioner with two clients—or so he thinks. Turns out, his rival at his old agency has scooped his blue chip client. At the airport, a sullen and disheveled McGuire laments his fate to his other client, the loud talking, George Jefferson-strutting football player Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). “Twenty four hours ago, man, I was hot! Now… I’m a cautionary tale,” cries McGuire. “I lost the number one draft pick the night before the draft!”

Thus begins the first lesson of the cautionary tale: beware. These vignettes provide warnings designed to help listeners navigate and avoid life’s traps.

Eminem’s Dr. Dre-produced “Guilty Conscience” operates as the consummate example. Instead of inserting a chorus, each vignette opens with a meet-and-greet of sorts.“Meet Eddie,” says the announcer who introduces the first verse. Eddie is “fed up with life” and plans to rob a liquor store. In verse two, Stan contemplates taking advantage of a young girl at a rave party. In verse three, Grady comes home after work to find his wife cheating on him.

Each situation finds Dr. Dre rapping as the conscience, or the angel on the shoulder, while Eminem acts as the foil, the id, the little devil or fallen angel. The high point of the already clever piece arrives at the end when Eminem advises Grady to kill his cheating wife—against Dre’s better judgment. Annoyed with Dr. Dre positioning himself as a moral do-gooder, the song dips into reality as Eminem parades instances of Dre’s indiscretions into the discussion. Eminem taunts him, “How in the f*ck you gonna tell this man not to be violent?” and Dre responds, “‘Cause he don’t need to go the same route that I went.” In the end, though, Dr. Dre’s own demons get the better of him and even the good doctor can’t help but side with Grady giving in to his impulses.

The Cautionary Vignette is especially useful for warnings about unsavory characters and scams. Back in 1990, Ice Cube’s “Who’s the Mack” warned us against those who would take advantage of us. Over a background suited for a ‘70s blaxploitation flick, Cube commands his vignette with an omniscience that permeates his third person (“he”) and second person (“you”) points of view. The first “mack”, named Sonny, pimps out young girls. The second “mack” is a guy with the hard luck story who is always looking for a handout. “He claims that he wants to get somethin’ to eat,” says Cube, “but every day you find yourself gettin’ beat.” The third “mack” is the smooth operator in the club who uses every pickup line under the sun to take women to bed. The final “mack” turns out to be Ice Cube himself, because he’s the kind of “mack” who will give you the information necessary to kick game without getting manipulated by others.

With the refrain, “Now ask yourself, who’s the mack?”, Ice Cube takes his listeners to task for falling for the scams. Executing his cautionary tale as a series of scenarios rather than as a single story, Ice Cube accentuates the pervasiveness and widespread occurrence of “macking”. A single story about a single scam wouldn’t have been as effective.

Kanye West’s “Golddigger”, building on a lyrical model set forth by the EPMD song of the same name, also puts the vignette to good use. With a Jamie Foxx impersonation of Ray Charles on constant loop, West’s side of the story begins in first person, about his infatuation with a woman who seemed to have serial, and casual, relationships with celebrities and men of means (“My best friend said she used to f*ck with Usher”). In the second verse, he switches to second person, wherein the “you” he’s addressing is unmistakably male and faces the challenge of being tricked into taking care of a child of questionable paternity (“She was supposed to buy your shorty Tyco with your money / She went to the doctor, got lipo with your money”).

Like West’s “Golddigger”, EPMD’s song from the ‘90s preaches a gospel of prenuptial agreements, baby traps, and trickery. The “golddigger” is untrustworthy, shifty, and money driven. In West’s version, these traits aren’t limited to women, as the third and final verse showcases a woman sticking by her man’s side in financially lean times only to have him “leave yo’ ass for a white girl” when he finds success.

The horrors wrought by untrustworthy men and women are legendary in hip-hop, and in entertainment and cultural lore as a whole. I could so easily imagine an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello with the scheming Iago character warning the title character about his wife Desdemona and her alleged infidelity, “O, I ain’t sayin’ she’s a golddigger. But she’s ain’t messin’ wit’ no financially insecure generals.”

Roxanne Shante’s “Brothas Ain’t Sh*t” is as merciless as its title would have you believe (“You turn your head for a minute, he’s tryin’ to kick it to your mother”). Though not as rough about it as Shante was, DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince stepped into this lane with “Girls Ain’t Nothin’g But Trouble”. Likewise, Big Daddy Kane’s “No Damn Good” takes an unflinching position against the wayward principles of men as well as women. In one story, a woman named Monique sleeps around too much and has no self-respect.  In the other story, a guy named Cory spends all of his time pretending to be a big shot, which is far from the truth.

Instead of advising men to beware, Brand Nubian’s “Slow Down” warns the woman in question about the consequences of her behavior. The rappers—Sadat X, Lord Jamar, and Grand Puba—are terribly judgmental. Lines like “Your plan is to take all you can from a man and scram” and “Your ways and actions are like those of a savage” are the most benign of those judgments. India.Arie’s own “Slow Down”, though not a hip-hop song or a vignette example, offers the same warning about the effects of life in the fast lane, albeit in first person and in a far friendlier tone. In India.Arie’s tune, she’s on the receiving end of her mother’s warning.

Sometimes life itself requires a word of caution. In “Eyes Are the Soul”, MC Lyte turns the eyes into symbols of our collective humanity. There’s a frailty in this symbolism, one that is echoed by the swelling synth backdrop and busy but light percussion. Verse one features an unnamed male facing the consequences of unprotected sex and indiscriminate drug use. Verse two finds another unnamed male, age 19, who commits unspeakable crimes as a result of his drug addictions. Verse three is about a young girl in Lyte’s neighborhood who has to choose between being a teenage mother or having an abortion. MC Lyte’s cautionary tale belongs in the same family as TLC’s “Waterfalls”, which also dealt with the aftermath of casual sex, the consequences of drugs and crime, and how all of that ties into mortality .TLC—the hit making ladies group of Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas—used their song’s vignettes to turn scenarios of misery into contemporary poetry. 

Not surprisingly, rappers think the music business itself should be approached with caution. In “Check the Rhime”, Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest delivered the now bigger-than-hip-hop line, “Industry Rule, number four thousand and eighty / Record Company people are shady.” Appearing on the same album, 1991’s The Low End Theory, “Show Business” added a few other industry rules to the learning process. Featuring Brand Nubian, “Show Business” dismisses the supposed money-making and the fair-weather fans in an attempt to provide a truer picture of the music business “cesspool”.  One-sided record deals, bootleggers, critics, and competition from trendier artists are all part of the experience.

Multiple Perspectives / Opposing Views

Devin the Dude’s “What a Job” (2007), featuring Snoop Dogg and Andre 3000, hones in on the joys and the trials of being a rap performer. “Sometimes it’s like a pigeon coop,” Devin says of performing his rhymes in the recording booth. Andre 3000’s verse, addressing illegal downloading, is especially good. Both songs, “Show Business” and “What a Job”, use multiple voices to compare experiences and to show solidarity. The Cautionary Tale isn’t about seeing a problem in a variety of ways.  It’s about seeing a variety of problems in the same way. Caveat hip-hoppers. Watch your back.

Tales from the Dark Side
This category is reserved for the weird records, the ones that rely on bizarre or other worldly imagery. Tales under this moniker might actually lean toward the light side, bringing humor to the fore.

Run DMC’s “You Be Illin’” takes the offense against dorks. The song’s “ill” terminology intrigues me, since “ill” and “sick” can actually be positives. An emcee who’s “ill” and has a “sick” flow is usually one with skills. It’s a good thing. “You Be Illin’”, however, is all about the lack of any skills, or common sense for that matter. Each story in the song establishes that “you”, the object of the song’s scorn, is incapable of being smooth, cool, or just plain intelligent. He orders a Big Mac at Kentucky Fried Chicken (no way!), screams “Touchdown!” at a basketball game (how lame), got drunk and asked a cute girl to dance (what was he thinking?), and accidentally ate dog food (WTF?).

Except for the lack of intelligence thing, the awkward dude in “You Be Illin’” reminds me of the Steve Urkel character from the TV show Family Matters. Here’s the question You Be Illin’ raises for me but never addresses: if the boys in Run DMC see the dude illin’ all the time, why are they always around him? Seems like they could’ve just ignored him and been on their way. Still, dude sounds like he’s trapped in The Twilight Zone or something.

Occasionally, these tales venture into the Doom (formerly “MF Doom”) territory of weirdness. Tone Loc, riding the waves of success from his “Wild Thing” single, released a set of odd stories in the song “Funky Cold Medina”.  Here, Tone Loc’s distinctive sandpapery vocals tell us about the thrills of “Funky Cold Medina”.  A dude informed him, “Put a little Medina in your glass and the girls’ll come real quick.” “Funky Cold Medina” is like a precursor to all of those pharmaceutical commercials with the endless litany of warnings, “If you are a carbon based organism, use of this pill may cause seizures, emphysema, rashes, warts, yellow fever, jaundice, pituitary dysfunction, cardiac arrest, nearsightedness, and death.” The side effects of using Funky Cold Medina? Tone Loc gave it to his dog and had every dog in the neighborhood trying to get into his house. Watch out for that.  Also, Tone reveals that Funky Cold Medina caused him to take home a transvestite, mistaking a man for a woman named Sheena. “You must be sure that your girl is pure for the Funky Cold Medina,” Tone Loc advises. Use only as directed.

Ice Cube’s “A Gangsta’s Fairytale” turned popular children’s figures such as Humpty Dumpty, Mr. Rogers, and the Three Little Pigs into criminal masterminds. In Cube’s stories, Jill gives Jack gonorrhea, the lady who lived in a shoe sells marijuana, Snow White and Cinderella were less than chaste, and the Three Little Pigs engaged in a gangland turf war with Mr. Rogers and the Wolf (perhaps the Big Bad one, it’s not clear). The longer the stories go, the more bizarre it all gets.

LL Cool J made a few of these songs in the early portion of his career. From his 1987 Bigger & Deffer LP, his “My Rhyme Ain’t Done” walked through an Alice in Wonderland-style series of vignettes. All of them are absurd and impossible, like when the President commissions a newly resurrected Michelangelo to paint LL Cool J’s head, or when LL takes a trip inside a deck of cards or a trip to the center of the earth. He hangs out with cartoon characters like He-Man and Spiderman, as well as historical figures like Sitting Bull. Playful and imaginative, the song effectively summarizes the structure of vignette storytelling with the refrain, “That story is over, but my rhyme ain’t done.”

On Mama Said Knock You Out (1990), LL Cool J went back to the oddball storytelling realm with “Milky Cereal”, going for the novelty of building a story around breakfast cereals. In this rhyme, Frosted Flake is a “rich female” who “had a lot of soul.” She takes LL home, throws him on the couch, and the next morning he “woke up with a spoon in my mouth”. After that, he meets Lucky Charm and Pebbles, and contends with both of their fathers. It’s tough to make literal sense of the stories, though, which begs the question of whether the cleverness of the technique overpowers the storytelling.

LL tried this technique again in “Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag” (1994). This time, he sequenced the names of hip-hop artists to move the stories along. The trick was playful but utterly nonsensical, like GZA’s lining up the names of record companies for his rhyme in the song “Labels”, or like Ghostface Killah’s work on Supreme Clientele except probably not quite as inspired. Ghostface Killah sometimes goes into straight up Jabberwocky mode. 

Stories in the Tales from the Dark Side category can also take on a serious tone, sometimes disturbingly so. “Mind Playing Tricks on Me”, by the Geto Boys, explores the relentless specter of paranoia. The group members (Scarface, Willie D, and Bushwick Bill) sound absolutely bonkers in each of their testimonials, with vivid language and sharp imagery driving the storytelling. Scarface’s mental claustrophobia (“Four walls closin’ in, getting bigger / I’m paranoid, sleepin’ wit’ my finger on the trigger”) accentuates his physical pain (“See, every time my eyes close / I start sweatin’ and blood starts comin’ out my nose”).

Scarface’s feeling that he’s being pursued by a menace is echoed by Willie D (“I live by the sword / I take my boys everywhere I go because I’m paranoid”) and Bushwick Bill (“My hands were all bloody, from punchin’ on the concrete”). However, unlike Scarface, Willie D and Bushwick come face to face with their fantasies, as Willie D’s supposed menaces turn out to be “three blind, crippled, and crazy senior citizens” and Bushwick’s extraordinary stalker who stands “six or seven feet” is only a figment of his imagination. Something about reality is too formidable to handle. Scarface actually raps two verses in the song and contemplates suicide in his second go-round. Sobering stuff, much like The Roots’ vignettes of warlike mentalities in 2008’s “Singin’ Man”. 

Freaky Tales
The last category of our discussion is what I call the “Freaky Tale”, which is exactly what it sounds like. Rhymes about relationships, especially regarding sexual encounters, are the staples of this field. Although there are some exceptions, these vignettes are marked more than the other categories by the narrator’s use of the first person perspective.

The title of the category originates from the song “Freaky Tales” by Too Short. Known for his sex tales and pimp bravado, Too Short has rarely injected sensitivity into his accounts of the male-female dynamic.  His persona is usually of the “ice cold player” variety, a man whose heart is interchangeable with his wallet, and his wallet is guarded under layers of attitude, connections, and ambition for street authenticity. The Too Short in these songs is not the guy you want dating your sister, daughter, or female friends.

“Freaky Tales” flips so quickly through Too Short’s Rolodex of sexual exploits, it sounds more like a montage of flashbacks than a set of vignettes. As such, there isn’t a discernable storyline, suggesting that this is about Too Short’s ego and bragging rights, and not as much about the telling of the tales.

LL Cool J’s “Big Ol’ Butt” offers a more traditional vignette example. Here, LL Cool J literally moves through a series of casual relationships, one after the other, motivated solely by the criteria of chasing the woman with the best physique. He meets Tina at the mall, and leaves his girlfriend for her, but then he leaves Tina for Brenda, and then leaves Brenda for Lisa. More intriguing than LL’s acquiring and leaving these women on the basis of which woman has the best body, the song has the distinction of interlocking its vignettes to create the illusion of a linear story.

Public Enemy’s “Pollywanacraka” examined relationship conflicts pertaining to interracial dating. This time, Chuck D managed a relatively balanced presentation of the psychological side of “race” and the taboos of so-called race-mixing. This is something Chuck D isn’t often given credit for, largely because Public Enemy’s brand was built on taking definitive stands on important issues.

In this song, his drawling spoken word stories are like character profiles that illustrate a mindset that privileges prejudice under the guise of preference. If hip-hop’s cautionary tales are any indication, it’s no picnic finding someone who’s honest and trustworthy enough to hang out with. There’s an argument to be made, therefore, that we shouldn’t limit our options unnecessarily. At the same time, Chuck D’s characters, dramatized by authentic sounding arguments between voice actors, use upward mobility and social standing as justifications for preferring lovers of other “races” to “black” ones.

More importantly, at least for our purposes, the vignette structure allows the song to be more balanced, if not more nuanced, about the actions of “black” men and women than a single narrative would have been. In doing so, the vignette speaks to multiple perspectives as well as the friction between opposing views.

Quentin Huff is an attorney, writer, visual artist, and professional tennis player who lives and works in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In addition to serving as an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University School of Law, he enjoys practicing entertainment law. When he's not busy suing people or giving other people advice on how to sue people, he writes novels, short stories, poetry, screenplays, diary entries, and essays. Quentin's writing appears, or is forthcoming, in: Casa Poema, Pemmican Press, Switched-On Gutenberg, Defenestration, Poems Niederngasse, and The Ringing Ear, Cave Canem's anthology of contemporary African American poetry rooted in the South. His family owns and operates Huff Art Studio, an art gallery specializing in fine art, printing, and graphic design. Quentin loves Final Fantasy videogames, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, his mother Earnestine, PopMatters, and all things Prince.


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/127882-hip-hop-storytellers-the-vignette/