Hip-Hop Storytellers: The Vignette
"That story is over, but my rhyme ain't done." Vignettes are important tools in hip-hop's rich and plentiful storytelling tradition.
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.