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Lyrical Missteps

October 15, 2010

One of the best things about rap is the completely inappropriate lyrics. There’s nothing you can’t say in a hip-hop track–no diss is too mean, no sex act is too private, no opinion is too sexist or racist to be shared with the world. The emphasis on metaphor and hyperbole in rap guarantees that every track will be rife with over-the-top violent commentary and sexually explicit imagery. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I effing love it. Drunk or sober, at home or at work, I will sing along with any filthy track in my iPod.

But even in hip-hop, there is a line, and very occasionally, somebody takes his or her lyrics past the point of tastelessness into the realm of squeamish not-okayness. Having spent ten years reading classical texts and five listening to rap, it takes a lot to make me furrow my brow in disgust or shake my head like a prudent schoolmarm, but now and then it happens involuntarily as I listen to a misguided line of ebonic verse. Here are some examples from my music collection.

Jay-Z, “Bring It On”: With no trace of AIDS, / we keep our pockets fully blown.

Jigga, I get that you’re saying you and your fellow Roc Boys don’t have AIDS, but when you mention AIDS as part of the setup to a play on words, I can’t help but think about it–how it was all over the news scaring the shit out of people in the ’80s as I was growing up, how it’s ravaging entire countries, etc. And the line you’re using it for is not even that good. Even on a metaphorical level, hustlin’ really doesn’t have much to do with contracting HIV, does it? No. It doesn’t. Similar word play could have been accomplished via a Bill Clinton reference, or a wind reference, or something. If you’re going to mention a devastating incurable illness in your rap lyrics, you have to do it really fucking carefully, with some kind of respect.

Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls, “Brooklyn’s Finest”: Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls. / Nigga, shit ya drawers.

“Brooklyn’s Finest” is the most played song on my iPod. Catchy, upbeat, rife with overconfidence–I love it. The sample is killer, the lyrics are off the hook. No complaints, until this ridiculous poo reference shows up in the chorus. It’s so unnecessary. “Smalls” doesn’t even rhyme with “drawers,” and since when do gangstas–in fact, since when does anyone unaffiliated with 19th-century England–refer to pants as “drawers”? There’s some serious reaching happening, and for what? The opportunity to command individuals to soil themselves. It’s not acceptable to me, and logically it should be less acceptable to the lyricists. Why would you want people to crap their pants as a reaction to you stepping into a room? How pleasant would the live shows have been if even 5% of the audience had taken that shit (heh heh) seriously? If certain east-side gangbangers hadn’t assured Biggie’s demise, the stench certainly would have.

Missy Elliott, “Work It”: Call before you come, I need to shave my cho-cha.

TOO FAR. TMI ALERT. Nobody wants that mental picture, including–no: especially–the gentleman to whom the song is addressed. Time will tell whether he can handle that gadonkadonkdonk (call me an optimist, but I’m guessing he’ll find a way); what he certainly can’t handle is the slide show of beaver depilation images that are now flashing through his mind. Next!

50 Cent featuring Lil’ Kim, “Magic Stick”: (Fiddy) Sex ain’t a race. (Kim) But I’ve got a thug nigga breakin’ records. And the time is?… (Fiddy) One minute, six seconds.

It’s just so wrong. I think the problem is when Fiddy announces the time. It’s too specific. Like, he’s giving her some oral pleasure, fair enough, but they’ve got a stopwatch going, apparently? And Fiddy checks it the instant Kim “crosses the finish line”? How either of them can concentrate under that kind of pressure is a good question, and one that I shouldn’t have to ask myself. And isn’t the whole thing misguided? Like, Fiddy aiming for the fastest time? Are they late for a board meeting or something?

Jay-Z, “Girls Girls Girls”: Got this Indian squaw the day that I met her, / Asked her what tribe she with, red dot or feather. / She said all you need to know is I’m not a ho, / And to get with me you better be Chief Lots-a-Dough.

Yikes. I know that nothing is off-limits in rap, profanity-wise, but can you actually say “squaw”? That’s arguably more offensive than “cunt,” which you almost never hear in hip-hop. And wow, he takes the theme and he just runs with it, doesn’t he? Every stereotype packed into those lines. “Chief Lots-a-Dough” might be worse than “squaw,” I’m not even sure…

Rappers, I love the way you spew vulgarities into my ears all day long, but there’s a line. There really is. It’s so far up the Hill of Inappropriateness that you shouldn’t have any trouble staying below it. Just build your lyrical dream house 9/10 of the way up the hill and stick to lyrics about bitches and hoes, your neighbourhoods, drinking, and other people’s comparative inferiority. That’s what rap is for.

Keep bangin’.

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