SRC 90th Anniversary
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No Rhyme or Reason

When Peter Walsh’s rap career bottomed out, he turned to analysis.


A day after Kendrick Lamar released “The Blacker The Berry”, Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon annotated it for The symbolism was obvious: Michael Chabon—respected member of the cultural elite—welcomes another artist into the sect. If Kendrick hadn’t made it yet, he had now. Even then, his album was called a classic, and it had not even been released. I cannot prove this was a media stunt, though Chabon likely had encountered Genius executive editor Sasha Frere-Jones when they were both associated with The New Yorker. But what kind of wisdom was Michael Chabon bringing to the table?

So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?

In this final couplet, Kendrick Lamar employs a rhetorical move akin to—and in its way even more devastating than—Common’s move in the last line of “I Used to Love H.E.R.”: snapping an entire lyric into place with a surprise revelation of something hitherto left unspoken. In “H.E.R.”, Common reveals the identity of the song’s “her”—hip hop itself—forcing the listener to re-evaluate the entire meaning and intent of the song. Here, Kendrick Lamar reveals the nature of the enigmatic hypocrisy that the speaker has previously confessed to three times in the song without elaborating: that he grieved over the murder of Trayvon Martin when he himself has been responsible for the death of a young black man. Common’s “her” is not a woman but hip hop itself; Lamar’s “I” is not (or not only) Kendrick Lamar but his community as a whole. This revelation forces the listener to a deeper and broader understanding of the song’s “you”, and to consider the possibility that “hypocrisy” is, in certain situations, a much more complicated moral position than is generally allowed, and perhaps an inevitable one.

With a verbosity that would make Polonius blush, Chabon arbitrarily picks a song by Common[1] and suggests some relation,[2] but this is the kind of analysis that academic-types pay, and it plays into the same kind of anthopologising of black culture that I just hate.

Though perhaps I’m going too fast too soon. Genius (formerly Rap Genius) is a kind of sparknotes for cultural literacy. It collates annotations of lyrics, literature, and legal statutes, though previously only dealt with rap. In that tenure, it peddled a transactional kind of cultural knowledge, granting the uninitiated an understanding of rap’s particularly dense mythology, and in doing so, created a hierarchy that preferences highly allusive/interpretable ‘good’ music, over music which is not. You don’t need a guidebook to understand Lil Wayne when he says “these crooked ass cops still winning/Black man family still mourning/Black president ain’t do nothing/We need a real nigga up in that office”, and Rap Genius would have you believe that’s a bad thing. It creates an arbitrary standard—one entirely outside of hip hop, and presumably propagated by white people—that forces hip hop through the same analytical sieve we might apply to Romantic poetry. It stratifies the ghettoization of a kind of music that found its origins in transcending the ghetto.

We see the effect of this shit in the way Lil B is decimated for rhymes like “Treat rules like windows/I was breaking the rules” or for having hooks like “Sunshine Sunshine, Looking For That Sunshine/No Black Person Is Ugly Don’t Say That One Time”, or for having an entire song where he just says “I Love You”. He’s described as insignificant and uneducated (and that’s the most conservative of the criticism I’ve read of him), the same way Lil Wayne is described as untalented for rhyming “Nigga” with “Nigga” (though if critics wanted, they could interpret that recurring word at the end of the line as ‘epistrophe’).[3] This kind of plain text interpretation utterly discounts the emphasis outside of the text and allows rhymes to be discounted as juvenile despite the complexity in the way they’re being performed, as when Ghostface dropsGhostface!/Catch the blast of a hype verse!/My glock burst, leaving a hearse, I did worse!”, which feels just shattering when you hear it. I guess how I’d like to respond is by saying that rhetorical flourish is not necessary—you can get the same effect from flow, emphasis, or even just the sound—but, in the alternative, if it was important, then that kind of rhetorical flourish is far more prevalent than people would think. If we try to actually render a line as said, we come up to a whole number of other problems of interpretation, but perhaps get a clearer picture of what’s going on, as in “American Terrorist”: “We came through the storm/nooses-on-our-necks/and-a small-pox blan-ket t’ keep us warm.”[4] (Jay Z, on the other hand, is highly regarded enough that nobody makes fun of him when he says “I pack heat like I’m an oven door”). It’s also interesting to examine how these songs outside the mainstream critical consensus (while still remaining within hip hop critical consensus) fare on Genius. When Rich Homie Quan raps “Don’t care what them white folks say” in the context of ignoring a warrant, one lone contributor on Genius interprets the line as “white folks = court of law”, which seems closer to the mark than anything Chabon could say. ) It’s also possible to interpret Emily Dickinson’s “I’m nobody—who are you?—are you—nobody—too?” as basically identical to Chief Keef’s “Who you!? I Don’t Know You!” but this analysis didn’t take me too far in my English tutorial and I doubt it’ll work in yours either.

We also end up evaluating a song’s quality based on how it conforms to a narrative (one that we probably propagate). It’s utterly fine for a pop icon like Taylor Swift to sing banally about her own life, but if Wacka Flocka Flame says something confessional along the lines of ”When my lil’ brother died I said fuck school”, he’s cooked. Rap critic Noz often talks of Nas’s “project windows vision”: that he could look outside and interpret/translate the experience of his entire community into verses. I’m not at all qualified to evaluate the veracity of that claim, so I won’t even try, but I will say that there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between the hip hop that’s granted that critical approval and the hip hop that’s being listened to, almost as if we’re asking these artists to look through the window only so long as it’s one we can empathise with.[5]

During Ferguson, you might have heard protesters chanting Boosie Badazz’s “Fuck The Police” at riot squads. Today, this song sits with only 8 contributions on Genius. As for Kendrick Lamar, he’s still a victim of the critical overzealousness that ignores people like Boosie. The establishment is so eager to anoint him rap’s savior that they’re silencing everything individual about him. He can’t speak intimately about any experience without being made a stand-in repudiator for every perceived social ill. If there’s a resolution it’s a simple one: don’t impose your worldview on the music you’re listening to, and if the white liberal media is telling you about rap, you should probably stop listening.



[1] Who recently won an Oscar, presumably attaining that same literary approval one needs to be taken seriously.

[2] Off the top of my head, other songs that do the exact same thing: “Stan” – Eminem; “Da Art Of Storytelling pt. 1” – Outkast; or even Kendrick’s own awful “No Make Up (Her Vice)”.

[3] Lil Wayne—as has been noted elsewhere—also deserves props for normalizing rapping about cunnilingus, which is not exactly relevant but is interesting. We’ve come a long way since Kool G Rap rapped “Because you gotta be brave to eat the tuna, G/So when it comes to pussy-lickin’, I’m the chicken of the sea”.

[4] And it continues: “With a seven-forty-seven on the pent-a-goooon lawwwn/Wake-Up! The alarm clock is connected to a bomb.”—that’s the kind of sprung rhythm we get in Hopkins and some Heaney, by the way.

[5] People might also ask whether some of the critical skimming is a good thing. Hip hop’s obviously got a lot to answer for in terms of propagating some types of oppression, and for every Nicki Minaj there are ten Drakes, but this looks to me like a strange hierarchy of oppression, the same way everything Nicki did in “Once” about rejecting narratives about her was discounted on the basis of some—admittedly ill-advised—fascist iconography in the music video. It does have the great line: “I never fucked Wayne,/I never fucked Drake,/my whole life man fuck sake/If I did, I’d probably ménage with ‘em/and make ’em eat my ass with a cupcake”, which has at least the same number of rhetorical devices as anything I’ve read from Yeats.