Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The evolution of rap lyrics

The Anthology of Rap allows us, over the course of its more than 800 pages, to watch the long herky-jerky evolution of the genre. We begin with rap’s birth in the primordial soup of the Old School, a late-seventies swamp in which single-cell rap organisms floated around calling to each other in long strings of pre-lexical nonsense syllables. “Told you ’bout the ding-d’-d’-ding-d’-ding-dingy-ding,” rapped Ikey C, to which the Sugarhill Gang responded, “Baby-bubba to the boogedy-bang-bang the boogie,” to which Sequence retorted, “I said I hip-ma-jazz and a raz-ma-jazz,” at which point DJ Hollywood interjected, “Hip-hip-the-hop, the hop, the hop / Dippy-dippy dip-dip-dop.” Early rap was mainly an avant-garde way to get people to dance at parties; its lyrics were never intended to be transcribed and studied. Today they read like nursery rhymes, or the kind of verse John Keats once criticized as “rocking horse” poetry: simple couplets, religiously end-stopped. (“And the way she moved was like a graceful swan / And we can make love to the break of dawn.”) Reading 100 pages of it made my brain numb. ...

In 1986, Run-DMC made rap a mainstream phenomenon, and then the innovators moved in. Rakim, whose flow was so powerful it would earn him the nickname “God MC,” introduced rhymes within lines instead of just at the ends of them: “The melody that I’m stylin, smooth as a violin / Rough enough to break New York from Long Island.” Big Daddy Kane started playing with multisyllabic rhymes, pairing Tylenol with why you all and vasectomy with wreck with me. Suddenly rap sounded recognizably modern:

The wrath of Kane, takin over your circumference / Destroyin negativity and suckers that come with / The weak, the wack, the words, the poor / I thrash, bash, clash, mash, and then more / Blow up the scenery, I reign supremer, see / You need a savior to save ya, so lean on me

...

Based exclusively on my reading of The Anthology of Rap, who is the best rap lyricist of all time? (Please note that this is a very different question than “who is the best rapper of all time?”) ... [M]y shortlist for the best ever comes down to just six: Big Daddy Kane, Jay-Z, Eminem, Canibus, Chino XL, and Lupe Fiasco. These are the rappers who dazzled me most consistently with the density of their ideas and wordplay and imagery. I could make a strong case for any of them. If I had to choose just one, though, I’d go with Big Daddy Kane: He towers, for me, over rap’s other early innovators (Melle Mel, Rakim), he was still around to outrap 2Pac and Biggie in a freestyle in 1995, and his fingerprints are all over today’s best lyricists.
--Sam Anderson, New York, on the best rappers on paper

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