The Language of Hip-Hop: a lot more than ‘ass’

There’s a lot more to Hip-Hop lyrics than some of the biggest hits let on. Nathan takes a look at their socio-linguistic depths.

Okay, so we live in a world where Big Sean can release a song called “Ass”, where the lyrics consist mostly of just that word. Granted, if you’ve been paying attention to Top-40s hip-hop for the past couple of years you would have already experienced The Black Eyed Peas‘ “I’mma Be”, but that hasn’t saved me from the bemusement I feel regarding “Ass” being a song that actually exists.

For those who were on the opposing side of the Rock vs. Rap petty dichotomy during the 90s and early 2000s, the stupidity of “Ass” is something ‘expected’ for the world of Hip-Hop. At surface level (i.e. that awful club you and your friends go to, you know the one), Rap and Hip-Hop exclusively consist of self-aggrandizing and partying hard; designed to move your feet, but not move you.

Of course, that’s never been the whole story Hip-Hop as an initial concept was heavily focused in telling stories of day-to-day life and struggles; but very little of that sentiment seems to escape outside the bubble of long-established fans of the genre. It only takes a little digging to strike a vein of honest insight and clever topics packaged up in dope rhymes and sick beats.

Taking on the idea that a lot of old-school Hip-Hop had an aim to inform – it might not be too out there to think of some works as educational. And why not? Just because the information imparted is set to some 808s doesn’t mean that it’s not valid. I don’t see there being a University course entitled “Hip-Hop and Philosophical Theory” any time soon (though I would definitely take it if such a thing existed); but academic insight can become apparent in unlikely ways.

I’m presently doing a linguistics degree, my personal area of interest is Language and Identity. Consider for a moment, the concept of ‘Authenticity’. It’s where you (consciously or otherwise) affect your speech so something about you is more obvious to the people you’re speaking to. I for one, take pride in my Londoner accent. And upon listening to “Country Cousins” by Talib Kweli, he became a really good example for me to cite:

I walk and talk kinda fast and thought of as a New York kinda rhymer

But most New Yorkers got family in South and North Carolina

L.A. is ‘Little Alabama’

They walk and they talk with a country grammar

And you think everybody else sound country

So they started callin’ ’em ‘Bamas

It’s not every day that you’d expect someone to spit lyrics about sociolinguistics, but more than that, it’s something interesting and relevant.

Lupe Fiasco definitely has a corner marked out for sending a message, his second album, The Cool, was all about how a careless pursuit of a gangsta lifestyle, the titular Cool, was nothing but destructive. Not that you would know that from listening to the single that made it to the radio, “Superstar” struggled to pull that kind of sentiment.

Even with his most recent album, Lasers, the public saw Lupe at his self-confessed low-point – “The Show Goes On” was not the kind of story he wanted to tell. Instead, the cleverest track was buried away as a Bonus track – “I’m Beamin'”:

You see I hood a lot, and yeah I nerd some

Hood’s where the heart is, nerd’s where the words from

Don’t represent either, because I merged them

While I can’t relate to a self-hype song about fat stacks of cash, I can definitely feel where Lupe’s coming from when he says he’s never stopped being a nerd, and how that’s never held him back in anything. It’s a message that a younger me really could have done with. Maybe not in the same way that Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up” and its messages about respecting women (why wasn’t any of that taken on board?); but still a sentiment worth hearing.

What’s more, I definitely need to give credit to indie hip-hop; running parallel to the grimy rap battle scene that was rendered as oh-so-glamorous in 8 Mile (ahem), are the artists heading for the socio-political angle. Since, deep-down rapping was never too distant from Beat Poetry, entirely powered by heartfelt social commentary. Take, for example, Akala, and his track “Find No Enemy”

But I don’t even believe my own prayers like you,

Chasing career going nowhere like you,

Lost in a fog of my own insecurities I hold myself up as a image of purity,

And I judge everybody else by the colour of their skin or the size of their wealth

But it’s not good for my health as the only one I ever really judge is my self

His flow goes everywhere, from social standings to self-reflection to what it means to be “urban”. He accepts and vocalises his flaws, and he really comes across as human and an equal. That it’s backed up with some deft lyricism and an arguably unusual choice of alternative rock instrumental style makes a track like this memorable; and the messages he imparts along with it.

The scope of socially-conscious and educated artists out there is vast, way more than I can reasonably describe here. So to give a starting point to those who want to find out more (and to hopefully appease the Hip-Hop fans whose favourite artists I’ve missed), give these a try:

Shad – Question Marks

Kenyan-born and living in Canada, Shad’s début album When This is Over is packed full of personal insight. “Question Marks” stands out as a favourite, a downtempo piece discussing the nature of God from a Christian perspective, and how the Bible is interpreted. It’s not necessarily an opinion I can agree with, but he makes a fair case.

Del tha Funkee Homosapien – Del’s Nightmare

Ever heard “Clint Eastwood” by the Gorillaz? Many people heard about Del that way, though he was also part of the rap group Heiroglyphics, and did a concept album as Deltron 3030 about cyberpunk cities (a must-listen for any Sci-Fi fan). His 1998 album, Future Development has “Del’s Nightmare” discussing 1850s slavery, and then making a sarcastic comparison to the music industry. Cheeky, but thought-provoking.

Khaled M –  Can’t Take Our Freedom

Previously interviewed on The Phonograph, Khaled M is a Libyan-born rapper, and an activist in Libyan politics, using his music to reach out to youths, and those who otherwise wouldn’t know the problems going on. His collaboration with Lowkey, “Can’t Take Our Freedom” is punchy and motivational, and made a significant contribution to the revolution.

Pete Philly & Perquisite – Hope

This duo from Amsterdam brought a lot of Jazz and Soul elements into their Hip-Hop beats; Perquisite is an accomplished cellist and regularly used entire string sets in his work. In the track “Hope” from the album Mindstate they team up with Talib Kweli to discuss that, although politics and businesses can be corrupt or greedy, the public still has the ability and the spirit to not just take things as given and work towards better.

Hip-Hop as a genre isn’t confined to being disposable party anthems, nor does it only exist as a soapbox for rappers. There are definitely days where I will put on Notorious B.I.G’s “One More Chance” and giggle like a schoolboy at how he has a 4-minute song entirely about his penis. But the more thought-provoking songs and artists out there could do with more time in the mainstream spotlight, so we can all have more social analysis, and less “Ass”.

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4 thoughts on “The Language of Hip-Hop: a lot more than ‘ass’

  1. Great post! I don’t listen to as much of today’s artists as I would have when I was younger, but when I do hear some of what’s out here today on the mainstream market, I just wonder “how” and “why” and “what”. The artists that you include in your blog have some refreshing messages, other than the typical usually negative and mindless messages which are popular on the airwaves today. Lol…what I’m saying is probably what my grandma’s generation were saying about what we were listening to back in the day, though 😉 It would be nice though to have more thought-provoking and positive hip-hop and R&B get some exposure.

    • Haha yeah, my father finds some of the music I listen to pretty out there too. There is a lot of great hip hop out there, and its a shame they don’t get the exposure the money-making party tunes, so its always good to spread them out to people who wouldn’t have come across them before.

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