If you’ve ever been around me for forty-five seconds or more, you know that she be to chocolate like I be to rap. I want to have conversations about rap all the time, give or take a few minutes in the day. Sometimes it’s over something big, sometimes it’s over something small. I like rap so much that I feel like saying “RAP MUSIC!!!!” is a coherent way to say “This song bangs.” I’m painfully earnest on this subject to an absurd extent.
So here are some loose thoughts on rap, because sometimes all you have is an idea, not an essay:
A lot of my love of books, and crime (or crime-inflected) stories specifically, comes from how basic acts, usually acts of violence, are turned into something more poetic or interesting than the flat statements like you’d see on the news. I really like this thing I read in Charlie Huston’s novel Skinner, his latest release: A single bullet that perhaps goes in one ear and out the other, like a complicated idea quickly dismissed for the effort it requires.
There is an elegance there that works really well. The mental image of a thought considered and discarded is a peaceful one, while a bullet passing through a head is anything but. But there’s a middle ground in there that makes the line sing. It’s very vivid and easy to imagine.
I get the same feeling out of that line as I do out of this sort of line, from Fabolous’s “Can’t Deny It” off the album Ghetto Fabolous: When the time’s right, I’ma put this nine right/ to the left side of your head, push ya mind right.
There’s a parallel in there that I really like. I feel like the rappers who are best at this sort of rap tend to be talented at creating innovative threats and boasts. Being direct is all well and good, but eventually you’ll have to make another song and you can’t reuse your old stuff. So rappers get creative, and that’s where they start to shine.
Shyne’s “That’s Gangsta” is another crime song I like a lot. Where Fab doubles down on his punchlines, winks, and sly grins, Shyne opens his mouth and a flood of apocalyptically nihilist lyrics come flooding out. He flips Rakim:
I got a question as serious as cancer
Where the fucking safe at? Somebody better answer
Got dead gangstas rollin over like, “Yo, this nigga cold”
The way he cut his coke, his murder game, to his flow
Mac-10s, crushed rocks, and drops
The best respect the feds only—cops
Riches my only reason for being, shit
I never had hope until I sold dope
So yeah, this song made an impression on me. The beat is memorable, too.
What got me earlier today, though, was hearing the sample on that beat on a new song. The sample’s Foster Sylvers’s “Misdemeanor,” and it’s been sampled more than a few times. I’ve heard it in other songs, but not in years, so when it popped up in a song called “Love Traps,” off Pete Rock & Camp Lo’s 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s 2, I sat up and paid attention.
It actually took me a second to figure out where I knew the sample from, since this song is pretty far from “That’s Gangsta” in sound, lyrics, and approach. But I kinda dig it, so I went digging.
There’s a neat symmetry in Shyne flipping that Rakim line on “That’s Gangsta,” because Eric B, of the legendary Eric B & Rakim, made a song called “Love Trap” back in the day.
And from here, I could easily fall down a rabbit hole. I could make an infinite number of connections from song to song, taking my own constantly shifting trip down memory lane, with just this at my base. Rakim leads to lyricism, which could loop back around to Fabolous (he’s nice) or anywhere basically, and from there, I could go anywhere. It’s all connected.
I tried to write an essay earlier this week about this RA the Rugged Man song, “Lessons.” It’s a catalog of things Rugged Man has experienced, from labels telling him to find a black dude to rap with to knowing Norah Jones before she blew up. Rugged Man is a talented dude, so even though this song is seriously just a series of one- and two-bar anecdotes, it still manages to be not just coherent, but pretty fascinating.
I couldn’t make the essay work, but I was going to focus on this line: I don’t want fans that don’t know who G Rap is.
At the time, I took it as Rugged separating the real from the fake, and I was into it for that reason. ’cause, you know, fake rap fans are annoying, and they probably didn’t even listen to real hip-hop, and several other equally tiresome thoughts. I’m older and smarter and hopefully less annoying now, and I still like the line, though I read it much differently.
It’s about curiosity and history to me now, about being in a constant state of learning about the music and culture. It’s not a requirement—I won’t hold out the “You Must Be Able To Name Three Big L Songs To Vibe” signs for now—but it enhances the experience of listening to rap so much to know a little bit about a little bit.
I talk and think about context a lot in terms of criticism or social issues, but it’s true of even something as culturally neutral as “music.” Connecting those dots is so much fun (I’ve done it before on here) and so enlightening that I can’t imagine listening to rap and not wanting to dig in. Things branch out to weird places, songs show up in weird places (remember the Numa Numa song? Just Blaze, TI, and Rihanna sure did), and sometimes you discover people who are right up your alley, despite being before your time.
Here’s Big Daddy Kane and Big L rapping together (kinda) on “Platinum Plus”:
They used this Big L verse on Lyricist Lounge Volume 2, sans Kane. That’s a shame, because Kane says this:
If you block the cash, we locking ass
I’ma put it in your chest like a Stockton pass
Only out to earn figures like we please
But I don’t mind to burn niggas like CDs
Now: exhibit, styles I kick with it
[*COUGH*] Pardon me, but I’m fuckin sickwiddit
Got me fanning myself like I’m in church over here.
Here’s Big L and Kool G Rap getting it in on “Fall Back”:
More head from chickens, it’s time to turn the ape loose
Bust out the cage and let the gauge loose
Blow the feathers out of your North Face goose
It’s G Rap coming back with a clique of brave troops
Have y’all niggas running for home base like Babe Ruth
Have you holding holes in your body like you play flute
Lay you down til you get found up in the sprayed coupe
Prepare for the takeover—give you the face makeover
The seat of your Rover, sheet draped over
Be found on the block with the street taped over
or comin out of deep coma, your speech made slower
What I like about G Rap is that he raps like this pretty much all the time.