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Rhetoric and Rhyme: On Rap


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I’m into having sex, I ain’t into making love

So come give me a hug if you’re into getting rubbed.

50 Cent, “In Da Club” (2003)

Is there any couplet in the English language that so concisely spans the dizzying sweep of poetic possibility, the subtle gradations of sense illuminated in a few short words and the abyss of nonsense toward which we are ever drawn by carelessness and entropy? You don’t have to answer that. The answer is “yes, many.” I was making a point.

You’ve probably heard the stately bounce of “In Da Club,” at least ambiently. It was 50 Cent’s mainstream breakout single, and he mostly spends it surveying the fixtures of his nightlife: drinks and drugs, cars and jewelry, prospective lovers and pissy haters. If we’re meant to take anything away from the song, though, it’s that 50 is twenty-five percent hedonist and seventy-five percent hustler. So he puts the song to work for him, makes it tell us what he’s about, what he’s been through, who his friends are, how he moves through the world. After fifteen years of career ups and downs, flops and feuds, fluctuating wealth and implausibly diverse investments, it remains an indelible sketch of 50 at his fiftiest.

Now, generally speaking, 50 relies as much as any rapper does on similes, homophones, trick rhymes, and assorted other kinds of semantic misdirection. He once even described the name 50 Cent as “a metaphor for change.” Yet when you look closely, “In Da Club” contains almost no wordplay, no figuration, no trickery. When he says you can find him in the club, he’s not being evasive; if you’re looking for him, that’s probably where he’ll be. When he offers you ecstasy—“I got the X if you’re into taking drugs”—he’s barely even using slang. It is, and fittingly for the calling card of a no-nonsense street magnate, a bracingly direct song. Except there’s this one line, tucked memorably but unassumingly into the hook, a line you could in fact read as the very essence of 50’s no-nonsenseness:

“I’m into having sex, I ain’t into making love.”

It’s perfectly clear what he means by this: he doesn’t have time for romance. He’s not a player, he’s a hustler. No nonsense, all grind. It’s slippery, though, this little pinprick of character definition, how what it says sits at odds with the way it’s expressed. The distinction between having sex and making love is negligible biologically but critical sentimentally, after all—and here’s 50 using it to tell us how uninterested he is in sentimentality. Quietly but repeatedly, twice in each chorus of the song that introduced him to the global pop market as a hard-nosed hood kingpin, he’s framing his identity through language and idiom and metaphor. And finally, beneath the mythologies of money and sex, the beef and bullet wounds, what defines a rapper more intimately than his or her relationship to those things? And then there’s this: “So come give me a hug if you’re into getting rubbed.”

How do you follow such a pearl of rhetorical legerdemain as the sex/love line with that? This question haunts me.

It’s not wholly displeasing to the ear: the internal vowel rhyme is a nice touch, as is that third into binding the lines together. But what does getting rubbed mean? Does it mean being sexually serviced in crude, utilitarian fashion? Does it mean being murdered? Will 50 Cent kill anyone who touches him, or accept a tender embrace on the condition that it lead straight to intercourse? In either case, is the best word really rubbed, which is too mealy to sound threatening and too workmanlike to be sexy? What’s that conjunctive so doing there? What does this thought say about the previous one? How come I’ve never heard rubbedrubbed out and rubbed off and rubbed on, yes, but never just rubbed—anywhere else? What am I missing? How, a thousand times how, does the sly precision of the immediately preceding line wind us up at a ham-handed muddle like this?

No, you’re reading too far into it.

The point I’m making is that rap lyrics, even ones from such a poetically trivial source as “In Da Club,” contain multitudes of meaning, and also of nonsense, of possibility, of exquisite care and carelessness and carefreeness, sometimes all at once. If 50 Cent can be ingenious and metaphysical and clumsy and puerile in the space of twenty words, six seconds, just imagine what depths of inventiveness and complexity and contradiction abound within a lyrical tradition that will soon turn … fifty.

Yes, many.

Rap music serves, consistently, contagiously, sometimes in spite of its own claims to the contrary, as a delivery mechanism for the most exhilarating and crafty and inspiring use of language in contemporary American culture. This is true on a number of levels, from the political and the conceptual down to the phonological and the syntactic, but I’m particularly concerned with the semantic: with the creation and control of sense. It’s worth thinking about how rap means—how it can say both less and more than it appears to, depending on the way we listen; how it compels and challenges us to follow along; how it forges these vital, beguiling grooves of imagination and reality that lodge and blossom in our personal and historical memory.

***

Let a nigga try me, try me

I’ma get his whole motherfuckin’ family

And I ain’t playin’ with nobody

Fuck around and I’ma catch a body

Dej Loaf, “Try Me” (2014)

Try me, as Dej Loaf says it on the hook to the song of the same name, sounds to my ear like it rhymes with Charlie. So do family, which is accordingly something more like fahmly, and nobody, which I hear as pretty much standard. Once the verse starts, the first four rhymes are forty, macaroni, on it, and recording. There’s only one conventionally perfect rhyme in the song’s whole three and a half minutes—scoring with boring—unless you count nobody with catch a body, which is a remarkably flippant way to refer to murdering someone. There are slant rhymes and then there are sheer drops. It’s not that Dej Loaf can’t rhyme—anyone can rhyme—it’s that she gets more mileage here out of deciding not to.

With apologies to Tolstoy, all perfect rhymes are alike, each imperfect rhyme imperfect in its own way. Perfect rhyme tells us about a relationship between words that never changes; that scoring with boring is a rhyme you can find in a dictionary is useful but also, not to put too fine a point on it, boring. But rhyming family with body—that’s interesting. How does she do it? Why does she do it? Imperfect rhyme—slant rhyme, off-rhyme, near-rhyme, half-rhyme, lazy rhyme, deferred rhyme, overzealous compound rhyme, corrugated rhyme, what have you—illuminates something about the person creating it, about their ear and their mind and what they’re willing to bend for the sake of sound. It tells us what they believe they can get away with through sheer force of will, like how Fabolous rhymes Beamer Benz or Bentley with team be spending centuries and penis evidently just because he knows he can. Or:

I’m ridin’ through the metropolitan, everybody hollerin’

Me I’m just acknowledgin’ with this million-dollar grin

Shine like a halogen, cool as the island wind

I don’t judge myself but if I do I’d give my style a ten

“From Nothin’ to Somethin’ Intro” (2007)

That last line isn’t particularly memorable by itself, but as the culmination of a chain of rhymes that drift in and out of alignment with metropolitan, it’s riveting—all the more so because he ends it by awarding himself a perfect score for style rather than precision. Style is how he gets away with spending two bars repeating the same vowel sound—at least as I say those words—and then abandoning it altogether. Confidence is how he gets halogen to rhyme with island wind.

In a similar way, imperfect rhyme tells us how much effort a rapper is willing to appear to put in, whether it’s a little—

I’m in the bucket, paid two hundred for it

My lil’ niggas thuggin’, even got me paranoid

I’m gettin’ money, that’s in any nigga category

Double M, I got Gs out in California

Rick Ross, “Stay Schemin’ ” (2012)

—or so much

What you doin’ in the club on a Thursday?

She said she only here for her girl birthday

They ordered champagne but still look thirstay

Rock Forever 21 but just turned thirtay

 Kanye West, “Bound 2” (2013)

The former is from the Miami rapper Rick Ross, whose manicured Southern drawl—he says his last name as Rauwss and rhymes it almost exclusively with boss—goes only part of the way toward explaining how any of those end words could be aurally comparable. The latter is Kanye West, for whom obstinacy is as much an aesthetic principle as it is a personal liability. Both rappers are unusually fond of rhyming words with themselves, but for what scan to me as opposite reasons: Ross out of a sort of plutocratic lethargy, West out of pure insistence. Literary critic Adam Bradley, who calls forced cases like birthday and thirstay “transformative rhymes,” describes Kanye’s willingness to distort pronunciation on stylistic grounds as “the poetic equivalent of Jimi Hendrix using his amp’s feedback in his solo.” One pictures him standing before a perfect rhyme, stroking his chin, considering how best to perfect it by fucking it up.

Rhyme is the most powerful, least cerebral way I know to tap into that strange attraction words in close proximity exert on one another, what David Caplan, in Rhyme’s Challenge, calls “language’s need to couple.” By its form it sets up an expectation which, depending on how and when it’s met, can relieve you or surprise you, pull you forward in time or hold you in place: imagine if the last line of “Happy Birthday” had to rhyme with the birthday person’s name. Its internalized call-and-response dynamic gives it a sense of gravity, of purpose. It’s rhetorically means-justifying, so much so that researchers have documented a cognitive bias known as the rhyme-as-reason effect, according to which statements that rhyme are easier to pass off as true than ones that don’t. (See a 2000 Psychological Science report called “Birds of a Feather Flock Conjointly (?).”)

Which accounts, perhaps, for what I’ve come to think of as slant idioms: single-use figurations based on imperfect rhymes that are as oddly compelling semantically as slant rhymes are aurally. Take the Notorious B.I.G., for instance—who rhymed birthday with thirstay two decades before Kanye did—and who, while cautioning inexperienced drug dealers to avoid consignment arrangements, finds time to compact that old Postal Service credo (“neither snow nor rain or heat nor gloom of night”) into a crystalline synonym for no matter what:

If you ain’t got the clientele, say hell no

’Cause they gon’ want their money rain sleet hail snow

Biggie Smalls, “Ten Crack Commandments” (1997)

Or take Jay Electronica capping off a happily-ever-after snapshot with a two-word distillation of a wedding send-off:

Life is like a dice game

One roll could land you in jail or cutting cake, blowing kisses in the rice rain

“Exhibit A (Transformations)” (2009)

and the Chicago rapper Vakill tap dancing around dead:

Some niggas claimin’ that they can drop me, serve me

Got it topsy-turvy, so fuck around and wind up autopsy-worthy

“Keep the Fame (Remix ’01)” (2001)

These coinages don’t just sound good, don’t just make plausible sense: I find them seductively self-evident, dazzling in their novelty and sublime in their perishability. In the seconds between call-and-response, they create and immediately fill a space in the language. You can’t explain the difference between thirsty and thirstay, I don’t think, but you can hear it.

And who’s to say this isn’t proof of a deeper semantic magnetism that rhyme allows us to tap into? Not the rhyme-as-reason of “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” or “He who smelt it dealt it,” but the rhyme-as-redemption of 2Pac reassuring his mother:

And even as a crack fiend, mama

You always was a black queen, mama

“Dear Mama” (1995)

—which I hear as its own kind of transformative rhyme: one that acts, that performs, the way I confess and I now pronounce you man and wife are more than just statements. It’s not that perfect rhymes can’t accomplish the same thing, just that the imperfection is what makes it feel purposeful, personal, human when it happens. It’s in surmounting perfection, or ignoring it, that you show what you’re capable of and what you refuse to be told you can’t do, even if it’s just rhyming family with nobody and nobody with body. It shows what you hold to be equivalent and thus, in a sense, true.

“People say that the word orange doesn’t rhyme with anything, and that kind of pisses me off, because I can think of a lot of things that rhyme with orange,” Eminem tells Anderson Cooper in a 2010 interview. “If you’re taking the word at face value, and you just say orange, nothing is going to rhyme with it exactly,” he says. “If you enunciate it and you make it, like, more than one syllable—aw-rindge—you could say, like, uh: I put my orange four-inch door hinge in storage and ate porridge with Georidge.” (A bemused chuckle from Cooper.) This is just it: taking words at face value is what good rappers almost militantly don’t do. They find the blind angles, the shortcuts, the secret overlaps, and use them, sometimes, to build stunning models of invention and entente, spaces where small discords combine into larger resolutions and we see, hear, how boring it would be to live in a perfect world where like belongs only with like.

 

Daniel Levin Becker is a critic, editor, and translator from Chicago. He was an early contributing editor to Rap Genius. His first book, Many Subtle Channels, recounts his induction into the French literary collective Oulipo.

“Rhetorical Questions” and “On Rhyme” from What’s Good: Notes on Rap and Language. Copyright © 2022 by Daniel Levin Becker. Reprinted with the permission of City Lights Books.

 

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