Waka Flocka Fact Check: Why Lyricism (still) Pays in Hip-Hop

Posted on March 3, 2010 by

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LYRICS LYRICS LYRICS.

Lyrics are a huge topic in hip-hop. Not only are they responsible for much of the criticism that hip-hop receives, but lyricists have really come to define the entire genre. And now, the issue of lyricism and its role in hip-hop has become a hot topic of debate.

If you haven’t yet heard, unfortunately-named rapper Waka Flocka Flame recently came out against lyricism in hip-hop, saying, “I don’t got no lyrics…The niggas who they say is lyrical, they ain’t got no shows … that ain’t finnin’ to get you no money.”

Let’s talk about this. Anyone who knows their hip-hop history recognizes that before rappers and rapping, there was MC-ing. Sure, rapping’s roots can be traced back to African tradition, but within the context of hip-hop, rapping was a secondary phenomenon.

Initially, hip-hop was DJ-only game; records were manipulated to create drum loops, breakbeat repetition, and general dance-inducing beats. As DJ parties became more popular, DJs would recruit friends or fans to get on a mic (or, as in Kool Herc’s case, a DJ  would rock the mic himself). They would rhythmically talk up the DJ’s skills or amp up the crowd, but they were always secondary to the DJ. Essentially, an MC was a DJ’s proverbial sidekick.

As the popularity of hip-hop and hip-hop crews grew, the competitive element kicked in. Just as DJs battled, so did MC’s strive to be the best at their craft. They evolved from hype-men to performers in their own right as their mic work became sharper, more innovative, and yes, more lyrical. Eventually, MCs became rappers, and rappers became the central element of a hip-hop crew.

Cut back to Waka Flocka and this whole “lyricism in hip-hop” debate.

Now, I may be simplifying things, but… shouldn’t rappers be… I don’t know… good at rapping? I mean, back in the 1970’s, MCs wouldn’t have risen to the premier position in hip-hop if they weren’t displaying some serious lyrical chops. It’s because of their ability to manipulate language in a dynamic, entertaining, and adroit way that they surpassed the DJ as the front-man of hip-hop. And for me personally, hip-hop lyrics are a main reason why I got into, and love, hip-hop. Not only do they provide a window into the very real and very personal experiences of the artists that spit them in a way that no other musical genre does, but hip-hop lyrics can provide an intellectual stimulation (both in content and tonality) that I find totally enthralling.

But I can’t hate on Waka – he’s not the first hip-hop figure to suggest that the majority of our contemporary hip-hop audience isn’t interested in lyrical dexterity. Remember Jay-Z’s infamous lines on “Moment of Clarity”? “I dumb down for my audience/ and double my dollars… If skills sold/ truth be told/ I’d probably be/ lyrically/Talib Kweli”? And in this heyday of ghostwriting, autotune, and SouljaBoyTellEm’s silly, silly dance, it’s not far-fetched to consider that maybe hip-hop audiences don’t care about thought-provoking, honest, and clever lyrics.

But I do have to set Waka straight on one thing. So-called “lyrical rappers” are short on neither shows nor money. If you look at Forbes’ list of the 20 top-earning hip-hop artists of 2009, you’ll see that it’s dominated by rappers who are known as premier manipulators of the English language. Eminem — who is considered by many to be the paragon of lyrical ability — not only features on the list at #10, but has the distinction of being the best-selling act (across ALL musical genres) of the past decade. Lil’ Wayne, who ostensibly is the hottest MC in the game right now, got to that position by becoming more lyrical, not less so.   No, you don’t have to be a multi-syllabic, alliteration-attentive, metaphor-manipulating lyricist to make money in the rap game. But it certainly doesn’t hurt.

So, Waka (can I call you that?), it’s totally cool if you don’t really aspire to anything greater than lyrical mediocrity in your career as a rapper. But if you’re only in it for the money, there’s sufficient evidence suggesting that this attitude might be financially holding you back.

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