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Rap’s Post-Lyrical Phase Pt. III: What’s the Point of Post-Lyricism?


First, before reading this or uh, in addition to reading this, go back and read the comments in the other two parts which totally take this discussion in places I hadn’t thought of or connected. My apologies for not being able to more actively engage the comments like usual, I was too busy buying comic books this weekend.

As suggested in the first part of this, the point of “post-lyricism”–whether it knows it or not–is a sort of total breaking away of “the Nas formula”. There are plenty of flaws in calling it “the Nas formula” (the formula certainly existed before Nas) but it’s also an easy way to communicate the kind of lyricism that’s both undeniably great and simply not happening as much anymore (certainly not on the radio) and not really working anymore either.

The word “formula” too, is used advisedly, not as any kind of slam against Nas, but to note the way the signs and signifiers of Nas and company’s type of rapping has devolved into a bunch of things you can do to get a lot of dumb people (which is most people and therefore, most raps fans, including “serious” hip-hop heads) to think you’re good or celebrate because it opposes say, Soulja Boy.

Certainly, it isn’t this simple and the assertion I’m about to make’s a little too cynical, but following or not following “the Nas formula” is in part, an economic choice. And not in the sense of rapping like Nas makes you “serious” and not rapping like Nas makes you a sell-out. In the current rap climate of declining record sales and all that crap, choosing to rap in one way or the other determines your rarified audience. Take someone like Immortal Technique, who no doubt, thinks he’s in the vein of Nas or something. His choice to be in some ways “throwback”, along with his contact, has given him a very specific and dependable audience of nostalgics and left-leaning rap fans (these categories of course, overlap a great deal).

When there’s some college open mic or when your favorite college radio rap show opens the phones for listeners to kick a free style, following “the Nas formula”, if you’re not completely wack, will get you a lot of love right off the bat. By following “the Nas formula” you court a small, but powerful and devoted groups of listeners that will like you. In many ways, “the Nas formula” is easier and safer too. Who knows where the hell say, T-Pain came from, but if you stuck him on any stage as an unknown, he’d get laughed the fuck off the stage! Now, that could be used as evidence that it’s absurd this rappa ternt sanga’s so big right now, but it also points toward the way very popular music is often weird and uncool before it’s popular.

Even the Soulja Boy-style fan of rap music, when confronted with “the Nas formula” in person or without the context of it being hot or not on MTV or the radio, will respond positively to this tried and true formula, because it’s still what kids do in middle-school when they’re “freestyling” with their friends. Of course, stick that freestyler in the studio with access to some real equipment, maybe some background singer girls, and corporate pressure to make a hit and he won’t make the next “It Ain’t Hard to Tell”.

The economic choice in rejecting “the Nas formula” isn’t really worth going over, is it? Slower, simpler, makes it easier on the ears, more crossover appeal, etc. etc.

While many would be quick to defend “Nas formula” rappers as not making so much of an economic choice, but as keeping it real or true, that argument or that simple argument rather, can’t be made for the post-lyricists. And no doubt, a lot of rappers (or “rappers” if you want to be a dick about it) adopt the post-lyrical style out of a lack of talent or creativity of patience, and while the tone of this makes Kanye and Wayne into hyper-innovators that they are not–as I said, they’re kinda hopping onto a trend, they just happen to be more famous–there is a sense that a whole bunch of rappers are simply not interested in doing “the Nas formula”. Whether they lyrically have the talent to do it or not is not the issue, at least for me. It’s probably true that Picasso couldn’t paint like Titian or some shit, but who cares and we save the discussion for ‘Post-Modernism in Art 101′ or some shit.

In many ways, “post-lyricism” can be stuck on Andre 3000. Certainly one of the brightest and more lyric-oriented rappers from any region, Andre’s also been pretty weird and out-there since the first Outkast album. Over time, he increasingly played with meter and rhymes and adopted a purposefully rambling, off-topic style, all while remaining, for the most part, conventionally “lyrical” or lyrical enough to not be labelled wack by anybody.

Take a listen to ATLiens, the album before Outkast got rock-critic “weird” and were just weird and an inarguable rap classic no matter where you’re from. Sure, it contains plenty of brilliant lyrical moments resembling “the Nas formula”, but it’s also got plenty of purposefully bad similes (“tight like nuts and bolts” from “Two Dope Boyz (In a Cadillac)”), or tangential near-non rhymes (“Elevators”). His recent “return” to rap, which some people perceive as “overrated”, dives further into these post-lyrical tropes and comes out at times awkward or weird, but always affecting.

The moments of conventional, “Nas formula” brilliance are punctuated by stranger rhymes, jokes, nonsense, and round-about ways of expression. From the conventional “lyrical” definition, Andre’s inconsistent, but all those inconsistencies and idiosyncracies are being used towards a greater point/message/feeling whatever and wouldn’t resonate half as much if he stayed within the bounds of “the Nas formula”. Take Ghostface’s work outside of the Wu since Supreme Clientele and you’ll find a greater breadth and depth of emotion than is found on even really real shit like “Tearz”. What those two greats did was take parts of “the Nas formula” and build upon it and occasionally, fall back on it.

Of course, you’ll get barely anybody complaining about Andre 3000 or Ghostface they way so many complain about Kanye or Lil Wayne, but their post-lyricism comes out of Andre and Ghost’s post-lyricism. It’s got even less to do with “the Nas formula” and therefore rhymes less and takes the lyrical carnival games and joke punchlines to even goofier places. And still, despite what their detractors say, Kanye and Wayne can still drop a brilliant line or verse and are quite good at moving from the obnoxiously dumb to the really poignant.

Worshippers of “the Nas formula” might call this inconsistent but that’s sort of the point. Additionally, there’s some added level of emotion to these lines because they’re dropped in between a lot of shit talk and cutesy douche-baggery. You’re caught in a loop of the latter two things for a bunch of lines or even a few songs, and then Wayne drops something like his domestic abuse reminisce in “Playing With Fire”–”Remember when your pussy second husband tried to beat ya?/Remember when I went into the kitchen, got the cleaver?”–or another obnoxious Kanye song about why fame and money sucks stumbles into a lyrical, almost like conventionally poetic line like, “You’re on the other side of the glass/Of my memory’s museum”. Because it’s not hot line after hot line, or even poignant emotional detail after poignant emotional detail, the ones they focus on have added weight.

In the past, I’ve called this “rap minimalism” and it works a lot like Minimalism as a music genre in general. Basically (and I’m super simplifying here), through repetition, the slightest variation takes on greater meaning or importance. Clipse are certainly rap minimalists–and sorta post-lyricists too–because they fall back on almost nonsense punchlines and repetitive material, but every once in a while, the guilt and world-weariness fumbling around in the background gets really clear for a verse or line. We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 2 is pretty much a whole album of post-lyrical tropes (although delivered in “the Nas formula”) until we get to Malice’s “All the money in the world…” verse on the last track, “Ultimate Flow”.

Young Jeezy, a more clear-cut example of post-lyricism, is pretty much not even rapping most of the time, so that when he does enter something resembling flow or reveals something, it means a lot more. For whatever reason, Jeezy’s “They lock us in cages/The same nigga that’s a star when you put em’ on stages” is something that more than one teenager has brought up to me as a line that made them think.

So, the point of “post-lyricism” outside of some general want to move away from “the Nas formula” is to in some way or another, take bits and pieces of “the Nas formula” and meld it with less tried and true lyrical formulas and create something new, which has the emotional resonance and effect that “the Nas formula” once had. There’s no denying that rappers of the “Nas” mold are simply not engaging new and younger listeners to rap, while Kanye and Wayne certainly are. And for all that’s annoying or terrible about them to dudes like me and most of my readers that grew up on “the Nas formula”, they are in their own way, as bizarre and rarified as any of those inexplicable Golden Era personalities that also had some pop appeal.

Written by Brandon

October 2nd, 2008 at 4:01 am

It’s How Phrase It: Andre 3000’s verse on ‘Royal Flush’

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Defenders of those less “lyrical” rappers fall back on the line that when it comes rap, “it’s not what you say but how you say it.” And there’s some truth to that, but lyrical rappers (lyrical does not mean stuff like Immortal Technique by the way) have to say it in a cool way too. That “how you say it” supposition forgets the fact that your favorite rappers’ favorite rapper probably says his lyrical shit pretty awesomely.

Rap’s always about “how you say it”, not in the sense that Jim Jones’ “swagger” makes up for the lyrical turds that fall out of his mouth (although they sometimes do) but rather, taking those extra few moments to properly present an idea makes all the difference. A tale of violence with the right kind of details is no longer another “I shot that dude” song. Scarface knows how to perfectly emote a line, Ghostface can tumble into a cry and then out into a full-speed ahead flow, and Rakim’s poise and confidence—that’s basically “swagger” by the way– perfectly reflect his terse rhymes.

But you already know all this. The reason for parsing out all this is because of the ongoing excitement and discussion about Andre 3000’s year-and-a-half slow build return to proper rapping. Maybe it’s because what Andre says is fairly obvious, but there’s been little discussion or focus on the content of Andre’s verses—especially odd, in light of the crazy and deserved fanfare for ‘Royal Flush’—and exactly what they are doing and saying. Part of it though, I think is because assholes like me spend a lot of time crapping on didactic rappers but are now crapping our pants about super-didactic Andre verses. If we got into the content of those verses, we’d look like big dumb hypocrities. Sort of.

Only “sort of” because what excites and endears so many to Andre’s verses, especially on ‘Royal Flush’ is Andre’s focused and purposeful word-choice, which rubs up against and in some ways, supports his purposefully off-kilter flow: it’s what Andre’s saying, how he spits it, and how he phrases it and that’s you know, the place where most good rap resides.

His lengthy verse on ‘Royal Flush’ is an especially interesting case of the what you say/how you say it divide because the verse is an exercise in style, and pointed, “conscious” rapper teaching. Not that those two things haven’t co-existed in rap before, but Andre’s past eighteen months of lecture raps occupy a weird place between that divide. Joey from Straight Bangin’ referred to it as Andre taking “a whimsical approach to some serious shit”, and he’s right. There’s a level of modesty and approachability to the way Andre chooses to say some “the teacher” type shit that doesn’t make the listener feel condescended to. Additionally, his instructions never fall-back on simple-minded answers.

Quite a few people have joked about how Big Boi and Raekwon drop a solid 16 while Andre rambles and fumbles for nearly half the song. Of course, that’s sort of the point. Big Boi and Rae come in quick and confident, Andre’s sort of stumbling and moving through his thoughts, trying to qualify and perfect his message as he says it. Andre’s verse is an experience, you’re traveling through his brain as he basically ponders some super-complicated shit about crime, what leads people to it, community, the double-bind of making money and lots of other stuff. Anyone listening who is angered by the rambling nature of the verse should recall the ‘Throw Some Ds’ remix where he talks about the “boys in blue” busting in and how “We act like we run track/Then we run straight to the back/But they’re coming from the back/So we run back to the front” which properly presents the chaos of running from the police and turns Andre’s rambling style into a physical description. Or think back to the song ‘Aquemini’ when Andre apologizes: “I’m sorry y’all/I often drift…”. One of Andre’s best assets is his disinterest in a tight 16 bars…

On ‘Royal Flush’, the rambling nature reminds me of some of the humanity and sensitivity one sees when they watch Barack Obama debate, as he pauses for a moment, or stops and dips back a few lines to correct himself, more interested in getting the exact thoughts in his head to the microphone than a quick political catchphrase (or hot line, if you will). There’s just a heightened level of awareness to Andre’s recent verses and even if it’s a little too self-conscious, it’s well-handled and sincere enough that no one should really be shitting on it.

One of the best word choices in when he discusses the oft-discussed nature of “the streets”—but it really applies to anyone who makes it out of any economically-fucked environment—and how “it’s unfortunate that if you come up fortunate/The streets consider you lame.” It’s some Andre wordplay, bouncing unfortunate and fortunate back and forth, but it’s also something of a response to the Jeezys and other rappers who rap about “haters” and have a very ME-centric take on why they’re no longer on the corner (their reason: I worked hard all by myself to get out). Andre’s calling his ability to move-out as “fortune” downplays his ego and points towards one reality of success that no one wants to face: A lot of it’s luck. Plenty of better rappers and better drug dealers never make it out and plenty of computer geniuses never become Bill Gates, you know? The concept of “luck” also undermines free-market and Capitalistic dogma about fairness and everyone having the potential that crack-rap further supports, but that’s a whole other post…

Andre also touches upon the other reality that hard-ass rappers like to pretend doesn’t exist: need. “Go show them that we’re more than slangin’ raw/That’s when I broke into my Big Rube impression/And I tried to enlighten/But that night I learned a lesson/That that morals that you think you got go out the window/When all the other kids are fresh and they got new Nintendo/ Wiis and your child is down on her knees/Praying hard up to God for a Whopper with cheese”.

Words like “hungry” and “driven” are just euphemisms for the more vulnerable word “need”. A word like “hungry” downplays the necessity of the thing well, needed, and makes it sound like something one has of their own accord, decided is important. It misplaces basic, vulnerable emotions and tries to pass them off as capitalistic desire. These words are really played around with in fun ways, by framing the contrast between those that have and don’t have through funny pop-culture references (the Wii, a Whopper). Maybe it’s a stretch but the use of food certainly feels like a direct reference and/or joke on rappers talking about how “hungry” they were for a record deal. Fuck a record deal, the kid in the song is literally hungry.

Andre The Teacher permeates the song but plenty of lines and that overall “whimsy” move it away from being an old-ass rapper bitching to you. The same way a curmudgeonly line like “Your white-T/Looks to me/More like a nightgown” (from the ‘Walk It Out’ Remix) is saved by being a totally killer battle-rap line, Andre’s attitude on ‘Royal Flush’ prevents it from being a simple indictment of “the system” and or justification of the drug-dealers’ complacent pseudo-protest. We hear songs all the time from dudes who got sick of the way things were going and had the balls (and amorality) to start dealing, but we’ve heard enough of them. Andre’s verse is for those people in the same position that have the morals (and lack the balls) to start dealing. The reality is, “the streets” are more filled with people like that.

He concisely and entertainingly nails the place that need and the desire to commit crime come from, but doesn’t totally justify it. Biggie half-parodied his desires (and needs) on the song ‘Ready to Die’ when he rapped “My mother didn’t give me what I want, what the fuck?” and here, by taking an outsider view, Andre further articulates those feelings by not (or no longer) having them. There’s no way of mistaking the Andre’s descriptions for his rap character, while Biggie’s balancing a persona, a critique, and confession. Generally, the complexity of Biggie is preferred, but there’s a brilliance to Andre’s near-third-person rap-narration.

Andre even as he partially stands above teaching the listeners, he takes a few swipes at moral absolutism (the bane of conscious rap’s existence) and adds some empathy by qualifying the line about the morals that one has as, “the morals that you think you got”. Often, people will phrase negative actions in the sense of abandoning their morals, but the reality as Andre points out is, those were only morals you thought you had. If you really had them, you wouldn’t have done it! That makes it sounds as if he’s critiquing these people but he’s not. What he’s doing is suggesting that no one actually has these morals all the time; we’re all apt to rob, steal, etc. if we need or think we need to do it to survive (or get a new fresh pair of shoes). It’s a complex and partially muddled sense of empathy, but that’s what empathy is in a sense.

Go back through your Outkast CDs and think of how many times in one way or another, Andre demands listeners to empathize, to put their feet in his or someone else’s shoes. These newer verses, particularly the instructive ‘Royal Flush’ are further extensions of the warm-hearted anger and teaching Outkast have always done. Recent lines and verses parallel past instructive lines and just make them a little more obvious, but kinder as well. “No wonder they call it the trap” he muses on ‘Royal Flush’ and it reflects the angered, possessed Andre who called-out on ‘Y’all Scared’: “Have you ever thought of the meaning of the word trap?”. His anger with file-sharing and fans’ misunderstanding of the music business is touched upon on the Devin the Dude ‘What a Job’ remix, but it first came up back on ‘Elevators’: “I replied, that I’d been going through the same thing that he had/True, I got more fans than the average man but not enough loot to/Last me to the end of the week/I live by the beat like you live check to check/If you don’t move your feet then I don’t eat/ so we like neck to neck”.

Most rappers, be their persona unfuckwithable drug dealer or all-knowing, angry, political emcee, stand above or away from their listeners and the average person. Note how in that ‘Elevators’ verse, Andre’s interests are more as to what he has in common with his fan than how he is different. This is the key to what makes the ‘Royal Flush’ verse so entertaining, affecting, and even thought-provoking. It does not stand away from its listeners, even when it’s teaching.

Written by Brandon

April 16th, 2008 at 8:21 pm

Posted in Andre 3000, Outkast