Don't freak. We're just kidding.
Every year, people say hip-hop is dead, but every year it keeps expanding -- commercially, sonically. thematically -- pretty much in every way imaginable. Although the radio may lead you to believe otherwise, thoughtful, poetic lyricism is alive and well. This year's albums continued to push the boundaries of what is achievable in as much as an hour-plus album to as little as a single line. From new names like Ab-Soul to familiar ones like Lupe Fiasco, there was no shortage of poetic profundity, quick wit and unflinching honesty. Keep reading for a rundown of the top ten lyrics in hip-hop from this past year.
10. "Mercy" - Kanye West featuring Pusha T "Check the neck, check the wrist, them heads turning; that's exorcist. My Audemar like Mardi Gras; that's Swiss time and that's excellence"
Pusha T steals the show on one of the biggest hits of the year thanks in no small part to these lines. Though Pusha doesn't say anything substantively that hasn't been said a thousand times before, his images are so vivid and easy to picture that they stand out, especially on a mainstream song like "Mercy," which is meant to be easily consumed. Not to mention the effortless-sounding excorcist/excellence rhyme; Pusha makes it look easy.
9. "Bitch Bad" - Lupe Fiasco "Sure enough, in this little world the little boy meets one of those little girls, and he thinks she a bad bitch, and she thinks she a bad bitch. He thinks disrespectfully. She thinks of that sexually. She got the wrong idea; he don't wanna fuck her. He thinks she's bad at being a bitch like his mother."
Problematic though this song may be at times, Lupe brought to mainstream audiences a topic that has for years desperately needed addressing, Whether you agree with the conclusions that Lupe draws or not, the story he tells is compelling nevertheless. In his first two verses, he creates a context in which the "bad bitch" moniker operates for young boys and girls, respectively. Here, they meet -- or don't meet, as Lupe's narrative tells us, and the result is the discordant dynamic between the sexes that has manifested in the hip-hop community today.
8. "O Hail No" - El-P featuring Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire "Jesus turned water to wine. I turn liquor to u-rine."
Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire, if you couldn't tell from his name, is all about turning pretty things ugly. That's why this line works so well. He's taking the miracle that Jesus performed, undoing it, and indeed going even beyond that, by totally mundane, human means. So if you think about it, everybody is the antichrist just as sure as everybody poops. Thanks for that, Mr. Muthafuckin' eXquire.
7. "Righteous Minds" - Joey Bada$$ "I never knew the world could be this cold; only time a nigga die, he was playin' the role."
Punchline rap is often shallow and contrived, even when it's done fairly well. Here, Joey Bada$$ manages to construct a pun whose two meanings each have significance and which both tie into into a single powerful theme: innocence. This theme is set up by the opening line, which reveals Joey's ignorance of the evil in the world. On the one hand, the second line refers to fantasy as in movies or stories; the only death he had experienced had been in role-play. On the other hand, the second line refers to games and playing with dice -- again referring to childhood and immaturity -- making the pun that a "die" is "rolled."
6. "Terrorist Threats" - Ab-Soul "Peep the concept: You've got progress; You've got congress; We protest in hopes they confess; Just proceed on your conquest."
In these lines, Ab-Soul sets up a tension between the words "pro" and "con," and uses their connotations to inform the meaning of the words that use these two opposites as prefixes. First, he juxtaposes progress and congress as polar opposites. Then, he introduces a mediating factor, the "we," which assumes the positive role by using to prefix "pro" in their "protest," in hopes that the government will confess its ills. The last line is ambiguous, as it could apply to either the protesters or the government, and the "pro" and "con" labels don't obviously apply to either, confusing the whole issue.
5. "Sorry" - T.I. featuring Andre 3000 "And this that shit that'll make you call your baby mama when you gone on half a pill -- don't know why but that's how it is. Then you take a flight back to the crib, y'all make love like college kids, and you say all the shit you gon' do better. We can try this shit again. 'Round the time the dope wear off, you feel stupid, she feel lost. That's that dope, I mean, I mean dopamine; you think Cupid done worn off."
If sex is a drug, then that drug is Ecstasy, and there's a thin line between love and sexual fixation. The subject of Andre's story falls on the wrong side of that line when, misguided by this presumably figurative drug (it would take some powerful dope to last through a plane ride), he believes he is still in love with his ex. In a more sober state, though, both he and his ex realize that they did not fall back in love after all; they were tricked by their own intoxicating hormones.
4. "Money Trees" - Kendrick Lamar featuring Jay Rock "From the gardens where the grass ain't cut, them serpents lurking, Blood. Bitches selling pussy, niggas selling drugs, but it's all good.
Jay Rock uses the extended metaphor of the garden to explain the temptation of sin where he's from. For him, the garden is also literal: He grew up in the Nickerson Gardens Section 8 housing projects. It is poorly maintained, which makes it perfectly habitable for serpents like that which tempted Eve to original sin -- for him, the temptation is prostitution and drugs. And the the fact that he says it's all good makes the story all the more tragic; he's grown accustomed to it even though it very plainly isn't "all good."
3. "Tick Tock" - Danny Brown "Got the tongue of a pimp, raised by a dirty preacher that used the church money to cop a new Beamer. Got the heart of a child raised by a prostitute that bought his momma the rubbers when a John came through"
This line is like an onion; the more you peel away, the stronger it seems to get. There are just so many forces at work here. The two qualities that Danny finds in himself, basically charisma and perseverance, are typified by the tongue and the heart, the first of which comes from an assumed father figure, the second of which comes from a mother figure. And though these qualities seem to work to Danny's advantage, they are likened to those of somewhat dubious but somewhat redeeming characters: a pimp and the son of a prostitute. In this context, the relationship of a pimp to the son of a prostitute raises all sorts of issues about charisma, heart, masculinity, femininity and morality. The words are plainly stated, yet poignant, nuanced and evocative.
2. "Chum" - Earl Sweatshirt "Trying to make it from the bottom. His sins feeling as hard as Vince Carter's knee cartilage is."
Besides the impeccable sound of the second line, replete with assonance, consonance and internal half-rhyme, the desperate but pitch-black funny Vince Carter metaphor is so powerful. Earl speaks about trying to climb out of something dark, but the figurative weight of his sins is keeping him down like Vince Carter's old knees (Vince Carter could once fly like even Air Jordan couldn't). Earl takes something very abstract and makes it very real and visceral.
1. "Poetic Justice" - Kendrick Lamar "If I told you that a flower bloomed in a dark room, would you trust it?"
This single line basically encapsulates the concept of a good kid in a mad city, and it cuts into one of the most essential moral questions in human existence: Can good come from evil? The best part about the line, as is true of the best poetry, is that it doesn't answer the question it asks. For Kendrick's immediate purposes, he's the flower and the city is the dark room. The question is: Can you trust him?
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