Bars Don't Break: The Impact of Lyricism
We can point to a number of different aspects of Hip Hop and identify them as such, but there is an integral element maintaining the vitality of the music. Lyricism. It is the heart beating steadily in the body of hip hop to provide an opportunity for life to flourish across the various bounds of the genre. Soul, funk, and disco provided the structure with which to construct this amelioration of sound we call Hip Hop. Much like singing and scatting, rapping became the conduit for our emotional expression and sharing our oral history. Hip Hop not only reshaped the creation of music but it also reshaped the dynamics between instrumentation and vocal performance. Despite the ways in which Hip Hop evolves today, it is the wordplay, flow and delivery of our stories that sustain life within Hip Hop.
Initially, wordplay from our earliest Hip Hop classics were elementary. Messages were clear, the rhyme schemes were predictable, and the content focused heavily on social justice and economic unrest. There is beauty and power in simplicity. These bars were laid over loops of funk and disco basslines with straightforward drum patterns making it easy to follow along to the lyrics and move to the beats.
Subgenres like boom bap and conscious rap emerged in New York. Artists like Slick Rick, Rakim, and MC Lyte crafted stories over a myriad of sounds, with influences ranging from funk to electronic, using expert wordplay and inventive rhyme schemes. Across the nation, pockets of Hip Hop emerged and molded more subgenres like G-Funk out West, chopped and screwed in the South and gangsta rap in Philly by the mid to late 80s and 90s. What we all know to be the “Golden Era” of Hip Hop truly set the standard for what it means to be a rapper, a lyricist.
In 2006, Nas released Hip Hop is Dead, an album which provided his personal commentary on the climate of the industry at the time. Many new artists were breaking through the scene by unconventional means and the glaring difference of talent was in their rapping, or lack thereof. Nas’s seemingly audacious statement ignited debates and discourse but it was ultimately portrayed and received as generational differences or even envy. Presently in Hip Hop, the focus shifted again from lyrical ability to popularity. One could argue this is a part of its evolution, but at what cost?
Similarly in ‘06, new artists now engulf themselves in their own hubris assuming that their “talent” is of greater value than the fundamentals. Here is where generational differences can be blinding and chalking it up to the evolution of the genre is reductive. A rapper’s pen was one of the few keys that could open the door to the industry. Popularity alone cuts a career extremely short because trends are volatile and tire out quickly. It’s clear that many new artists rely heavily on gimmicks, antics, and nepotism to carry their names into rooms with tastemakers, including those artists before them that they choose to insult. Veterans in the game achieve longevity because lyrical aptitude was their foundation and this created space to establish different styles, delivery, and flow.
Along with skill, impeccable wordplay comes more easily for rappers that lived about what they wrote. Life experiences can naturally shape and mold talents that also reveal opportunities for success. One of the most iconic examples of this is the late DMX’s “Slippin’”, a chilling reflection about his mistakes and false starts. This song is remarkably cathartic and it is because of the truth and reality woven into the lyrics. I been through mad different phases like mazes / to find my way / And now I know that happy days / are not far away: this bar isn’t complicated but it is thoughtful and intentional. It conveys the specific message of how painful and obscure transformation can be: the dead ends, misdirections, and the paradox of fear and faith. Many new artists lack intention and lack identity so they’re “writing” from a place of emptiness, a place of smoke and mirrors that reveals their feigned talent once the smoke clears.
Hip Hop is an artform and it experiences these mercurial shifts that affect the ways it’s created and consumed. In the shift that occurred over the past five years, we witnessed an influx of rappers who don’t want to be rappers—the “rockstars”. They respect the lifestyle and access granted to them by calling themselves a rapper but do not respect the art itself or the pioneers who preceded them. These kinds of artists falter when it’s time to freestyle because it’s not centered around gimmicks and popularity but instead based on the fundamentals of the art. Popularity doesn’t possess the same stamina as talent. On its own, popularity is unsustainable and is a performance that doesn’t come from life and the love of the genre. Fortunately, we see a resurgence of indie artists, labels, and groups advocating for lyricism through the work they produce and represent. From the likes of TDE and Griselda to Freddie Gibbs and the late Nipsey Hussle, the climate is slowly shifting back to focusing on bars.
Last week’s Verzuz featuring The Lox and Dipset beautifully depicted the value and sustenance that lyricism provides. Those of you who assumed Dipset would wash The Lox because of their cultural influence forgot that an integral part of the culture is lyrical ability. It’s undeniable the chokehold that Dipset and Harlem in general had on Hip Hop but the primary reason was less about the wordplay and more about the lifestyle. The Lox didn’t carve out their place in Hip Hop by achieving super mainstream stardom, it was talent. Staying true to their lives and continually honing their craft kept them equipped to adjust to the ebb and flow of Hip Hop’s changes. They are one of the few groups who are standing the test of time and individually have impressive catalogs.
The value of a sharp tongue is priceless. Knowing how to rap can either be an artist’s saving grace or their Achilles’ heel. Modern mainstream Hip Hop artists, and media alike, may attempt to undermine the necessity of lyrical skill but it is the lifeblood of this art form. Some new artists do the most to distance themselves from the term “rapper” and hide under the guise of not being pigeonholed into a sound. This is disingenuous and frankly, it’s to bypass the fact they are unable to rap. How have we allowed one of the major components in the art of Hip Hop become optional?
It is not solely up to consumers to enforce quality control but it is a collaborative effort between consumers, media companies, record labels and musical organizations. Remember industry rule number 4080. Major labels set the trajectory for new artists often centered around profit and this initiates a cycle where the quality of music is secondary to the quantity and opportunities for profit. Artists that flow against the grain of their projected career set by these major labels often face repercussions like less press, less opportunity, and are eventually mismanaged then dropped.
Here at Bars On I-95, we recognize the power and depth of the spoken word. Lyricism isn’t exclusively for entertainment. It is also the channel through which we exchange our versions of life, our pain, our joy, our anger, our sadness and our love for ourselves and our communities. It is a complete disservice to write off lyricism as an aspect of the past as it is the mastery of language that keeps the fire of Hip Hop blazing with glory.