What’s the most important component in hip-hop? For some, it’s the finesse of the turn-up. Others celebrate the smoothness at which a hook is carried toward the stratosphere. Some dudes just enjoy the fashion. Ask Wu Tang’s GZA though, and he’ll give you an isolated answer: “At the end of the day”, he says, “it’s all about the lyrics”.
GZA speaks truth. Without lyrics, there would be no rap. They’re an integral component to the genre – more essential than throwback samples or the Roland 808 drum kit. But GZA isn’t here to state the obvious; he’s talking more specifically about rap’s relationship with spoken word. In an essay published a few weeks back titled “The Lost Art of Lyricism”, he tore into today’s hip-hop artists, bemoaning the current generation’s lack of lyricism. “Rakim… never talked about running up in the club and blasting dudes” – he says, holding the rap artists of 2015 up to the standard of hip hop’s Golden Age, in which artists like Big Daddy Kane, KRS One, and Chuck D provided the base plate for complex wordplay.
It’s easy to see where GZA’s coming from. On his celebrated verse from 1988’s “Follow the Leader”, Rakim never repeats a two-bar rhythmic pattern – which means the cadence of every couplet within the song’s all-you-can-eat metaphor buffet is different. Compare that to the millennial rap scene’s biggest hitters – a song by Migos that repeats the word “Versace” eighteen times; Kanye West writing couplets like “I wanna fuck you hard on the sink; after that get you something to drink”; one-hit wonders singing about their affection for “the co-co” or “cashing out” – and it’s clear the ingredients needed to make a celebrated hip-hop track have changed. It’s no wonder GZA is disappointed. The rap scene he was born into no longer exists.
GZA was born in 1966. By the time he’d experimented with cousins Ol’ Dirty Bastard and the RZA, released a solo album as The Genius, and put out Return to the 36 Chambers with the Wu-Tang Clan, the year was 1995, and he was 29. He’s been through rap’s infancy, when its core focus was on a rapper’s wordplay. Today, things are different. As hip-hop critic Jeff Weiss tweeted last month, the most anticipated rap albums of the year - by artists who primarily blew up because of their rapping talent - sound like albums by rappers who are actively trying not to rap: “Tyler wants to be a director. Kendrick wants to be a jazzman. Chance wants to be Jamiroquai. ASAP wants to be Hansel. No one wants to rap”. As rap has evolved, in some places its focus has shifted from who can spit the best bars, to who can release the most sonically lush, experimental projects. But in other creative provinces: bars still matter.
Two artists replied to Jeff Weiss’ comments on today’s rap landscape – Earl Sweatshirt and Mick Jenkins. “I do”, Earl Sweatshirt said, responding to Weiss’ comment that “no one wants to rap”, while Mick Jenkins asked, “What the fuck else I gotta do?”, seemingly upset that the potent literary symbolism of his mixtape The Water(s) hadn’t been picked up as much as it should have been. Both artists released some of the most cohesive rap records in recent memory – an opinion Weiss shares in the case of Earl Sweatshirt, later listing his recent release as one of the “three best rap albums this year” – and they’re not alone. There are a bunch of artists out there breathing life into “The Lost Art of Lyricism”.
Take, for example, Kendrick Lamar. When he released To Pimp a Butterfly this March, there was one common reaction: this album will take time to unpack. Sonically, the record sounds unlike a rap album. But in the couplets, most of which are still being debated on Rap Genius, there’s power held within the record’s lyricism. On “The Blacker the Berry”, Kendrick hits the beat with urgency, and his cadence fiercely pushes lines like “I'm African American, I'm African / I'm black as the heart of a fuckin' Aryan” to the forefront. Throughout the track he’s “as blunt as it gets” about his pride. But the song ends with a twist - the line: “Why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street, when gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!”. Regardless of your opinion on Kendrick’s standing regarding Trayvon Martin - of which there have been many - it’s a shocking line. Yet as Michael Chabon, the celebrated author, annotated on Rap Genius, the reversal at the end of the track makes the listener “consider the possibility that ‘hypocrisy’ is, in certain situations, a much more complicated moral position than is generally allowed, and perhaps an inevitable one”. Its the lyrics that make “The Blacker the Berry” one of the most powerful tracks in Kendrick Lamar’s back catalogue.
Meanwhile tracks like “How Much a Dollar Cost”, which narrates a chance meeting between Kendrick and God, and lines like the “Democrips and Rebloodlicans / Red State versus a Blue State / Which one you governin’?” couplet from “Hood Politics” - a concept potentially cribbed from Pat Justice’s 2009 track “Democrips and Rebloodlicans”, but a great line nonetheless - make strong use of wordplay, using it to tell vast, multi-layered stories. It's a theme that anchored Kendrick’s breakthrough, the vastly intertextual good kid, m.A.A.d city. Sure, the way Kendrick and other artists, ranging from Lupe Fiasco to Pusha T, use lyrics is different to GZA's Golden Age. For one, the beats are entirely different. The flow too, stands apart. There’s no rappity rap. Yet their lyrics, and their extensive army of techniques from metaphors to multis, still use words to draw attention to issues, conscious, political, and personal, with the same motive that’s always been behind rap music: to leave the listener with a message.
In the past, during the Golden Age, the OG hip-hop heads cared for deciphering an artist’s lyrics. Now, with websites like Rap Genius, and some of the biggest artists of the day releasing lyrically rich projects, even the most average of hip-hop fans are becoming more appreciative of lyricism - debating it in forums, shouting lines out in tweets and, in some cases, studying entire records as part of their college degrees. In his essay, GZA accepts this, writing “I’m sure there are great lyricists out there today”. But he back-turns. In “mainstream hip-hop, lyricism is gone. There are some artists out there that think they’re great storytellers, but they’re not. I haven’t heard the word 'MC' in so long; I haven’t heard the word 'lyrical.'”
It seems, then, that GZA is more upset with the changing tides. He concedes that the mainstream hip-hop artists of his day – Kurtis Blow, the first rap artist to be signed to a major label, or Sugar Hill Gang – were corny, but states they “had messages”. It would be senseless to suggest the mainstream songs from today, tracks like “No Flex Zone” or most DJ Mustard productions, have a message outside of turning up in the club, but that shouldn’t matter, because they’re almost a different genre to the brand of hip-hop GZA is talking about. Today, there are arguably two strands of mainstream hip-hop. The first, comes from artists like Kendrick, who release best selling albums. And the second is the kind that’s played on mainstream daytime radio. It’s that latter half, the sound that’s found in those turnt-up anthems, that GZA seems to be talking about when he addresses the mainstream. He’s right to say that lyricism has gone from that area because those sort of tracks barely count as hip-hop. The staples of the genre are the same - there’s a beat, there are rap lyrics, there’s often a hook - but it’s a very different sound, often devoid of a message.
We’re almost forty years past the first rap artist signing to a major label, and as such, hip-hop has split into splinter cells; some artists, the mainstream ones who are played on the radio, “don’t give a fuck” about a message, but equally there are many who care about the weight of their words. This doesn’t matter to GZA either, though. He’s upset the core values have disappeared; that people don’t talk about being an “MC” or being “lyrical” anymore. In GZA’s day, being lyrical meant rapping about your skill, and crafting the most intellectual rhymes.
Today, it’s different. There’s still the odd track, like Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” for example, where a rapper boasts about their skills, but possessing good lyrics no longer revolves around talking about being an MC. GZA bemoans a “Lost Art of Lyricism” in today’s rap because the world has changed. The original backbone celebrated by Golden Age artists like Rakim - being an MC and representing the five elements of that culture: graffiti, MCing, DJing, breakdancing, and knowledge - has disappeared. The philosophy behind hip-hop is different now, so it’s understandable GZA is upset – the landscape he grew up in, the ideals he subscribed to, have been put to the wayside. But that’s the way of the world. With all the knowledge GZA possesses, he should know nothing will ever be the same as those Golden Years; that culture never stays the same. At the moment, he’s an old dude shooing the young’uns off his lawn. But it’s worth him opening his eyes to see the new talent, masters, and poets, coming up. Because lyricism isn’t dead. As GZA says on “Liquid Swords”, “enter the chamber and it’s a whole new sound”.