02/01/2013 11:11 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

RAP: Rhythm and Poetry Lyrical Content

This is the second part of a series analyzing rap music.

Told her if she got an image and a gimmick
That she could make money, and she did like a dummy
Now I see her in commercials, she's universal
She used to only swing it with the inner-city circle
Now she be in the burbs licking rock and dressing hip
And on some dumb s**t, when she comes to the city
Talking about popping glocks serving rocks and hitting switches
Now she's a gangsta rolling with gangsta b****es
Always smoking blunts and getting drunk
Telling me sad stories, now she only f***s with the funk
Stressing how hardcore and real she is
She was really the realest, before she got into showbiz
I did her, not just to say that I did it
But I'm committed, but so many n****s hit it
That she's just not the same letting all these groupies do her
I see n****s slamming her, and taking her to the sewer
But I'mma take her back hoping that the s**t stop
Cause who I'm talking bout y'all is hip-hop

-Common, "I Used To Love H.E.R."

I began my rap music series in October by giving an overview of my thoughts on the genre through the years, highlighting particularly impactful rappers, and analyzing the pros and cons of the genre. Now, I will be examining the lyrical content: the metaphors, imagery, controversy, story-telling, etc. tells its own story about rap.

There's no better way to start than the stanza above, the final verse of Common's "I Used To Love H.E.R." When first listening to this song, most people think it's about a girl, but it's not. Common is telling the story of how hip-hop has changed through the years, and how it "sold out." Rappers use metaphors and symbolism to tell their stories because it makes the image more clear to us. How can Common tell a story about hip-hop changing from a loyal companion to a money-grabber? By using an example we can imagine more easily: a girl.

This verse is a prime example of the lyrical content of rap music because it is telling a story, using a controversial metaphor to spread a possibly controversial opinion. Common's words form in our minds as if we were reading a book -- rappers' lyrics tell us stories with their powerful imagery!

The question is whether these metaphors are morally correct. It's no secret that rappers commonly bash and disrespect women; the thing is, they are speaking from their experience. Common describes his views on hip-hop by using his experience with girls -- hopefully not all girls, but at least one girl with whom he's had issues. It may not be right to use girls as a metaphor for negative occurrences, but if that is the experience from which a rapper can pull descriptive and powerful emotions, then it has to be understood. He's not rapping about anyone else's experience. It's the rapper's metaphor, and therefore it is his opinion on both subjects he's comparing. However, the problem still remains: Why is it a woman who is spoken of this way, not a man? For all the dozens of lyrics aimed at women, there is less than a handful aimed at men in the wide, divisive culture of rap music. What about a young boy hearing all these lyrics, thinking these exaggerated portrayals of women to be the real deal, or a teen girl who believes this is the way she is expected to act? Some young people might see rap's often stereotypical and condescending view on women as reality. Despite the creativity and complexity of a rapper's metaphor, the listener must first engage critically with this kind of metaphor.

Till I collapse I'm spilling these raps long as you feel 'em
Till the day that I drop you'll never say that I'm not killing 'em
Cause when I am not, then I'mma stop penning 'em
And I am not hip hop and I'm just not Eminem
Subliminal thoughts, when I'mma stop sending 'em?
Women are caught in webs, spin 'em and hawk venom
Adrenalin shots, the penicillin could not get the illing to stop
Amoxicillin's just not real enough
The criminal cop-killing hip hop villain
A minimal swap to cop millions of Pac listeners
You're coming with me, feel it or not you're gonna fear it
Like I showed you the spirit of God lives in us
You hear it a lot, lyrics to shock
Is it a miracle or am I just product of pop fizzing up?
For shizzle my wizzle, this is the plot, listen up
You bizzles forgot, Slizzle does not give a f**k!

-Eminem, "Till I Collapse"

Rap music is filled to the brim with rhymes, alliteration and slang. For proof, look above: Every line is filled with a ridiculous amount of rhymes ("Day that I drop, say that I'm not;" Eminem even rhymes whole phrases together!). All of this rhyme, alliteration, and slang (shizzle, wizzle, bizzle, and slizzle, to name a few) separate rappers from the rest of the musical pack when it comes to lyrics.

Sometimes, rappers even insert themselves into their lyrics. Eminem describes his own style ("you hear it a lot, lyrics to shock"), accepts his fame ("till the day that I drop you'll never say that I'm not killing 'em"), and even mentions his questionable behavior ("women are caught in webs, spin 'em and hawk venom") all in one short verse! Another unique thing about rap lyrics is that they cover a variety of subjects in one song. Unlike other genres, rappers don't limit themselves to one topic in a single song, verse, or even line. Although this may seem distracting, this is just many rappers' eccentric and entertaining style.

I'm living in that 21st century, doing something mean to it
Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music
No one man should have all that power
The clock's ticking, I just count the hours
Stop tripping, I'm tripping off the power (21st-Century schizoid man)
The system broken, the school is closed, the prisons open
We ain't got nothing to lose, motherf***er we rolling
Huh? Motherf***er we rolling
With some light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands
In this white man world, we the ones chosen
So goodnight, cruel world, I'll see you in the morning
Huh? I'll see you in the morning
This is way too much, I need a moment

- Kanye West, "Power"

What in the world is Kanye even talking about? The many messages in this song (corrupted government, white man's world, people with too much power, Caucasians and Kelly Rowland, etc.) are a bit confusing and don't make too much sense when put together, but that may be the point. Lyrics that seem random or ridiculous may just be open to interpretation -- it's up to you to decide what Kanye truly means by 'power.' Is it he who has too much power? The white man's world? Someone else entirely? As the song progresses beyond the short verse, the creativity, scope, and epic scale increases until the powerful outro:

Now this will be a beautiful death,
I'm jumping out the window,
I'm letting everything go,
You got the power to let power go?

"Power" is also an example of the final component of rap's lyrical content that I'll analyze: exaggeration. Further increasing the epic feel of rap songs, exaggeration makes the story more exciting. "Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it"? Doubtful, Kanye. However, he embraces his attention-grabbing and arrogant persona; basically, he's a jerk to the world at large and he accepts it. All of this comes together to inform the song's lyrics -- there is creative symbolism, unbelievable rhyming skills, self-analysis, the dynamic stream of thought and epic exaggeration.

With its controversial metaphors, rhyming and alliteration, and vibrant thought, rap has captured another generation. While many think of it as a relatively new genre, it is actually rooted in a centuries-old history. But that is a story for another day...