I’m going a different route this week. My normal “TWIHH” will return next week.
Let it be known, first and foremost, that I love lyrical music. I love being able to think on a bar or a verse and come up with several annotations on it. I enjoy learning something with the lyrics I hear. And, obviously, I love to impart wisdom through my own bars. It’s partly why I love sites like RapGenius. But, A few years ago, Waka Flocka (Flame)–now of Love and Hip-Hop Atlanta (see, it’s still kind of related to current events)–said that “nobody wanna hear that damn dictionary rap.” This interview may be a bit NSFW, so viewer discretion is advised.
But is he right? Do we, as artists and fans, want to hear more simplistic lyrics or something that sounds like it’s taken from a graduate school-level philosophy textbook? Do we want “smart rap” or “dumb rap?”
It’s a question I’ve thought of a lot as an artist. Let’s dissect a bit. Some of these so-called “dictionary rappers” will spit bars that are mechanically impressive, but stunted. Why? They get so wrapped up in proving their knowledge, they start to lose the audience (“intellectual” or otherwise). I’ll probably get a lot of flack for this, but a prime example of this is Canibus. While he pulls references to Greek mythology, space-time, and so on out of thin air, he doesn’t really say or do much with it outside of a simple simile–or rattle off alliterative lyrics for the sheer fact that he can. Case in point: his 2010 track “Pine Cone Poem” from C of Tranquility.
All in all, the song refers to an elevated state of mind, but that sometimes gets lost in his tangents. This sort of “anti-‘mainstream'” lyricism has created some great lyricists. ‘Bus, even with his flaws, is head and shoulders above some of his contemporaries. When he’s making sense with his lyrics, of course. Inversely, because so many so-called “underground” artists are quick to embrace “anti-mainstream” philosophies and approaches, we get a bunch of artists that feel that this sort of thing will get them noticed.
They’ll rattle off alliterative, multi-syllabic lyrics such as this (and these are real bars I’ve heard):
“My animalistic atrocities, rock these ‘metamorphosized’ philosophies/
Like the eye of Horus, explore this, man-made camaraderie.”
Again, it’s a nice couplet, in terms of thinking outside the box. It’s dope in regards to the wordplay and the twisting of words. But, intellectually, it doesn’t make much sense. It’s fundamentally flawed.
The Eye of Horus is representative of the “third eye,” if you believe that sort of thing. If you’re elevated mentally, you’ll not have animalistic tendencies, much less commit animalistic atrocities. Also, the belief of the Eye of Horus being representative of the “third eye” is, in itself, a man-made philosophy. It’s derived from “metamorphosized” thoughts, new age wisdom and healing, and anti-“Illuminati”/pro-awakened mind teachings and thought processes (also presented in the above Canibus song). Hell, try spitting that in a verse. You’ll possibly outrap the beat and sound incompetent. You’ll force it out and it’ll sound unnatural, flow-wise.
In other words, if you really think about some of these dictionary bars, they’re worse than a rapper that spits “ignorance.” Even if it’s not elevated or “smart”, something like: “I rock the boat…Aaliyah/Mess with me, I got the Eagle on ‘heat seaker'”still makes sense on a fundamental level.
So is “dictionary rap” or “super smart rap” bad?
Simply put, no. It’s fun and impressive to think of new, outside-the-box ways to speak your thoughts. But, too much of a good thing is a bad thing. If you sacrifice common sense for squeezing a million tangent-worthy microthoughts into a verse, you’re performing a disservice to hip-hop. If you’re focusing more on your rhyme schemes than what you want to say, you’re performing a disservice to hip-hop. If you’re an artist and you want to get on/get noticed, be sure you know the basics before you start rattling off so-called “smart rap.” If you don’t, you’ll look dumb.
As artists, we always want to make ourselves better than the people out there. But, if you lose focus of the fundamentals, you’re screwed and destined to be clowned for it. Don’t dumb down, but don’t try to be overly smart and just sound like a jacka** when it’s all said and done. It’s all about balance, people. You can be “smart” and not alienate, just like a person could spit “dumb” rap and have it so lyrically impressive.
Not too many artists have this, though. But, as always, that’s just my opinion.