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Lyric Analysis – “Hip Hop” by Mos Def, Verse 2

A while back I did a Lyric Analysis of the first verse of Yasiin Bey’s (formerly Mos Def) “Hip Hop”, one of my favorite tracks on my favorite album from one of my favorite artists. Today we’ll return to the second song from Black on Both Sides for an analysis of his second verse, digging further into Hip Hop’s complicated nature as Yasiin sees it.

Hip Hop is prosecution evidence
An out of court settlement
Ad space for liquor
Sick without benefits (hungh!)
Luxury tenements choking the skyline
It’s low life getting tree-top high
It is a back water remedy
Bitter and tender memory
A class E felony
Facing the death penalty (hungh!)
Stimulant and sedative, original repetitive
Violently competitive, a school unaccredited (there it is)
The break beats you get broken with
On time and inappropriate
Hip Hop went from selling crack to smoking it
Medicine for loneliness
Remind me of Thelonius and Dizzy
Props to B-Boys getting busy
The war-time snap shot
The working man’s jack-pot
A two dollar snack box
Sold beneath the crack spot
Olympic sponsor of the black Glock
Gold medalist in the back shot
From the sovereign state of the have-nots
Where farmers have trouble with cash crops (hungh)
It’s all-city like Phase 2
Hip Hop will simply amaze you
Praise you, pay you
Do whatever you say do
But black, it can’t save you

 

Throughout this verse and the first as well, Yasiin follows a thin line between praising Hip Hop and pointing out its faults. It’s a song of dichotomy, of explicating the complicated species of a genre grown from minority and poverty finding economic and social success. That polarity, between praise and indictment, creates a fantastic tone to the track, not quite ironic or tongue-in-cheek because the sentiments are completely genuine, but uncommonly self-aware with a subtle note of despair. It’s not just that Hip Hop has positive and negative traits but that in the combination of the two the more complete picture of the art-form is painted. Remember, this is Yasiin near the beginning of his career, the first solo release after Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, a 25-year-old artist spilled out over 17 all classic tracks. It might seem appropriate for an older version of the artist, one marginalized by Glam Rap over the last fifteen years, to deliver a scathing condemnation of Hip Hop (which he doesn’t do, by the way). But that’s not who he is at this point and that’s not what he’s doing. He is passionate about his art-form, with a unique ability to remain in it but not of it. “Hip Hop” is not a song of doom but it is a note directed equally to those inside and outside the industry that this thing we’ve built is complicated and flawed and beautiful and very much incomplete.
With no hook, only samples taken from A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B. & Rakim and O.C., the second verse of “Hip Hop” is a continuation of the first especially in its referential tone, which ended with nods to Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and Afrika Bambaataa. The first verse gives significant detail to the position and identity of the author, a man “on the ave where it lives and dies” with his “eyes on tomorrow”. In the second verse all first-person narrative is left behind and attention turned to describing the state of the art-form through a further series of contrasts.

Hip Hop is prosecution evidence
An out of court settlement
Ad space for liquor
Sick without benefits (hungh!)
Luxury tenements choking the skyline
It’s low life getting treetop high

Yasiin wastes no time, jumping right into the tactic of description through piecemeal details. Many have attempted to use Hip Hop music and lyrics in criminal trials, from the famous 2 Live Crew obscenity case, to Vonte Skinner in 2008, to the recent case of Tiny Doo in San Diego. The mistaken concept of using art as evidence of criminal activity is what Bey references in the first line. He then plays on the judicial language with a powerful and nearly glossed over metaphor of Hip Hop as a sort of out of court settlement. What have we traded in return for lesser prosecution that Hip Hop is the settled middle ground? Equal voice? Real social representation and advancement, instead settling for money and fame? That superficiality and emptiness comprises the next four lines beginning with Rap’s proclivity for tracks about their favorite (or sponsored) liquors – “Brass Monkey”, “Pass the Courvoisier”, “8 Ball”, “Thug Passion” and “Gin ‘n Juice” are name-specific, along with hoards of others glorifying drinking as a whole. At the end of the “sick without benefits” line Bey brings back the poetic devise of “hungh” punctuations from the first verse, a reference to Sterling Brown’s “Southern Road”. The “luxury tenements choking the skyline” is another metaphor that packs more punch than meets the eye. Though the real-life image of skyscrapers built amidst (and ignoring) New York’s lower income environments is the product of outside forces and money, in the metaphoric sense Hip Hop’s stars, actors, and agents are equally to blame, themselves becoming the skyscrapers, the “low life getting treetop high” and allowing their own environments to be choked of their identity and culture.

bey 2015It is a back water remedy
Bitter and tender memory
A class E (or C) felony facing the death penalty (hungh!)

He answers the “sick without benefits”, “choking” theme with the contrasting notion that Hip Hop is also a “backwater remedy”, a term that carries nostalgia and dismissal in equal parts. A bitter and tender memory, like an exposed nerve, Hip Hop reminds us that the difficult road that black folks in America have traveled is intrinsically and tenderly tied to their identity. There is strength in that struggle, beauty in that destruction and Bey’s carefully chosen words speak to this finer point.
The last line returns to the judicial talk comparing Hip Hop to a crime with an inequitable punishment. Though I always thought he said “Class C”, the classification including robbery, assault, larceny, and drug distribution, most think he says “Class E”, which probably makes more sense given that it is the lowest rung on the five-letter system (not included in all states, though it is in NY).

Stimulant and sedative, original repetitive
Violently competitive, a school unaccredited (there it is)

Yasiin then rolls out four phrases, stylishly staccato with compound rhymes. The first two are some of the most succinct dichotomies in the song, posing our beloved art-form as both upper and downer and then hitting on a contrast central to the genre, “original repetitive”. Founded on the reproduction of past works as a means to create something new, is there a more appropriate turn of phrase to describe Hip Hop?
In their own way the second two phrases contrast each other and the line concludes with the “there it is” adlib used in the first verse and referencing several performers before him. In writing about the first verse I learned that the phrase was an interpolation of a Run-DMC lyric from “Peter Piper”, then sampled on the Beastie Boys’ “The New Style”. I also recently learned that it seems to be a reference to Rakim’s “When I Be on tha Mic”, though that album was released a month after Black on Both Sides, so that would instead seem to be a matter of common source.

The break beats you get broken with
On time and inappropriate
Hip Hop went from selling crack to smoking it
Medicine for loneliness
Remind me of Thelonius and Dizzy
Propers to B-Boys getting busy

Here Bey (or rather producer Diamond D) drops the beat out in time with the lines, adding aural depth to the “break beats” and near contrast of “on time” and “inappropriate”. The harshest and most straightforward critique comes next, accusing the game of breaking the fourth of the Ten Crack Commandments. He then makes a 180 degree turn from one line to the next, jumping back to its sanative quality, aligning it with jazz greats Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie.

The war-time snap shot
The working man’s jack-pot
A two dollar snack box
Sold beneath the crack spot
Olympic sponsor of the black Glock
Gold medalist in the back shot

Hip Hop is many things – an image capturing our place in a contentious time, a winning lottery ticket to the right “working man”, a cheap, greasy meal sold in a familiar but unsavory place.  The “jack-pot” is intended facetiously and that tone grows in the Olympic references, employing the “Olympic sponsor of” phrase from various ads and commercials to express its unfortunate attachment to gun violence and the gold medal itself awarded for the genre’s obsession with sex – grand achievements in distasteful activities.

From the sovereign state of the have-nots
Where farmers have trouble with cash crops (hungh)
It’s all city like Phase 2
Hip Hop will simply amaze you
Praise you, pay you
Do whatever you say do
But black, it can’t save you

For the 7th and 8th in a series of compound rhymes Yasiin employs a loaded oxymoron in “The sovereign state of the Have-Nots”. By definition Have-Nots possess no sovereignty, their collective identity instead defined by situations and experiences rather than geography, nearly proletarian in this case. The cash crop in this “sovereign” land is drugs, a product with its obvious share of troubles as opposed to the unfettered, lucrative nature of cotton or tobacco.  Though much of the verse focuses on the dark side of the coin, Bey ends on a positive note, admitting that at its best Hip Hop truly has the power to “amaze”. It can be your source of inspiration, your means of providing, and you can truly make it into whatever you envision. I share Bey’s sentiment that Hip Hop has that power, a strength not possessed by every art in every time, a potential for dynamic creation and social significance. Despite all these redeeming qualities, the one thing Hip Hop cannot do is save your soul, a lesson lost on a growing number of artists whose forfeiture of identity and of artistic integrity (in worship of the Almighty Dollar), has led to a lesser version of our beloved art-form.

A good deal of Hip Hop is self-referential but Yasiin Bey’s song pays the art-form homage and strives to paint a complete portrait by describing its character.  “Original Repetitive”, “School Unaccredited”, “sovereign state of the Have-Nots”, “bitter and tender memory” – the track employs so many great self-contained phrases and images, woven into a verbal tapestry of Hip Hop at the end of the last century. Those of us who Love (capital L) Hip Hop can feel its great power; many of us are unwilling to admit its serious faults. Its true power lies betwixt its potential and its pitfalls, a living, growing beast balanced between punk rock and folk, constantly at odds with trying to change the world and not giving a fuck about it. There is an edge created by the song’s series of contrasts that somehow embodies the art-form more completely. Bey displays his lyrical prowess in groups and bunches while referencing important artists, both prior and contemporary, which serves to deepen the song’s resonance and impact. The passion for his art expressed in “Hip Hop”’s sprawling collage is continued with a deeper, more serene note on the following “Love”, another favorite of mine, and the Hip Hop world view whose seeds are planted on “Hip Hop” blooms as the album progresses.  Even today, the song stands as one of the most powerful and well-crafted statements on the character of our beloved art-form with Bey one of its premiere poets and prophets.

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