Stop Making Sense: Rap Lyrics and the Economy of Intelligibility, by Loren Ludwig

by justindburton on May 20, 2013

Guest Editor Elizabeth Lindau brings to the IASPM-US site a series of essays on the topic “Stop Making Sense: The Unintelligible in Popular Song.” During the month of May, we’ll explore what it is to sit just on the edge of reason in popular music.


…nowadays these kids, jeez, don’t give a shit about lyrics. All they wanna hear is a beat and that’s it…
-Eminem “Syllables” (2010)

The lyrical economy of rap has changed.

With guest appearances by Jay-Z, Dr. Dre, 50 Cent, Stat Quo, and Ca$his, Eminem’s track “Syllables” decries a listening culture that is no longer sufficiently invested in deciphering emcees’ richly coded rhymes. (Un)intelligibility of lyrics has historically served as rap’s primary strategy for generating scarcity, for limiting access to the race and class otherness that white, suburban listeners have sought in hip hop culture. Despite the friendly populism of early party rap (“now what you hear is not a test, I’m rappin’ to the beat”), emcees quickly established strategic obfuscation as a key to hip hop authenticity. As the familiar story goes, as soon as hip hop spread outside the streets of its urban cradle, “the street” emerged as a master trope marking the boundary between “insider” and “outsider” status. This boundary was articulated largely (though not exclusively) through lyrics that partook of a centuries-old tradition of Black double-voicedness.

The fuck am I busting my brain for? It’s just the way the game go, oh, it takes two to tango. You call this a lame flow? You bought the shit, I guess you to blame too. I just found the angle.
-Jay-Z “Syllables” (2010)


But that whole lyrical economy depends on listeners who are deeply invested in deciphering emcees’ carefully crafted rhymes (otherwise, as Jay-Z opines, “the fuck am I busting my brain for?”). Rap’s first several decades were marked by lyrics that drank deeply of complex African American rhetorical strategies, Caribbean-inflected urban vocalities, and production techniques designed to make lyrics more difficult to understand (think Public Enemy). There are exceptions, of course, but for every KRS-One, with his clear, pedagogical sing-song diction, there is a Wu-Tang Clan, whose members embed their messages in 5 Percenter code and protean urban slang.[1. Actually, though KRS-One often seems to prioritize intelligibility (I once saw him ask his DJ to “bring the beat down {in volume}” so that everyone could hear his lyrics more clearly), he also engages in the sorts of acronym- and numerology games shared by many New York-based rappers of his generation (see, for example, his “bacronym” of his stage name: “Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone”).] As rap became a global phenomenon in the 1990s and early 2000s, it faced the familiar opposition of two competing priorities: widespread appeal versus the capacity to capture the values and aesthetics of specific, local communities. This negotiation has played itself out largely in the arena of lyrical intelligibility, and is a key context for “Syllables”’ polemics.

As a teenager in rural New England, my own hip hop fandom was initially thwarted by an exasperating inability to understand the words in a music whose primary attraction seemed to lie in its lyrics. One cliché of suburban hip hop fandom is the vision of legions of teenage boys crowded to the front of a stage joyfully bellowing verse after verse of recondite rhymes along with a favorite emcee. This expression of fandom reveals a deep investment in lyrics, of hours spent listening and memorizing. Shouting lyrics in unison with an emcee stakes a powerful—if highly conditional—claim to a hip hop identity. Eminem’s live performance of “The Real Slim Shady” at the MTV Video Music Awards 2000, which featured nearly a hundred “clones” of the emcee (“who dress like me, walk, talk and act like me”), dramatized this very dynamic.

“Intelligibility” in rap lyrics is often as much a matter of comprehension as it is perception of actual words and sentences. Rap has seen open season on both of these domains. Wayne Marshall documented the pervasive influence of the West Indies on New York hip hop culture. The 1990s, for example, saw a proliferation of emcees who “spoke from a kind of creolized subject position, containing as much patois and ragga-style flow as more traditional hip-hop stylistic markers.”[2.] As a teenager in Massachusetts, this code shifting was bewildering. Lyrics like “buddha bless my head and the eyes are red,” with its play on “bud” (a botanical term) and “Buddha” and reference to—then—utterly alien cultural practices were completely unintelligible.[3. Black Moon & Smif ‘N’ Wessun’s “Headz ain’t ready” (1995)] Only later would I learn of the nearly century-old tradition of “reefer” songs by such masters of strategic unintelligibility as Louis Armstrong and Slim Gaillard.

You don’t hear what I’m saying. Me fin-nini-na Fee-fi-dididee-yay, just give me my check and I’ll be on my way. Sunny bunny money and funny You ain’t even listening and I just took your money.
-50 Cent “Syllables” 2010

Missy Elliot’s “Work it” (2002) stimulated a frenzy of hip hop hermeneutics that exemplifies the mode of hip hop fandom whose loss Eminem et al seem to mourn in “Syllables.” There, Missy’s phrase “I put my thing down, flip it, and reverse it” is played backwards and re-inserted into the hook by producer Timbaland. Online and in person, listeners—particularly younger and less production-savvy ones—attempted to “figure out” what on earth Missy was saying. Comments beneath Youtube videos of Missy’s track reveal myriad creative interpretations of Timbaland’s backmasking.[4. Whether this constitutes a textbook example of “backmasking” (versus simply the use of a “reversed” sample) is debatable—I use this term advisedly to suggest that the “reversedness” of the phrase is, on some level, intended to be perceptible as reversed.] Many listeners offer mondegreens—such as “It’s your fault the pussy aint wet yet”—that are in keeping with Missy’s famously explicit lyrics.[5. Another vocal constituency of online commentators is clearly invested in “debunking” such interpretations by explaining the studio technique responsible for the “unintelligible” portion of the phrase (see, for example, this Youtube video that features the entire hook in reverse:]  Of note here is the fact that Missy is known for tracks that emphasize “a hot beat and a catchy hook” (to borrow “Syllables”’ dismissive phrase) over an effusion of lyrics.  That many listeners invested their hermeneutical efforts in deciphering Missy’s reversed verse challenges, perhaps, “Syllables”’ polemical distinction between listeners who care about lyrics and those who “[only] know the chorus, ‘cause the chorus repeats the same four words for us.” Of course, listeners oriented to Caribbean cultural practices are tipped off to Timbaland’s studio trickery by Missy’s phrase “reverse it,” a gambit familiar from recorded Jamaican dub and from live DJ performances in which the exhortation “DJ, rewind!” triggers a dramatic momentary reversal of the playback medium. However, given the wide dissemination of Missy’s track outside such culturally literate communities, her momentary “unintelligibility” serves as a tantalizing mystery to many listeners who are simultaneously—likely—drawn to her decisively “catchy hook.”


50 Cent’s gibberish “Me fin-nini-na fee-fi-dididee-yay” in “Syllables” seemingly invites no such listener investment (either in the form of knowing identification or hermeneutics). Rather, 50’s unintelligible utterance is a performance of apathy over craft, a gesture that both illustrates the emcee’s assertion that “you ain’t even listening” and discourages interpretation through a pointedly uncommitted delivery. Yet elsewhere in his verse, 50 exhibits his characteristically deft flow and self-referentiality (“Go shorty, it’s your birthday, you made it just in time to hear my wordplay”), qualities that helped position him as an icon of lyrical facility among just the sort of hip hop fans that “Syllables” seems to claim no longer exist.[6. Compare 50s initial phrase in “Syllables” to his 2003 hit “In da Club”: “Go shorty, it’s your birthday, we’re gonna party like it’s your birthday…”] How might we decipher 50’s complex gesture of “talkin’ out both sides of [his] mouth”—simultaneously dismissing listeners who “ain’t even listening” while rewarding fans who appreciate (and are familiar with) the rapper’s capacity to engage in lyrical subterfuge?

On one hand, 50’s appeal to listeners who are sufficiently invested in lyrical hermeneutics to know where not to spend their interpretive energies (e.g. on “Me fin-nini-na fee-fi-dididee-yay”) suggests a familiar process of winnowing hip hop insiders from outsiders. “Syllables”’ tropes of sneering commercialization (“I just took your money”) and resistance to a dilution of core values (whatever those happen to be) by uninitiated fans confirm that these emcees imagine themselves addressing an audience that will know to ignore their parody of strategic unintelligibility. This willfully perverse gesture—“let’s record a track lamenting fans who ignore lyrics by writing lyrics that any real hip hop fan would ignore”—has Eminem written all over it.[7. Consider, for example, Eminem’s performance of “The Real Slim Shady” at the MTV Video Music Awards 2000 (discussed above). Em’s lyrics there famously dismiss the possibility of the emcee winning a Grammy and then go on to imagine a comical Grammy Awards ceremony seating scenario involving Britney Spears, Christine Aguilera, Carson Daly, and Fred Durst. During the MTV awards performance, Eminem actually rapped those lines (“Christina Aguilera better switch me chairs…”) at the very moment that he paraded by several of those (unlucky) artists in the real-life televised awards ceremony.] On the other hand, “Syllables” lyrics seem to express a genuine concern with the deflation of lyrical currency. The catch, of course, is that only those listeners who are already invested in listening to lyrics will discern the message of the song. In the absence of an imagined population of fans who seek to exchange the coin of lyrical comprehension for a share of hip hop identification, “Syllables” comes across as solipsistic “surplus,” as an overproduction that drives down the value of the whole endeavor. Perhaps this explains why the track was never released, but rather was “leaked” online some three years after it was recorded. Perhaps not. Either way, “Syllables” articulates an anxiety about the “value” of lyrics in hip hop that is only partially defused by its closing tableau, uttered in the voice of Eminem’s cynical record mogul:

Nobody gives a damn about them syllables, sillyle-ables, whatever they are. I don’t care if you gotta rhyme Smo, Joe, toe and glow. Now get out there and sell some goddamn records!

Loren Ludwig is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology at Grinnell College. He completed his Ph.D. in Critical and Comparative Studies in Music at the University of Virginia in 2011. Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the American Musicological Society, his dissertation (“Equal to All Alike”: A Cultural History of the Viol Consort in England, c.1550- 1675) explores the social nature of amateur chamber music for viol consort. The project investigates how consort music shaped understandings of social intimacy, the nature and propriety of the passions, and the relationship between language and music. In addition to his work on early modern musical culture, Loren has research interests in African American music as well as the twentieth-century history of performance practice.  Loren is currently researching the history of the “Yankee” viol and in the early nineteenth-century development of American vernacular music.

Elizabeth Lindau is Visiting Assistant Professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology at Gettysburg College. She completed her Ph.D. in Critical and Comparative Studies in Music at the University of Virginia in 2012 with a dissertation titled “Art is Dead. Long Live Rock! Avant-Gardism and Popular Music, 1967-99.” Liz’s essay “Goodbye 20th Century! Sonic Youth Records John Cage’s ‘Number Pieces’ ” appears in Benjamin Piekut, ed. Tomorrow is the Question: New Directions in Experimental Music Studies (University of Michigan Press, in press). This fall, she will join the faculty of Wesleyan University as Visiting Assistant Professor of Music.

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