Overthunk: A Defense of Cussin’ in Hip-Hop

In a genre devoted to wordplay, foul language is not a necessary evil but rather a positive good.

Generally when people try to defend strong language in music, generally, they play the free speech card.  If the artist wants to say [X], who are we to stop them?  This is a good legal argument, but a terrible moral/aesthetic one.  Yes, we shouldn’t be actually stopping people from saying what they want to, but I have it on good authority that people, artists included, often want to say some really stupid sh- uh, stuff.  If we can’t say that some of that stuff is actually bad, morally or aesthetically, then there’s not really a lot of role left for the critic.  (I guess we could just vigorously champion the stuff we think is more good than all the other equally good stuff out there, but this has the same effect in the long run as contemning the contemptible, and is less fun to read.)

So if we were going to defend the use of dirty lyrics in hip hop, it would have to come from some other perspective.

Another approach, often taken by those who defend dirty hip hop specifically, is to claim that the lyrics speak to the social conditions from which the artist arose.  That hip hop is dirty because the inner city is dirty.  But this smacks of special pleading.  Some songs that use violent or sexual images seem to deal with these issues in a way that is, if not exactly socially conscious, at least artistically productive.  Others are harder to defend from this perspective.  (Heh.  Harder.)  So this defense tends to boil down to “bad language is okay because we find it in good songs,” which sort of begs the question of whether the songs might not be better if they didn’t have the swear words in them.  It’s all well and good to say that the first song linked above — heck, either of them — are great just how they are, but a real defense of dirty lyrics would need to defend not just songs that already exist, but the practice of putting swears into new songs as they’re being written.  Besides, there’s no one way to reflect your social condition in art.  People have written novels without the letter E in them.  Surely writing songs without the letters F and U should be possible.  (One could argue that lipograms are exactly the kind of high-minded tomfoolery that a literature-of-the-disenfranchised would not have time for, but hip hop actually has a pretty good record of high-minded tomfoolery.)

So the “hey, I’m telling it like it is” defense won’t hold water either.  What we need is something that frames profanity not as a necessary evil, but as a positive good.  Here’s my attempt. 

There are two sides to what rappers do:  content, and flow.  Content is what the words mean — the effect the lyrics would have if you just write them down on paper and have someone else read it later.  Flow is how they sound — all the elements of rap that are caught up in the vocal performance itself.

It’s a little more complex than that, of course.  Written poems do have a “sound” to them, which is utterly crucial to our experience of poetry.  And the way rappers deliver lyrics has obvious and measurable effects on the semantic meaning of the words.  But the definition given above is good enough for now.  One of the most crucial elements of flow is rhythm.  And rhythm itself is a complex phenomenon with dozens of constituent parts.  How many syllables, or how few, you can cram into a bar of music is an obvious one (i.e. fast-slow).  How regular and synchronized your delivery is, measured against the backing track, is another (i.e. tight-loose).  And then there’s the concept of stressed and unstressed syllables.  This is a big deal, and takes some explaining.

In written poetry, there’s one main kind of syllable stress to worry about.  Whatever the standard pronunciation is, that’s how you use the word in your poem.  People say “SYLlable,” not “sylLAble.”  But a rapper can say “sylLAble,” if he/she wants.  So in addition to the standard way that the word is pronounced (lexical stress), there’s also the way that it’s been pronounced in this case (performed stress).  Lots of rappers will use this to highlight clever aspects of their wordplay.  Take Jay-Z:  “He who does not FEEL ME is not REAL to ME therefore he doesn’t exist.”  The stresses on “me” shouldn’t be there, grammatically speaking – and they aren’t as strong, in the performance, as the stresses on “feel” and “real,” but there they are, nevertheless.  Arguably this second level of stress does show up in written poetry on some level — when we read of Poe’s “sorrow for the lost Lenore,” do we give the “for” just a little bit of extra juice because of the internal rhyme? — and this brings up a third level of syllable stress, poetic stress, which is created by things like rhyme, assonance, and alliteration.  Then there are two other levels of syllable stress that are specific to lyrics set to music.  The first of these is metrical stress.  Words that fall on strong beats are going to have an energy that words that fall on weak beats do not.  Words that fall on the downbeat will have more energy still.  Words that fall on the hypermetric downbeat will have… you see where I’m going with this.  The other specifically musical kind of syllable stress is syncopated stress, which has more or less the same relationship to metrical stress as performed stress does to lexical stress:  it’s the energy that comes from breaking the rule.  If your word falls on a weak beat, or fractionally off the beat, and you make it clear through performance (volume, conviction, etc.) that this is not actually a weak syllable but rather a strong syllable out of place, then it gets even more stress than it would otherwise.  Taken together, these five kinds of syllable stress are — well, it would be a gross exaggeration to say that they are what “flow” is all about.  But they are a pretty big deal.  Take your favorite hip-hop lyric and pick it apart with these categories in mind, and I’ll bet nine times out of ten it’ll turn out that there’s something interesting going on on all five levels.

And then there’s a sixth, and it’s here that I finally come around to something vaguely resembling a point.  Which of these words is the most stressed, to your mind?

  • Fun
  • Gun
  • Gum

It’s the second one, right?  You can almost smell the powder residue and gun oil wafting off of it. Certain words, either due to their actual meaning, or simply due to cultural taboos surrounding them, have an inherent semantic stress attached.  And that’s just with a mildly loaded word like gun! (Heh. Loaded.) Just imagine how powerful it is when you get into can’t-say-that-on-primetime territory.  Semantic stress is a really important part of how rap lyrics work.  Not on its own, necessarily, but in combination with the other kinds of stress mentioned above, and with the other performative elements of flow.  So often, the dirty words in hip hop aren’t just spoken:  they’re chanted, snarled, proclaimed, blazoned.  And if you substitute them with their non-offensive equivalent (mother-flip the police!), it sounds stupid — not just because its an obvious bowdlerization, but because all of the energy that word used to carry suddenly has nothing to cling on to.

So when people ask me what I think about offensive rap lyrics — which they do, sometimes, because I teach music appreciation — this is what I tell them.  It’s not a matter of political freedom.  That’s important, but it’s dodging the question at hand.  And it’s not a matter of letting the music deal with certain issues.  There are always other ways to deal with anything.  It’s because the musical surface itself depends on the interplay of all these kinds of syllable stress.  Forbidding any one swear word isn’t going to make a difference, but forbidding them all would result in a wan and listless music, and therefore, in the interest of making music less listless, less wan, I think swear words should not be cut.

And if Will Smith doesn’t have to curse in his raps to sell records, well you know what? You know WHAT?!

Yeah, you probably know.

14 Comments on “Overthunk: A Defense of Cussin’ in Hip-Hop”

  1. Adrian #


    I think this defense can actually be expanded for the use of swear words in all media, as well as daily conversation (in the right company). Removed from a musical context, it amounts to this: all categories of words serve a linguistic purpose, have an effect on the listener/reader, and curses are no exception.

    Remove an entire category of words and you have lost the ability to create that effect, whatever it is. As you said, the tamer equivalents just don’t cut it. It is by their very nature as offensive terms that these words produce this effect.

    When made compulsory, that kind of limitation can’t be anything but a bad thing. Sure you CAN write something without using the letter E, but literature would hardly be richer if you weren’t ALLOWED to.


  2. KayJayWhy #

    Wow. Very nice. I’m going to have to read the paragraph about syllable stress more closely.

    A possible topic for a follow-up: Misogyny in hip-hop. Misogyny is the biggest reason my more ignorant friends write off hip-hop as a whole and is the biggest thing that prevents me from enjoying large swaths of the genre. Is it defensible? Is it necessary?


  3. sprugman #

    All this is true, but it’s also the case that cursing is often an easy and lazy way to establish a certain type of character or vibe that might be able to be expressed more interestingly without it. Is the artist swearing to make a point, or just because that’s what you do to appear tough and cool?


    • MechanusSunrise #

      I think this is a very good point. Swearing to look tough and cool (in vain) doesn’t impress me but I don’t mind if people swear when they are genuinely angry. Lil Wayne in ‘Drop the World’ sounds genuinely angry and the song sounds very sincere. He could drop about half the swearing and still come across just as angry but the other half serves good purpose and I love the song. Even most conscious rap uses swearing to more or less good effect.

      On the note of flow and vibe, I get the impression that a lot of the words unique to rap or hip hop culture may been developed by rappers to aid the flow – whether that aid is a crutch or not. In my mind Jay Z’s ‘H to the Izzo’ does this all over and falls into the crutch category.
      On the other hand, in line with sprugman’s point, the South African Tswana poet MC Tumi Molekane can flow without swearing or making up words and that may be one small reason he developed his flow to the point where it is, in my estimation, better than that of every single American rapper in history, or at least up there with Mos Def, Q-Tip, or Lil Wayne at his best. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OpBv2bM9_k&feature=related

      I agree with the other comments about misogyny and violence but once you get past the rappers on the Clear Channel radio and MTV/BET in my experience misogynistic lyrics become more rare, although my experience didn’t include the music linked to in the post until now.


  4. Genevieve #

    I agree with KayJayWhy that issues of misogyny (and, for that matter, violence) are more germane to the challenges hip hop faces in the “mainstream” than the actual word choices discussed here.

    I’m really interested in your argument on semantic stress, though. I don’t want to discount it, but I feel like the example you’ve used is faulty. The reason “gun” is more forceful than “fun” or “gum” is because of the strength of its consonants. Semantics aside, “gut” is much stronger, because “t” is plosive and “n” is nasal.

    A more interesting discussion in this argument would be to look at whether “f*ck” carries more stress, due to “semantic stress,” than, say “tuck” or “duck” or even “buck.”


  5. One #

    Someone should write an article making a case for writers to actually explain thier examples and points and counterpoints, you know write, rather than just taking the easy way out and linking offsite.


    • Stokes OTI Staff #

      Hey, we’re always looking for guest posts.


  6. Pasteur #

    In Jordan’s defense, I think this is the first of these short-form articles without the disclaimer preface: “[Overthunk is a new series where OTI writers give short, unstructured thoughts about a piece of pop culture. They’re not meant to be as deep as a typical article. Use them as a springboard for further discussion in the comments below]

    Just as a note to the editors, the name “Overthunk” doesn’t stand out against the main focus of the site to a casual observer, so keeping the opening blurb or a tag at the bottom of the story might be something to consider. I do enjoy reading these shorter-form pieces, and re: The Blog Post or the Tiger, they seem to be conducive to the process, so anything to help smooth their addition or transition is probably value.


  7. Gab #

    So you don’t give a damn about a Grammy, eh?

    In all seriousness, I agree with KayJayWhy and Genevieve about the subject matter as opposed to word choice.

    But about cussin’ and such, the flow swear words can have within a line of lyrics is, I agree, not given enough acknowledgment. To tie in my (bad) joke, “You think I give a care about a Grammy,” even when just speaking it, does not flow as well as, “You think I give a damn about a Grammy.” In every day conversation, swear words often have an objectively better aural stimulation.


  8. Stokes OTI Staff #

    Some good comments here!
    @KayJayWhy et al: Personally, I am generally able to compartmentalize my experience of a song, so that I can appreciate the cleverness and vigor of, say, Nas calling Jay-Z “H to the Izzo, M to the Izzo” (or for that matter Samuel Johnson’s crack about a woman preaching being like a dog walking on its hind legs) even as I find the basic sentiment unpleasant. But compartmentalizing isn’t something I think people should learn to do. If you’re offended by those sentiments, and want to avoid music that expresses those sentiments, do so. You’ll miss out on some fun songs (fun but for the sentiment, like), but you won’t miss out on any of the things that make rap special. Misogyny is WAY older than rap. So are curse words – but rap is unique, or at least relatively unique, as a form of song/poetry in which curse words are a major stylistic element.

    That said, I don’t know that it’s misogyny specifically that’s turning people off of the music. I think it’s the combination of misogyny and dirtiness – or rather, a combination of misogyny and powerful rhetoric. Ask yourselves: really, when you get down to it, really, which is more misogynist? Blowjob Betty? Or The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regimen of Women? And then ask yourselves which of these is like to get banned for being too offensive.

    @Genevieve: You’re totally right. I noticed that myself as I was writing it, but couldn’t think of a better example that didn’t involve actual swear words, which I was trying to avoid. I have a better one now, though: sin vs. shin. If anything, “sh” is stronger than “s” as a phoneme. But sin is way more forceful than shin as a word.


  9. Tim Peever #

    This is something I have kind of been thinking about lately, and it came to me from two different angles. The first was when, mostly as a joke, I started writing my own rap lyrics, discovering that not only does “mother f-er” roll off the tongue very well, but it has a trochaic rhythm to it that makes it very easy to put just about anywhere you want it to go.

    The second is in considering the issue of what to do with the N word when doing a rap song as karaoke, or just, you know, walking around the house. The two best replacement candidates I know are “brother” (which is sometimes done for “clean” versions of songs) and “ninja” (mostly just an idea white people had). The original word, though, is a trochee: “ninja” is a spondee, so it’s not a rhythmically similar word; and “brother” while is also a trochee, the “br” kind of sticks in your mouth, and doesn’t roll of the tongue well.

    This all leads me to a thought: has anyone yet made a “rhythm dictionary”? And if not, why not?


    • MechanusSunrise #

      A rhythm dictionary is a good idea; its tricky though, for reasons including the one brought up in the original post regarding emphasis. Rhythm in music is a complicated subject and rap often uses complex rhythms – cross rhythms and occasional additive rhythm in the lyrics (not the beat).

      At its best rap and sampling culture have a degree of spontaneity and creative adulteration – so I would say that it is in line with that culture to replace the N word with a word that is either subversive, earonic, communicates an equivalent (“cracker”, “redneck”) or just funny.


  10. Hannah #

    @stokes Your articles are almost always spot-on. They’re pretty thought provoking, intelligent, and relevant. Can I subscribe to you specifically or do I have to subscribe to OverthinkingIt as a whole? I’m not averse to the idea, just curious. Lemme know?



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