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?
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.