Top 10 Uses of Food as Metaphor in Hip Hop

Top 10 Uses of Food as Metaphor in Hip Hop

Time to get funky, like an old batch of collard greens.

10. “Carry Out” – Timbaland, featuring Justin Timberlake

TENOR: A woman’s body

VEHICLE: Fast food and/or Chinese takeout

The tenor and vehicle are the two parts of every metaphor –  the tenor is “that thing you are talking about,” and the vehicle is “that thing you are comparing it to.” For example, in the line, “Take my order, ’cause your body like a carry-out,” “your body” is the tenor, and “carry-out” is the vehicle. Identifying tenors and vehicles can help you unpack otherwise confusing metaphors and is an important step in any close reading. Oh, and all similes are metaphors.

In “Carry Out,” Timbaland stoops to conquer. This song makes the top 10 by virtue of its decadence – the lyrics are playful with the subject matter, but treat it like well-traveled territory – a territory we will spend the next 9 items (and, out of respect, a minimum of page breaks) exploring. Food and/or thoughts of food are ever-present in people’s lives, so in a drive to generate content that identifies with large populations, that practically speaks from experience, and that bridges social divides, most hip hop artists have rapped or sung about food at least a tiny little bit in their careers.

‘Land’s and ‘Lake’s goal with “Carry Out” is to produce a catchy, fun song with an overabundance of witticisms about women and food. The metaphor works to the extent that this stylistic overabundance relates to the overabundance of the woman’s ample, generous sexuality while it also relates to the overabundance in the diet it describes, which is a fun one with little thought for consequences that only one of the performers could be eating regularly.

The overabundance in fast food is a common theme in hip hop food metaphors, which public health researchers and policy advocates, as well as nutrition researchers would do well to heed – it reflects the role of fast food in people’s lives, especially in a time of expanding urban food deserts.

9. “The Burger Song” – Skee-Lo

TENOR: Skee-Lo’s self, impressiveness and virtuosity

VEHICLE: Most of the menu at a McDonald’s

While the ‘Land and ‘Lake “sex as food” theme hasn’t made its last appearance in the countdown, number 9 clocks in with another familiar thematic overabundance in hip hop – the overabundance of self-praise. Here, Skee-Lo, known for the hit “I Wish,” goes all out with a quick, textured piece that piles on now-dated pop culture references while it plays with Skee-Lo’s themes of relative size and self-respect.

The moment where the metaphor crosses over into interesting territory for me is when Skee-Lo’s list of food items passes the boundary of what any one person might be expected to eat at one time. It speaks to the futility of the song – Skee-Lo’s self-praise is always marked with insecurity, as if he can’t quite believe he deserves it, in much the same way the illusion that he is truly a “Big Mac” fades as he anticlimaxes into “salad on the side.” The food items lose their symbolic weight and become products marked for sale. “The Burger Song” is mock-epic braggadocio.

8. “Put On” – Young Jeezy featuring Kanye West

TENORS: Possessing cocaine, being a violent person, dealing cocaine, attracting women, having a big car, light-skinned black women with hair extensions, sexual organs and their expellant, money and marijuana

VEHICLES: A napkin, flatware, large food servings, birthday cake, fish food, fast-food servings, a mildly offensive barbecue-oriented epithet, curly fries, fish sticks, tartar sauce, celery, asparagus and broccoli

Where other rap songs about food succeed on quality, Jeezy here succeeds with quantity – in a brief span, he flows (although Jeezy’s flow is always a bit chunky) through a succession of food metaphors that cover a broad swath of human endeavor and a bunch of foods. The vegetable sequence that ends with him rhyming “broccoli” with “glock with me” it what sells me on it. I also like how nobody told Kanye West the song was mostly about food before he showed up. Kanye doing his own thing for a minute regardless of what the song was originally about is one of his greatest strengths as a musician.

7. “Gimme Pizza” – Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen

TENOR: Diplomatic military agreements in Central Europe approaching World War I

VEHICLE: Indiscriminate, reckless pizza topping selection

See, just as nation states in the early 20th century saw realpolitik and balance of power politics as a means to escape the ancestral enmities, arbitrary traditions and cycles of violence typical to earlier periods in their history, and just as they eventually discovered all too late that the freedom to increase the complexity of their systems of relation to one another also created the possibility of catastrophic failure, Mary Kate and Ashley discover in “Gimme Pizza” that if you don’t have some sort of guidance from the previous generation as to what to put on your pizza, what you end up with qualifies less as a pizza and more as a human tragedy, much like all of You’re Invited To Mary-Kate and Ashley’s Sleepover Party.

Okay, okay, so really this was an excuse to show you the trippy slow video above. The original is a little more like this – but if I had showed you this first, would you still have had nightmares?

Hmm, perhaps, perhaps. No pizza before bed, I guess.

6. “Ice Cream” – Raekwon the Chef, featuring Ghostface Killah, Method Man and Cappadonna

TENOR: Sexualized, objectified women of various ethnicities

VEHICLE: Ice cream flavors

Here, a cadre of Wu-Tang affiliates bring an earnest take of the sort that inspires “Candy Shop” – the body of Hip Hop literature that saw food as a way of talking about universal experience and taste, as well as everyday life, rather than the part that is commenting on that part. The Wu-Tang Clan has always been like Adam in the garden, finding power in its ability to name things – and demonstrating that a renaming has power to reinvent. In “Shao Lin” (or, more commonly known, “Staten Island”), the Wu Tang set up a phantasmagoria of new symmetries and correspondences, from Marvel Comics superheros to Kung Fu archetypes.

Here, Raekwon takes the lead in speaking about the ethnicities of women, naming them in such a way to claim power over them. It is a grossly, grossly unfeminist song, all about the female body as an object to be manipulated and an entertainment to consume – but it is exemplary of its genre, and it does have a message of Bulworth-esque multiculturalism.

And perhaps it would be too much to expect a Wu-Tang Clan song about “ice cream,” with is all about indulgence and zero about sustenance, to focus on redeeming social qualities. The lack of nutrition in the foods in rap songs reflects a self-consciousness about a hollowness in the social support fabric and a self-destructiveness or want in the identities of the people speaking and those with whom they associate.

But there are other songs that address this better, so let’s move on.

5. “Coffee Shop” – Young Joc Featuring Gorilla Zoe

TENOR: An organized crime operation that specializes in manufacturing, distributing and selling crack cocaine

VEHICLE: A coffee shop

Metaphors are doing some of their best work when they change complex institutional business challenges into children’s songs. Yung Joc’s 2007 album Hustlenomic$ explores this theme throughout, but “Coffee Shop” is the standout track that does the work. The fun in this song is the childlike voices seem unaware of the associations and baggage of working for a crack dealer – the social cost, the danger, the pain and hardship, the Pookie, all of it. This is, to a degree, a bad thing, because it makes people, especially children, more likely to use and sell crack, and that is certainly wack if ever there was anything that was wack.

But it also presents a perspective on drug dealing that feels normal – people have profound mental elasticity and are able to adapt to a wide variety of extreme circumstances, and nobody lives in the climactic scenes of New Jack City 24/7, even the real-life Nino Browns.

The song also talks about chop shops, numbers running, and other organized crime operations – and in the uncensored version of the song, he follows “Kids, don’t do drugs,” with “Just give ’em to me and I’ll get rid of ’em at the Coffee Shop.”

I like the work the metaphor does here because it draws on the normalcy and routine of coffee in everyday life to make its point – while at the same time subversively drawing attention to its exoticness. The song is as likely to make a person reconsider coffee as reconsider cocaine in how it draws its comparisons. I like a metaphor that does its work well even if I don’t necessarily admire what it is trying to do. This is definitely a way of taking something very strange to most people and telling its story intuitively and joyfully.

A tall order. Grande, even.

4. “Candy Shop” – 50 Cent Featuring Olivia

TENOR: A universally experienced behavioral and experiential state of sexual indulgence

VEHICLE: A business that sells candy

To understand why this song is so high in the rankings despite spending time on a pedestrian and infantilizing oral sex / lollipop metaphor, compare it with another big “lollipop” song that didn’t make the countdown, “Lollipop” by Lil Wayne, featuring Static.

Wrapper/rapper-licking “no homo”-phones aside, neither song’s lyrics are that clever. They’re mood pieces meant to get people acting a bit nasty in public spaces. They strive to create transformed performative spaces, either in clubs or in cars or anywhere else they’re played, where the audience participates in the performance, after a fashion. But while Lil Wayne describes a bunch of stuff he likes, 50 Cent spends more time framing the real and metaphorical spaces where the things he and his companion of the moment take place – and this creates a cool form/function consonants because of the songs’ own relationships with the spaces in which they are played.

“Candy Shop” is an elegantly packed description for the space and behavior described – that the song is bridging a divide not between sexual non-participation and sexual participation, but between everyday spaces where sexual participation is sparse to special spaces, where it is bountiful. “Candy Shop” spaces are mental spaces as well as physical spaces, and 50 talks about their qualities – exoticness, seductiveness, generosity and secrecy.

Candy for a child is often connected with secrecy, as you don’t want your parents to know how much of it you are eating, with generosity, because being given candy is such a conspicuous and celebrated (and dangerous) thing, with seductiveness, because of candy’s bright colors and persistent allure, and exoticness, because it is not dinner, but something special.

And even though not much of the song explores this whole idea in too much detail, the symbol is strong enough to resonate intuitively with a very broad audience. Hey, people like candy.

3. “Soul Food” – Goodie Mob

TENOR: Life-affirming experiences

VEHICLE: Traditional African-American cuisine

Long before the “Fuck You” sing-along became a weekly nightlife tradition, Cee Lo Green was laying down tracks with layered metaphors about race, class, perseverance, family and the human condition.

“Soul Food” is a bit of a tricky song because the actual food is prominently featured even as it serves as a vehicle for describing the nourishing and sustaining benefits of memory, experience, compassion, family and a bunch of other good stuff. Actual “soul food” is in the song, “soul” music is describes as “food” in the song, and “souls” are “fed” in the song. The metaphor plays on facets of meaning adeptly.

The mission statement comes, I think, in Cee Lo’s verse:

If I had a went and took the easy way,

I wouldn’t be the strong n***** than I am today.

Everything that I did,

All the things I was told,

Just ended up being food for my soul.

It’s not a coincidence that this song criticizes the nutritionally empty fast-food that tends to dominate food metaphor in hip hop in preference for a more culturally affirming and incidentally nutritious, if calorically dense cuisine. That’s kinda the point.

2. “Fried Chicken” – NAS featuring Busta Rhymes

TENOR: Self-destructive appetites and behaviors, especially those related to diet and sexuality

VEHICLE: Fried chicken (and, to a lesser extent, processed pork and pork-substitute products)

And here we see the flipside of “Soul Food,” a song about the self-shaming that comes with liking the things that you like when you know they’re not good for you. I just love how Busta comes out and says what he means late in the song, lets that idea hang. In our food-0bsessed and consumption-obsessed culture, we’re all, not just black people, involved in some sort of self-destructive hunger, be if for sex or oil or food or hand-painted Neon Genesis Evangelion commemorative figurines. It’s what “people” do.

The song eases in and out of giving the impression it’s about a woman or women to giving the impression it’s about the food, and then pulling apart that construction and deconstruction and looking at the social discourse beneath it. It’s a sharp, delicious, economically managed song and explores the fried chicken metaphor probably as well as anybody can be expected to explore it – even if there are a few moments where it seems like Nas thinks he’s the first person to ever rap about food. He’s not the first, and he’s not the last, either in his craft, or in this countdown…

1. “Pink Cookies in a Plastic Bag Getting Crushed by Buildings” – LL Cool J

TENOR: The act of making love

VEHICLE: Eponymous pink cookies in a plastic bag getting crushed by buildings

The opening line stands alone, but wow, what an opening line.

And then the world intrudes, with rival MCs, posturing and social constructions collapsing on the intimacy Cool James seeks from the ladies who love him. The phrase becomes ambiguous itself, “crushed” by the structures around it – it’s a feminizing insult to the 30 rival rappers LL Cool J is dispatching as is part of his craft (the 30 electric chairs), speaking about them sideways in a conspicuous way, sneaking their names into his lyrics. It is also a lament for the way the world gets in the way of love, even as he participates in the part of the world that gets in the way of love, even as he tries to get laid during the song. It’s a balancing act of considerable dexterity.

His raps are the buildings that are crushing his rivals, while his rivalries and need to participate in them are also the things collapsing on the physical act of making love, putting pressure on it, threatening it, but also part of the personal strength that the participants bring to it.

And of course, nobody is eating the cookies. The cookies are separated from the world and rendered inert, while protected, by their plastic bag – literally, condoms and such, figuratively, emotional distance and the problem of other minds. And the buildings are bodies, social pressures, the march of time, clumsy giant teeth that which they could chew rather than simply crush.

Or maybe it’s nothing and he really just hates Tribe Called Quest. Your call. I’m gonna go get something to eat.

What obvious / less obvious food raps and R&B dinners did I miss? What are your favorite hip hop groups and foods and combinations thereof? Sound off in the comments!

10 Comments on “Top 10 Uses of Food as Metaphor in Hip Hop”

  1. Anthony Abatte #

    I just clicked the link and scrolled through and was shocked to see Mary Kate and Ashley! I love OTI for random things like that. Here’s Master P’s hit song about drugs, “Ice Cream Man.”


    • Lee OTI Staff #

      That Olsen Twins “Pizza” video just made my day. No, week. No, month. No, year. Holy freaking crap.


      • fenzel OTI Staff #

        No one told you life was going to be this way, Mark?



  2. Eric #

    Kelis and her fans dislike this list.


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      Very true, but she’s at the yard with the boys, so she’ll be okay :-)

      I’m not a big fan of “Milkshake” as a metaphor – in terms of self-aggrandizement, I don’t get as much out of it as that quirky Skee-Lo song. But if this were influential food metaphors in Hip Hop, this would be near the top.

      Devin the Dude will also not like it, but wow did I not enjoy listening to “Broccoli and Cheese.”

      And I didn’t like “Ham and Eggs” by Tribe Called Quest either.


  3. Stokes OTI Staff #

    J-Zone and Devin the Dude have a nice song called “Greater Later” which is ineligible for this list, as the turkey neck sandwich in it is not a metaphor but rather a metonymy of poverty. (I mostly like the song because you don’t often get to hear rappers complain about not having enough stamps on their Subway™ cards to get a free sandwich. But it makes me feel like J-Zone and I are old men, because they haven’t run that promotion for a while now.)

    I kind of want to make the same argument about the Goodie Mob example, though… is the soul food a metaphor for life affirming experiences? Or is it an example of a life affirming experience, standing in for the category as a whole?


    • Chris #

      I think the Subway stamp thing was perhaps brought to an end by people such as a friend of mine in high school who worked at a Subway, people who stole a whole bunch of those stamps and sold them/gave them to people.


  4. Jamas Enright #

    Another Candy Shop is Madonna’s. Although she’s no stranger to the ‘food as sex’ metaphor, as in Where Life Begins. (Admittedly she’s not considered Hip Hop, although Candy Shop does feature Pharrell)


  5. Matt #

    I now also want you to overthink Will Smith’s Proustian contemplation of how the smell from a grill can spark up nostalgia…


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