This analysis was written while I was studying at University in 2014.
The lyrical content of rap music has changed over time but there are some elements which have stayed the same and are indicative of the genre. Rap music originated in the 1970s from African-Americans and established in The Bronx, New York as a vehicle of self-expression for the disadvantaged. However, rap is often associated with negative aspects such as profanities, “violent posturing, machismo, misogyny, ostentatious wealth (bling bling), pimping and brutalism” (Mitchell 2006, 21). This report addresses the lyrical content of rap music and the significance of its meanings.
The common elements of rap lyrics include rhyming, similes, metaphors, double entendres, slang and colloquial language (Edwards 2009). The use of literary devices such as rhyming and metaphors is derived from poetry. Some recurrent examples of slang and colloquial language include ain’t, homies, nigga and dropping the g off verbs (tryin’ instead of trying). Nicki Minaj has her own dictionary of colloquial terms called “Nictionary”.
The colloquial term “nigga” is rife amongst rap artists. The longer form of the word “nigger” is derived from the Latin, “niger” which refers to the colour black (Macquarie 2009). Even today, it regarded as derogatory term because it was used as an ethnic slur against dark-skinned Americans in times of racism, segregation and slavery. Rap artists (and some other African-American groups) reclaimed and appropriated the “n-word” as a term of endearment or brotherhood between fellow African-Americans. Notably, artists such as Niggaz Wit Attitude (N.W.A.), Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five frequently used “nigga” in their songs, something which many other rap artists have emulated.
Often artists will incorporate self-referential lines which refer to themselves, other rap artists and rap music in general. This emphasizes the perspective of the rapper and the live style of performance it originated from. Eminem is one the biggest exponents of self-referential lyrics. His song “The Real Slim Shady” is one of many examples.
Early rap music was performed by DJs who rapped about partying. In the late 1970s Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five reluctantly recorded “The Message” which was one of the first rap or hip-hip songs that offered social commentary. Initially, the group did not want to record the song because they were used to party and boast raps (Gross 1992). Later in the 1980s and 90s artists like Ice-T, N.W.A and Tupac were rapping about gangster lifestyle but this was something they personally experienced in their neighbourhood. From this point onwards rap artists have also been accused of promoting misogyny.
In recent times, rap music has earned a reputation for being misogynistic. According to Weitzer and Kubrin (2009, 10), “Misogyny refers to lyrics that encourage, condone, or glorify the objectification, exploitation, or victimization of women.” Examples of this are lyrics which negatively describe women as bitches, sluts, hoes and only good for sex. In the song “Coming Up $hort” by Too $hort he says, “I’m only out to fuck a bitch, fuck tryin’ to charm her. I treat a fine ass bitch like dirt. No money in her purse, a fuck is all it’s worth. ‘Cause Short Dawg’ll never cater to you hoes. And if you ain’t fuckin,’ I say ‘‘later’’ to you hoes.” The end result is not pleasing or encouraging for the listener especially for females.
A study was also performed by Weitzer and Kubrin (2009) who found that 22% out of a sample of 403 songs had misogynistic elements present in them. However, this study only included a small sample of songs from rap albums released between 1992 and 2000 that sold at least 1 million copies. The study also excludes a lot of rap songs particularly music produced over the last 10 years, so it serves as a conservative estimate rather than a precise calculation of misogyny in rap songs. Artists such as Kanye West (Monster), Snoop Dogg (Drop it Like it’s Hot), Dr Dre (Bitches Ain’t Shit), 50 Cent (Candy Shop) and Eminem (Kill You) are some of the biggest offenders when it comes to misogyny but a lot of their music was recorded after the year 2000. Female artists like Missy Elliot and Nicki Minaj have conveyed mixed messages by following the trend of their male counterparts in most songs but also going against the objectification of women in other songs.
The article “Misogyny in Rap Music” (2009) cites the music industry, larger gender relations and local neighbourhood conditions as influences of the lyrical content. Rap artists face pressure from the industry executives to be controversial in order to boost sales. The local community from where the artist originates could be a factor especially if they grew up in a low socio-economic area or experienced male domination over women. It also points to the way women are treated and portrayed in wider society, not just in African American culture.
However, it is evident that rap music is not all negative. There are alternative artists who challenge the negative aspects of rap music such as Lupe Fiasco, and Stan Fortuna. Stan Fortuna’s music includes the core elements of rap but also borders on parody with songs like “Jesus Talks” (parody of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks”), “Ain’t No Party” (taken from “1,2,3,4” by Coolio) and “Everybody Got 2 Suffer” which can be considered a gangster rap parody. Lupe Fiasco uses some swear words but he is more of a political rapper with songs like “Words I Never Said” and “Bitch Bad”. These artists prove that you can write rap music which doesn’t include distasteful lyrics.
In addressing the lyrical content of rap music it is clear that the lyrics have changed over time but the writers have been influenced by their beliefs, experiences and the commercial nature of the music industry. The analysis also reveals that, despite the stereotypical “hardcore” tag imposed by industry executives, not all rap music contains distasteful lyrics such as misogyny.
Edwards, P. 2009. How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC. Chicago: Chicago Review Press.
Gross, Terry. 1992. Rapper Melle Mel: Delivering ‘The Message’. Fresh Air. podcast radio interview. Washington: NPR, August 4. http://www.npr.org/2005/08/29/4821649/rapper-melle-mel-delivering-the-message
Mitchell, T. 2006. “The New Corroboree”. Meanjin Blak Times Special Issue 56 (1): 21.
Macquarie Concise Dictionary. 2009. 5th ed. Sydney: Macquarie Dictionary Publishers Pty Ltd.
Weitzer, R. and C. Kubrin. 2009. “Misogyny in Rap Music: A Content Analysis of Prevalence and Meanings”. Men and Masculinities 12 (3): 3-26. http://jmm.sagepub.com/content/12/1/3