When it comes to hip-hop I’m old school. The first album I ever owned was Bigger and Deafer (BAD) by LL Cool J. Then I added the Lords of the Underground’s Here Come the Lords. My early love for hip-hop was fuelled by two people. First, my older sister Karen who introduced to me East Coast rap from Salt and Peppa, De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, to Nas and Mobb Deep. My second influence was my piano teacher’s son who had two turntables, a record collection, and posters of MCs like Brand Nubian, Big Daddy Kane, Mony Luv and Special Ed in his room. I eventually went on to have my own relationship with hip-hop. I had just about every Wu-tang and Nas album, and the ones I didn’t get was because my sister owned them. Although I had a brief love affair with West Coast hip-hop when Snoop and Dr. Dre came out with Doggystyle and The Chronic, I always gravitated towards the lyricism and consciousness of New York hip-hop.
From the 1980’s to the late 1990’s lyrics grew increasingly clever and complex when it comes to rhyming and symbolism. The early 2000’s had some bright spots with Jay-Z, Nas, Outkast and Eminem and today MCs like J. Cole, Fabolous, Kendrick Lamar, Astro and Shad are throwbacks to the classic days of hip-hop, but overall there’s been a decline in lyrics that make you think or rhymes that make your jaw drop. It seems as though we’ve traded our love for great lyrics with a love for great beats, but the two can and should co-exist.
Wu-tang member GZA, aka the Genius, recently came out with a piece for medium.com called The Lost Art of Lyricism where he talks about the decline of lyricism.
“I’m sure there are great lyricists out there today, but when you look at mainstream hip-hop, lyricism is gone. There are some artists out there that think they’re great storytellers, but they’re not. Nowadays there are certain things I don’t hear anymore from rappers: I haven’t heard the word “MC” in so long; I haven’t heard the word “lyrical.” A lot of rappers think they’re hardcore or say they’re from the streets and there’s that thing where they always say, ‘I live what I rhyme about, I rhyme about what I live.’ But you don’t always have to do that. Because for me it’s not about telling the story — it’s about weaving the tale.”
As an elder statesman of hip-hop, GZA brings a welcomed perspective on how the art form began and how has it has evolved. As an old school fan my hope is that we can get back to basics and bring the art and message back into hip-hop. With rappers like Lecrae reaching #1 on the Billboard 200 and packing out arenas I can only conclude one thing- the fans are ready.
Click here to read the full GZA article The Lord Art of Lyricism.
By Kevin Bourne