The use of Metaphor in Rap Lyrics

“Time is money and money is time,So I keep 7 o’clock in the bank
and gain interest in the hour of God… ”
-Saul Williams
Some people think of a metaphor as nothing more than the fancy speech in poems and songs. In fact, all of us speak, write, and even think in metaphors every day. As defined, a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a comparison is made between two different things that have something in common. For example, calling a person an “early bird” or a “night owl” are common metaphoric phrases. We can also find metaphors in advertising slogans such as “Life is a journey, travel it well” by United Airlines, or “Life is a journey. Enjoy the ride” by Nissan. In the poem “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost, he makes several metaphoric references. When we think of life as purposeful, we think of it having destinations and paths towards those destinations which makes life a journey.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

 

The word “metaphor” comes from the Greek word metapherin, which literally means “to transfer.” It transfers meaning from one word to another. People use metaphors every day in normal speech. If someone says, “Bob is a pig when he eats”, they would be using this expression to say that Bob transforms himself into a pig when he has food but actually saying that Bob has common characteristics associated with pigs when he eats. Therefore, Bob is greedy and messy with food. A metaphor is a figure of speech which can make an implicit or implied comparison between two things.

 

In a recent article on www.corrections.com, the idea that metaphors or the use of metaphor’s as motivational tools have been used for centuries. Ironically, motivational metaphors are exclusively designed for battle just like rap. It’s a learned trick to know which words stimulate the subconscious mind. Eloquent words can trigger the mind and the soul. In sentences, we also find metaphors: “He was a speeding bullet”; “A sea of trouble”; or “Drowning in debt.” Two nouns that are compared or contrast each other: “I am a rainbow”; “The world is a stage”; and “Her eyes are diamonds.” It is a type of analogy by which we begin to understand something that is difficult to interpret. Metaphors can function positively or negatively. They help us to create meaning and understanding. The power of metaphors is in the way that they change the subject by bringing new thinking and ideas, extending and changing the way that a person thinks about something.

 

Similes can also be found just about anywhere. Unlike metaphors that compare two different things, similes compare two things that are alike in some way. To distinguish a simile from a metaphor, the words “like” or “as” are typically used. Similes can certainly make language more descriptive. They are known to add humor, creativity, and even seriousness. The use of similes can also be confusing, because they will interpret the words literally. This is why metaphors are used more often in hip-hop music. Metaphors are stronger than similes or analogies, as the vehicle holds more weight than the subject it replaces. Some common similes are:

 

Cute as a button, comparing the way someone looks to the way a button looks.

Busy as a bee, comparing someone’s energy level to that of a fast bee.

As blind as a bat, indicating that a person cannot see any better than a bat.

 

Although there are five common types of metaphors, the two major types are extended metaphors and mixed metaphors. Extended metaphors are those that claim similarity between two things, but also goes forth and compares the various aspects of both things. It can be considered as a metaphor within another metaphor. For example, from “Mean and Vicious” by Lupe Fiasco:

“I’m just runnin’ with a barrel full of black powder / With a hole init holdin’ it wheezin’ deep breathin’ / Runnin’ from the fire on the trail I keep leavin’ / I can’t shake it I swear it’s heart seekin’ / I keep seekin’ somewhere to hide from it, duck and drive from it / But it keep keepin’ up just when I think that I’ve done it / It keep sneakin’ up / On leakin’ barrel of black powder how that flame keep reachin’ us.”

Mixed metaphors involve the joint appearance of unrelated metaphors or that of a metaphor and a simile. Some common ones are:

“He’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

“I am watching you like you were a hawk.”

“She wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot pole.”

“A loose tongues spoils the broth.”

“I can read him like a book.”

“It’s time to grab the bull by the horns and look him in the eye.”

 

Rap is generally considered to have been pioneered in New York’s South Bronx in 1973 by Kool DJ Herc. At a Halloween party, Herc used an innovative turntable technique to stretch a song’s drum break by playing the break portion of two identical records consecutively. Rap itself – the rhymes spoken over hip-hop music – began as a commentary on ability while the DJ played records. Going back even further, rap stems from rhyming games. African American slaves used this as a way to pass the scrutiny of suspicious overseers. Rhyming games allowed slaves to use their creative intellect to foster inspiration and entertainment. For example, by characterizing the slave as a rabbit and the master as a fox, these disguised stories of outwitting their masters and escaping plantations. Hip-hop journalist Davey D connects this African oral tradition to modern rap: “You see, the slaves were smart and they talked in metaphors. They would be killed if the slave masters heard them speaking in unfamiliar tongues. So, they did what modern-day rappers do – they flexed their lyrical skills.”

 

Rappers use many different rhyming techniques but mostly metaphors. They make storytelling a key component of their art, and emphasize the spirit of competition once central to poetry. Metaphors can be a wonderful added feature on its own and carries over once the song is over. Many rap artists are able to offer listeners fresh observations through marginalized voices. Their metaphors are generally specific to the subculture that either adopts them from the dominant culture or forces them to address their own cultural needs. The rapper Scarface uses the metaphor of the block to describe impoverished, urban African-American neighborhoods; ones that are frequently referenced as “the projects,, “the crib”, and “the bricks.”

 

“My metaphors are Meta-FIVE” -Ras Kass

The metaphor is important because it enables rappers to express ideas and meanings that are difficult, if not impossible to express in literal speech. This is what separates the metaphor and simile. It also distinguishes one rapper apart from another. The metaphor is the creative tool that defines their persona. They can vividly describe a mood, place, or possession. They also give people new understandings of their collective experience and new meanings to their past, their daily lives, and their beliefs. New metaphors create a new reality for both the listener and the rapper; they cause both to understand their experiences in a different way.

 

Rappers embrace the qualities of rhythm and rhyme, making ample use of similes and metaphors. They want to create a scene that gives the listener a small portrait of what they are saying. Metaphors allow that feeling to take place are therefore a more persuasive tool. Metaphors carry more power than a simile, because it is more direct. And that’s why it works. Using “like” or “as” to make an open comparison can often diminish the strong visual they are trying to paint in the listener’s mind.

 

tupac_me_andmygirlfriendThe late rapper Tupac never allowed his intelligence to disconnect him from his audience. He rarely used metaphor as part of his lyrics. The one outlier is  “Me and My Girlfriend”, where the entire song is an extended metaphor to compare his gun to a girlfriend. “Me and my girlfriend, hustling, fell in love with the struggle / Hands on the steering wheel, blush while she bail out busting.” Tupac’s “girlfriend” (gun) “bails” (jumps) out of the car, meaning that his is shooting bullets through the window.

After Tupac’s death, the “conscious rapper” was not embraced right away. They were least threatening but eventually welcomed in the streets due to their remarkable use of similes and metaphors. Rappers such as Common, Outkast, Mos Def, and even Kanye West emerged with brilliance because they capitalized off creating contrast with their rhymes. Recently, Kendrick Lamar burst onto the scene who focused on human nature. Andre 3000, from Outkast, stated in his track, “A Day in the Life of Benjamin Andre”, “yeast was the street.” The bread theme comes in when Andre tells of his decision to give up alcohol and change his musical style.

In Common’s track “1-9-9-9”, he says “street ministry, my poetry’s a penitentiary…” It was a grammar lesson for other rappers who talk about similes but actually mean metaphors. Another use of metaphors is Common’s track “I Use to Love H.E.R.”, describing a woman as a metaphor for hip-hop. He claimed that it was an acronym for “Hearing Every Rhyme” which is a direct call to hip-hop heads, insisting that they listen very carefully and critically. Common uses the extended metaphor of the woman to allude to the trends of misogyny and violence. Common compares hip-hop to this time to an increasingly degraded woman is clear. The first verse of “I Used to Love H.E.R.”:

Common_used_to_love_her“I met this girl, when I was ten years old

And what I loved most she had so much soul

She was old school, when I was just a shorty

Never knew throughout my life she would be there for me on the regular

Not a church girl she was secular

Not about the money, no studs was mic checkin her

But I respected her, she hit me in the heart

A few New York brothas had did her in the park

But she was there for me, and I was there for her

And just cool out, cool out and listen to her

Sittin on a bone, wishin that I could do her

Eventually, if it was meant to be, then it would be

Because we related, physically and mentally

And she was fun then, I’d be geeked when she’d come around

Slim was fresh yo, when she was underground

Original, pure untampered and down sister

Boy, I tell ya, I miss her”

Mos Def is another socially-conscious rapper that makes excellent use of metaphors. In his song, “Hip Hop”, he says “luxury tenements choking the skyline / It’s low life getting treetop high.” Though the real-life image of skyscrapers are built among New York’s lower income neighborhoods is a product of outside money. In a metaphoric sense, hip hop stars are equally to blame with themselves becoming the sky scrapers, the “low life getting treetop high” and allowing their own environments to be overlooked.

In a rap by Young Jeezy featuring Kanye West, he uses metaphors and figurative language to compare attracting a woman, having a big car, money/hustling to things such as napkins, fast food servings, celery & asparagus and birthday cake. Nas’ song “Fried Chicken” is talking about self-destructive appetites and behaviors, especially those related to diet and sexuality. So, it’s a song about self-shaming that comes from liking the things that you like when you know they are bad for you. The song goes from giving the impression it’s about a woman to giving the impression it’s about the food. Then, pulling those thoughts apart and looking at the social problems. The most recognized socially-conscious rapper KRS-One views capitalism as a metaphor when he speaks about audits by the pimp (the Internal Revenue Service). He explains that the song “Who Are The Pimps?” is about the “IRS Capitalism is a pimp and ho system…The IRS don’t care if you’re white or black.”

 


Chino_XL_

Chino XL at Toads Place, New Haven, CT, March 2012” by Jimdabomb New Haven, CT Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Chino XL’s “Wordsmith” is another track that has clever use of metaphoric symbolism. In this song, he says “I was burned at the stake / Metaphor Mephistopheles…” and is referring himself as the metaphorical version of Mephistopheles, a demon featured in German folklore and sometimes believed to be the devil himself. He also compares himself to Michelangelo with “I’m the Michelangelo of syllable.” Throughout, Chino XL makes comparisons with he rhyming ability and the female organs. He points out that not only does the word umbilical sounds like biblical but suggesting that it’s almost an unbelievable concept.

“Fed through an umbilical don’t that sound Biblical

I’ve been a terror since I teareth out of the u-ter-us”

This double meaning stretching the word “uterus” is making it sound like “You tear us.” All the references to him being a wordsmith compared to the female organs is creative. The entire track is has significant and creative wordplay.

 

 

Rapper Jay Z compares himself to Superman in his track, “Kingdom Come”: “Now I’m enlightened I might glow in the dark/ I been up in the office you might know him as Clark / Just when you thought the whole world fell apart / I take off the blazer loosen up the tie / Step inside the booth Superman is alive.” In constructing rhymes, rappers are cognizant of their community’s concerns about every day issues. Some are focused on specific topics ranging from feminist issues, police brutality, and nationalist themes. Lauryn Hill prompts her audiences to listen to the “Mixture where hip-hop meets scripture. Develop a negative into a positive picture” in the song “Everything is Everything” (1998).

 

Kendrick Lamar provided us with an amazing single, “Swimming Pools” that received a lot of radio attention. The track speaks heavily about alcohol – the highs and lows of consuming it. He also points out how people in his 25 year old age group seem to be focused on drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. An excerpt from the lyrics hone in on the theme:

“Why you babysittin’ only 2 or 3 shots?

I’ma show you how to turn it up a notch

First you get a swimming pool full of liquor, then you dive in it

Pool full of liquor then dive in it

I wave a few bottles, then I watch em all flock

All the girls wanna play Baywatch

I got a swimming pool full of liquor and they dive in it.”

The hook of the “Swimming Pools” track points out the flaw in his audience’s mindset about alcohol. He delivers a very subtle message to his fans critiquing how no one seems to casually drink anymore and that the people who fill the clubs and parties across America are typically bent on drinking to get wasted. Blackalicious’ track “Eve of Destruction” gives us several metaphoric references such as, “Rap is like an insect crushed that I be steppin in”, “I’m coming at ya busting at ya like a sawed off bit.” In the second verse, “Fit condition lyricism like Jack Lalanne / My main point is to show you I’m the jiz-oint.”

 

Rap is more interesting with the use of metaphors. If a rap song was pizza – if there were no pepperoni or spices, the pizza would taste bland. Adding toppings and a variety of spices, however, gives your “food” some flavor. Metaphors can cause the listener to do some research. They encourage the listener to use their own imagination or interpret words in their own way. Metaphors can also be used when a rapper feels as if there is no other way to express what they want to say. It’s a way to be creative and not say the same thing repetitively.

 

Metaphors can be used as a verbal attack in rap. With real lyricists, you may have to hear it several times before you catch every metaphor. They give way to the punchline. In “Word of Mouth”, the “playground emcee” is described who’s original proving grounds were they “freestyle battle and live in the street performance” making the punchline “indispensable to getting a crowd open.”

 

Metaphors can be prophetic. Metaphors can show beauty or ugliness. However, they allow rappers to be redefined, limitless, and fearless. Reciting lyrics in a indirect way is a mark of intelligence. This is particularly important for socially-conscious rappers. It’s not easy! But it’s the thing that differentiates one MC from all the others. Another important element to hip-hop lyrics is the connection of material to things of interest. Some may say that you cannot replace proper grammar and English with rap lyrics. This may be true. However, metaphors allow all of us to make our own references to what we know to be reality.

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