I grew up listening to west coast Gfunk; the hardest genre of rap music. It is the reason why I am bold enough to write about the effect of lyrical Nigerian Hip hop today. I shared a room with my younger brother who was the biggest fan of Tupac shakur, he had a big wallpaper of his idol on our wall.
We didn’t have a lot so he couldn’t afford to buy a CD talk less of a disc-man to play it on. But what he could do was to write out Tupac’s lyrics word for word and learn them verbatim. We went to bed every night with conversations about the west coast vs east coast feud. Even as children barely at puberty, it was real for us.
It didn’t matter that the easily obtainable mainstream music then included only reggae/ragga, Fuji and pop. We just moved from Kano so the house was usually in a mess.
The only station we had on TV was AIT and they filled the airwaves with music from the likes of Daddy Showkey, Alariwo of Africa, Daddy Fresh, Nico Gravity and the likes. But we didn’t stop living this hip hop culture.
As the feud grew deeper and thicker, my view of rap music began to change. The Biggie and Tupac beef was a blessing to me because it was the point in my life when I got the understanding and the purpose of hop hop. The rap beef boiled over and everyone had to pick a side.
Even as a staunch west coast guy, I needed to know what was happening on the east. I was fortunate enough to listen closely to Biggie small’s Ready to D1e album. The rap album changed everything I knew about rap.
Biggie was a better lyricist than Tupac, he could pick any topic and rhyme with it. His lyrics and flow were untouchable and the way he put words made me respect the intelligence of rap and the hip hop culture.
So where would rap really be without lyrics? I lived for those rap songs that gave me assignments in decoding the word play and metaphors. Songs that had them all. From proper rhyme schemes to punch lines, poetry, storytelling delivered and a tight technique.
A painter puts paintings together with many underlying meanings, so at exhibitions, he gets to explain his ideas to interested buyers firsthand. Prospective buyers now get some form of revelation and then sign him a fat cheque.
In the same way, the lyricist puts up words in a creatively complex form that makes the listener pause, rewind, step back, increase the volume, replay and fully understand the words.
The listener is not just hearing words but creating a vivid image of what is being spoken in their head. Lyricism was the backbone upon which hip hop blossomed, from the days of party raps to skilled lyricism, the founders embraced the art in various form.
Songs were written detailing racial abuse, political struggles, how they once sold drugs on the streets to survive and police violence. The rappers i grew up listening to had something to say.
But fast forward to today and hip hop is losing its narrative, music is moving at a pace faster than Usain Bolt on steroids, such that no one is paying attention for too long. If a line is not understood on the first listen, then it is “unrelatable”.
No one cares to explore deeper meanings or unravel the beauty of the art form anymore. Most award shows have not helped this course either, most awards on our shores do not have a songwriting category.
However, the Headies, arguably Nigeria’s most prestigious music award show set up the Lyricist on the Roll category. Many of us lyrical Nigerian hip hop and rap lovers welcomed this idea.
It was seen as a reward to those that were still putting in work. When it comes to songwriting and setting lyrical standards, some rappers deserved recognition.
The category has had its fair share of controversies with Mode Nine the biggest winner bagging 7 out of the 10 editions held thus far.
But in recent times we have seen weird songs being nominated and even winning, so much so that one begins to question if that was the best the industry could offer.
There have been debates as to the importance of lyrics in today’s music. Its an era when all you need to have a hit record is a heavy beat suited for the dance floor, a melodious and catchy sing along hook. We are in the age of great beats and empty artist. But the problem with this is the transient life cycle of the song.
Yes it pops for a while but like fast food, the effect is short lived. In the words of legendary rapper, Common,
“our music is the cuts that we bleed through”
But when the music is not saying anything, what then is its use? We need the lyrical nigerian hip hop artistes. I am talking of the Boogeys, the Show Dem Camps and the Mode Nines. We should not allow their artwork d1e in frustration. It is a raw skill that should be appreciated. We must not be quick to tag them boring or be impatient to connect with their message.
The lyricist not only tells a story but ensures that the music is a complete product. Not just one slice of the pizza. When the beat is right, the melody comes good and you get heavy messages laden verses rendered, then you have experienced the entirety of the surreal art form of rap.
Lyricism also gets the debate going, the argument about who is the greater emcee stems from the topics the artist have preached through their lyrics. Fans continue to argue over who was a better rapper between Biggie and Pac. #
There is still no conclusion on “Ether” vs “Takeover”, Remy Ma released “ShETHER” dissing Nicki Minaj and rolled back the years on a forgotten career.
Most hip hop heads hold the likes of Nas and Rakim in high regards even though their songs have not exactly popped on the mainstream. That is the power of lyricism, it transcends beyond the present.
If the music is important to you, then take time out to consume the lyrics, no need to be in a rush to criticize it or pass a verdict after one listen. There are layers to some lyrics that only multiple and purposeful listens will decipher.
Yes at times it will be simple and basic, like Mode Nine on “Cry” and Nas on “I Can”. Yet on other occasions, the emcee will seek to test his growth with complex artistry like Nas on “Rewind” and Mode Nine did on “Pentium IX”.