Have you ever wondered what it meant to “do like a toaster put your bread down,” or what Bone Thugs-n-Harmony is even saying half the time? Have you then questioned why a serious scholar such as yourself would waste time Googling hip-hop lyrics instead of reviewing your conference notes? A visit to RapGenius.com might just convince you that it’s okay to pursue a love of gangsta rap along with an advanced degree at a prestigious institution. In fact, the two interests may even go together like models and bottles.
Don’t tell Harold Bloom, but the lyrical feats of rappers like Raekwon have proven eminently worthy of literary analysis. A successful career in hip-hop requires more than an affinity for girls, cash, and cars. Rappers must employ a sharp wit, an acute sense of rhythm, and a highly developed allusive structure. Lil Wayne’s enigmatic “Who dat one dat do dat boy?” has left many a listener rhythmically entranced but utterly unsure of the question, much less the answer. And Cam’ron’s “But la de da de / We like to party” sounds achingly familiar…but is that elusive allusion just an illusion?
RapGenius.com (formerly, with a nominal nod to biblical hermeneutics, RapExegesis.com) delves into the most opaque of rap’s lyrical mysteries. The extensive index of annotated songs, while not quite comprising a critical edition to the complete works of rap, is likely to alleviate any itching textual anxieties; you’ll need no longer fret about the origins of that Cam reference. And unlike an unwieldy multivolume Pléiade, the site isn’t just for devotees (nor will it cost you half your stipend). Offering everything from the iconic Jay-Z to the more obscure Southern group The Clipse, RapGenius invites curious converts without preaching to the choir, guiding neophyte and initiate alike through the semiotic labyrinth of rap. Just click on the hyperlinked text to reveal instant enlightenment: behind “Beef: I hammer mine / When I get my hands on nines” lies “A double entendre: a butcher ‘hammers’ ground beef; Cam’ron settles ‘beef’ – disagreements – with his ‘hammer’ – his (in this case nine millimeter) gun.” If only reading Milton worked like this.
Sites like RapGenius have, however, sparked some controversy. If rap lyrics need to be somehow translated, the contributors to these sites – often white and highly educated – can be seen as amateur ethnographers: without their expertise in the language of the natives, rap would be unintelligible gibberish. Such criticism, recalling the notorious Ebonics debates of the 90s, has surely not escaped the RapGenius scribes. But the assiduousness of the site’s annotations suggests that they take the language of rap, and all its aesthetic, ethical, and political implications, seriously. The genre may in some respects deserve its “bad rap” as a promoter of violence and misogyny, but RapGenius often succeeds in showing how good rap problematizes the power relations between blacks and whites, men and women, rich and poor. Feminist rap fans – and anyone in Gender & Women’s Studies – will appreciate, if not endorse, an analysis of a Lil Kim track in which she exhorts a male listener to perform a sexual act anatomically impossible within the prevailing gender paradigm. And if one aspect of the oft-off-rhymed connection between the “rap game” and the “crack game” is that both rappers and drug dealers get rich selling powerful substances with little concern for how their customers inevitably abuse their overvalued products, we can conclude that Nas doesn’t care if you are effectively “Otherizing” his language; he drives a much, much nicer car than you.
Yet RapGenius will likely remain deeply problematic for graduate students, even those who can in good faith suspend sociological skepticism: not only does it provide yet another internet distraction from coursework and research, it does so while posing as a quasi-intellectual exercise. So what if you spent the last hour trying to achieve a grasp on par with Lil Wayne’s of the exact relationship between a goon and a goblin; at least you weren’t looking at LOLcats. Come to think of it, those pidgin captions would make for a compelling case study of the internet’s impact on language…“LOLcatechism.com,” anyone?