In 1991, Elvis Mitchell, National Public Radio’s Weekend entertainment reporter, interviewed Spike Lee for Playboy magazine. “Lee,” Mitchell informed his readers, “has made my life miserable for the past couple of months”:
[I]nvariably, in phone-tag intramurals preceding our meetings, every message Lee left on my answering machine began with those deathless words, followed by his trademark cackle.
The “deathless words” that unnerved Mitchell were not Lee’s own. Gleefully the filmmaker quoted a canonical hip-hop insult, the opening lines of Public Enemy’s celebrated stanza from “Fight the Power,” rapped by Chuck D and made internationally famous by Lee’s film, “Do the Right Thing”:
Elvis was a hero to most,
but he never meant shit to me, you see.
Straight out racist, that sucker was, simple and plain.
Clinching the rhyme, Flavor Flav adds, “Mother fuck him and John Wayne.” “Fight the Power” employs a sledgehammer rhyme, blunt and heavy, but does so with surprising delicacy. The monosyllabic rhymes, “me” / “see,” and “plain” / “Wayne,” are linguistically uncomplicated, as if simply revealing a hard truth, a “simple and plain” fact. The lines, though, powerfully develop a rather intricate pattern, as the epithets build in vehemence, until sealed with the final insult, one of the very coarsest that English offers. Chuck D’s lines move from the opening honorific “hero,” mentioned twice, to a series of denigrations that assault Elvis as “shit,” “racist,” and “sucker.” Each lowers Elvis’s status until Flavor Flav’s line obliterates it. The final rhyme adds vehemence to these harsh dismissals. It embodies the anger that the words express.
“Poetry of bad personal feeling, insult, revenge,” observes Robert Pinsky, “It’s central to the art.” It is marginal, though, to the art of contemporary poetry. Insult flourishes in rhyming cultures, whether in nonliterary venues such as Turkish boys’ rhyming duels and American playgrounds, or particular literary eras. In Augustan satire, a literary historian notes, “abuse is made art: a hyperbole of insult is wedded to a malicious realism,” while another scholar describes the Restoration’s “idiom of insult and injury,” “the verbal, even physical, violence that often defined the life of letters in late seventeenth-century London.” Such strategies revise a longer practice. In the early modern “culture of slander,” for instance, rhymed verse so frequently served as a vehicle for slander that “defamation” was “increasingly associated with poetry.” In such eras, insult verse represents a major genre in English-language poetry as well as a challenge to many high-minded justifications of the art. Few contemporary print-based poets, though, write insult verse. In a historical moment when a certain mode dominates poetry, namely, lyric charac- terized by meditative sensitivity, it is easy to forget how many of the language’s canonical authors—including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Pope, Dryden, and Yeats—wrote scabrous, mean-spirited verse. If “[p]oetry of bad personal feeling, insult, revenge” is “central to the art,” hip-hop artists, not contemporary poets, claim the center.
Committed to rhyme, hip-hop artists explore how the technique’s structures and properties serve insult verse’s combative ambitions. “Rhyme,” Roman Jakobson observed in a classic formulation, “is only a particular, condensed case of a much more general, we may even say the fundamental, problem of poetry, namely parallelism.” Insult verse employs parallelism in order to sharpen an opposition. One element discredits the other as the rhyme insists on the essential difference of two similar elements. “Fight the Power,” for instance, sets in opposition “most” and “me,” those who celebrate Elvis as a “hero” and the figure of Chuck D who condemns him. Finishing the rhyme, Flavor Flav seals the distinction as the rhyme marks a shared value against a morally skewed world. “People, people we are the same,” Chuck D raps, only to turn against this tolerant view, “No, we’re not the same / Cause we don’t know the game.” In much insult verse, the technique forms a barrier as well as an invitation. Rhyme intensifies and illuminates antagonisms; it separates like-minded individuals from their opponents, claiming allies and abusing adversaries.
To do so, hip-hop insult verse exploits rhyme’s basic unfairness. In one of its great strengths, insult rhyme need not explain; it insinuates, calling to mind unsavory associations without fully acknowledging them. When Spike Lee rapped “Fight the Power” into Mitchell’s answering machine, the critic’s first name, “Elvis,” made him an easy target. In one sense, Lee opportunistically turns Mitchell’s name into nonsensical taunt, based in nothing more than the coincidence that Mitchell shares it with Presley. Public Enemy targets the singer, not the reporter. The borrowed words, though, cut deeper. When Lee raps, “Elvis was a hero to most / But he never meant shit to me, you see,” he distinguishes between himself and Mitchell’s parents, for whom Elvis presumably meant a great deal, enough, perhaps, to name their child after him or at least to have their child share Presley’s name. Like Lee, Mitchell is black, yet he bears the name of a man whom Public Enemy dismisses as “Straight out racist, that sucker was, simple and plain.” Repeating the rhyme, Lee contrasts the Mitchell family’s putative self-hatred with the racial pride that Public Enemy promotes. If, as Chuck D later explained, “The attack was directed toward the institution of Elvis,” Lee places Mitchell within that institution. In the song’s terms, the rhyme positions Mitchell as part of the “power” that we must “fight.” Just as Lee never explicitly states the quotation’s point, he need not finish the insult verse to let the rhyme do its work. Such insinuations, unstated and therefore nearly impossible to rebut, prove maddening. In insult verse, the accuracy of the charge matters less than its confident presentation. To be assertive is to be right; to be memorable is to win. Exploiting such unfair rules, Lee’s needling performance, punctuated with a cackle, achieved the desired effect of making Mitchell’s “life miserable.”
As in this example, rhyme’s sound structures make an insult hard to laugh off, no matter how inaccurate. Rhyme, Schopenhauer observed, inspires “blind consent to what is read … and this gives the poem a certain emphatic power of conviction.” The technique adds a persuasive rhetorical force that may escape the reader’s conscious attention. Rhyme makes words sound persuasive, regardless of what they mean. Consider Run-D.M.C.’s famous boast:
I stepped on stage, at Live Aid.
All the people gave and the poor got paid.
The couplet features a synonym-rhyme, with the rhyme-words, “Live Aid” and “paid,” rendered as equivalent. “Live Aid” means the “poor got paid.” The assertion sounds correct, unarguably and assuredly so, as the confident rhyme clinches the argument. In Schopenhauer’s terms, the rhyme exacts the listener’s “blind consent.” Based in a sonic coincidence, Run-D.M.C.’s rhyme performs a neat trick: it achieves an air of inevitability and correctness precisely as it evades a serious objection. Investigating how international agencies distributed Live-Aid-funded relief in Ethiopia, David Rieff laments, “[T]there is no necessary connection between raising a lot of money for a good cause and spending that money well.” As Rieff notes, controversies remain over how many lives the aid saved and how many deaths it hastened, due to the government’s use of these funds for their own purposes. Given such questions, the couplet more accurately might read:
I stepped on stage, at Live Aid.
All the people gave, but the poor weren’t paid.
The revised couplet suggests rhyme’s essential arbitrariness: the rhyme-pair might advance one argument or the opposite. Run-D.M.C recorded “My Adidas” within a year of Live Aid, expressing the moment’s optimism; the rhyme presents a hope as a realized fact. It affirms a missing connection, making an arguable point seem self-evident. The artful rhyme shows how easily a fictive technique passes as the bearer of truth.
Rhyme works well for insult verse because it seeks to provoke a reaction, not prove a point. Rhymes protest and enliven previous ones by creating new uses: new distinctions, agreements, and contestations. A successful rhyme demands another. “Fight the Power” draws from Clarence Reid, who performed outrageously cartoonish, sexually explicit songs under the name of Blowfly. (“You is nastier than a blowfly,” he reports his grandmother saying to him.) In his best-known song, “Rap Dirty,” Blowfly describes a black trucker dueling with the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan:
He said, “Come on, boy, let’s have a drink.”
Those rednecks in the corner started getting’ up outta their seats,
carryin’ big clubs, wearin’ white sheets.
He said, “Listen nigger man,
I’m the grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan.”
He said, “There’s no nigger badder than me.
Motherfuckers you and Muhammad Ali.”
“I reversed the charges,” Chuck D remembers, meaning that, when he wrote “Fight the Power,” he borrowed the syntax and structure of Blowfly’s line, but redirected the insult so the black speaker attacks a white racist, instead of a white racist attacking the black speaker. The lines, though, perform more than a simple reversal. The borrowed syntactical structure carries significant power; a line starting with an active trochaic verb bursts with grammatical and metrical energy. In “Fight the Power,” the aggressive syntactical structure amplifies the anger that the obscenity conveys. The rhyme also records the lines’ genealogy. Public Enemy’s introduction, “but he never meant shit to me, you see,” rhymes with Blowfly’s opening, “He said, “There’s no nigger badder than me.” The sound marks a train of association, an affinity. As hip hop developed in the 1980s, Blowfly formed a model for a generation of artists who followed his injunction to “rap dirty”; they parodied popular songs with raunchy versions, crafting apprentice exercises designed to gain attention in the underground music scene. Blowfly inspired Public Enemy differently. More earnest than bawdy, the rappers use Blowfly’s scatological techniques in order to register outrage. They employ the language deliberately, reserving the curse Blowfly freely employs for a crucial moment. Whereas “Dirty Rap” refers a half-dozen times to “motherfucker,” “Fight the Power” does so once in order to level its most provocative charge, “Mother fuck him and John Wayne.” In “Rap Dirty,” the scatological language forms the norm. In his outlandish parodies the languages satirizes the very notion of good taste. In “Fight the Power” the same word conveys a moral force. “Fight the Power” uses rhyme against an rhyme; it fights another use of the same technique. In the following lines, Public Enemy defines its artistic ambition:
“Don’t Worry Be Happy” was a number one jam.
Damn, if I say it, you can slap me right here.
(Get it) Let’s get this party started right.
While it refers to McFerrin’s song with journalistic specificity, “Fight the Power” makes no mention of its immediate inspiration: the title song of Paul Simon’s album, “Graceland,” winner of the 1988 Grammy for Record of the Year, which depicts a pilgrimage to Presley’s home. The omission signals a certain disdain. Simon remains simply one of the “most” to whom Elvis served as “a hero.” By not naming Simon, Public Enemy treats him as unexceptional and uninteresting, no more than one example of a broader pattern. Few listeners, though, failed to recognize the song as an attack on Simon’s “Graceland,” which prominently celebrated Elvis as a cultural hero. Public Enemy treats McFerrin as a proxy for Simon, an easier target that Simon’s more allusive, sophisticated rhyming. The substitution deepens the insult, presenting “Don’t Worry Be Happy” as indistinguishable from “Graceland.”
A focus for the group’s anger, “Don’t Worry Be Happy” represents the kind of “party music” that Public Enemy disdains. In McFerrin’s song, rhyme reinforces the carefree attitude that the lines promote; the technique adds a tone of willed blitheness. The song opens:
Here’s a little song I wrote.
You might want to sing it note for note.
In every life we have some trouble.
When you worry you make it double.
Don’t worry, be happy …
The speaker repeats the rhymes as if to hold off his unspecified difficulties; to mention them would accept their reality. Ferrin’s rhymes soothe and alleviate the “trouble” he and his listeners’ endure. Public Enemy ridicules this stance, turning Ferrin’s words against him. In a strategy familiar to insult verse, one rhyme discredits another by making it sound wrong. When Public Enemy rhymes “Happy” and “slap me,” they transform Ferrin’s key word into a joke. The antonym rhyme rejects Ferrin’s advice; instead of calm serenity, Public Enemy values excitement: “I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped,” another line heatedly announces, piling adjectives upon each other. Like the action it describes, a man begging his friend to slap him if he ever utters the seemingly innocuous words, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” the mosaic rhyme exaggerates its stance into comedy. Cobbling together three words into a rhyme pair, the couplet sounds both menacing and playful. Even more than the line that follows, it announces Public Enemy’s aim to create an alternative form of party music, neither escapist nor simply vulgar, neither “Don’t Worry Be Happy” nor “Rap Dirty.” The rhyme, though, does not carry the incendiary power of the earlier lines. Buried within the verse, it remains only faintly heard. Instead, the song’s louder, sharper rhymes provoked the greatest reaction, challenges which reinforced their canonical status. Two examples suggest how insult rhymes demand responses, how an attack proves the original rhyme’s power. In “Elvis is Dead,” Living Color quoted “Fight the Power” in order to qualify its claim:
Elvis was a hero to most
But that’s beside the point.
A black man taught him how to sing
and then he was crowned king.
Such rhymes reinforce Public Enemy’s lines, instead of displacing them. Living Color quotes the opening of the passage in “Fight the Power,” but, at the moment where Public Enemy personalizes the issue, “he never meant shit to me,” Living Color strikes a cooler, more impersonal tone. Their anti-climactic second line eschews rhymes in order to offer a qualifying aside, “But that’s beside the point.” In the following couplet, fourteen monosyllabic words list an accusation. Instead of the aggressive syntax and language that Public Enemy borrows from Blowfly, Living Color uses a blander compound construction. They seek to correct the record, a stance that insult verse poorly serves. Public Enemy’s lines sting; Living Color’s verse quibbles.
Pursing a craftier strategy, U2 borrows a rhyme to revise the words’ meanings. In “Elvis Ate America,” U2 recasts Chuck D’s insult into doggerel:
Elvis … the public enemy
Elvis … don’t mean shit to Chuck D.
Elvis … changed the center of gravity.
In a seemingly casual phrase, U2 calls Elvis “the public enemy.” As the definite article suggests, Elvis defined this outlaw identity. The ordering is crucial; as in the rhyme, Elvis precedes Chuck D. The rhyme identifies Elvis as the originator and his harshest critic as an imitator. “Chuck D” rhymes with “the public enemy”; the rapper wants to place himself in opposition to Presley, but the rhyme insists that he comes second. Chuck D may protest that “Elvis” “don’t mean shit” to me, but the rhyme records Chuck D’s indebtedness, making the group’s swaggering name sound almost laughable. When the rapper calls himself a “public enemy,” he unwittingly pays homage to the singer he attacks.
U2’s rhyme treads lightly along a racial divide. The debate extends beyond the question of whether Elvis unfairly appropriated certain elements of black culture; it includes the very notion of rhyme itself. Rhyme has long been associated with African-American culture and its most prominent forms of artistic expression. In his landmark study, Negro Folk Rhymes: Wise and Otherwise, Thomas W. Talley, often credited as the first African-American folklorist, observed, “That the Negro of savage Africa has the rhyme-making habit and probably has always had it, and thus the American Negro brought this habit with him to America.” Using different terms, more recent scholarship traces a line of artistic and cultural development that runs through African griots, toasts, preaching traditions, playing the dozens, and musical forms such as soul, funk, blues, and hip hop. “The love of rhyme,” the folklorist Daryl Cumber Dance concludes, “is a given in Black communities.” While “[t]he love of rhyme” might constitute a cultural “given,” the technique does not remain solely within Black communities. Rhymes cross races and travel distances, open to new inflections, whether deferential, playful, or hostile. Paradoxically, this mobility intensifies the technique’s ability to summon racial allegiances.
Alan Vinegrad, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, showed a keen appreciation of this potential when he prosecuted Lemrick Nelson Jr. The case endured a long and complicated history, driven by New York’s racial, religious, and political tensions. In August 1991 a car driven by an Orthodox Jew following the motorcade of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the head of the Lubavitch Hasidic Court, struck two black children, killing a seven-year-old boy and seriously injuring his young cousin. News quickly spread through the Crown Heights neighborhood, an overwhelmingly black community where Lubavitch Jews comprised a small but highly visible minority. A crowd gathered at the accident scene, angered by the incident and what they saw as preferential treatment that the neighborhood’s Jews received. Four days of rioting followed. A few hours after the accident, Yankel Rosenbaum, a yeshiva student, was stabbed; the next morning he died. The police arrested Lemrick Nelson Jr., a black teenager, after he was found wearing bloody pants and carrying a bloody knife. In 1992 a jury acquitted Nelson on state murder charges. Amidst much legal wrangling, in 1997 Nelson was tried in federal court for violating the civil rights of Yankel Rosenbaum.
A particular moment of courtroom theater enlivened the trial. Nelson’s attorney arranged for him to try on the pants that the government charged he wore when he killed Rosenbaum. Quickly they fell to the floor, leading Nelson’s attorney to charge that the evidence was planted. In his closing argument Vinegrad attacked this position:
What [does the defense] resort to? The baggy-pants defense. Until today the fiascoes of the case on the West Coast—I won’t mention the name—hadn’t invaded this trial. But the defense in his desperation brought it into the courtroom and paraded it before you. It turned the courtroom into the theater of the absurd. Pants don’t fit, you must acquit. That is what you would have heard from that table. You know what? They are wrong. They are baggy. Like it’s a big surprise that teenagers in Brooklyn in the 1990s would walk around with big baggy pants on. I am sure that is a big shock to everybody here.
All that Lemrick Nelson’s demonstration here proves is, he wears baggy pants. Over the last five and a half years, either these well-travelled pants have gotten stretched out a bit or he’s gotten more slender or firmer or both. Who knows? Maybe that is why the police were able to catch him, because he couldn’t run fast enough, because of holding on to these baggy jeans. I guess what I am really saying, since that California case is in the courtroom now, “If these pants don’t fit, I don’t give a .” You fill in the rest.
Vinegrad engages a rhyming battle not only with the defense but with the racially coded technique of rhyming itself. The U.S. Attorney’s words recall America’s most famous legal rhyme, Johnnie Cochran’s much-quoted recommendation to the jury in the O.J. Simpson trial, “If it [the glove] doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” After Simpson’s acquittal, some observers saw the couplet as deviously good, inspiring the jurors to ignore the case’s evidence. A writer of a grammar textbook, for instance, observed that the rhyme “worked magic” on the jurors, while a guide to persuasion cited Cochran’s rhyme, noting, “Rhyme creates believability.” By the time of Nelson’s second trial, Cochran’s rhyme had been the subject of countless parodies, some by Cochran himself. “I am unhappy to admit,” Cochran lamented, his sorrow lightened with more than a touch of pride, “that few people had done as much for truly bad rhyming as I have.” According to his self-description, Vinegrad preempts the defense’s bad rhyming, “Pants don’t fit, you must acquit. That is what you would have heard from that table,” labeling it with the cutting phrase, “The baggy-pants defense.” As with this clownish stereotype of black urban youth, a criminal caught “because he couldn’t run fast enough, because of holding on to these baggy jeans,” Vinegrad recalls a literary technique’s racial associations and recent past.
Revising Cochran’s words, Vinegrad reworks their history. His rhyme depends on the jurors’ participation in it. To introduce this task, Vinegrad mentions “the fiascoes of the case on the West Coast—I won’t mention the name.” As if the Simpson case were too indelicate to say aloud, Vinegrad does not identify it. He presents Simpson’s name as a tawdriness akin to the rhyme’s expletive “shit”: to say either would be to debase oneself as well as the court. By doing so, Vinegrad seeks to shift responsibility to the defense, who “brought it [the Simpson case] into the courtroom and paraded it before you.” Vinegrad blames the defense for the rhyme he uses.
Despite his conspicuously staged good manners, Vinegrad turned the courtroom into a venue resembling a schoolyard. Analyzing schoolyard taunts, Martha Wolfenstein shrewdly notes how rhyme diminishes the speaker’s responsibility:
What is the function of rhymes in these joking attacks? I would suggest that the first rhyming word has the effect of compelling the utterance of the second, thus reducing the speaker’s responsibility … [A] more advanced maneuver consists in inducing the victim to utter the first rhyming word, to which the joker then joins the rhymed insult. Once the first word has been spoken, it is as if the rhyming word has been commanded. There is a further reduction of responsibility in the use of the rhymed formula: The words are not my own. Moreover the rhyme is apt to induce other children to take it up; the attacker will cease to be alone.
Vinegrad’s rhyme works similarly. The rhyming formula reduces his responsibility, especially since, as he charges, the defense bears the responsibility for the rhyme. The words are not the speaker’s, the formula asserts: they belong to Cochran and to the defense (who never uttered them) since, “That is what you would have heard from that table.” As we have seen, one of rhyme’s great strengths remains its capability to work by implication, by setting in place a chain of associations without explicitly committing to any. Rhyme asks the listeners to “fill in the rest,” whether context, implication, or particular words. The sonic echo draws parallels. Vinegrad’s rhyme implies that a guilty verdict in the Nelson case would offer a judgment against Simpson, even though few connections exist between the two cases except the defendants’ race. When the jurors finish the rhyme of “fit” and “shit,” they complete the rhyme’s assertion that the Simpson defense, like the Nelson defense, was contemptible. In the couplet’s logic, to amend Cochrain’s rhyme is to correct the Simpson verdict.
While an insult rhyme summons allegiances, it also reconfigures them. Hip-hop insult rhyme urges a particular form of persuasion; it transforms the listener’s participation into an alliance. One of the most controversial hip-hop songs remains “Fuck tha Police,” recorded by N.W.A. (Niggaz with Attitude), condemned by the FBI yet often cited as one of the greatest songs of the 1980s. In a demonstration of the hard postures that rhyme projects, Ice Cube taunts the police for taunting him:
Fuckin with me cuz I’m a teenager
With a little bit of gold and a pager.
The couplet throws back an insult. The two clenched lines connect the speaker’s age with the facts that the police use to profile him—”gold and a pager,” the jewelry and technology then at the height of their popularity. Attitude carries the rhyme, a dactyl and a trochee that dares the listener to object. Its force reconfigures the speaker’s relation to the police, making them the harassed party and him the aggressor. Ice Cube’s couplet enforces a perimeter, delineating cops and “Niggaz with Attitudes.” Yet the rhyme also extends an invitation. Numerous bands composed of white musicians covered the song and countless white listeners have enjoyed it, a popularity that extends beyond blackface postures. Few of these listeners mistook themselves for black inner city youth or drug dealers hassled by cops. Articulation, though, changes a listener’s relation to the words. To say an insult rhyme is to participate in it, to claim the status of an ally. Rhyme asks for the listener to experience it, not just hear it. No matter how repellent the subject it explores or how intimidating the stance it strikes, a rhyme aims to be joined.
During the last several decades, as hip hop grew into an international phenomenon, print-based poets have neglected the genre of insult verse. In gatherings and in private conversations, many poets deftly practice related arts: they excel at the gossipy putdown and the caustic assessment of their rivals. The literary culture delights in such lively expressions of ill will. However, few contemporary masters of insult poetry exist, perhaps for the same reason that few negative reviews of poetry collections appear in print. Professional interests caution against both forms of enemy-making. Contemporary poets prefer to write blurbs, not curse rhymes and maledictions; they do not engage in fyltings or other kinds of insult battles. The last master of insult verse, J.V. Cunningham composed fastidious rhymes that preached (as his teacher Yvor Winters observed) “the doctrine of hatred, or anger,” presenting hatred as “the only cleansing emotion and the most moral of emotions.” In subject and style, Cunningham deliberately wrote against literary fashion.
When on the rare occasions that poets compose insult verse, they typically do so cagily. Consider the following poem written by Anthony Hecht from a series titled “A Little Cemetery”:
Here lies fierce Strephon, whose poetic rage
Lashed out on Viet Nam from page to stage;
Whereby from basements of Bohemia
he Rose to the lofts of sweet celebrity;
Being, by Fortune, (our Eternal Whore)
One of the few to profit by that war;
A fate he shared—it bears much thinking on—
With certain persons at the Pentagon.
Decades after publishing the poem in the short-lived journal Counter / Measures, Hecht gratefully told an interviewer who quoted the poem, “Thank you for exhum- ing those buried lines. They do indeed express my impatience of those years with indignant, sanctimonious poets.” Despite his fondness for the poem, Hecht never collected it; he allowed “the lines” to be “buried.” The verse remains nearly as discreet as its publishing history. Precisely calibrated, the verse depersonalizes the conflict, condemning a kind of poet more than a particular writer. Unlike previous classics of insult verse such as “Mac Flecknoe” or “The Duncaid,” Hecht’s verse does not disclose whom it attacks. Hecht composed the poem before the Vietnam War ended, but the poet he addresses, “Strephon,” lies in the grave, distanced from the contemporary moment. Apparently the poem’s readers appreciate its tact: a scholar of war poetry approvingly notes the poem condemns an “(fortunately unidentified) armchair poet.”
An illuminating exception, Hecht’s poem recalls how rarely contemporary poets compose similar kinds of verse, let alone harsher versions. In contrast hip-hop artists show little reluctance to engage in battle rhymes; they insult each other with great enthusiasm, inspired by both artistic and professional motivations. The most popular form of hip-hop insult verse remains the particular sub-genre that contemporary poets avoid: the attack of artistic rivals. Few hip-hop artists achieve prominence without mastering this art.
Early in his career, for instance, Jay-Z engaged in career-building battles with fellow hip-hop artists such as Tupac Shakur, Nas, and Mobb Deep. More recently, he attacked antagonists from outside hip hop, suggesting his ambition exceeded its limits. After the news leaked that Jay-Z would headline the Glastonbury music festival, Noel Gallagher, the lead singer for Oasis, complained, “I’m sorry, but Jay-Z? No chance. Glastonbury has a tradition of guitar music … I don’t know about it. But I’m not having hip-hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong.” Quickly Jay-Z seized the opportunity that these comments presented, unveiling a new song, “Jockin’ Jay-Z”:
That bloke from Oasis said I couldn’t play guitar.
Somebody should have told him I’m a fucking rock star.
Today is gonna be the day
that I’m gonna throw it back to you.
Jay-Z refutes Gallagher’s attack by shifting the terms. The rhyme couples “guitar” and “rock star,” placing the two in opposition. A conventional metonym of rock-and-roll stardom, the “guitar” suggests its opposite. While Gallagher plays the instrument, Jay-Z rhymes, a performance represented as a greater art and more glamorous lifestyle. Contemptuously Jay-Z calls Gallagher “That Bloke from Oasis,” as if unable to recall the singer’s name, assigning him the distinction of a band member, not a celebrity in his own right. “I see you jockin’ Jay-Z,” the opening line observes, setting envy as the reason for the criticism, “cuz he got a Mercedes / and you know about his ladies.” More than twenty times the song repeats the hip-hop artist’s name, never once mentioning Gallagher’s. It proclaims the hip-hop performer’s name like a champion’s, recalling that its very sound inspires admiration and envy, as “Jay-Z” rhymes with the symbols of rock star status: “Mercedes” and “ladies.” The contrast is clear. Nothing glamorous or sexy rhymes with “That Bloke from Oasis.”
The stanza’s last two lines perform another reversal. They quote Gallagher’s own words, the opening of Oasis’s hit, “Wonderwall,” “Today is gonna be the day / that I’m gonna throw it back to you.” In Oasis’s original, the lines present a dreamy putdown, so dreamy in fact that many listeners puzzle over their meaning. Jay-Z’s rendition leaves no doubt. Set after the previous insult, the lines promise a payback, which the rest of the song delivers. “Jockin’ Jay-Z,” though, does not return to Gallagher in order to offer more abuse; it treats him as irrelevant. Instead, it demonstrates what a “rock star” means. Jay-Z crafts memorable rhymes that move effortlessly between street life and elegant society. The last stanza shows how Jay-Z resembles the rhymes he crafts, inhabiting two worlds at once:
I’m so ghetto chic.
I’m where the hood and high fashion meet.
Oh, wee. I’m like camouflage Louis.
How you niggers want it? The tux or the toolie?
Haters, I ain’t mad at you.
If it wasn’t me, I’d probably jock me too.
Jay-Z rhymes language from two different spheres: “Louis” Vuitton, the French fashion house, and “toolie,” slang for a gun. Like the rhyme, Jay-Z embodies “ghetto chic,” equally at home with “the hood and high fashion.” A rock star does not need to play an instrument; he demands attention by achieving an outsized life. In the song’s central pun, “jockin’” possesses two meanings: to attack and to desire sexually. “I got models in the moshpit, “the song boasts, “dancing off beat, but they know the words to my shit.” A mixture of beauty and awkwardness, “models” approach the stage, trying to catch Jay-Z’s attention. The “haters,” the artists who wish to displace Jay-Z, work similarly; they know his songs but cannot master their art. They want his life with a longing intense as any erotic desire. Their challenge validates Jay-Z’s status because their attention confirms it. Turning this fact against Gallagher, Jay-Z treats him as an anonymous pretender, worth only a quick insult. A veteran battler, Jay-Z makes his wanna-be rival disappear.
With such deft maneuvers, Jay-Z recasts the situation into a particular kind of insult rhyme: a battle between star and hopeful. Oasis enjoys an international following; they hardly lack media coverage or public recognition. To diminish Gallagher, Jay-Z calls him as one of the “Haters,” casting Gallagher as a little-known musician who attacks a star in order to gain attention. Instead of battle between equals, Jay-Z describes a battle between the lowly and the great. The desire over fame energizes this kind of rhyme battle; the hopeful seeks the acclaim that the star possesses. In many examples, though, both participants gain from the feud, garnering record sales and attracting media attention. Setting aside such mutual benefits, they describe their interests as wholly opposed. They simplify the contest into a neat equation: one participant gains what the other loses.
In insult rhyme battles over fame, then, the participants strive to control what their and their rivals names signify. To lose power over one’s name is to suffer a profound vulnerability. No longer does the artist craft his or her identity. Instead, the least sympathetic observer defines it as cruelly and vindictively as possible. In their extensive dispute, Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown vehemently attack each other in songs and interviews, continuing an argument whose origins remain obscure even to close observers. The battle’s existence establishes its main point; it serves as a given in both artists’ musical identities. “Hot damn hoe, here we go again,” Foxy Brown quotes her rival’s insult before launching another round of attack:
Let’s be truthful, give a fuck if your album push back
or when it hit the streets, bitch, you’re still weak.
You still sound lame and my name still reign.
Such rhymes signal haughty condescension. According to Foxy Brown, her words achieve an unrivalled power while Lil’ Kim’s remain harmless. For this reason, Brown pretends not to care whether Lil’ Kim launches another attack. For this strategy to succeed, the verse must “sound” its excellence, establishing the difference between its strength and the opponent’s weakness. In the song’s own terms, this “truth” must be obvious. Brown’s rhymes, though, lack sufficient inventiveness or charm. The stances seem as indistinct as the rhyme of “lame” and “reign”; Foxy Brown neither vividly promotes herself nor undercuts her rival either through pointed insult nor inventive self-praise. The lines undercut their own assertions by promising a force they do not possess.
With her superior skills, Lil’ Kim reasserts the status that Foxy Brown seeks. Both follow a hip-hop convention. In this kind of insult rhyme, the battle of rivals, participants face members of the same gender. Members of the opposite gender primarily appear as secondary targets: figures associated with the rival but not significant in their own right. According to hip-hop’s politics, the women remain gendered; the men do not. For this reason, a man always claims the honor of the best hip-hop artist. Playing by these rules in “Came Back for You,” Lil’ Kim groups Foxy Brown with another female challenger, Eve, in order to dismiss both, “So keep your tacky ways and go back to your stripper days / As long as I’m around, you gonna bow down.” Lil’ Kim damns her rival with a rhyme both factual and malicious. (Eve admitted that she worked as a stripper before her hip-hop career developed). Never known as a model of clean living nor a wearer of tasteful attire, Lil’ Kim recasts an insult often directed at her. Naming Lil’ Kim Hollywood’s second tackiest celebrity (a runner-up to Courtney Love), Fox News cited her outrageous behavior and outfits, “[W]hen you’ve had Diana Ross fondle you on stage, posed for album covers spread-eagle and in rock clown-makeup, you have taken the Tack to another level.” Lil’ Kim’s verse brushes aside such embarrassments. The basic rhyme of “days” and “ways” emphasizes the adjectives: “tacky” and “stripper.” In this syntactical arrangement, the adjectives modify each other, presenting Eve not only as a “stripper” but a “tacky” one. The double-edged rhymes condemn Eve to her sordid past while, stylish and sly, they elevate Lil’ Kim as the embodiment of good taste.
Lil’ Kim wins the insult battle because she presents a superior self-mythology. Her verse exemplifies the greatness she claims, striking a balance of menace and self-praise. She moves easily between the two modes since each supports the other:
It’s the real hip hop. Mami, check the facts.
I’m sick of all you acts with your bubble gum raps.
Like the sand in the hour glass you out of your time.
Tried to go against the queen is you out of your mind?
Even be at number two, your chances is slim,
cause when God made Adam, he should’ve made Kim.
I gave a few passes but I never forget.
It’s enough I got to put up with this Doo Doo Brown chick.
Now you and you wanna come at me from all sides.
I’m gettin money, don’t think I just be lettin shit slide.
Lil’ Kim presents herself as the true “mami,” the top female. To claim this status, she wittily erases one rival’s name from the Bible. “Kim” replaces “Eve,” a mistake of creation, as the first women. Lil’ Kim refuses to pronounce Foxy Brown’s self-aggrandizing stage name as if unwilling to validate the flattery. Instead, she replaces “Foxy” with an image of gross physicality, making her rival’s name into an excremental caricature. Referring to herself in the third-person, Lil’ Kim boasts and taunts:
This time around either you’re in or you’re out.
This time around you better watch your mouth.
This time around you gonna hang or bang.
This time around you better do your thang,
cause I’m the best that ever done it, the best that lived it.
I ain’t no overnight success. God damnit I was born with it,
the Prada mama, the Dolce and Gabbana drippin,
the Blue Hypnotic, Martini mimosa sippin.
The rhymes grow in complexity and frequency, offering flourishes as extravagant as the luxuries she enjoys. The opening presents a stark choice, reinforced with insistent lines meant to intimidate. The final lines, though, charm. The syntax turns elaborate and the references more allusive, exemplified in the mention of a drink that an exclusive Manhattan bar serves: “the Blue Hypnotic.” The final two lines consist of names, of products rhymed into glamorous epithets. According to the song’s own claim, its artistry reveals more than cleverness, hard work, or luck. “I ain’t no overnight success,” Lil’ Kim announces, “God damnit I was born with it.” Born Kimberly Denise Jones, Lil’ Kim presents self-creation as destiny. Adjusting the terms familiar to many fairy tales, she claims the name due to her: a “queen” raised in humble obscurity. The swaggering final lines consist wholly of self-epithets pitched above the denigrations she hurls at her rivals and against those her rivals hurl at her, a seemingly eternal invective that continues as if by its own volition. They do more than rebuke pretenders. In the battle of names, Lil’ Kim’s rhymes establish her royalty.
Lil’ Kim’s “Came Back for You” shares the same basic structure as Jay-Z’s smoother rhymes and the harsh attack that “Fuck tha Police” offers: each features a series of endstopped couplets meant to be remembered. Hecht’s grand vocabulary and serpentine syntax remain deliberately august, as if untempted by “Fortune, (our Eternal Whore),” but a similar organization animates his verse. In hip hop, this strategy favors a certain articulation. “I speak clearly so you can understand,” Daddy Kane boasts while KRS-One notes clarity’s professional benefits, “I speak clearly and that’s merely / Or should I say a mere, help to my career.” Many hip-hop artists emerging in the 1980s favored this kind of rhyming. More recently, another mode has grown increasingly popular. Consider the Wu-Tang Clan’s appropriately titled “Triumph”:
I bomb atomically. Socrates’ philosophies
and hypothesis can’t define how I be droppin these
mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery,
flee with the lottery. Possibly they spotted me.
Battle-scarred shogun, explosion when my pen hits,
tremendous, ultra-violet shine blind forensics.
The rhymes aim to overwhelm possible opponents. The first four lines, for instance, contain two rhyme groups, “philosophies,” “Socrates,” “hypothesis,” “droppin these,” and “mockeries,” and “atomically,” “robbery,” “lottery,” and “spotted me.” The first group off-rhymes with second, presenting a total of nine instances in three lines. In the remarkable opening line, only two syllables line do not rhyme, dominated by the eleven syllables that do. Multiple rhymes, Schopenhauer maintained, offer “an aesthetic neoplasm, a double coverage which is of no use.” According to him, a third rhyme forms a pair with the second but connects too distantly with the first, giving the impression of two pairs of rhymes, not three rhymes of the same sound. “Triumph” turns this confusion into a strength. Instead of crafting dis- creet couplets, this kind of hip hop values speed: metaphors that abruptly shift and rhyme schemes that gain velocity. Dominating each line, such rhymes bear a violent force. Each insists on the speaker’s toughness and his eagerness to fight. Such quick rhymes leave little space for resistance; the listener strains to catch each one, let alone form a retort. The boast doubles as an insult. I can do this, the rhymes brag, and you cannot.
These hard rhymes boast of their power. Unironically the Wu-Tang Clan likens their rhymes to atom bomb explosions and shotgun blasts, extending a well-established hip-hop tradition. “[T]his ain’t a rap verse,” Wyclef Jean declares, “It’s more like a voodoo curse / So when you die kids’ll throw rocks at ya hearse.” As represented in these lines, successful rhymes drive an opponent to the grave and haunt him beyond it. Hip hop presents this startling notion as ordinary; countless songs play variations on this commonplace. “I’m going to curse you with lyrical voodoo,” T-Pain maintains, literalizing Wyclef Jean’s comparison, “My rhythms and rhymes keep niggas in line.” To express their rhymes’ authority, Wu-Tang Clan introduces a series of metaphors, Wyclef Jean proposes a simile, and T-Pain offers a flat declaration. All, though, reject the notion that rhyme functions simply as a trope. Hip-hop artists hold a different view of how poetic technique functions than do many scholars of contemporary poetry, who see rhyme as a fanciful gesture, a verse decoration, especially the kinds that many hip-hop songs favor: multisyllabic and mosaic rhymes, which print-based poets most commonly reserve for light verse. Many hip-hop artists see rhyme as possessing a fearsome authority, one that they eagerly claim. The technique represents more than a wish-fulfillment or play-acting. The rhyme completes the curse, enacting the desired result. In blunt terms, rhymes change lived reality.
In this respect, hip-hop artists are more traditional than nearly all contemporary poets and literary critics. In his book on Irish mythology, Yeats describes a mistreated traveler, a vagabond given bad lodgings. Enraged, he curses the friar whom he is told is responsible. Awaked by the noise, the friar, named Coarb, asks the lay brother what is happening:
“It is a glee man,” said the lay brother, “who complains of the sods, of the bread, of the water in the jug, of the foot-water, and of the blanket. And now he is singing a bard’s curse upon you, O brother Coarb, and upon your father and your mother, and your grandfather and your grandmother, and upon all your relations.”
“Is he cursing in rhyme?”
“He is cursing in rhyme, and with two assonances in every line of his curse.”
The friar and lay brother debate what they should do, concerned that the vagabond “will teach his curses to the children in the street, and the girls spinning at the doors, and to the robbers on the mountain of Gulben.” The lay brother proposes that they should give him “a fresh loaf, clean water in a jug, clean foot-water, and a new blanket, and make him swear” not to share his rhymes. The friar rejects the idea, explaining:
the next day the mood to curse would come upon him, or a pride in those rhymes would move him, and he would teach his lines to the children, and the girls, and the robbers. Or else he would tell another of his craft how he fared in the guest-house, and he in his turn would begin to curse, and my name would wither.
This possibility so terrifies the monks that they crucify him. This fearful respect for rhyme’s power sounded old-fashioned even to Yeats, one of the self-proclaimed “last romantics.” More than a century later, the literary culture has not revived it. Yet the wider society harbors a furtive concern that rhyme retains a certain malevolent influence, able to make consumers buy products they do not need and jurors set a killer free. The ancient fear survives as a modern suspicion. Using the resources of their time, hip-hop artists exploit this quiet apprehension with a confidence some might find exaggerated, if not ludicrous. Proud of their rhymes, the aggrieved curse so their adversaries’ names wither.