5 Verses

I listen to a lot of rap music. I even spent a few of my teenage years jotting down lyrics of my own and performing them at various open mic sessions. The thing that amazes me the most about rap music is the skill certain rappers have to describe everyday life, the extraordinary people they know or their superior skills on the microphone with melody and high definition clarity. I must quickly make the clear distinction between a rapper who simply lines up rhymes and catchy choruses along a beat and the emcee alias M.C. a.k.a. the Master of Ceremonies a.k.a. The Mic Controller who is more of an orator with a message that carries more importance and substance that a simple call to dance. A lot of people can use complicated metaphors and technical rhyme structures in their lyrics, but the true masters of the art form are the emcees that talk to you without you realising they are rapping. The descriptions and attention to detail reach a point where the listener almost forgets about bars and hooks and simply listens to what the mic controller has to say. Flow is critical for a good emcee, but the real skill is when they can match words so naturally that any other combination or syntax seems illogical. There is no need for repetition, ad-libs or proverbial mannerisms. The emcee talks and you listen.

On a side note, I remember having heated debates with friends about the real talent of 90’s duo Group Home. My peers adored their album Livin Proof, but I had difficulty listening to Lil’ Dap and The Nutcracker rapping their tales of inner city life because the lyrical clout just wasn’t there. That said, Lil’ Dap had one of the most recognizable nasal deliveries and DJ Premier’s beats and production are what really place Group Home’s album among the classics of a bygone era in Hip Hop. Maybe it’s because I wrote some of my own rhymes and felt I had an idea of how difficult it is to lace lyrics together, that I saw through the strength of a good instrumental.

Here are a few verses from the Nineties that still have me in awe. The rhymes, metaphors, delivery and flow come together to create some of rap music’s strongest lyricism to date. The first is Nas with New York State of Mind – the opening song from his debut album “Illmatic”.

Rappers I monkey flip em with the funky rhythm I be kickin

Musician, inflictin composition

of pain I’m like Scarface sniffin cocaine

Holdin a M-16, see with the pen I’m extreme, now

Bulletholes left in my peepholes

I’m suited up in street clothes

Hand me a nine and I’ll defeat foes

Y’all know my steelo with or without the airplay

I keep some E&J, sittin bent up in the stairway

Or either on the corner bettin Grants with the celo champs

Laughin at baseheads, tryin to sell some broken amps

G-Packs get off quick, forever niggaz talk shit

Remeniscing about the last time the Task Force flipped

Niggaz be runnin through the block shootin

Time to start the revolution, catch a body head for Houston

Once they caught us off guard, the Mac-10 was in the grass and

I ran like a cheetah with thoughts of an assassin

Pick the Mac up, told brothers, “Back up,” the Mac spit

Lead was hittin niggaz one ran, I made him backflip

Heard a few chicks scream my arm shook, couldn’t look

Gave another squeeze heard it click yo, my shit is stuck

Try to cock it, it wouldn’t shoot now I’m in danger

Finally pulled it back and saw three bullets caught up in the chamber

So now I’m jetting to the building lobby

and it was filled with children probably couldn’t see as high as I be

(So whatchu sayin?) It’s like the game ain’t the same

Got younger niggaz pullin the triggers bringing fame to they name

and claim some corners, crews without guns are goners

In broad daylight, stickup kids, they run up on us

[An intensive use of the ‘–ame’ rhyme slip off the tongue to give a very real description of how dangerous and desperate the younger generations are in the Projects]


Fo’-fives and gauges, Macs in fact

Same niggaz’ll catch a back to back, snatchin yo’ cracks in black

There was a snitch on the block gettin niggaz knocked

So hold your stash until the coke price drop

I know this crackhead, who said she gotta smoke nice rock

And if it’s good she’ll bring ya customers in measuring pots, but yo

You gotta slide on a vacation

Inside information keeps large niggaz erasin and they wives basin

It drops deep as it does in my breath

I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death

Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined

I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind

[Here Nas introduces an incredible metaphor for insomnia. Many rappers have mirrored this metaphor in homage to the Queensbridge emcee.]

Be havin dreams that I’ma gangster — drinkin Moets, holdin Tecs

Makin sure the cash came correct then I stepped

Investments in stocks, sewein up the blocks

to sell rocks, winnin gunfights with mega cops

But just a nigga, walking with his finger on the trigger

Make enough figures until my pockets get bigger

I ain’t the type of brother made for you to start testin

Give me a Smith and Wessun I’ll have niggaz undressin

Thinkin of cash flow, buddah and shelter

Whenever frustrated I’ma hijack Delta

In the P.J.’s, my blend tape plays, bullets are strays

Young bitches is grazed each block is like a maze

full of black rats trapped, plus the Island is packed

From what I hear in all the stories when my peoples come back, black

I’m livin where the nights is jet black

The fiends fight to get crack I just max, I dream I can sit back

and lamp like Capone, with drug scripts sewn

Or the legal luxury life, rings flooded with stones, homes

I got so many rhymes I don’t think I’m too sane

Life is parallel to Hell but I must maintain

and be prosperous, though we live dangerous

cops could just arrest me, blamin us, we’re held like hostages

It’s only right that I was born to use mics

and the stuff that I write, is even tougher than dice

I’m takin rappers to a new plateau, through rap slow

My rhymin is a vitamin, Hell without a capsule

The smooth criminal on beat breaks

Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes

[Nas releases several clever metaphors for his lyrical ability comparing it to the strength of a geometric cube and the difficult ingestion of medication. He then warns of the worth of his rhymes by refusing the listener to insert his music into faulty appliances.]


The city never sleeps, full of villians and creeps

That’s where I learned to do my hustle had to scuffle with freaks

I’ma addict for sneakers, twenties of buddah and bitches with beepers

In the streets I can greet ya, about blunts I teach ya

Inhale deep like the words of my breath

I never sleep, cause sleep is the cousin of death

I lay puzzle as I backtrack to earlier times

Nothing’s equivalent, to the New York state of mind


Following from Nas comes the late-great Notorious BIG. Born Christopher Wallace of Brooklyn, BIG debuted with an amazing album entitled “Ready To Die”. The first single that introduced the lyrical prowess of BIG was Juicy, a song where BIG rapped about his ascension from rap fan to rap star.


It was all a dream

I used to read Word Up magazine

Salt’n’Pepa and Heavy D up in the limousine

Hangin’ pictures on my wall

Every Saturday Rap Attack, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl

[Notorious BIG paints a vivid image of his early years and the way he idolized the rap stars of the late 80’s.]


I let my tape rock ’til my tape popped

Smokin’ weed and bamboo, sippin’ on private stock

Way back, when I had the red and black lumberjack

With the hat to match

Remember Rappin’ Duke, duh-ha, duh-ha

You never thought that hip hop would take it this far

Now I’m in the limelight ’cause I rhyme tight

[This is an example of lyrical dexterity where Biggie Smalls duplicates ‘-ime’ and ‘-ight’ rhymes.]


Time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade

Born sinner, the opposite of a winner

Remember when I used to eat sardines for dinner

Peace to Ron G, Brucey B, Kid Capri

Funkmaster Flex, Lovebug Starsky

I’m blowin’ up like you thought I would

Call the crib, same number same hood

It’s all good

Uh, and if you don’t know, now you know, nigga, uh


I made the change from a common thief

To up close and personal with Robin Leach

And I’m far from cheap, I smoke skunk with my peeps all day

Spread love, it’s the Brooklyn way

The Moet and Alize keep me pissy

Girls used to diss me

Now they write letters ’cause they miss me

I never thought it could happen, this rappin’ stuff

I was too used to packin’ gats and stuff

Now honies play me close like butter played toast

From the Mississippi down to the east coast

Condos in Queens, indo for weeks

Sold out seats to hear Biggie Smalls speak

Livin’ life without fear

Puttin’ 5 karats in my baby girl’s ears

Lunches, brunches, interviews by the pool

Considered a fool ’cause I dropped out of high school

Stereotypes of a black male misunderstood

And it’s still all good

[In four lines, the Notorious BIG explains his victory over the naysayers who didn’t believe that an uneducated Black male could make it in life, but doesn’t hold a grudge because he enjoys his success.]

Uh…and if you don’t know, now you know, nigga

Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis

When I was dead broke, man I couldn’t picture this

[Another vivid image with reference to state of the art gaming technology that BIG never dreamt of owning.]

50 inch screen, money green leather sofa

Got two rides, a limousine with a chauffeur

Phone bill about two G’s flat

No need to worry, my accountant handles that

And my whole crew is loungin’

Celebratin’ every day, no more public housin’

Thinkin’ back on my one-room shack

Now my mom pimps a Ac’ with minks on her back

And she loves to show me off, of course

Smiles every time my face is up in The Source

We used to fuss when the landlord dissed us

No heat, wonder why Christmas missed us

Birthdays was the worst days

Now we sip champagne when we thirst-ay

Uh, damn right I like the life I live

‘Cause I went from negative to positive

[Biggie Smalls permits himself to play with the suffix of the word ‘thirsty’ to rhyme with ‘days’. He then displays unreserved joy at his newly acquired social status because he has moved from bad to good.]


And it’s all…

(It’s all good)


The Wu-Tang Clan counts nine members and numerous affiliates. Each member of the clan has a unique style and their union is one of the most formidable forces in rap music in the last 20 years. One of the most prolific members of the Clan is Ghostface Killah who has released nine solo albums laced with street slang and emotion. Emotion is a rare quality that rappers show, but when Ghostface sang the final verse of Impossible, taken from the Wu Tang double album “Forever”, the listener holds their breathe as the emcee describes the final moments of a friend slain in the projects.


Call an ambulance, Jamie been shot, word to Kemit

Don’t go Son, nigga you my motherfuckin heart

[Straight away, GhostfaceKillah throws the listener into the scene using his lyrics to reiterate his words and thoughts.]

Stay still Son, don’t move, just think about Keeba

She’ll be three in January, your young God needs you

The ambulance is taking too long

Everybody get the fuck back, excuse me bitch, gimme your jack

One, seven one eight, nine one one, low battery, damn

Blood comin out his mouth, he bleedin badly

[Ghostface describes his despair as the phone he’s using to call help starts to lose battery power and the victim’s situation is quickly getting worse and internal bleeding becomes apparent.]

Nahhh Jamie, don’t start that shit

Keep your head up, if you escape hell we gettin fucked up

When we was eight, we went to Bat Day to see the Yanks

In Sixty-Nine, his father and mines, they robbed banks

 [As death gets closer, Ghostface reminisces about days past in the company of his dying friend and the history they share.]


He pointed to the charm on his neck

With his last bit of energy left, told me rock it with respect

I opened it, seen the God holdin his kids

Photogenic, tears just burst out my wig

Plus he dropped one, oh shit, here come his Old Earth

[As Ghostface starts to cry, his train of thought is broken by the arrival of the victim’s mother. Ghostface Killah and the Wu Tang Clan use a particular lexicon taken from teachings of the Five Percent Nation that refers to mothers as ‘Earth’, men as ‘Suns’ and children as ‘Seeds’. Each is an essential element for the harmony of the universe we live in.]


With no shoes on, screamin holdin her breasts with a gown on

She fell and then lightly touched his jaw, kissed him

Rubbed his hair, turned around the ambulance was there

Plus the blue coats, Officer Lough, took it as a joke

Weeks ago he strip-searched the God and gave him back his coke

Bitches yellin, Beenie Man swung on Helen

In the back of a cop car, dirty tarts are tellin

But suddenly a chill came through it was weird

Felt like my man, was cast out my heaven now we share

[Ghostface describes the moment death strikes and feels the cold chill spreads through the lifeless body he is holding in his arms.]

Laid on the stretcher, blood on his Wally’s like ketchup

Deep like the full assassination with a sketch of it

It can’t be, from Yohoo to Lee’s

Second grade humped the teachers, about to leave

Finally this closed chapter, comes to an end

He was announced, pronounced dead, y’all, at twelve ten

[The song ends like the final scene of a film with Ghostface announcing the exact time of death for his fallen friend. Ghostface adds weight to his lyrics by using two rhyming synonyms ‘announced’ and ‘pronounced’, but also keeps in mind that he is recounting his tale to the listener who he refers to as ‘y’all’. These final elements highlight Ghostface’s masterful understanding of song writing.]

When Jay-Z released his debut album “Reasonable Doubt” it signalled the dawn of a new day in rap music – even if initial sales did not reflect the incredible effect Jay-Z would have on the art form. Jay-Z brought very intelligent and suave lyrics to the table and served them up with wit and emotion. With the track Cashmere Thoughts, Jay-Z delivered 4 minutes of metaphors and similes that would focus on quality and set a new standard for future rappers to abide by if they wanted to reach the same level of influence as the Brooklyn born emcee.


I talk jewels and spit diamonds, all cherry

like a hymen, when I’m rhymin with remarkable timin

[Straight off the bat, Jay-Z produces a steady supply of ‘-ime’ rhymes. This is linked to a Jay-Z earlier career debut in the early 90’s when he rapped with a very fast and bumpy flow. With Cashmere Thoughts, Jay-Z keeps up the tradition but with a much more relaxed delivery.]

Caviar and silk dreams, my voice is linen

Spittin venom up in the, minds of young women

Mink thoughts to think thoughts type similar

Might you remember, my shit is col-l-l-ld like December

[Here Jay-Z acts out the chill of the word ‘cold’ by slightly stuttering the adjective.]


Smoother than Persian rugs

cashmere chromosomes make a nigga Jigga Jay-Z lethal drugs

Eighteen carat gold pen, when it hits the sheets

Words worth a million like I’m rappin em through platinum teeth

I got the Grey Poupon, you been warned

Cause all beef return well done filet mignon

The Don, smell of Dom on my breath as I

yawn, (slow) when you hoes try to con a pro

As if you didn’t know, Jay’s about gettin dough

Spittin flow like fine wines down your earlobe

I’m smooth but deadly like a pearl handled pistol

Honies hum in melody when I, rub it like crystal

The proper ettiquette, when I drop the subject verb

then the predicate, with this rich nigga rhetoric

I’m solid gold, I rap like a mink stole

I stick pearl tongues your world’ll never know

From New York, to Paris, the vocal style vary

From nice to deadly like a bad bag of D, now

notice, the child swift like a lotus

Focus on the loc’ I be the greatest nigga that wrote it

[Another example of Jay-Z exercising his repetitious rhyme technique. In order to maintain a steady flow, Jay-Z pronounces ‘Paris’ with a French accent that gives it a ‘-ee’ sounding suffix. He also abbreviates the word ‘local’ to ‘loc’ in order to prolong the use of words rhyming with the ‘-oh’ sound.]


Return of the Jedi, from Rio De Genaro

on the red eye, yet I, still feel the need to be fly

I did die when I’m rappin then slide like satin

You know the black eye white china in the brain cabinet

I never cry if I did I’d cry ice

From my nigga Sauce, I hit you with this advice

Life’s short, so play hard and stick hard

and the only time you love em is when your dick hard


Check it out, check it out

Ghettos, Errol Flynn, hot like heroin

Young pimps is sterile when I pimp through your borough and

I gotta keep your tricks intact

Cause I walk like a p-iyimp, talk like a mack man

[By accentuating the word ‘pimp’, Jay-Z demonstrated the following phrase of speaking like a mack.]


The star player, the golden bar layer

The sweet Ms. Fine Thing puh-layah, sho’ yo right

I’m game tight, so watch it it change to night

Go tell your peeps dawg I’m lethal til it ain’t right

I pimp hard on a trick, look

Fuck if your leg broke bitch, hop up on your good foot


Common is a Chicago-born emcee who differentiates himself from other lyricists by his swapping the violent and bragadocious themes that dominate a lot of rap music for more conscious subject matter and clever metaphors. When he released his third album “One day it’ll all make sense”, he demonstrated great maturity and this was clearly apparent in his song Retrospect for life where he questioned the theme of abortion and becoming a father – a story that that was drawn from his real-life experiences.


Knowin you the best part of life do I have the right to take yours

Cause I created you irresponsibly

[Common opens the song as an open conversation with the child he may or may not have.]


Subconciously knowin the act I was a part of

The start of somethin, I’m not ready to bring into the world

Had myself believin I was sterile

I look into mother’s stomach, wonder if you are a boy or a girl

Turnin this woman’s womb into a tomb

But she and I agree, a seed we don’t need

You would’ve been much more than a mouth to feed

But someone, I woulda fed this information I read

to someone, my life for you I woulda had to leave

Instead I lead you to death

I’m sorry for takin your first breath, first step, and first cry

But I wasn’t prepared mentally nor financially

Havin a child shouldn’t have to bring out the man in me

Plus I wanted you to be raised within a family

I don’t wanna, go through the drama of havin a baby’s momma

Weekend visits and buyin J’s ain’t gon’ make me a father

For a while bearing a child is somethin I never wanted to do

For me to live forever I can only do that through you

Nerve I got to talk about them niggaz with a gun

Must have really thought I was God to take the life of my son

I could have sacrificed goin out

To think my homies who did it I used to joke about, from now on

I’ma use self control instead of birth control

Cause $315 ain’t worth your soul

$315 ain’t worth your soul

$315 ain’t worth it

[By repeating the price of an abortion, Common highlights how the life of an unborn child cannot be quantified.]

Seeing you as a present and a gift in itself

You had our child in you, I probably never feel what you felt

But you dealt with it like the strong black woman you are

Through our trials and tribulations, child’s elimination

An intergration of thoughts I feel about the situation

Back and forth my feelings was pacin

Happy deep down but not joyed enough to have it

But even that’s a lie in less than two weeks, we was back at it

Is this unprotected love or safe to say it’s lust

Bustin, more than the sweat in somebody you trust

Or is it that we don’t trust each other enough

And believe, havin this child’ll make us have to stay together

Girl I want you in my life cause you have made it better

[This is an example of Common’s aptitude to build his rhyme structure into a steady flow of information. By continuing a rhyme into a change of subject, the listener is compelled to pay attention to what he says. ]

Thinkin we all in love cause we can spend a day together

We talkin spendin the rest of our lives

It’s too many black women that can say they mothers

but can’t say that they wives

[Here Common is making a statement on the situation for Black women in America which he believes are getting pregnant outside of marriage. As a young Black man, his actions are not helping the situation.]

I wouldn’t chose any other to mother my understanding

But I want our Parenthood to come from Planning

It’s so much in my life that’s undone

We gotta see eye to eye, about family, before we can become one

If you had decided to have it the situation I wouldn’t run from

But I’m walkin, findin myself in my God

So I can, discipline my son with my writin

Not have a judge tellin me how and when to raise my seed

Though his death was at our greed, with no one else to blame

I had a book of African names, case our minds changed

You say your period hasn’t came, and lately I’ve been sleepy

So quit smokin the weed and the beadies and let’s have this boy

[The song ends with Common accepting his responsibilities and looking forward to becoming a father to his partner’s child. Despite the many questions and introspection he covers in the song, this ending takes the sombering thought of abortion and ends with an uplifting position of embracing parenthood.]

I limited this study to five verses, but if I had to add a bonus verse I think a member of Hip Hop’s super group the Wu Tang Clan can get in line. Considered the 10th clansmen by Wu fans, Cappadonna shot to stardom through his blistering verse on the title Winter Warz, a song that first released for a soundtrack to the urban movie “Don’t be a menace to South Central while drinking your juice in the hood” which would later be featured on fellow Wu representative Ghostface Killah’s debut album, “Ironman”. No liner notes for this one. Just listen and enjoy.


You heard of the rasp before but kept waitin

for the sun of song, I keep dancehalls strong

Beats never worthy of my cause, I prolong

Extravangza, time sits still

No propoganda, be wary of the skill

As I bring forth the music, make love to your eardrum

Dedicated to rap nigga beware of the fearsome

Lebanon Don, Malcolm X beat threat

CD massacre, murder to cassette

I blow the shop up, you ain’t seen nuttin yet

One man ran, tryin to get away from it

Put your bifocal on, watch me a-cometh

into your chamber like Freddy enter dream

Discombumberate your technique and your scheme

Four course applause, like a black dat to dat

You’re stuck on stupid like I’m stuck on the map

Nowhere to go except next show bro

Entertainin motherfuckers can’t stop O

in battlin, you don’t want me to start tattlin

All upon the stage cause y’all snakes keep rattlin

Bitch, you ain’t got nothin on the rich

Every other day my whole dress code switch

So just in case you want to clock me like Sherry

All y’all crab bitches ain’t got to worry

Can’t get a nigga like Don dime a dozen

Even if I’m smoked out I can’t be scoped out

I’m too ill, I represent Park Hill

See my face on the twenty dollar bill

Cash it in, and get ten dollars back

The fat LP with Cappachino on the wax

Pass it in your think, put valve up to twelve

Put all the other LP’s back on the shelf

And smoke a blunt, and dial 9-1-7


And you could get long dick hip-hop affection

I damage any MC who step in my direction

I’m Staten Island’s best son fuck what you heard

Niggaz still talkin that shit is absurd

My repotoire, is U.S.S.R.

P.L.O. style got thrown out the car

and ran over, by the Method Man jeep

Divine can’t define my style is so deep

like pussy, my low cut fade stay bushy

like a porcupine, I part backs like a spine

Cut you like a blunt and reconstruct your design

I know you want to diss me, but I can read your mind

Cuz you weak in the knees, like SWV

Tryin to get a title like Wu Killa Bee

Kid change your habit, you know I’m friends with the Abbott

Me and RZA ridin name printed in the tablet

under vets, we paid our debts for mad years

Hibernate the sound, and now we out like beers

and blunt power, born physically power speakin

The truth in the song be the pro-black teachin


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