Saturday, November 27, 2010

Hot Couplet of the WEEK (Week week...)

In my tireless quest to find the gimmick that will make my blog a billionaire, I'm instituting a new feature which I'm calling the "Hot Couplet of the WEEK (Week week...)."

That's right, what blog you know has a built in ECHO (Echo echo...).

Besides being a shameless attempt to use hip-hop lyrics as a way of driving traffic to my site (the way I did a couple years ago with my infamous Weezy post), the HCW(Ww...) will also be a space for bite-size lyrical analysis of a pair of lines that I find worthy of closer attention. People tend to listen to music (and especially hip-hop) with their guards down. We're kind of programmed not to expect rich, layered, tonally interesting information to be conveyed mid-booty-shake.

But, as a person who has more or less devoted his life to words, I think talking about lyrics is part of the joy I take in music. I make no claims about being objective or scientific or academic about this. Looking into lyrics is not a science; it's an art. And I do this fully aware that no amount of analysis can ever duplicate a song's hotness. (That's what the song is for.) I think this is something people forget when they talk about a work of art. Analysis is never an attempt to duplicate the effect of the song. It's simply an attempt to translate, in the mundane 808-less medium of prose, the pleasure of a creative work of art and to share that pleasure. You can clap now.

[Thunderous Applause!!!]

The inaugural HCW(Ww...) comes from Big Sean, a young rapper signed to Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Music label. (This nugget of trivia is actually important to better understanding the charm of the line I've chosen.) Big Sean delivers the line in his verse on "See Me Now," the bonus track of Kanye's new album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (the most over-modified, under-comma-ed album title in recent memory).

I'll take a brief sentence to shill for Kanye and say that, yes, you should purchase this flawed masterpiece of an album, especially since you won't be able to find this week's hot couplet anywhere else on the Internet. (Trust me, I tried.) Take it away Big Sean:

"I know Kanye a jerk." How could you say that?/
He rode me and my mama 'round in his Maybach.

Aside from those bouncy, alliterative m's ("me," "my mama," "Maybach"), the beauty of this couplet is in the peculiar tone of Big Sean's delivery. I've been thinking about the advantages and disadvantages of the written word, as a form, and in some ways all writers must admit that musicians kind of have us beat on being able to add layers of meaning in a more efficient manner. Nothing really compares to the human voice. The slightly over-the-top offense that Big Sean takes at Kanye being called a jerk comes through in the way he delivers the phrase "How could you say that?" The phrase ends with a pause, then the pause is filled with an echo ("How could you say that?"), which has a way of undercutting the seriousness of Big Sean's outrage.

And that's when you get the joke: Big Sean is being a smart-ass. Rather than saying, "Kanye is a condescending douchebag who thought he could impress me by taking me and my mom on a ride around the block in his fancy car," Big Sean gets amazing lyrical mileage by playing the role of the self-serving, sycophantic underling who comes to the defense of his misunderstood boss. If they were characters on The Office, Sean would be the Dwight to Yeezy's Michael.

It's a brilliant little character sketch not only of Kanye as patronizing douche, but also of the subversive little shit who can see through all of his boss's I'm-a-misunderstood-victim posturing. There's something very Twain-ish about the line in that, even though we know Big Sean is poking fun at Kanye, we still can't say that he's calling Kanye a condescending jerk (but we also can't say that he isn't).

And yet the person who benefits the most from this brilliant bit of micro-satire isn't Big Sean; it's Kanye. You've got to ask yourself: how can a line like this exist on the same album where the headlining artist is asking people to "address me as your highness." Hip-hop albums are usually full of boasts like that (and Kanye's is wall-to-wall with braggadocio), but what rapper in the history of rap also has lines as subversive and self-deprecating as Big Sean's. Who willingly includes that kind of a line?

Not to say that self-deprecation is alien to hip-hop. Not at all. The best MCs--Biggie, Pac, Big Pun--were always poking fun at themselves. But they were the ones telling the jokes. They didn't invite younger, wittier rappers to hop on a track and decapitate them in brilliant couplets. What's even more confusing: Kanye didn't just invite some random young, witty rapper to make fun of him on his own album, he invited a player on his own team to do the lyrical equivalent of dunking on him then taking a dump on his chest.

What are we to make of this? Why is Kanye okay with letting Big Sean get away with this? Is it: (a) Kanye is a glutton for punishment; (b) Kanye views his own celebrity with an ironic, Warhol-like detachment; (c) Kanye is egomaniacal and a bit crazy and will appreciate any rapper who takes up the "Is Kanye a jerk or not?" discussion; or (d) Kanye left the line in for the same reason I've spent so much time writing about it: because it's brilliant.

1 comment:

Chris said...

(REFERENTIAL HIPHOP IRONY!)
While I'm eatin a burger/
metaphysical spiritual lyrical murder

(THE WAY WE LIVE NOW!)
The internet told me that that's called love/
I'm on the internet cause I'm an internet thug.