What would your first thoughts be if you passed the painting below in an art gallery? Would you immediately think it was art? Even from a distance, the colors and contrast would probably catch your eye—at least enough to make you desire a closer look. On closer inspection, you notice the brush strokes that make the subjects hair appear real and the detail of the scenery. Now you begin to develop an appreciation for the skill and technique demonstrated by the artist.
Ginevra de’ Benci by Leonardo da Vinci
As your interest grows, you ask yourself, “Why would the artist spend so much time creating this piece? What is the meaning or significance of it?” Observers would never discover these different layers of meaning and value, if they did not possess interest in this form of art or the skills required to evaluate it. Similarly, some listeners of rap music never find the meaning or value in it because they lack interest in it or the skill needed to interpret it. The authors of “An Article On Why Rap Is Not Music…” and “You Call This Music?” have probably never held an interest in rap or desired to learn the skills of evaluating it. Most objectors to rap enjoy it more than these authors but still share their inability to understand rap. Rap, like other forms of art, consists of layers of understanding and interpretation. The surface layer contains artistic elements that provoke various emotional responses, depending on the nature of the elements. The next layer resides within the lyrics, more specifically the wordplay, of songs. Rap artists condense and hide complex messages in few words through wordplay. The deepest layer results from the artist’s reason for writing the song. Artists write meaningful songs to deliver a lasting message that could impact society. This message gives lasting meaning and value to rap songs. Each layer of value can be perceived if the listener closely examines a song.
*Rap song of value is a term I created to describe rap songs with value and lasting meaing
Replay the scenario described above in your head but put yourself in the car and replace the painting with a RSOV (rap song of value)* you hear on the radio. A good rap song, like the painting, catches your attention even though you know nothing about the song. The artistic aspects provoke various emotional responses inside you that are pleasing to you. Different types of songs make listeners feel certain ways depending on the song. Typically, most rap albums include several types of songs—a hip-hop or radio song, a slower song, and a club banger.
A hip-hop or radio song typically has an upbeat pace that puts the listener in a good mood during any circumstance. A couple recent examples of radio songs are “Holy Grail” by Jay Z and “Started From The Bottom” by Drake.
Artists usually make a slower rap song with a lower pace and less instrumentals. Slower rap songs calm the listener and allow them to listen to the artist even during a relaxing time. Slow rap songs also demonstrate an artist’s versatility and highlight the technical aspect of the lyrics. An example of a slow rap song is “Day ‘N’ Night” by Kid Cudi.
Club bangers usually become some of the most popular rap song on an album due to the emotional response they induce in listeners. They include strong vocals and a central bass beat that pumps-up and excites listeners like no other music. Two examples of club bangers are “In Da Club” and “Disco Inferno” by 50 Cent.
Different types of rap songs incorporate alternate combinations of artistic elements such as background beats, instrumentals, and vocals. These different combinations create distinctive emotional responses similarly to the difference of looking at a bright and happy painting or a dark and dramatic one. The listener can easily experience and interpret this surface layer of artistic value.
When people like a song they know nothing about, they are experiencing the surface level of enjoyment. The musical and artistic aspects of sap songs analogue the artistic elements of a painting. Both initially capture your interest by inducing emotional responses. As an audience likes a piece of art more, they become more interested. Similar to the way observers of a painting take a closer look, listeners of a song pay more attention to the lyrics. Once listeners begin learning the lyrics, they notice the deeper artistic elements. Rap artists typically incorporate wordplay as a means to convey deeper levels of artistic value. Wordplay allows artists to express a message in a clever and cryptic way. Many experts consider Jay Z one of the most talented rap artists ever because of his talented wordplay. In his song “Ni**as In Paris” he says,
Psycho, I’m liable to go Michael, take your pick,
Jackson, Tyson, Jordan, Game 6
Jay Z says above that he is “Psycho” as in crazy good. Psycho is capitalized because it stands for the first Michael, Michael Mires from the Halloween movie series. Then he references Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson, and Michael Jordan. Each person was one the greatest ever in their profession. He even more specifically alludes to Michael Jordan in Game 6 of the NBA play-offs where he was famous for playing his best under extreme pressure.
Jay Z takes on the character of each super star
In the beginning of one of his most famous songs “Empire State of Mind”, he raps
Yeah I’m out of that Brooklyn, Now I’m down in Tribeca
Right next to DeNiro, but I’ll stay hood forever
I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here,
I can make it anywhere, yeah, they love me everywhere
Jay Z tells how he made it out of the Marcy Project houses he grew up in. He then talks about how he now lives in a very wealthy part of New York called Tribeca (triangle below Canal Street) with Beyoncé next to Robert De Niro, a famous actor. Next he says that he will never forget where he came from. He says that he is the new Sinatra referring to Frank Sinatra’s famous song “New York, New York”. Jay Z also means that, like Frank Sinatra, his fame spreads internationally. The line “I made it here, I can make it anywhere” alludes to a line from his older song The Blueprint – “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere”. The most genius part of these lines is that “New York, New York” was originally written for the film New York, New York… a musical staring Robert DeNiro. These lines only make up ten seconds of the song and are able to convey all that meaning while matching the rhythm and beat of the music.
Jay Z and Opera visit his old home.
Wordplay acts as the second layer of artistic value in rap songs. It allows artists to indirectly convey a more significant meaning in a cryptic way. Due to its cryptic nature, people require interest and certain interpretation skills to understand the larger messages conveyed through wordplay. The website Rap Genius provides an in-depth background and meaning of every line from almost every rap song. Rap Genius is a great tool that allows listeners to discover everything a rap artists includes in a song.
Once people develop enough interest in a song to digest and understand its lyrics, they begin to wonder about the larger meaning of the song as a whole and why the artist decided to write it. People typically would have to research the life of the artist and commentary by the artist on his or her reason for making a song. The societal message of a rap song elevates it from a catchy radio hit to a RSOV that possess timeless value. Some of the most famous RSOV include “Keep Your Head Up” by 2Pac, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” by Kanye West, and “Stan” by Eminem. Each of these songs incorporates a music video that provides a visual representation of the issue of discussion.
In “Keep You Head up”, 2Pac addresses the objectification of women and the difficult of being a single mother. The impoverished African American community especially deals with these issues making a rap song even more capable of making an impact.
In “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”, Kanye utilizes his song and music video to comment on and acknowledge the issue of conflict or “blood” diamonds being imported from Africa. In 2006, the song won the Grammy for Best Rap Song. West released a remix featuring Jay Z that addressed the crisis more directly.
In “Stan”, Eminem comments on the disillusionment and obsession of fans. Fans have always idolized artists and celebrities, making Eminem’s message universal and everlasting. Below is a pop-up music video of “Stan” that dissects illusions and meaning.
Eminem tells why he wrote “Stan” while on MTV.
The question, “Is Rap Art?” can only be answered if the audience possesses an interest and ability to evaluate the artistic elements found in rap songs. Rap contains all the same attributes that made you immediately think the painting was art. The artistic value of rap can be observed in three layers—the surface layer (musical elements that provoke enjoyable emotional responses), the second layer (meaning and message conveyed indirectly through wordplay), and the deepest layer (the cultural message and meaning of the song). The artistic value of rap behaves like gold. If you want it, then you have to dig for it, and the deeper you dig the more you get.