"Really? You like rap?"

About rap in general, I have this to say: it is easy to see why rap is so popular with athletes, because rapping is a sort of athleticism transformed into words. How does a point guard, or a running back, or an inside center beat his defender? Now, one way is to overpower the defender; another is simply to outrun the defender. I suggest that neither of those ways requires athleticism as I define it. It doesn’t take an athlete to run someone into the ground (apologies to Misko, but no one would accuse him of being athletic, even though he frequently trucks people into the ground), nor does it take an athlete to outrun someone–I mean straight-line speed here. This part of my judgment stems from my long-distance-runner bias that speed is a pure and simple God-given talent–not that sprinters don’t have to work at things as well, but you never say of a sprinter, “Wow, that was athletic!” (I make no claim, mind, that long-distance running requires athleticism, either.) No, the athletic way to defeat a defender is with some type of juke. It seems also that more athletic pleasure derives from “faking someone out of their shorts,” or “breaking someone’s ankles,” than from trucking someone or outrunning someone (though these perhaps give more aesthetic pleasure). Any running back or inside center or point guard worth his salt knows that the best juke consists of the principle movements of “fast, slow, fast.” Put even simpler, the juke consists simply in changing the speed at which your body is moving, while keeping your running motion fluid and under control.

Music, or at least the music that holds the most interest for me, works similarly. Gregorian chant does not move at a straight-line speed; it moves in a free-flowing line of two- and three-note neums that may be sped up or slowed down at the discretion of the choirmaster. The free-rhythmic character of the beat in chant within otherwise strict guidelines is one of chant’s distinctive characteristics. The masters of classical music are known for their mastery of counterpoint, which served to check or speed up the otherwise regular meter of their songs. To give just one more suggestion, I remember Eileen’s insistence that the great lyricists are those whose irregular substitutions both work against the beat and uphold it. In other words, the beat is upheld but kind of violated at the same time. By contrast, Kundera’s judgment of the primitivism of rock: “The heart’s beat is amplified so that man can never for a moment forget his march toward death.”

Two kinds of rap that are not athletic: I need only refer to the “dey-dey” or the “wee-wee” schools of rap. The speech of deys impresses in its onslaught of verbiage that is, quite simply, words without thought. This type of rap may correspond with those “athletes” who simply have a God-given talent for speed, who can blow by their defender by simple virtue of having more talent. The speech of the wees, on the other hand, impresses with a sort of dull, rhythmic mind-numbing, sort of like those running backs who just try to run over everything in their path. Much as I love Ludacris, it seems that Chris isn’t that good at mixing these two styles. For example, the verses in “Roll Out” have the invariable sequence of wee, dey, wee, dey. For another, Luda’s memorable “Act the Fool” is written completely in the wee style. It’s sad, because I have great respect for Mr. Bridges’s beats and bass lines. An ideal rap world: Luda’s beats and Eminem’s words.

Give me, on the other hand, the speech of a true athlete, like those verbal athletes Slim and Dre in “Forgot about Dre,” who will rap without succumbing to a single speed, who will linger over the short “i”s and the long “a”s at the end of every line–(this technique reminds me of early French poets, who employed rich rhyme, trying to rhyme assonantally at the end of lines as much as possible–see the three assonances at the end of each line below: i.e., “Slim Shady,” “twin babies,” “mid-eighties;” Marshall doesn’t just stop with three, either; for example, earlier in the song, “So, what do you say to somebody you hate? / Or, anyone trying to bring trouble your way? / Wanna resolve things in a bloodier way? / Just study a tape of NWA!” I apologize for the esoteric ‘junior poet terminolgy,’ but nothing else can come close to explaining the genius of these lines. See, each ‘line’ in the ‘stanza’ concludes with four ‘rich rhymes,’ and the first and last lines kind of give the stanza a ‘closed’ feel, ‘enveloping’ the middle two lines with ‘double rich rhymes.’ Dre does this well, too. Check out his verses in “Forgot about Dre.” First of all, it’s impressive that Dre is able to structure the entire first verse on just the assonance of long o plus long e (even though it gets a bit annoying, especially by the end of the verse); but, it’s even more athletic that Dre manages to include rich rhyme almost throughout the entire lines in the following section: “Hated on by most of these [people] / with no cheese, no deals, / and no gs, no wheels, / and no keys, no boats / no snowmobiles and no skis; / mad at me ‘cause I can finally afford / to provide my family with groceries….” Again [and it hurts me to do it; I love me Ludacris], compare Chris’s lyrical abilities negatively to really rich rhyme)–yet still pack words linked from line to line in a fast patter. The following is the bit that first enticed me to Mr. Mathers years ago (I first heard this at the Fort Scott swimming pool from the mouth of the instructor who was teaching swimming lessons with me):

Slim shady,
hotter than a set of twin babies,
in a Mercedes Benz with the windows up
when the temp goes up to the mid-eighties,
calling men ladies;
sorry doc, but I been crazy,
there’s no way that you can save me;
it’s OK, go with him, Hailey….

Let’s look, just briefly, at how Shady poetically grows his subjects. He might be praising himself, sure, but his diction and imagery seem well done, and his tone seems to me to develop away from simple egotism. Twin babies? Come on, you’ve got to admit that twins are pretty hot … and they’re in a Mercedes-Benz? Hot! With windows rolled up in eighty-degree weather? Now, that’s hot. Slim is working with “heat” on different levels here. Babies are “hot” in one sense; a nice car in another; and, of course, temperature involves a different type of heat than babies or cars. He is so hot, that he is going crazy, and must eventually lose his daughter (baby–note the repetition and development of Slim’s original image), and, even his impressive opinion of his own “hotness,” as reflected by the falling, resigned, almost tender tone of his voice as he concludes his verse. It is appropriate that Marshall resigns that blown-up image of himself at the end of the verse, because the chorus is a praise of Shady’s own mentor and the co-writer of “Forgot About Dre,” the good Doctor himself: “Nowadays everybody wanna talk / like they got something to say, but nothing comes out / when they move their lips, just a bunch of gibberish; / mother[lovers] act like they forgot about Dre.”

It’s not a question of verbal aesthetics, but of verbal athletics–and oh! but “Forgot About Dre” is a vintage draught of verbal athleticism!

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