The Art Of Storytelling
Storytelling is probably as old as the human race. Before writing systems were developed, history and religion were probably passed down from one generation to the next via some sort of ritual that involved a combination of music and song. This can be evidenced by observing indigenous cultures worldwide, and how their stories are told.
Hip Hop, like any other culture, was founded on the art of storytelling. All emcees at some point cut their teeth spitting raps about situations they were involved in the past or present, or what they intended to do in the future. Everyone probably remembers some portion of a hip hop song that told a story, such as Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five’s “The Message,” Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story,” Tupac’s “Brenda’s Got a Baby,” Snoop Dogg’s version of “Lodi Dodi,” and the list goes on. Even though storytelling is becoming somewhat of a dying art in hip hop, I still firmly believe that the measure of a great emcee is his/her ability to craft and convey a good story to the listener. Think about it: writing lyrics that rhyme to make up an entire song isn’t hard, but everyone can’t do it. It is even more difficult to create a story while rhyming. Making that rhyming story funny, interesting, relatable, etc. is probably the most difficult of all.
Any fan of the genre can probably name more than a few songs that are their favorite stories. The purpose of this first installment of “The Art of Storytelling” is not to list my best or favorite songs that have a storyline. Rather, I wanted to highlight a few songs from artists below the radar that made a song based on a unique plot, or someone who told an unoriginal story in an original way.
“Anyone Out There” is easily one of my favorite songs on Three 6 Mafia’s album, Chapter 2: World Domination. From the menacing bells, baseline, and the DJ scratches of a man screaming in the beginning, to the song’s titillating storyline–this track has it all. It’s a solo track from Lord Infamous, one of the more lyrically inclined members of the group. Scarecrow assumes the character of a man who was committed to an insane asylum for murdering his family. Like a Stephen King horror novel fresh off the press, Lord Infamous describes in vivid detail how he plans to escape from his imprisonment by bribing a staff member to help him fake his death. I always say the skill of an emcee is shown through his ability to tell a good story. Lord Infamous definitely fits the bill here, crafting a story with the utmost detail. There’s even a plot twist at the end of the song that leaves the listener on a cliffhanger, wishing the song had more verses so you could figure out how the story ends.
Anyone Out There-Three 6 Mafia (Lord Infamous Solo)
2) K~Dee-Into You
This song was off Ice Cube protégé K~Dee’s early 1990’s debut, Ass, Gas, or Cash: No One Rides For Free (lookout for the SoS Replay Value review, coming soon). This album is a certified West Coast classic, real talk. The track “Into You” exemplifies why this album has a cult following amongst West Coast rap afficionados. If you don’t believe me, go read the amazon.com reviews for this album now.
“Into You” is a song that resonates with a lot of men. Fellas, do you ever remember having a friend who had a hot mom who you wouldn’t mind spending an evening with–alone? If you don’t, you probably had the hot mother that all your friends teased you about. At any rate, “Into You” starts with an opening vignette about K~Dee going over his friend’s house. His homie “Ricky” isn’t home, but K~Dee asks “Ms. Parker” if he can he come in anyway. She invites him in. With the plot set up like a full length feature film, K~Dee proceeds to reveal his true feelings to Ms. Parker. Spitting unlaced game to the M.I.L.F., K~Swanga as he also affectionately known, takes the listener on a fantasy ride detailing what it would be like if you could actually bed your homeboy’s hot mom. Being the mack that he is, K~Dee throws in the plot twist during the last verse by telling the mom that what she had to offer was less than what he expected. He then commences to talk about how he’d rather get at her daughter (his homeboy Ricky’s sister)…now that’s gangsta!
3) RZA-See The Joy
What more can be said about the Almighty Abbott’s lyrical dexterity? If you do not recognize and pay homage to the leader of the Wu-Tang Clan as an amazing emcee and individual in general, you may want to close out of this article now. On “See the Joy,” the draw is not a complex rhyming structure or amazing delivery—both of which RZA has accomplished on countless occasions—rather, RZA’s totally original subject matter. RZA must have an incredible memory, because in the song he is able to recall the earliest moment of his existence—him being a swimming sperm cell and the treacherous route to fertilizing his mom’s egg. He raps: “Avoiding everything that came within my path/As I watch other sperm cells get ripped in half/One out of a million completes the job/And for the other sperm cells the womb is a grave yard…” Think about that for a moment: who else would even think to write a song about such a concept? Exactly.
See the Joy
This song is probably the craziest song on the post. Nas is a true poet, and has been since his debut, Illmatic. “Rewind,” off his album Stillmatic, is a rap told unlike any other. On this song, God’s Son manages to tell a story about him going to shoot one of his rivals on the block…in reverse chronological order, meaning that he goes through the song backwards, telling the end of the story in the beginning and ending the song with the beginning of the story—hence the title of the song. Listening to it and reading the lyrics is almost like rewinding a movie from the end and watching it backwards, all the way to the beginning. Even though it’s a one verse song clocking in at a little over two minutes, Nas spares no detail, lyrically crafting vivid scenes such as this: “Sittin’ in back of this chair, we hittin’ the roach/The smoke goes back in the blunt, the blunt gets bigger in growth/Jungle unrolls it, put his weed back in the jar/The blunt turns back into a cigar…”
In today’s music climate, the general consensus is that someone who is able to make a good song without writing his lyrics to paper is regarded in higher esteem than someone who takes the time to perfect their rhymes. I’m sorry, but these types of songs are why I prefer emcees who write over ones who don’t. You cannot possibly make a song like “Rewind” without writing it down and making sure everything is tight. Nas has given us plenty of good stories throughout his discography, but this song stands out as the most innovative, in my humble opinion.
5) Devin the Dude
Devin the Dude, who is regarded by many as ‘your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper,’ is a modern-day hip hop troubadour if there were ever such a thing. Devin has penned so many great stories that it is hard for me to choose just one. Devin the dude, a rapper whose underground following ranges from backpackers to potheads and everyone in between, has songs about a variety of subjects but the main topic of his songs are b*tches, blunts, and brew. The Dude also occasionally delivers social commentary about the economy and police brutality, among other things.
A few songs that stand out in his very consistent discography are “Right Now,” from his album To Tha X-treme, “Almighty Dollar” and “She Useta Be,” from Waiting to Inhale, and “Georgy,” off his debut album “The Dude.” By no means is this list all-inclusive, or even a list of my absolute favorite stories from Devin. For time and space constraints, I had to pick a few songs to show the range of the Dude’s storytelling ability so I basically chose these songs after thinking about it for a few minutes.
“Right Now” is a story about his experiences when boarding a flight. I know the plot sounds a bit lacking, but if you actually listen to the song he goes into crazy detail about interacting with fellow passengers, flight attendants, turbulence during the flight etc. The smooth, Caribbean music-influenced beat is the perfect backdrop for a smooth story that has a dual meaning if you pay enough attention to the lyrics.
Grey Harris asks Devin about the concept on “Right Now”:
“Almighty Dollar” is social commentary under the guise of a story about a day in the life of Devin—something that Devin is a master at doing. He starts the song with $17 and he goes through the details of what he did with his money as he makes a few purchases. By the end of the first verse he’s down to only $1. He attempted to give his last dollar to a homeless man, who rejected the act of charity and said that he needed more than just $1. Devin cynically sums up the status of the U.S. Dollar in the song’s chorus: “The almighty dollar, it ain’t what it used to be/hobos used to ask you for a dollar, now them mothaf*ckas ask you for three/The almighty dollar, well that’s what they used to say/one dollar used to be a whole lot, but its hardly worth sh*t today…” Leave it to Devin to craft a masterful song weaving humor, commentary on the U.S. economy and the waning purchasing power of the greenback, and the struggles of the everyday man all together in a track that also sounds nice when riding in your car.
“She Useta Be” is Devin at his comedic finest. This song is a story about the all-too-familiar story of a girl who used to be very attractive in high school, but never gave Devin attention. Years later, she’s way larger than in her younger days and all of a sudden she’s interested in Devin. Devin, being the cock hound that he is, acknowledges her advances and takes her up on her offer based on the strength of what she used to look like. Trust me; the song is way more humorous than how I just described it. “Georgy” is a nice little cautionary tale about a guy who is an unapologetic ladies’ man. He “kisses the girls and makes them cry,” one after the other. By the end of the song, tragedy strikes as one of Georgy’s jilted lovers shoots him dead in an act of fatal attraction. This story is rife with cosmic irony as the lady killer is eventually killed by one of his ladies. I won’t post “She Useta Be” or “Georgy” because of space constraints, but I implore anyone who isn’t familiar with Devin to go purchase all of his albums asap. Storytelling in song is becoming a lost art form, especially so in the rap/hip hop genre. Devin is akin to a black Bob Dylan, a hip hop folk artist of sorts. He has an endless bag of stories that will make you laugh, cry, reminisce, and ponder deeper things.
This concludes the first installment of “The Art of Storytelling” series on the Saving Our Style site. Future editions will feature a different member of the crew’s top picks for songs with interesting storylines. Stay tuned for more…