Da (Lost) Art of Storytellin'

Maybe Nas had it right.

In a post that will serve as a long form response to my man Raven Mack’s short “Are There Any Lyricists Left?” diatribe, I’m here to openly lament not only the passing of true lyricism (not the occasional flashes of brilliance we’ve been so sadly forced to swallow as of late) but to mourn another long-forgotten facet. That casualty is the story.

Believe it or not, there actually used to be a time, way back when, when a rapper had to show real skill and be a well-rounded and versatile threat before he could consider or call himself an emcee. And this wasn’t just to get a record deal or be included in a crew, that was just for the privilege of even touching a mic anywhere. When was the last time a friend came up to you excited about a new talent saying he was a “beast” or a “problem” and meant it? Even guys who did somewhat earn that label or distinction were very rarely successful. Canibus was a fierce and highly-touted lyricist but also easily dismissed as merely a “battle” rapper who could never make a “complete” album because all of his rhymes were more fit for a street corner cipher than on an officially manufactured CD. Sound familiar, dropped-from-Jive Papoose? The flipside to that coin, of course, would be Eminem, who gained his underground rep by being similarly battle-tested but was able to dodge whatever pratfalls that lay in wait by proving himself as commercially viable with witty, catchy hooks and crafting songs that actually had a concept or real subject matter. Can you honestly see Canibus concocting something like “Stan” or “The Way I Am”?

No matter how absurd or blatantly untrue (I guess that’s why they call it a “story”) the old school songs used to be, they were at the very least always entertaining. But today’s entertainers (I don’t dare call them anything else) are so concerned with their image, they wouldn’t dream of writing a song like Dana Dane’s “Delancey Street” or The Ruler’s “The Moment I Feared” (probably my favorite Slick Rick song EVER). I think the last great show of this long-lost ability may have been the appropriately titled “I Got a Story To Tell” by The Notorious B.I.G. Not only is it an awesome song but Big ups the ante at the song’s end by retelling the same story but in plain speak, making you appreciate what he did previously and at the same time marvel at the relative ease with which he did it.

I remember when it was possible to learn something from rap music. Albums like By All Means Necessary, One For All, To The East, Blackwards and of course, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back had me scrambling to the library when I was a middle schooler. But nowadays what began with Master P and his No Limit cronies, the game is so dumbed down that terms like “droppin’ science” and “kickin’ knowledge” are as passe’ as “def” and “fresh.” There are no jewels to be found with every Atlanta rapper creating a new dance or espousing the virtues of living in a strip club. Texas seems to only care about gripping woodgrain or a Styrofoam cup full of codeine, regardless of how many lives it continues to claim. And New York is far from off the hook. If I hear one more song about jewelry, guns and drugs I’ll happily and highly consider listening to country from here on out.

To quote Hell Rell (talk about irony!) these niggas “just rapping to rap.” Way back when I first decided to contribute to this blog, one of the first things I wrote, the gist was basically that if you had told me around the time that “Back That Azz Up” was out that in 2008, out of all of the Hot Boys, that Lil Wayne would be the guy calling himself The Greatest Rapper Alive and have a good many people agreeing…well, you probably would’ve gotten smacked in the face with my bloody, coughed-up lung as I died laughing. Now that it’s come to pass, I just want to die but it’s far from funny. And Wayne’s voice does, at times, make MY lungs ache. Especially with this “Lollipop” bullshit he’s got out right now. We waited this long for Tha Carter III for THAT? But I can’t front: I was right there giving that “whooooo” for lines on Dedication II’s “Cannon (Remix)”, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” and especially on “Dough is What I Got”, that’s usually reserved for those “hot” bars where the beat drops out when something especially profound or just plain dope has been spit. I guess the dearth in talent has inadvertently and subsequently lowered my own standards as well. Wayne, for better or worse, was the devil I knew, the least rotten apple of an entirely bad bunch.

And things will only get worse.

Think about it like this: Souljah Boy is 18 years old. Which means he was born in 1990. By the time he was old enough to listen to, buy or be influenced by music, what was available to him? Aspiring rappers in 2008 are a generation raised on this new ringtone b.s. To them, 50 Cent is old school. When a 16-year old James Todd Smith got in the game, he had a distinct advantage, he toured with the best and could count the people he toured with as his teachers and willing mentors. But times have changed. It’s so dog-eat-dog and every man for himself that no one’s bothering to show the newbies the way; scared to death they might take a dollar out of their pocket. So I’d prepare to see many more Hurricane Chris’, Lil Boosie’s, Flo-Rida’s and Shawty Lo’s before we see any future Rakim’s, KRS’, Nas’ or G. Rap’s.

Dana Dane – “Delancey Street”

Slick Rick – “The Moment I Feared”

The Notorious B.I.G. – “I Got a Story To Tell”