"What you got up your sleeve there, homie?"


One of the reasons I’m biased in favour of buying music is the (often) lavish presentation that comes with the CDs. Unravelling the sleeves of most music albums gives you a damned good idea of the amount of labour ‘n’ love (or lack of) that went into putting the whole damn thing together.


Amongst all the photography, dedications and credits, the main factor that draws me to look at a sleeve, even before I put the CD in the stereo, is the lyrical content. As an aspiring writer, I always like to take the time to see how much thought my favourite artists put into their words. Reading the music press, I find this area of songwriting to be shamefully understated – whilst good lyrics can’t necessarily “save” bad music, they can enhance good music to form great songs, and exist quite solidly on their own merits. This is especially true in the (often) socially-aware and introspective worlds of rock and metal. Whether it’s David Draiman’s ambiguous feelings toward religion on Disturbed’s Believe album, or Randy Blythe’s apocalyptic visions on Lamb of God’s As the Palaces Burn, a well thought out set of lyrics can often be appreciated in their own right, as well as musical accompaniment. The reproduction of such on CD sleeves denotes, in my eyes, a certain pride on the part of the artist(s) responsible – which is often (though not always) warranted.


The story changes when we look at hip-hop CDs:


Seriously, lyric sheets in hip-hop CD are about as commonplace as pre-recorded MiniDisc albums! I open up some rapper’s sleeve notes and what do I see? Not lyrics that’s for sure! Instead I find myself presented with said “artist” posing as if he were a Kays catalogue extra. It’s as if the “badass” image many gangsta rappers peddle is the major selling point with the music as a supplementary extra.

No one can quite sell narcissism like a gangsta rapper!

With that firmly in mind, you’d think that they’d jump at the chance to showcase their poetic talents on their sleeves as well as on CD. So why do they not do this? Are they trying to carry on the traditions of cultures past, passing on their urban myths exclusively by word of mouth? Are they simply too lazy to get their record labels to publish these lyrics? Perhaps they think “freestyle” lyrics lose their value in some way once scribed; or maybe they wish to retain some “element of surprise”.

My favourite speculation however – at least in relation to gangsta hip-hop – is that the majority of mainstream rappers are secretly quite ashamed of the repetitive, generic subjects (or is that subject?) they rap about. Seriously, whenever I choose to play a gangsta rap CD, it’s not because I identify or am overly interested in the actual topics they discuss. One of the things I find insulting about the proponents of gangsta rappers is that they often try to justify their worship of hedo-nihilism as “the Black experience” or “how not to be”. Firstly, I don’t identify with tales of “drive-bys”, “40s”, “hoes”, “gangbanging” and materialistic masturbation, and I’m neither arrogant nor myopic enough to think I’m the only black who deviates from such a blueprint. Also, if the gangstas are personifications of how not to be, how comes you have guys like 50 Cent bragging about how many gunshot wounds they survived? And how comes do you see these guys smearing themselves in flash cars and jewellery, using such items as the passports to their next blowjob?

The claims made by many in “the rap game” stand on weak ‘n’ wobbly foundations.

I mean, you hear all these guys go on and on about how “the rap game” gets them out of the ghetto and all that, but isn’t the incessant glorification of the ghetto thug lifestyle proof that, in their minds at least, they’re still very much there? To be honest, I view the whole genre of gangsta rap the same way I view an episode of Eastenders – as comedy! All the protesting, picketing and whatnot concerning this offensive lyric, or that glorification of violence is a hella lot of wasted exertion and oxygen. What does piss me off about the genre is the cultural appropriation of the “ghetto thug” lifestyle as the face of Black Western society, to the extent that someone’s “blackness” (Ha, ha!) is questioned if they choose not to toe the “ghetto fabulous” line.

I roll my eyes, recounting all the times I’ve been criticized for my musical/aesthetic tastes as a black man!

Of course, the blacks on the street who buy into the group-think are just as much to blame as the rappers and industry moguls who exploit such stereotypes – like drug addicts, they can’t see the harm they’re doing to themselves. White power cuntrags, and similar racist mindsets, feed off this shit to justify such sayings as: “You can take the nigger out of the jungle, but you can’t take the jungle out of the nigger”. The irony of such a situation is that a WP hardliner, with a hard-on for “racial purity”, and a black who insists that he and his “bredren” follow an unwritten handbook on “acting black” are ideological cousins. Then again, it all ties in with the laws of magnetism – like repulses like and all that….

This post ended up a hella lot more political than I originally intended, but fuck it! I’m not omitting a single word. Unlike the “studio gangstas” who choose not to have printed lyrics on their record sleeves, my words are up for the reading. Over and out, homes….


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6 Responses to "What you got up your sleeve there, homie?"

  1. I’m a liner notes freak, too… I kind of miss vinyl that way. Some of my old records have whole books and giant posters with them – not to mention the picture disks. And portability and durability were gained at a sacrifice of range.
    I’m so old… yer probably thinking CDs vs. MP3s… isn’t vinyl something you wear?

  2. Hey I found you over at the ferretts journal. Good post. And I saw your interests too you got some good taste in music my friend.
    Yeah I always thought it was weird that rap CD’s don’t have lyrics. PE’s CD’s do though…So maybe you have a point. But having said that I actually do enjoy 50. I really like his flow, but yeah the glorification of the ghetto get’s to you after awhile.

  3. cluebyfour says:

    Good post. And yeah, for gangsta rappers it’s all about the bling-bling–the music becomes secondary to the image, to the point where some of them devolve into self-parodies. They probably figure providing their lyrics is unnecessary as all their talk of hos and gats and what-have-you should be self-evident.
    FWIW, the Beastie Boys (decidedly not gangsta rappers, or even black for that matter!) usually include the lyrics to all the songs on their albums. And the packaging for their latest (To the 5 Boroughs) folds out to display the entire skyline of Manhattan, pre-9/11. Very clever and appropriate.

  4. pixietrle says:

    Awesome speech! *claps*
    I understand everything you said and I too look firstly at what the content are…lyrics & art to see what the artists is trying to convey/express. To try and establish a common taste, to relate, maybe even a learning experience and hopefully a deeper meaning to what they are about and is it genuine or important to me.
    The last Rap CD I bought was Makeveli…Tupac years ago. The only rap artist that I respect for many reasons. Every human has a fault but do they learn from that and can they share that moral intelligently instead negatively. Degrading rap pop doesn’t appeal to my taste although I can say that I do find myself dancing or bopping to it every now and again. Simply because I love to dance and being raised around so much music influence i.e. Latin family, an entire family of inspiring DJ’s, Motown, and Detroit Techno. I can’t get the beats out of my head but most definitely there’s a major lack of intelligence and true blue confidence in that genre of music. I heard on the radio this morning that some guy who was a vocal track on some Rapper (forgive me because I am not very “up” on the rappers lately everyone is 50 cent, Dr Dre, and Eminem to me) had attempted suicide in a hotel room this week. After an unsuccessful jump attempt out the window because of security intervening he then gouged out one of his eyeballs. WTF?
    Ok so where the truth in his song, the song was was complete opposite of his true feelings. Why can’t they just screw the image and for at least be intelligent instead of trying to impress the world with their gold teeth and King escalades. I’m not saying that their should be a message or learning experience from every artist but there should be something more than what they are offering to the people. Something more than gunshots, pimp rides, how to blow a million dollars in a day, how to contract a STD, how to get accused of rap in 60 secs flat, and how to not to improve and inquire a higher respect for life in general. I’m not trying to sound like a mother of soccer moms because I way far from that but as a young woman one that grew up in the ghetto of Detroit was a victim of it and moved my ass out I want something more. Personally my taste differs from the majority and I don’t care but if they want my dollars then they have to show me something more than fat ass jiggling strippers and blunts because I can get that shit just by driving down to the hood myself, for cheaper than 20 buck for a lousy CD.
    btw Snoop is being accused for rape now, so fucking stupid! The image will eventually catch up with them.

  5. rpmuzik says:

    S’up MRDA,
    I started reading this because I saw “buying music” and by the end of it I was all like “DAAAAMN! BROTHA WENT OFF!” Powerful choice of word bro.
    Being a “musicologist” myself, and I agree. May I quote? “I’m biased in favour of buying music, is the (often) lavish presentation that comes with the CDs. Unravelling the sleeves of most music albums give you a damned good idea of the amount of labour ‘n’ love (or lack of) that went into putting the whole damn thing together.” I don’t listen to much rap at all…a few at most, but I do understand your point. I too am a sleeve junkie. My thing is seeing who the band “thanks”…I dunno I guess just to see who’s hanging with who. There’s also the facts that I worked for Wherehouse Music for four years AND I’m a bit of a musician. I hated seeing my love and my job being partially destroyed by the rise of technology, so I say thank you for BUYING your music. However, I too am guilty of copied tunes, ut it’s generally the extremely rare live performances of something like a cover tune.
    Anyways…GREAT POST!

  6. stig_martyr says:

    Aye, I tend to sit and read lyrics sheets as well, and I’ve also noticed that a lot of hip hop artists, and mainstream music in general in my experience, tends to omit the lyrics from their liner notes.
    The only real explanation I could formulate for this was, as you said, a lot of music that this is applicable too, is quite obviously geared more towards an image driven populace, rather than those driven by the music itself and indeed, the lyrical content. As such much more goes into the aesthetics of the music and the general vibe behind it, and rather than adding any real substance to the music itself, more is added to manifesting a fabricated image to pander to the afore mentioned imagecentric group.
    Now, the problem with this, as you sort of pointed out is thus: These people tend to rap/sing/whatever about one of a limited amount of subjects. These generally being along the lines of general violence, misogyny, sex and anything else they can cram into this so called “ghetto lifestyle.” At the same time, alongside this they try to put forth the idea that this lifestyle isn’t necessarily positive. So to portray this to the best of their abilities, they’ll have two personas. One is the public side of things, interviews etc. Within this persona the idea that this lifestyle is bad etc will be put forth. At the same time however, running simultaneously to this public persona will be their rapper persona. This is where they’ll rap about their hedonistic lifestyle, and try to trivialised all the negative points they’ve put forward in their public persona.
    As such, lyrics can’t logically be included with their releases as it will surely out their hedonistic lifestyle and as such lower record sales. I’m working under the notion that each persona is played out to a different contingent. So whilst glorifying their lifestyle to the “kids” they are simultaneously putting out a positive message to both parents and authority figures, so that these adults will purchase their records for the kids. By putting lyrics in with their releases, their lyrical content and supposed lifestyle choice will be outed to all, and society in general will see what a negative image these people promote etc.
    Of course, this isn’t applicable to all rappers/ mainstream music. To say so would be ignorant. But I feel it is the case a lot of the time.

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