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FEATURE: Wordplay

Earlier this year, taking to Web video to air his confusion over the rankings of Vibe magazine’s Best Rapper Ever online tournament, New Jersey rapper Joe Budden asked a question as only Joe Budden can: “You mean to tell me if Method Man were in my face right this second and we had to rap, back and forth, that Method Man would be the victor? Against me?”

For his part, Budden should be applauded—and not just for the proper usage of the word victor. We exist in what can easily be described as a post-skills era in hip-hop, where the sales accrued, business acumen exhibited, accolades received and other signifiers of acceptance have trumped the idea of poetry when dealing with a rapper’s merit as an artist, but frustratingly few MCs are willing to engage one another in the type of dialogue that would create a true discussion regarding the state of affairs. “Some of these people have already admitted themselves that they could give two fucks about rapping and that they are in this for other things,” Joe continued, while questioning the ranks of rappers like megastar Will Smith, Cash Money’s Juvenile and pioneer Grandmaster Melle Mel, in between blank looks of incredulousness at the camera. “I’m better than most of the niggas on this list,” he claimed, raising his umbrage quotient. “This list is about rapping. This list is not the best artist. This list is not who has the most hits, who has the most money. This is not about who sells the most. This is about rapping, no?”

To put matters to a point, Joe declared that he was better than at least 50 of the 128 rappers represented and put out a call to any rappers within digital earshot. “I would love to prove it,” he said. “So any of you niggas who are seeing this [video] and have seen this [list] and think that what I am saying is wrong, I would love for you to prove it to me.” He ended his tirade: “I dare one of you niggas to take me up on what I am saying.”

Soon enough, the challenge heard round the hip-hop Internet found its way to popular radio shows, but in a twisted form. It was no longer “Joe Budden calls for a focus on lyrical skill when dealing with rappers,” but “Joe Budden disses Method Man.” Meth got upset. Redman scoffed. Raekwon and Busta Rhymes issued on-air suggestions that stopped centimeters short of being full-on physical threats. Joe, who has been in more public hip-hop conflicts than any rapper not named 50 Cent or The Game (both of whom he’s had public conflict with, naturally), never backed down, but wound up explaining himself ad infinitum for what he referred to as “dumb muthafuckas who lack reasoning ability.”

A month after the initial flare-up, with the issue not going away, Joey, while appearing on Green Lantern’s The Invasion show on Sirius Radio, along with his hip-hop quartet Slaughterhouse, sent some subliminal messages while rapping over Jay-Z’s “D.O.A. (Death of Autotune)”: “Niggas is scared of the truth…/They doing interludes in any interview, talking about how they prepared to shoot/How thoughtful, won’t resort to getting near a booth.”

Therein, Joe cut to the core of the problem: Most rappers don’t rap any more; all they do is pop shit. And, true to form, the Joe vs. Method Man situation produced a few forgettable diss tracks from Inspectah Deck and other Wu-Tang non-notables but was played out largely via a slew of radio interviews, countless straight-to-Web videos and, most tellingly, a physical altercation between Joe and Raekwon’s camp during a San Bernardino, California stop on Guerilla Union’s Rock the Bells tour, which is, ironically, a forum created to support and celebrate the types of rappers who are apt to place skills at the top of their value system. Joe, of course, took to the Web, challenging Raekwon to a “square dance” (otherwise known as a “fair one,” or a good old-fashioned fistfight). And just like that, the plot was lost. Again.

“Lyricism is being able to do things with words that the average person doesn’t normally think can be done,” says underground rapper Skyzoo. “You may see a metaphor where point A has nothing to do with point B, but you make it make sense.” There are many branches to the lyricism tree. Many deal with wordplay—simile and metaphor, alliteration, internal rhyme, double meaning. Some focus on concept, storytelling and meaning. There are even those who erroneously equate lyricism with subject matter, giving rise to the claim that so-and-so rapper isn’t a lyricist because he just talks about the drug trade or cars, clothes and hoes. (Even a cursory glance at the catalog of Jay-Z, the Clipse or Fabolous brings this last argument crashing to its knees.) But the purest notion of lyricism—the way words are put together in new and novel connections—in hip-hop is foundational and, to many, is beyond refute as a priority. To many it remains the summum bonum of the rap game. “The reason why hip-hop is about lyrics is because, in the streets, we had to battle with the mind,” says Duck Down’s Buckshot, who recently released the Survival Skills LP with KRS-One. “On ‘Robot,’ Kris [KRS-One] said, ‘We started breakin’ so we could stop fightin’.’ Before hip-hop, we used to kill each other. Then we said, ‘You know what? We gotta find a way to stop killin’ each other with the hands, and let’s start killin’ each other with the mind.’ In the sense of saying, ‘Let’s stop going to war on these streets out here with our hands, and let’s start using the talent.’ And then it was like, ‘Well, okay, my mind is better than your mind.’ I said ‘car’ and ‘bar,’ and then the other person say, ‘Well, anybody can match “car” and “bar.” That ain’t shit.’”

Buckshot’s emphasis on lyricism (“Robot” made much the same point as Jay-Z’s anti-sing-rap polemic “D.O.A.,” only months earlier) is telling. The cover to Survival Skills features Buckshot, above the clouds, being helped up a mountain by KRS-One. The idea is that they are somewhere only a few can go. But it also prompts the question: How many people really want to go up the mountain in the first place?—kris ex with additional reporting  by Matt Barone

For more of the Wordplay article, make sure to pick up XXL‘s October issue on newsstands now.

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