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Hard Knock Life
XXL asked 10 of hip-hop’s top lyricists to describe the most difficult verses they’ve ever had to write.
Interviews by Dan Rys, Miranda Johnson, Emmanuel C.M. and Eric Diep

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of XXL Magazine.

It's a fact of artistry: some verses will always be easier to write than others. While some songs just come out right away, others take a lyricist days, weeks or months to find the right words to express what they are trying to get across. That in particular can come into play when a rapper writes about something that hits close to home, whether it be the death of a family member or friend, telling the story of their come up in just the right, nuanced way or getting across a closely-guarded detail of their personal lives in a way that conveys the struggle without betraying a weakness.

But there are many reasons why a verse is particularly difficult for a rapper of any caliber. With that in mind, XXL reached out to some of hip-hop's premier lyricists, from Raekwon to MC Lyte, Tech N9ne to Ice Cube, Scarface to Prodigy, to ask them to explain which verse was the most difficult for them to write in their career. It's a hard knock life.

Photo Credit: Andrew Zaeh

Big-boi-andrew-zaeh

BIG BOI

"Tremendous Damage" featuring Bosco
2012
Vicious Lies And Dangerous Rumors
Verse Two


Verse
"February 28th, the day my daddy died/Well, not really, his energy passed to the other side/And ever since that day I’ve seen him fade away with my own eyes/I never doubted God, the Marine Corps they say Semper Fi/My daddy fought in Vietnam/This is a fun fact for the bloodline of Antwan Andre/Just like this song say/I’ve suffered tremendous damage, got me tougher than a muthafucka/And since the days of 'Player’s Ball'/Y’all thought it was about all these broads and slamming Cadillac doors/Now your American idol is just a fraud/You kiss a man he’s still gonna be a frog/A bitter old negro not at all/See, I look 26 and still hit your broad/Still pitch a ball, hike, pass, shoot, kick and all/Practice make perfect and first it was Bamboo and now it’s Cross"

This Verse Was Difficult To Write Because:
Big Boi: It was just emotionally tough—my father passed a while ago, and the song was like therapy to me, kind of getting my feelings out and expressing myself in a different way, rhyming as well as singing on the record. Really just going into that inner place and reflecting on your life and just really getting it off your chest. It was actually one of the first beats that I had, one of the first songs with the hook on it when I was working on the record. But I never could put the words to it until the end. And it finally came together.

Actually, that song and the record “Descending” land together. Those two songs are like a pair at the end of the record, just songs of reflection. I thought it was dope. I was proud. My sister, she can’t listen to it, though. It’s so emotional that you can feel the stress on my throat, and you can feel the pain, the way that I deliver it, because I was just in the moment. I know my dad’s smiling down on me like, “Yeah, boy.”

Photo Credit: Andrew Litten

big-krit-Andrew-Litten

BIG K.R.I.T.

"The Vent"
2011
Return Of 4eva

Verse
"A mother lost her child, I tried to ease her pain/'It’s only God’s will,' she says she felt the same/It’s funny how the sun will up and bow to rain/As if the clouds couldn’t stand to see me outside again/Wrote a rhyme that was kind with some vision to it/Bottom line it might expand your mind if you listen to it/Too much shine can dull the soul/If you feel how I feel, then I’ll rap some more/How can the devil take my brother if he’s close to me?/When he was everything I wasn’t but I hoped to be/I get a little honest and I ask myself/If the time come, will you save me if I ask for help?/Sent my mind on a journey to the outermost/To document what it had seen and cc me the notes/And ask Kurt Cobain why, ’cause I need to know/He stopped when he had such a way long to go/I saw love in the eyes of a perfect stranger/She overlooked my caring heart in search of a gangster/Will we ever be together? Only time will tell/She call my phone and talked to me as her eyes would swell/I put my problems in a box beside my tightest rhymes/Under lock and key, buried deep off in my mind/And when it gets too full and I can’t close the lid/I spaz on my family and my closest friends/Trade my materials for a peace of mind/I’m so close to heaven, hell, I just need some time/Who cares about life and the highs and lows/Maybe I should write another song about pimps and hoes/Cars and clothes, idol gods, golden calves, Louis scarves/I do this for the love and it’s free of charge/I don’t need jail to be behind bars/This is purely art/In my grandma’s household this was surely taught/Don’t be naïve, yeah, these times is hard/In the midst of all the glamour, hope you find God/I never wished to be the burden bearer/But souls need saving and it’s now or never/Shock value’s all they wanna see/It’s us against them, and it’s just you and me/Trying to take heed what I say in my songs/Forgive me if I ever ever steered you wrong/Most people stop for signs, but I’ve driven through it/If it don’t touch my soul then I can’t listen to it/The radio don’t play the shit I used to love/Or maybe I’m just growing up/I never seen a star on a red rug/If I wanna see stars I just look above/To the heavens"

This Verse Was Difficult To Write Because:
Big K.R.I.T.: At that point in my life, [I was] reflecting on the passing of my grandmother, what I would say if I had the opportunity and just expressing myself no matter what people would think. There’s always this facade about rappers that they’re superheroes, hardcore, gangsta, and it ain’t. Sometimes it’s real life situations and I really decided that I was gonna be just as open and as honest as possible on that song. It took a lot just recording it, even at the end part, ’cause it was at the same time as the anniversary of my grandmother passing.

I explain, “I lost my friend this morning.” And the part, “If it don’t touch my soul, I can’t listen to it.” Those are the parts that got my heart beating real fast. One, you wanna execute it just right, and I felt those words so much. That song wasn’t necessarily supposed to go on Return Of 4eva, but I was so adamant about it. I vowed that on every project there would be something dedicated to my grandmother or something that she would be able to listen to without a gang of curse words in it.

Photo Credit: @SkeyeXB

Freddie-Gibbs-@SkeyeXB

FREDDIE GIBBS

"National Anthem (Fuck The World)"
2010
Str8 Killa
Verse One

Verse
"Back when I was younger/Very ambitious but often blinded by my hunger/Some say I dream too big/And my dream gon’ take me under/Beneath the streets of Gary/Would I make it out I wonder/Could my obituary be the next they read amongst the/Niggas I came up with and fell victim to this dope game/Poverty stricken so our economy is cocaine/Ecstasy, heroin, marijuana ain’t no hope, man/Absentee fathers and dope fiend mamas/Got my hood turned out to the point that a nigga wanna go and get paid/Fuck sittin’ on the bench I’ma go on/To the next lick ’til I’m goin’ in my grave/Then I figured after that I could make a livin’/Off makin’ words rhyme, it was all in my mind/Everybody in the G went to Finger Roll studio/Nobody had a flow quite like mine/But along with the fame came a whole lot of/Hate from the hood, every day I would fight/Mama can’t sleep ’cause I’m way too deep in the streets/ She would pray through the night/Every rhyme that I spit real shit/’Cause it’s just another day in my life/Niggas better keep a vest test to my testicles/They be vegetables, they gonna respect the flow ’til I’m gone"

This Verse Was Difficult To Write Because:
Freddie Gibbs: I was going through a difficult time when I made that record. It was personal, but it was cool. I was just trying to get the kinks out. I wasn’t as polished a rapper as I am now. [I was going through] things in the streets. Violence in the streets. Shoot-outs. I had a homie who just got killed by a police officer. It was just a lot of shit going on in my life at the time. I was trying to figure out if I even wanted to fuck with this rap shit.

Then I started getting recognition for it. That was around the time when I was on the Freshman Cover for XXL. That was a turning point in my career when I was wondering if I wanted to still do rap or just be who I am for real, just a street nigga. Now I feel all my records are like, “Fuck everybody.” That’s the mentality that kept me able to survive in this game. I am one of the last muthafuckas standing on his own.

Photo Credit: Robert Redd

ice-cube-robert-redd

ICE CUBE

"Dope Man"
1987
N.W.A
N.W.A And The Posse
Verse One

Verse
"It was once said by a man who couldn’t quit/'Dope man, please can I have another hit?'/The dope man said, 'Cluck, I don’t give a shit/If your girl kneel down and suck my dick'/It all happened and the guy tried to choke her/Nigga didn’t care, she ain’t nothing but a smoker/That’s the way it goes, that’s the name of the game/Young brother getting over by slanging ’caine/Gold around his neck in 14k heaven/Bitches clocking on his dick 24-7/Plus he’s making money keeping the base heads waiting/Rollin’ 6-4 with the fresh ass Daytons/Living in Compton, Cailfornia, C-A/His Uzi up yo ass if he don’t get paid/Nigga begging for credit, he’s knocking out teeth/Clocking much dollars on the 1st and 15th/Big wad of money, nothing less than a 20/Yo, you want a five-o? The dope man’s got plenty/To be a dope man, boy, you must qualify/Don’t get high off your own supply/From a key to a G it’s all about money/10 piece for 10 base, pipe comes free/And people out there are not hip to the fact/If you see somebody getting money for crack, he’s the dope man"

This Verse Was Difficult To Write Because:
Ice Cube: We were still trying to find out what we should be really rhyming about. It took a minute to really sum that up on what we tried to do. It was kind of before I found my niche, what kind of style that I was going to stick with. We hadn’t formed N.W.A, technically, when that song was recorded. It was just really making sure we were clear with what we wanted to say. We didn’t have any beats. Dre would make the beats after he heard the rhyme. It wasn’t anything really to rap to; it was kind of just beats in my head. He liked the first verse, but I didn’t have a second verse, so I had to go write it and complete the song.

It was a cautious tale. Dope dealing wasn’t gloried like it is now. It was actually a warning song. I was about 16, 17 years old. Wrote it at my house in my bedroom and was super motivated. After the success of “Boyz-N-The Hood,” I knew if I did this right, it was going to become a record. I was amped up. That’s probably why it took me a minute, because I was concentrating so hard to get every line right.

Kid-Ink

KID INK

"Hell & Back"
2012
Up & Away

Verse
"Uh, let’s take it to the ground/Don’t too many make it coming through our town/Looking for a detour nowhere to be found/When the pressure’s on seems nobody’s around/Uh, but I won’t let them see me sweat/Yeah, it took a little time, but can’t really be upset/Long way to the top, I can barely see the steps/Yeah, they sleeping on me still, but I barely need to rest/See me standing here, head high, face up/I don’t need no X-ray, show you what I’m made of/Tell ’em I paid my dues and you can check the pay stubs/Never had a chance so I had to go and make one, say some/You can tell them that I’ve been through Hell and back, but I’m home/Can’t really complain when it’s the life that I chose/Sacrificed it all and everything that I owned/Say, 'What doesn’t kill me can only make me stronger'"

This Verse Was Difficult To Write Because:
Kid Ink: I think it was one of those records where it was my first time really stepping outside the box of not being personal, not being vulnerable to giving off who Kid Ink is as a person and not just as an artist, and where I came from, the grind. I never really grew up as, “I’m gonna talk about the sad stuff.” I always tried to make my music more fun. But I feel like that’s one of my biggest records because I really got personal and really told a story of where I came from and the grind. I wrote the hook one day and the hook spoke to me.

It was the last song I did for the project. I remember going to the studio three times, trying to go in on this verse, doing it one time and it not being good enough. And just having that moment where I could really let go and talk about anything. After getting it done, I understood how to make those records.

mc-lyte

MC LYTE

"Cold Rock A Party (Bad Boy Remix)" featuring Missy Elliott
1996
Bad As I Wanna B
Verse One

Verse
"So what’s your status? I be the baddest/B to hit the scene since the gangsta lean/I’m all ears, so what you got to say?/I hope you bubblin’ it, baby, now bubblin’ it my way/Let it rain, ain’t no salt up in the game/Still want you the same, ain’t a thing changed/Instead of knockin’ boots we be kickin’ down Gortex/Except it ain’t raw sex/Roughnecks throw your hands in the air/Let me hear you say, 'Oh yeah'/Trust you me I’ll blow up shop/About to blow the roof right off of hip-hop"

This Verse Was Difficult To Write Because:
MC Lyte: What I wrote first wasn’t used. At that point Puffy told me, “Lyte, you making too much sense. Just do sporadic thoughts. One thing doesn’t have to connect.” The school from which I hail from you make sense, things coincide with the other because you’re speaking to someone. When you’re walking down the street it’s like, “Oh, I got to pick up some mail,” just sporadic thoughts. But when you’re speaking to someone and actually trying to communicate and get a message across, it’s usually done in full sentences. So that was a little challenging, but once I understood what he wanted, I was able to write it in two seconds because it was just a bunch of thoughts that had no string or no tie with one another. For me, that was a little abstract to think of.

When you listen to the lyrics for “Cold Rock A Party,” it’s just me talking smack. There’s a whole lot of my lyrics where I try to be contrary to the message, whatever that message is. Whether I’m the baddest one on the mic or there’s a poor kid succumbing to all the stress in his life and wanting to take himself out. Whatever the thing is. But “Cold Rock A Party,” it’s just rhetoric.

Photo Credit: Infamous Records

prodigy-infamous-records

PRODIGY

"You Can Never Feel My Pain"
2000
H.N.I.C.
Verse One

Verse
"1974, muthafucka I was born with pain/My moms and my pops pass it down to me/So don’t talk to me about, 'Can I feel yours?'/’Cause I ain’t feelin’ you at all, your pain isn’t pure/You cryin’ ’cause you broke from the projects/That’s not pain, that’s emotions, you a bitch/I’m talkin’ ’bout permanent, physical suffering/You know nothin’ about that, you just complain ’cause you stressed/Nigga, my pain’s in the flesh/And through the years that pain became my friend, sedated/With morphine as a little kid/I built a tolerance for drugs, addicted to the medicine/Now hospital emergency treat me like a fiend/I rather die sometimes, I wish a nigga O.D./Beggin’ God for help, only to find/That I’m all by my goddamn self/And you could never feel my pain, nigga"

This Verse Was Difficult To Write Because:
Prodigy: That was the first song I did [where] the whole song was about my sickle cell [anemia]. I wanted to do it the right way where people could understand what I was going through and other people that have sickle cell could have something that they could relate to.

It’s not an embarrassing thing. Anyone who can go through pain like that, you gotta respect that muthafucka. It was just tough trying to explain it. After 2pac said his line in that rhyme [“Nigga you’re barely livin’, don’t you got sickle cell?/See me have a seizure on stage, you ain’t feelin’ well,” from “When We Ride On Our Enemies”], I guess he thought he was embarrassing me, but he didn’t.

I just wanted to make a song, some gangsta shit that other people with sickle cell could be like, “Yeah, I like this shit right here.” Ain’t no soft song cryin’ about some bullshit. It’s a real song that they can relate to.

Photo Credit: Sarah Rose

raekwon-sarah-rose

RAEKWON

"C.R.E.A.M."
1993
Wu-Tang Clan
Enter The Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers

Verse
"I grew up on the crime side, the New York Times side/Staying alive was no jive/Had second hands, Moms bounced on old man/So then we moved to Shaolin land/A young youth, rockin’ the gold tooth, 'Lo goose/Only way, I begin to G off was drug loot/And let’s start it like this son, rollin’ with this one/And that one, pullin’ out gats for fun/But it was just a dream for the teen, who was a fiend/Started smokin’ woolies at 16/And running up in gates and doing hits for high stakes/Making my way on fire escapes/No question I would speed, for cracks and weed/The combination made my eyes bleed/No question I would flow off and try to get the dough off/Sticking up White boys in ball courts/My life got no better, same damn 'Lo sweater/Times is rough and tough like leather/Figured out I went the wrong route/So I got with a sick-ass clique and went all out/Catchin’ keys from across seas/Rollin’ in MPVs, every week we made 40 G’s/Yo brothas respect mine or anger the tech nine/Chick—POW! Move from the gate now"

This Verse Was Difficult To Write Because:
Raekwon: At first, “C.R.E.A.M.” was a story about people that made money and people that was rich. But then a good friend told me, “We need to talk about where we been at and what we’ve been through.” I had to go back and rewrite it a couple of times. I wrote “C.R.E.A.M.” probably around 2:30 in the morning on a stove, and I just started to reflect on my struggle. And that might have been my hardest rhyme because the hook was so already in-pocket and we knew what that word meant.

When we broke it down and said, “Cash rules everything around me,” that was just the average kid who didn’t have nothing. That’s all he knew, was you gotta have this to survive. So I had to make sure that I wrote something that could reflect based on some true documents in my life, and that was pretty difficult for me to write at first. It’s easy for me to tell a story and use other players and other people to describe what I was going at. But it was different for me to talk about my life and my struggles.

Getty Images

scarface-getty

SCARFACE

"I Seen A Man Die"
1994
The Diary
Verse One

Verse
"He greets his father with his hands out/Rehabilitated slightly, glad to be the man’s child/The world is different since he’s seen it last/Out of jail, been seven years, and he’s happy that he’s free at last/All he had was his mother’s letters/Now he’s molded, and he’s gotta make a change and make it for the better/But he’s Black, so he’s got one strike against him/And he’s young, plus he came up in the system/But he’s smart, and he’s finally makin’ 18/And his goal’s to get on top and try to stay clean/So he’s calling up his homie who done came up/Livin’ like this, now they dealin’ with the same stuff/And had that attitude that who he was was worth it/And with that fucked up attitude he killed his first man/Now it’s different, he’s who did dirt/And realized that the name ain’t coming up, but it still hurt/And can’t nobody change this/It’s 1994 and we up against the same shit/I never understood why/I could never see a man cry, ’til I seen a man die"

This Verse Was Difficult To Write Because:
Scarface: I was 23 years old. I had no idea what the fuck I was writing. That’s when I was finding myself. When I was really finding out who I was in the game and my versatility and creating. That was during my get high days. I remember I had broken my fist or something. I was extremely high. I would make a beat, go home and write the record and go to the studio at 7 that evening and I would record it, and I would make another beat after that.

You can go through life with your head up, but until you see somebody life took or go to a funeral or lose someone dear to you, that’s when you see a man break down. I was writing shit that makes sense to me. I was a kid, man, if you look at it, writing that kind of shit. Find a kid now that’s writing that kind of shit.

I don’t have a feeling writing a song. I just know that listening to it, after I hear it and everything is in order and in place, then you feel like you got something special. I know people weren’t feeling like that in the beginning. Nothing was narrated like that. You got great storytellers and songwriters but nothing of that magnitude.

Photo Credit: Chris Shonting

tech-n9ne-chris-shonting

TECH N9NE

"Low" featuring Krizz Kaliko
2009
K.O.D.
Verse Two

Verse
"My smile is forced, my style is warped/Morale is corpse, now that my really good pal is torched/I’m just gone with the wind, I’m at home with the gin, to the dome when I spin/I’m a zone ’cause the phone must be roamin’ again/Another tone I’m alone now don’t want me to spin/Time with I’m just mind this, might find Miss N9ne missed/I find my mind in this line dish, dine quick, not even a second for mindless/In a middle of a time when the music’s flyin’, I’ve depleted my kindness/Low like the grasses, low like poor folks on grass shit/I’m so below the casket, ragged pulse up the maggots/Why do I feel this illness? I’m lookin’ for somethin’ to come and kill this a little bit/I got my head in the hills ’cause the real shit is/Momma is sufferin’ takin’ pills with the stillness/And I feel it, I can’t shake it/In any case my space is the basement/I can’t erase my embrace of encasement/I’m chasin’ hatred my taste not complacent/So as I go to the floor, the industry finally opened the door/But now I’m in the muthafucka all I feel is... Low"

This Verse Was Difficult To Write Because:
Tech N9ne: I ran from it for weeks because I was already in a slump. When you are doing dark music, you find out that you aren’t just creating, you are actually living it. I had to talk about my dead homie who got shot. Brian Dennis and his girl got shot in front of their daughter. And the ex-husband killed himself afterwards.

I knew “Low” was gonna take me deeper into that hole, and I didn’t want to be stuck. It’s just a lot of sadness. I only did two verses because I could barely do three. ’Cause I write my life, so this is not just make believe. This is what’s in my head for real. The line between insanity and sanity.

I remember being at my house writing it. I remember sitting on that couch, writing “Low.” My mom was actually in the psychiatric center at that time. She’s been in and out throughout her life, but that was a time when she was about to die from pancreatitis. It was a bad time. I did K.O.D. because my angel was dying. And the album came out on her birthday. It was wonderful that she made it through pancreatitis because she wasn’t supposed to make it through.

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