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Wordplay: The sport of a wordsmith.
In hip-hop, the greatest rappers to have ever touched a mic and spit their truth have dabbled in this art. Some have done it more smoothly than others, who—in their own right—have made the obvious a bit more clear.
Wordplay can come about in a multitude of directions, but the overall goal is to execute a pun or pop culture reference through word alterations and the flipping of meanings. A few methods include: internal rhyme schemes; varying pronunciations; synonyms; synonyms juxtaposed by antonyms; syllable breakdowns; double, triple, and even quadruple entendres; and spelling.
With Eminem releasing his latest album Kamikaze, there’s been some internet buzz about who the best to ever do it is. Some of these debates already exist on the archives of the internet—I’m sure we can trace back to some examples existing in REVOLT’s content alone.
To be clear, this article is not attempting to throw its two cents in the debate of who the best wordplay-ist is, but rather go lyric by lyric on some of the top-notch, heavy-hitter examples hip-hop has ever delivered to the culture.
Starting with easy one-liners:
“She almost got cut short—you know, scissors” — Slick Rick, “Mona Lisa” (1988)
An easy one with the answer right in the lyric! The slickest to ever do it, Slick Rick recalls meeting this tempting beauty, named after the painting, at a pizza parlor. In the middle of their conversation, he almost interrupts her (“cut short”). And “you know,” what do scissors do? It’s almost a shame he didn’t describe her haircut.
“Real Gs move in silence like lasagna” — Lil Wayne, “6 Foot, 7 Foot” (2011)
Simple play here: The letter "g" is in the word “lasagna.” The “G” will always remain silent no matter how many times you try to pronounce it. Hustlas (aka “G’s”), like Lil Wayne, know how to remain in silence about their moves.
“I'm not gay, I just wanna boogie to some Marvin” — Tyler, The Creator, “Yonkers” (2011)
Let’s stir the pot with a pop culture reference. Here, Tyler is addressing rumors about his sexuality but simultaneously acknowledging a legend, Marvin Gay(e), whose style of music has a “boogie” groove to it.
Now to the ones that S-P-E-L-L out T-H-E M-E-A-N-I -N-G:
“I'm the L-I-L to the K-I-M / And not B-I-G, R.I.P. ba-by” — Lil’ Kim, “Spell Check” (2005)
One of the best to ever do it, Lil’ Kim immediately gets to the point on the first line off The Naked Truth. She spells out her name in the introduction and notes how opposites attract in size. The “not” deads all criticisms that “Biggie wrote her shit,” but she makes sure to show love and respect to her mentor, who has taught her a thing or two about spelling.
“Ride the dick like a BMX, no nigga wanna Be My eX” — Cardi B, “Motorsport” (2017)
While the Queen Bee of Rap directed her spelling at critics, the Empress warned rejected suitors with her wordplay, while in full costume. She equates her kamasutra to the X Games sport. God forbid her partner messes up, and crashes to ex territory, as she phonetically spells out with “Be My Ex.” (An honorable mention has to go to Remy Ma’s “Nigga you can Be my eX, that's where I'm from” on “Money Showers” (2017), which rather nods to the Bronx.)
Now that we’ve warmed up to wordplay, it’s time to take a Kurtis Blow moment with some noteworthy chorus examples, because these are the...
“Brakes on a bus, brakes on a car / Breaks to make you a superstar / Breaks to win and breaks to lose / But these here breaks will rock your shoes / And these are the breaks / Break it up, break it up, break it up!” — Kurtis Blow, “The Breaks” (1980)
What made “The Breaks” one of hip-hop’s first commercial success stories is its relatability factor in the storytelling. Kurtis Blow had delivered rap’s version of the facts of life. Breaks, the device on a vehicle, are meant to stop motion. Sometimes life is interrupted by unfortunate breaks. In fact, these so-called “breaks” do happen to appear in a monthly schedule, at least the amount of times they appear in this hook.
“You niggas want word play, I’m 'bout birdplay / First of the month, yeah, we call that bird day (Look at 'em fly)” — Jeezy, “Word Play” (2008)
Flash forward to 38 years after “The Breaks,” and the genre of trap—specifically from the Southern hemisphere of America spanning from Atlanta to New Orleans—had taken over hip-hop. Still, there were the skeptics of this sound that complained about a lack of crafty lyricism resembling the Golden Age. At the forefront of the commercial movement, Jeezy responds to his critics via an appropriately titled song from his album The Recession. Jeezy claims he’s all about being a dope rapper in this line, hence “birdplay,” a slang for slinging drugs. However, “look at em fly” acknowledges how words can still effortlessly roll off his tongue.
“I can't even roll in peace (why?) / Everybody notice me (yeah) / I can't even go to sleep (why?) / I'm rolling on a bean (yeah) / They tried to give me eight / Got on my knees like "Jesus please" / He don't even believe in Jesus / Why you got a Jesus piece?” — Kodak Black, “Roll In Peace” (2017)
As a protege of Jeezy, Kodak Black offers a hook that’s both morose and addictive, and a standout amongst this new generation of rappers. First, “Roll In Peace” spells out RIP to match the graveyard music. Jesus is associated depending on what religious burial is taking place, or when you’re being sentenced to time, who you pray to last minute. Second, “roll” could mean the action for a blunt, as well as tripping out on a pill (“bean”).
Now for the bars that mix in snapshots of pop culture:
“Ha, holla cross from the land of the lost / Behold the pale horse, off course (off course)” — Method Man, Wu-Tang Clan’s “Gravel Pit” (2000)
Method Man stands tall amongst the greats who, if you don’t pay attention to every detail in their verses, the references will go over your head. That’s just how smooth he is. Now this opening verse is often disputed: Is he saying “ha, holla cross,” or “ha holocaust”? Either way, each interpretation still ties into a religious allusion, albeit the latter is more gruesome, to say the least. Now, “Gravel Pit” returns to Wu-Tang’s underground sound, as RZA mentions in the intro, but it’s somewhat lost musically in the new millennium climate. Wu-Tang Clan still remained holy figures in rap regardless, bringing prophetic wisdom and blessings to the game. On this journey, Method Man brings a pale horse into the conversation, who just so happens to be “off course” in “the land of lost.” This horse also happens to know one of Mr. Ed’s—America’s first sitcom horse—theme song, which starts “a horse is a horse, of course, of course.” See: smooth word play!
“Now, pan right for the angle / I got away with murder, no scandal, cue the violins and Violas” — Janelle Monae, “Django Jane” (2018)
On a song titled after the female equivalent to Jamie Foxx’s slave revolting superhero, Janelle Monae pushes against perceptions media has placed on the black image. She also celebrates them, like in this line, directing her next punchline’s “angle” (with a “pan right”). She salutes the Shondaland Thursday primetime line-up for ABC (“How To GetAway With Murder” and “Scandal”), before instructing the strings players of her band to play the instrument sharing a name with the HTGAWM lead actress.
“Niggas talkin' shit, 'Ye—how do you respond? / Poop, scoop! / Whoop! Whoopty-whoop!” — Pusha T and Kanye West, “What Would Meek Do?” (2018)
Pusha T asks him a question and Kanye responds with his infamous lines from “Lift Yourself.” Of course we don’t have to point out the obvious synonyms, but what a great alley-oop-oop-oop-oopty-oop through collaboration.
Here are some examples of musical terminology and rapping ability tied to double meanings:
“Rappers, I monkey flip 'em with the funky rhythm I be kickin' / Musician inflictin' composition of pain” — Nas, “New York State of Mind” (1994)
Simply the best to utilize wordplay, the examples from Nas are endless. But this informal introduction to the power of his skill takes the cake. A monkey flip is a wrestling and breakdancing move that requires the person to kick. A monkey flip in the ring of the WWF (or WCW, WWE depending on which generation you associate), in particular, flips the opponent over. Sounds painful. Musicians and rappers make “compositions” through “rhythms.” Of course, Nas’ wordplay is some of the most lethal.
“Listen, you should buy a sixteen, 'cause I write it good / That 808 WOOF WOOF, 'cause I ride it good / And bitches can't find they man, 'cause I ride it good / I'm the wolf, where is Little Red Riding Hood?” — Nicki Minaj, “Itty Bitty Piggy” (2009)
One aspect that can’t be denied with Nicki’s craft is her ability to ride a beat. That’s exhibited well in her flow and deuce set of sixteen bars from her mixtape days. She interchanges “write” and “ride” with similar pronunciation. Nicki’s exemplary wordplay is ran by her “rrr’s” and “w’s.” The “woof woof” shows onomatopoeia tying into the “wolf,” but also the sound of the beat’s 808. Little Red Riding Hood is a pop culture reference that ties back into the variations of “ride” and “write.”
“Crack off nigga, I'm squeezing empty 'til the shell break / Fuck my image I need to drop, I need to, Blank Face” — ScHoolboy Q, “Blank Face” (2016)
With this bar, ScHoolboy Q masks his wordplay to create a vivid image. He mentions his gun “cracking off,” which directs attention to what a shell can do once it “breaks.” There’s also the shell of a gun which will “break” after he empties the clip, or possibly an AK-47. “I need to drop” could mean two things: killing thy enemies on sight and/or disappearing after committing the act—hence the need for a discreet “blank face.” But there’s one last meaning: his album being named Blank Face would also “need to drop” in time for the scheduled release. Maybe the West Coast rapper is tying all this into annihilating the game with his rapid and energetic delivery.
If there are three legendary emcees from the Golden Age with OG wordplay, look no further:
“Eric be easy on the cut, no mistakes allowed / 'Cause to me, MC means move the crowd / I made it easy to dance to this / But can you detect what's coming next from the flex of the wrist? / Say 'indeed' and I'll proceed 'cause my man made a mix / If he bleed he won't need no band-aid to fix / His fingertips sew a rhyme until there's no rhymes left / I hurry up because the cut will make 'em bleed to death” — Rakim, “Eric B Is President” (1987)
With Rakim on wax, it’s like you’re in conversation, and every time he speaks there’s not just one message, but quite a few. There is a large serving of wordplay here so let’s digest this bite by bite: “Eric b(e)” is of course a play on of his DJ partner in crime who is the muse behind this song and its lyrics. Rakim is requesting precision from Eric B so that he can “MC,” or rather move the crowd, efficiently. “Man made a mix” plays on the homophone of “manmade,” that which hip-hop ultimately is a manmade art. “Band aid” simply makes you ask, “what DJ ever needed a band to fix their mistakes or hand them a band-aid should they ever bleed?” Finally, Eric B is “sewing” together the production behind Rakim, helping to stitch his rhymes together. For the slam dunk, Rakim loops back into “cut” which means the cut of music or at the turntables, and a physical cut that would make “em bleed to death.”
“Rappers stepping to me / They want to get some / But I’m the Kane so, yo, you know the outcome / Another victory / They can’t get with me / So pick a BC date because you’re history.” — Big Daddy Kane, “Ain’t No Half Steppin’” (1988)
It’s only fair that a great who has felt imitated by others would compare himself to the first human ever born, the biblical figure Cain. Cain existed in the BC time period, while this song was released during the AD (where it seems other MCs can’t presently hang with Big Daddy Kane). Not only is he telling them they’re old news, he calls it all “history.”
“Who da freshest motherfucker in rap? / You better dig in your crates, who lives what they state? / Who's the most consistent to date? / If you're talking 2Pac or B.I.G., you late (KRS!)” — KRS-One, “Who Da Best” (2010)
Being one of hip-hop’s titan truthsayers, KRS-One’s arsenal of puns and punchlines are endless. Take this example where he has to quickly remind the new school of his legendary status on an alchemical EP called Back to the L.A.B. (Lyrical Ass Beating). While many will say “da freshest in rap” are either of the “late” greats “2Pac or B.I.G.,” KRS-One tells us to go look at the records and vinyls in the “crates” before their time. There is also the juxtaposition of “live” and “late,” as KRS is freshly “stating” his case while alive.
Okay, this one’s a Biggie:
“Now check it: I got more mack than Craig, and in the bed / Believe me, sweetie, I got enough to feed the needy /No need to be greedy, I got mad friends with Benzes /C-notes by the layers, true fuckin' players” — The Notorious B.I.G., “Big Poppa” (1994)
Being the G.O.A.T., Biggie had the ability to highlight luxury and materialism to give his verses the charismatic life they packed. There’s the name drop of his Bad Boy label mate, Craig Mack which he uses the last name to compare his sexual prowess (mack could also tie into that obscenity before “players”). Then we get to his rich friends, who also happen to be musicians or “players” who have dealt with “C-notes,” wads of $100 bills and on the music scale. Mercedes Benz has a C-class of cars which are considered to be some of the highest for the luxury car market. But back to the “now check it,” usually the rich write checks to “feed the needy,” through charity.
Rarely mentioned gems from some top class elite MCs.
“I father, I Brooklyn Dodger them / I jack, I rob, I sin / Aww man, I'm Jackie Robinson / 'Cept when I run base, I dodge the pen” — JAY-Z, “Brooklyn (Go Hard)” (2008)
For the Notorious soundtrack, JAY-Z salutes his and B.I.G.’s home borough through an old-school reference. Jackie Robinson became the first black player of the MLB, competing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The phonetic breakdown of “jack,” “rob,” and “sin”—with “I” in front of each word—sets up the first analogy. Here, JAY is also discussing criminal activity, drawing back to his days of “running base” in the streets, and not the kind Jackie Robinson ran on the fields. The “dodge the pen” not only completes “Brooklyn Dodger,” but alludes to two points: JAY can avoid jail time when he’s selling drugs and his skill of not having to write down verses.
“Streets don’t fail me now, they tell me it's a new gang in town / From Compton to Congress, set trippin’ all around / Ain't nothin' new, but a flu of new Demo-Crips and Re-Blood-licans / Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin'?” — Kendrick Lamar, “Hood Politics” (2015)
Systematic oppression is what created gang life as a means of survival in the first place, so leave it to Kendrick to eloquently bring that up. He associates Washington, D.C. government with the same “trippin’” behavior as the gangs banging out in his hometown Compton. He renames the Democratic Party after the blue repping Crips, and the Republican Party after the red riding Bloods. At the end, he ask listeners “which one you governin’,” or basically what state are they living in relation to these matters.
Most importantly, some Kaepernick play action:
“In case my lack of reply had you catchin' them feelings / Know you've been on my mind like Kaepernick kneelin'” — J. Cole, Miguel's “Come Through and Chill” (2017)
Earlier in this Miguel collaboration, J. Cole—who has been a front and center proponent for Kaepernic—left his love interest on red. He returns back a few verses later to finish his thought. Here’s an allusion to Kaepernick focused on the act of “catchin’,” either the actual football he throws or the NFL fans mulling over their feelings regarding his protesting.
“Feed me to the wolves, now I lead the pack and shit / You boys all cap, I'm more Colin Kaepernick” — Big Sean, “Big Bank” (2018)
Simple here: “wolves” come in a “pack.” Kaepernick himself is a quarterback who has to lead his team of players. “Cap” is also the salary limit in major league sports, which Big Sean claims he’s above just like Colin Kaepernick, as he’s not currently associating with the rules of the NFL for a payday.
Some Kamikaze wordplay, because relevancy is also key:
“You play your cards, I reverse on you all / And I might just drop 4 like a Uno” — Joyner Lucas, Eminem's “Lucky You” (2018)
As one of the standout features on Kamikaze, Joyner Lucas shoots rapid fire while relating the game to the Uno card game. There’s a “reverse” card which changes the game’s rotation (as both men attempt to do on this song), and a Draw 4 is rephrased to “drop 4.” Lucas then proceeds to drop 4 bars right after this wordplay.
“Levels to this shit, I got an elevator / You could never say to me I'm not a fuckin' record breaker / I sound like a broken record every time I break a record / Nobody could ever take away the legacy, I made a navigator” — Eminem, “Lucky You” (2018)
While many claim to be the master of wordplay, Eminem seamlessly takes that skill to another “level” just like an “elevator.” After seeing many multi-platinum albums—two going diamond—he, for sure, is a “record breaker” who then flips the script into “break a record.” Then there’s “I made a navigator,” which indicates he can show you the direction to take hip-hop, but he also navigated some of its present “legacy” with the contributions he “made.”
“I'm in the court of public opinion, ready to click and spray / Light Jay Elec ass up, that's my Exhibit A / Bitch kill my vibe is what you wanna get into / Drown 'em all in a swimming pool, full of phlegm and drool” — Joe Budden, “Lost Control (Freestyle)” (2013)
Many are doubting if Joe Budden could ever hold his own on wax again, instead of on a podcast. Here’s a reminder to how he responded to Kendrick Lamar’s “Control” verse without even being mentioned. His “Exhibit A” of “lighting” up an “Electronic” monikered rapper ties into being “in the court of public opinion.” Then he drops some Kendrick references: “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” and “Swimming Pools (Drank).” “Phlegm and drool” also point out how Budden’s spitting is creating a pool of lyrics that rappers can’t recover from and will ultimately drown in—just more evidence in the case.
“Now tell me, what do you stand for? (what?) / I know you can't stand yourself (no) / Tryin' to be the old you so bad you Stan yourself (ha)” - Machine Gun Kelly on “Rap Devil” (2018)
As the first to officially respond to Eminem’s litany of attacks, Machine Gun Kelly already plays on Em’s “Rap God” by calling himself the “Devil” in the title. Here he uses multiple meanings of “stand” including beliefs being held, and tolerating or liking oneself. Then there’s the punchline: “Stan,” the term for an obsessive fan that Eminem coined in his old days of rap— a flow and energy Em attempts to bring back on Kamikaze.
And for those who felt like they were snubbed from this list, don’t worry. This was a warm-up. The saga will continue…
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