06 July 2006

The lyric police

The bad

I think the first lyrics I ever found genuinely offensive were those to the Ying Yang Twins' "Wait". Yes, this will be another post about how I'm getting old now. I didn't give a shit when I was younger. I thought Dre and Snoop's "Bitches Ain't Shit" was a harmless lark. I thought N.W.A.'s "Don't Bite It", with it's extended intro about "the art of sucking dick" was pretty damn hilarious. I thought 2 Live Crew was... well, talentless. In fact, downright awful. But ultimately harmless.

First time I heard "Wait" I thought it was terrific, and I still do. I wasn't yet familiar at the time with any of the Atlanta duo's earlier second-rate crunk hits, but they never would have adequately prepared me for "Wait". The song stands entirely apart from the rest of Twins' calalogue and, for that matter, from the work of their peers as well. The first version I heard was with the accompanying video, which is hilarious, especially the champagne bit. You can watch it at their website1. The song is simple and spare with very few individual elements, each of them perfectly placed. The minimal beat is crisp and spacious, right down to the finger snaps where the snares should go2. The bassline is prominent, atonal, disorienting... and very smooth. The whispering gimmick is marvelously effective, evoking a mood that's either intimate or menacing, depending more on the listener than the song. And then there's that "oh!", as in "Wait'll you see my-- oh!", in the chorus, my favourite detail in the whole track. The only fully-voiced syllable surrounded entirely by whispers, it leaps out from the vocal line, coyly winking at the listener while highlighting the rather obvious dirty word it's covering up. Of course, you don't know for certain that they're actually saying "dick", but it's obviously that or some variation thereof, e.g. "cock", "jimmy", what have you. It immediately invokes a naughty charm and cheek that keeps the listener grinning while the line "I'ma beat dat, beat dat up" slips past unnoticed.

Curious as to what they were actually saying and too lazy to sit and listen closely, I found the lyrics3 online and was surprised to find myself shocked at the explicit language in the uncensored version4. When I heard it, the song was tranformed from a wry bit of fun to a disturbing threat. I was not alone in my discomfort; the song sparked reams of debate within online music communities, and writers lined up to condemn or excuse it. Some saw it as an ode to rough but consensual sex, carefully pointing out lines like "yo ass look soft/Mind if I touch it... Naw I'm just playin less you say I can." Others focused on the violent tone of "beat dat pussy up" and "But it depend on the swing of the baseball bat," some going so far as to read the song as a threat of rape.

Stepping down from my moral soapbox, I still think the whole thing works overall as a pop song, especially the whispering gimmick, but I much prefer the video version, and not just due to my newly-sprouted prudishness. Just as a Victoria's Secret catalogue is much sexier than Penthouse, hearing the Twins censor themselves with a wink and an "oh!" is way more erotic than just hearing them say "Wait'll you see my dick." Those "oh!"'s made all the difference. Well not all. You'll notice that the dirty version includes the words "Hey bitch" between every other line of the chorus, which only adds to the song's misogynistic atmosphere; the video version, rather than trying to cover it up, cuts this out entirely. Also, "I'ma beat dat, beat dat up" has a better syllabic rhythm than "I'ma beat dat pussy up," which is not only disgusting, but drags a little in the third trochee.5

The good

Several months later I was relieved to find that I had not grown completely into a crotchety old schoolmarm when I stumbled upon the genius that is Spank Rock. I can't remember where I first heard "Put That Pussy On Me", but I'm sure it was an mp3 blog6 of some sort. The point is, I was hooked after one listen. For a while it was posted at the redoubtable Aurgasm (it's since been taken down7), and I would listen to it several times a day while at work.

Every detail of the song is note-perfect, from the back-to-back Snoop Dogg and Beach Boys samples to the old-school stutter samples ("P-P-Put--," etc.). I found the song both hilarious and endlessly catchy, an unbeatable combination in my book. Exactly why the song grabbed my fancy so mercilessly can't possibly be explained, and what's more I didn't choose to give it much thought; with brief obsessions like these, reason is never the point.

What struck me, however, was the fact that the lyrics didn't bother me at all8. Now that the Ying Yang Twins had exposed me as the doddering old prude I've become, why did Spank Rock make me feel so gloriously immature all over again?

The difference

I gave it a lot of thought, and the answer I came up with is threefold. First what it's not. The most obvious answer here, the white elephant in any discussion of hip-hop amongst white Americans, is race. I'm a white male, and my middle-class suburban upbringing means I grew up with minimal direct contact with urban African-American culture, particularly southern (the Twins are from Atlanta; me, New England). So the most immediate conclusion would be that I find the Twins' expression of black male sexual aggression threatening, and from there you can take all kinds of tangents from white liberal guilt to Freudian inferiority complex blah blah blah. These are all well-worn topics.

But I don't think that's it. For one thing, sexually aggressive rap lyrics have never bothered me in the past. For another, I don't find the Twins threatening (though, granted, I'm not a woman), just rather distasteful. I don't fear them, I disapprove of them.

Rapper Naeem Juwan of Spank Rock is black, but the rest of the band is multi-racial. Unlike the Ying Yang Twins, Juwan explicitly addresses race in his lyrics, closing the song's lone verse with the line "Some white boys surely imitate that9," repeated several times. Still, the colour of the rappers' skin doesn't carry nearly as much weight as the images they (choose to) project. The Ying Yang Twins come off as ghetto-fabulous Dirty South thugs; their image makes their lyrics somewhat believeable. Spank Rock, on the other hand, are nerds through and through, and their image makes them sound like a bunch of horny but harmless teenagers noodling with samplers in their mother's basement, who don't get one-tenth as much play as they rap about. Both these impressions may have little or no connection with reality, but that's not the point; it's the perception that influences my response to each song.

Beneath this surface impression is the issue of lyrical content. "Wait" articulates a fantasy of male aggression so forceful that the object (or target, or even victim) of the narrator's affections (and I use that term with a healthy dose of irony) is powerless to resist; she succumbs the his "charms" (again...) in spite of herself. Add to that the inferences of violence and the song is well outside the bounds of social acceptability. Ladies, suppose a handsome man approaches you in a club and, as his pickup line, says, "Excuse me, bitch. Allow me to beat the shit out of your vagina with my penis." Not a very tasteful opening.

"Put That Pussy On Me" presents almost the exact opposite scenario: here the male is fantasising about a female aggressor, picturing himself as the helpless (albiet more than willing) victim of a paramour who knows what she wants and knows how to get it. "Put that pussy on me," he begs. "Push me in the corner/Put that pussy on me". Hardly the words of an overt sexual predator.

On an even more subtle level, and this is the distinction I find most interesting, is the perceived distance between the vocalist and the listener. The whispering in "Wait" gives the song an immediate and intensely personal quality, as though the Twins are addressing you directly. This serves to highlight the inappropriateness of the lyrics, as well as adding a layer of menace that rapping in a regular voice lacks. If you can hear them whispering, they must be close, close enough to grab you, which makes the danger that much more real. Not only that, but the whispering also means that no one else around you can hear; these sweet nothings are for you alone. "Put That Pussy On Me" not only features Juwan's voice at a normal volume, but opens with the song's lyrical hook being cut up by a DJ: "P-P-Put--/Put that pussy on me". The effect is to make the vocalist seem less real; he's not only not near you, he's not even in the same room. Whereas "Wait" sounds like someone standing right next to you, "Put That Pussy On Me" sounds like your buddy playing you a record of someone reciting the lyrics, and everyone in the room is free to have a good laugh over it. Relax, it's not real; it's just a recording.

    Tangents & Clarifications
  1. The website is all Flash, so I can't direct link to the video; to find it, click on "Music" along the top banner, then click the third album from the top in the thumbnails running down the right side; click the "Watch" link next to "Wait". [Return]
  2. A neat trick that has since been codified into a sub-genre all its own and produced a slew of shitty mid-level hits, but at the time was still pretty fresh. [Return]
  3. As you can see, the transcriber was at times as confused as I was; give the guy a break, man, the whole thing's whispered. There are numerous variations floating around the web; I just chose this one because it didn't come with any pop-up ads.Anyway, you get the basic idea. [Return]
  4. You can hear a clip of the dirty version's chorus by clicking the "Listen" to the immediate left of the link to the video. [Return]
  5. To add insult to queasiness, there is a third versiona of the song on the clean versionb of the album; rather than simply putting the video mix on the clean album, they re-recorded the vocals with altered lyrics. Thus "Wait'll you see my dick/I'ma beat dat pussy up" becomes "Wait'll I show you this/You will never get enough," which is unfathomably lame. So lame, in fact, that it's possible to read the clean version's lyrics as a broad parody of re-written clean-version lyrics in general, and of the very idea of the Wal-Mart-ified clean album phenomenon. But that's a whole other topic. [Return]
    1. And that's not even counting the so-called remix, which just has a bunch of guests rapping over the same track, and became a hit in its own right.
    2. If you're still in the "Music" section of their website the clean version is the fourth thumbnail from the top, immediately beneath the dirty version; you can listen to a clip from the chorus there.
  6. Spank Rock are nothing if not a textbook Internet phenomenon: hip underground sound (they're sort of an odd variant of Baltimore Club, a genre known for its flagrantly illegal samples; get familiar) with a hefty nerd-appeal factor (old school synths, terrifically awful glasses). [Return]
  7. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a full version to which to link, but if you go here and click on the "Listen" button next to "SPANK ROCK : 01" you can hear a thirty-second clipa, which is at least enough to hear the vocal hook and the main Beach Boys sample. [Return]
    1. NSFW, BTW.
  8. The other track posted on Aurgasm, however, made me a little queasy, but not for moral reasons. "Backyard Betty" opens with the lines "Ass-shakin' competition champ/Ooh dat pussy gets damp." Damp? Doesn't that mean, like, cold and wet? Am I nitpicking here or does this sound somewhat unappealing? [Return]
  9. Admittedly, I have no idea what this line means, with or without context. In fact the whole verse baffles me, as does the oft-repeated line "Make me wanna, make me wanna/Grab my buck-stick[?]". Truth be told, the lyrics to "Put That Pussy On Me" as a whole don't really make much sense, which may be another reason I don't find them partticularly offensive. [Return]

1 comment:

Cris said...

ew...u look at celeb porn? sick!