top of page


Written by: Roc Raw

Hip-hop, as a cultural movement, has played a pivotal role in shaping various societal elements, extending its influence beyond music into language, fashion, and socio-political discourse. At the heart of this movement is the art of rapping, a form of expression that combines poetry, storytelling, and rhythm. This article aims to dissect the essence of hip hop lyricism, distinguishing between mere popularity and true lyrical artistry.

Roc Raw article, black man with sheet music lyrics
Image created by AI

Hip-hop emerged in the 1970s in the Bronx, New York, as a form of expression for marginalized communities. It began as a platform for voicing the unspoken, with lyricism playing a critical role in articulating the struggles and aspirations of these communities.

In employing the unique methodology of reading hip-hop lyrics aloud without musical accompaniment, the focus shifts from rhythm and beat to the content and craftsmanship of the lyrics themselves. This approach allows for an unobstructed appreciation of the poetic structures, narrative techniques, and thematic depth within the lyrics. It brings to light the true artistry of wordplay, metaphor usage, and storytelling.

For instance, when the lyrics of Lupe Fiasco's "Mural" are read as pure poetry, the complexity of his wordplay and the depth of his cultural and philosophical references become strikingly evident. Take, for instance, the lines: "Paint cold pictures like Nova Scotia landscapes / Nerd game make Mandelbrot sets when we handshake." Here, Fiasco uses vivid imagery to describe his lyrical skill, likening it to painting detailed and 'cold' pictures, possibly referencing the stark and honest realities he portrays in his music. The mention of "Nova Scotia landscapes" evokes images of rugged, natural beauty and harshness. The "Mandelbrot sets" - a reference to fractal geometry - in the context of a handshake, suggests complexity and infinite patterns, mirroring the layered depth of his lyrics.

The lines "My peers will still treat the mirror like it's a fan base / The unfettered veteran, the eagle feathered man of medicine" further demonstrate his adept use of metaphor and imagery. The mirror as a 'fan base' suggests self-reflection and self-appreciation, while 'unfettered veteran' and 'eagle feathered man of medicine' paint Fiasco as a wise and experienced figure, possibly alluding to Native American imagery of wisdom and healing.

The intricate patterns of rhyme and the breadth of topics covered in a single track showcase his exceptional skill as a lyricist.

Jean Grae's "Kill Screen" is a striking example of dense, multifaceted lyricism, where every line is packed with meaning and allusion. When isolated from the music, the intricate nature of her storytelling and wordplay becomes even more apparent.

The excerpt "This is rebel shit - Mojave rock / Got polyglots, who'll molly whop you 'til your body pop" demonstrates Grae's ability to blend diverse references and create vivid imagery. The term "Mojave rock" evokes a sense of resilience and ruggedness, akin to the desert landscape. The use of "polyglots" – people fluent in multiple languages – suggests a mastery of diverse forms of expression, while "molly whop" is a slang term for a powerful punch, illustrating her hard-hitting lyrical style.

In "I'm never sick, when my temperature drop, it's 7 Up / 105.6 hell, praise the rock," Grae plays with words in a clever and unconventional manner. The average body temperature is 98.6 degrees, 105.6 is “7 up” from that. (and also a soda) Jean claims to never be sick, and even if her temperature dropped, it would still be 7 degrees above average.

The line "I ain't a savior, just your neighbor like amazing Peter / Minus the spider bite, the webs, the Aunt and Uncle neither" is a rich tapestry of allusion. Here, Jean Grae humbly compares herself to the 'everyman' aspect of Peter Parker (Spider-Man), minus his extraordinary powers (the spider bite and webs) and tragic backstory (Aunt and Uncle). This downplays her role as a 'savior' figure, aligning her more with the relatable, human side of the superhero persona.

Through these examples, it's evident how Jean Grae's lyrics in "Kill Screen" exhibit a complex interplay of cultural references, wordplay, and imagery. When read as standalone poetry, the depth and artistry of her writing are magnified, showcasing her prowess as a lyricist.

Her adept use of language to weave complex narratives and evoke strong emotions becomes more pronounced. This method highlights the artist's ability to convey powerful messages and craft vivid imagery solely through words, independent of the music's influence.

The evolution of hip-hop lyricism over the decades is evident when comparing verses from different eras, particularly in how themes such as empowerment, struggle, and societal commentary are articulated. The methodology of reading lyrics aloud, devoid of musical accompaniment, accentuates the progression in thematic depth and complexity in the genre.

Taking Big Daddy Kane's verse from "The Symphony" (1988), for instance, we see a style that was emblematic of the late 80s hip-hop scene. His lines, "So just acknowledge the way that I kicked it / 'Cause if rap was a house, you'd be evicted! / And dismissed from the microphone / Chokin' on a bone 'cause Daddy's home," showcase a braggadocious, battle-rap style that was prevalent at the time. The lyrics are direct, with a focus on rhyming skills and boastfulness, a common theme in the early days of hip-hop. This style reflects the competitive nature of hip-hop during its nascent stage, where MCs often engaged in lyrical battles to establish dominance and prowess.

In contrast, consider Lupe Fiasco's approach in "Mural." His line, "Paint cold pictures like Nova Scotia landscapes," is indicative of a more metaphorical and introspective style. This line, and others like it, demonstrate a shift towards a more nuanced, layered form of expression. Fiasco's lyrics often delve into complex themes using intricate wordplay and extended metaphors, a stark contrast to the more straightforward, battle-focused lyrics of earlier times.

Jean Grae's "Kill Screen" further exemplifies this evolution. Her lyrics, "I ain't a savior, just your neighbor like amazing Peter / Minus the spider bite, the webs, the Aunt and Uncle neither," display a sophisticated blend of personal narrative and cultural reference. Unlike the more direct and confrontational style of Big Daddy Kane, Grae's approach is introspective, weaving intricate narratives that reflect personal experiences and broader societal issues.

black person in front of portal
Image created by AI

These examples highlight the shift in hip-hop lyricism from the direct and confrontational style of the late 80s to a more complex and layered approach in recent decades. This progression mirrors the maturation of the genre itself, evolving from a form of street poetry focused on rhyming prowess and verbal battles, to a sophisticated medium capable of conveying deep philosophical ideas, social commentary, and personal introspection. The shift is not just in the complexity of the lyrics but in the breadth of themes explored, reflecting the changing dynamics of the society and culture that hip-hop both influences and is influenced by.

This approach not only underscores the development of hip-hop as a musical genre but also highlights its growth as a medium of storytelling and cultural commentary.

Analyzing lyrics in isolation from music provides deeper insight into how hip hop artists use language to reflect societal changes, personal experiences, and a wide array of emotions, showcasing the genre's evolution and the individual artist's creativity and lyrical prowess.

In Hip-hop, mainstream recognition often hinges on market dynamics, media exposure, and public perception, rather than solely on lyrical talent. Popular artists like Drake and Kanye West benefit from substantial industry support and media coverage, leading to widespread fame and success. This contrasts sharply with lyrically adept but less exposed artists such as MF DOOM and Talib Kweli, who, despite critical acclaim for their intricate lyricism and thematic depth, remain under-recognized in the mainstream. This disparity highlights the complex interplay between commercial appeal and artistic merit in hip-hop, underscoring the need to look beyond mainstream popularity to truly appreciate the genre's depth and diversity.

The global expansion of hip-hop has fostered a rich tapestry of lyrical styles and themes, reflecting the diverse cultural landscapes from which it has emerged. As hip-hop traversed borders, it adapted to local contexts, leading to unique interpretations and expressions. In countries like France and South Korea, hip-hop became a voice for addressing social issues, with artists infusing their lyrics with local dialects and cultural references. For instance, French rappers like IAM and MC Solaar incorporated poetic French literary traditions into their lyrics, while South Korean artists, such as BTS and Epik High, blended traditional Korean elements with contemporary hip-hop, creating a unique fusion that resonates with global audiences. In African nations, hip-hop has evolved into a powerful medium for storytelling, often focusing on political activism and social commentary, as seen in the works of artists like Senegal's Daara J and Nigeria's M.I. Abaga. These variations not only enrich the hip-hop genre but also highlight its universal appeal and adaptability, making it a truly global art form that transcends cultural barriers while embracing local identities and narratives.

As hip-hop continues to evolve, its future seems poised for groundbreaking changes, influenced heavily by emerging technologies and new waves of artists. The rise of artificial intelligence and digital platforms is altering the way music is produced and consumed, opening doors for innovative lyrical styles and distribution methods. For instance, AI-driven analytics can predict listener preferences, potentially guiding artists in crafting lyrics that resonate more deeply with their audience.

Artists like J.I.D, known for his intricate wordplay and storytelling, represent this new generation of lyricists who blend traditional hip hop elements with contemporary themes and experimental sounds. These artists are not only redefining the boundaries of lyricism but are also leveraging social media and streaming platforms to reach a global audience, bypassing traditional industry gatekeepers.

Furthermore, the increasing importance of visual media in the digital age, with platforms like YouTube and TikTok, is pushing artists to integrate visual storytelling into their lyrical narratives, creating a more immersive experience for listeners.

In conclusion, the realm of hip-hop lyricism stands as a potent medium for storytelling and social commentary, its influence and relevance continually expanding. As the genre traverses new territories and embraces technological advancements, the essence of hip-hop as a voice for the voiceless remains intact. Sa-Roc's lyrics in "Forever" exemplify the evolved, nuanced nature of contemporary hip-hop lyricism, focusing on themes of identity, empowerment, and social justice. The lines "I’m unbothered, your standards is irrelevant / I might eff around and rock a baldie all just for the hell of it" reflect a strong sense of self-confidence and defiance against societal norms. The reference to possibly wearing a bald hairstyle 'just for the hell of it' is a bold statement of self-expression and autonomy, challenging conventional standards of beauty and femininity.

Sa-Roc's approach to these themes is a testament to the depth and diversity that hip-hop has embraced over the years. Her ability to weave personal narratives with broader social commentary, all while maintaining a strong sense of lyrical finesse, is indicative of the sophisticated, multi-dimensional nature of modern hip-hop lyricism. This evolution from the genre's earlier focus on braggadocio and battle raps to encompassing a wide range of complex and socially relevant themes marks a significant development in hip-hop's role as a medium for storytelling and cultural expression.

The role of lyricists in shaping hip-hop culture is more crucial than ever, as they navigate through and reflect upon a rapidly changing world. Their ability to articulate experiences, emotions, and perspectives through rhythmic poetry ensures that hip-hop will remain a dynamic and influential force in the cultural landscape. As we look to the future, it is clear that hip-hop lyricism will continue to be a key element in the ongoing narrative of human expression and social evolution.

Blog Author - Roc Raw: Peace, my name is Roc Raw, a content creator born and raised in Richmond, VA. I have accumulated over 400 years of wisdom, and it definitely feels like it! In my free time, I enjoy smoking weed and growing vegetables.

62 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page