Warning: Pretty much none of this is safe for work. Almost all of the songs below contain the “N” word, as well as a whole host of words that you’d have gotten detention for if you’d used them in middle school. Oh, and drug references. And a bit of violent imagery.
Like any artistic genre, rap can be intimidating for those who have not been immersed in its history, culture, and context, though its association with certain age and ethnic groups may make it even more intimidating for those who fall outside of them. In other words, if you’re a white dude over 40, hip hop might seem impenetrable, but it doesn’t have to be.
Granted, nothing I say is going to make someone an expert on hip hop overnight, but if you are just interested in breaking the invisible wall that separates you from rap, perhaps an analytical exercise might help. And I think I have just the song to use, because it’s already fairly stripped down, so that each of its individual pieces is easy to see.
But first, a little background. Until 2013’s Yeezus, his sixth solo album*, Kanye West’s (you’ve heard of him, right?) musical trajectory was pretty clear: bigger, grander, and also bigger. Consider songs from each of the two albums that preceded Yeezus. First, from 808 & Heartbreak (the album on which Kanye fell in love with autotune):
“Welcome to Heartbreak” includes two singers (one being autotuned Kanye), a strings section, keyboards, and Kid Cudi. Then, from perhaps his best album to date, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (warning, Rihanna’s top does not leave much to the imagination):
This has (from Wikipedia) strings (violin, viola, cello), keyboards, piano, horns (trumpet, French horn, trombone), a flute, and back up vocals by everyone ever (Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Tony Williams, The-Dream, Charlie Wilson, John Legend, Elly Jackson, Alicia Keys, Elton John, Fergie, Ryan Leslie, Drake, Alvin Fields, and Ken Lewis), with Rihanna, Cudi, Fergie, Keys, and John as a featured vocalist (though only Rihanna and Cudi are officially “featured” on the song).
As you can see then, on the album that preceded Yeezus, Kanye was basically putting every instrument and everyone he’s ever met on his songs. Which, don’t get me wrong, was pretty fun, but it was about as far from the roots of hip hop – a couple turn tables and a microphone – as one could get. Perhaps recognizing this, his next solo offering was stripped to his bare bones, and its hip hop roots, and while it may not have reached the heights of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it’s still damn good.
Which brings us to the song I’ve chosen. Let me start by saying that at first I worried the song might turn a few of you off, because it is Kanye at his most Kanye. I mean, this is the album on which he included a song titled “I Am a God,” which is listed as featuring God himself, but even that isn’t quite so audacious as what he does on this track. But this is a simple track ti dissect, and one aspect of it in particular will provide such a great window into what hip hop does that I think that it’s worth it. So let’s just listen, and hopefully you’ll be able to move past the, er, hubris:
The track begins with a sample of the song from which its title is taken, a song with which I’m sure we’re all familiar. But just in case, forming the song’s intro, as well as the backing of much of the rest of the song, is Nina Simone’s version of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” from her 1965 album Pastel Blues:
After the intro, Kanye sings/raps over a repeated sample of Nina singing the word “breeze” from the line, “Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,” a line he later sings over in its entirety. What’s Kanye on about in a song using one of the most powerful protest songs of the 20th century, a song about the lynching of black people in the South? Something deep and political? No, a mistress who gets pregnant and goes talks about it publicly:
We could’ve been somebody
Thought you’d be different ‘bout it
Now I know you not it
So let’s get on with it
When Kanye’s disappointment with the woman reaches its climax, he lays another sample over Nina:
TNGHT, for those of you over the age of 20 (and who haven’t read my old dubstep posts), is an electronic duo whose style is somewhere in the “post-dubstep” universe, though I don’t know exactly what to call it. Lunice and Hudson Mohawke, the two DJs who comprise TNGHT, co-produced “Blood on the Leaves,” and sold the track to Kanye outright, so I imagine we’ll hear it on subsequent albums as well. When you first here it here, that’s when your head should start bouncing, in case you were looking for a cue.
Here in the middle of the song, while the heavy bass line from “R U Ready” repeats, Kanye talks of the time he and the woman met. It turns out it was at a wild party, where they did molly (MDMA) and went crazy, with the night ending in her proclamation of love for our storyteller. But he can’t remember that night without thinking of how she’s ruined it for him by publicizing the relationship, so as he’s reminiscing, he begins to suggest she’s just out for his money (a favorite topic of Kanye’s):
Before they call lawyers
Before you tried to destroy us
How you gon’ lie to the lawyer?
It’s like I don’t even know ya
I gotta bring it back to the [mag]‘nolia
Then we get the bridge, with Kanye still rapping/singing over “R U Ready,” but now the song reveals not only its secret, a little bit of how hip hop works. That distinctive bass line from “R U Ready” that Kanye repeats throughout the song is itself an interpolation of another song, C-Murder’s “Down For My N___s.”
Which itself samples Isaac Hayes:
Listen to just instrumental portion of C-Murder’s track:
The relationship to the TNGHT song is unmistakable. What’s more, the beat in the TNGHT track, and more importantly for our purposes, in “Blood on the Leaves,” is an interpolation of the beat from the C-Murder track. What Kanye’s done is taken a song that builds on another song he likes, further built on them both, and created something new.
Kanye, perhaps caught up in the moment, sings lyrics straight from the C-Murder track:
F___ them other n____s ‘cause I’m down with my n____s.
This is not at all unusual. Hip hop artists love quoting other artists, but this particular line from this particular song has been popular since it was released in 2000. You will find it, for example, on Kendrick Lamar’s first album:
And in an A$AP Rocky track:
As well as 2 Chainz, DJ Khaled, Mary J. Blige, and YG. It’s also referenced in Kid Cudi (featuring Kanye and Common) track “Make Her Say,” who plays with it a bit:
(You may also catch modified quotes from a TI song, in the first Cudi verse, and Jamie Foxx, in the Common verse. Like I said, hip hop artists love quoting other artists.)
And here you have hip hop distilled: a popular song (featuring a hip hop legend in Snoop), with a line frequently referenced, is interpolated in another song (TNGHT’s) that is sampled in yet a third song (Kanye’s), resulting in another reference to the well-known line from the first song.
Samples on samples with layered references is the sort of thing that can scare off a casual listener, but laid out before you as it is here, one can see that there is nothing intimidating about it at all. Hip hop is a language, and like any other, it is infinitely recursive: any part or combination of parts can be combined with other parts or combination of parts any number of times. And like the speakers of any language, hip hop artists love coming back to the same themes over and over again, as a sort of bridge between songs and artists and time periods. It’s a language that takes time to learn, but with a little effort you can be well on your way to fluency, as these few bars in one song show.
Oh, and let’s not forget the original tracks sampled, first Isaac Hayes by C-Murder, then Nina Simone by Kanye. Hip hop’s language includes all languages.
The rest of the track is just Kanye even more upset about his mistress publicizing the relationship and potential “gold digging,” with a mention of his friends Jay Z and Beyonce. Kanye ends singing, heavily autotuned, over Nina again, before yielding to her entirely as she leads us out of the track.
That wasn’t so painful then, was it?
*It might be called his 7th, but his 6th album was a joint release with Jay Z, so I’m not considering it a solo album.