Craig and Wendy busted my chops for not posting in a while, so this one is for them.
Mos Def and Talib Kweli are from Brooklyn; the streets they mention on their tracks are just blocks away from where I live. It’s a happy coincidence that one of my favorite albums is their Blackstar (1999). I especially appreciate the technical and lyrical features of the tunes: ingenious rhythmic variation, vocal gymnastics and modulation, extended jazzy riffs that draw out the length of the cadences, thwarting of expectation at line ends.
Of all the rhymes, I find Thieves in the Night ridiculously compelling. I've listened to it hundreds of times. Even in the first few lines of the opening verse, it is clear that Kweli is evoking the enjambment and multi-syllabic rhymes characteristic of virtuosic wordsmiths such as Rakim and Chuck D:
‘Give me the fortune, keep the fame,’ said my man Louis; I
agreed, know what he mean, because we live the truest lie.
I asked him why we follow the law of the bluest eye
He looked at me, he thought about it,
was like, ‘I’m clueless; why?’
The question was rhetorical; the answer is horrible.
Our morals are out of place and got our lives full of sorrow
and so tomorrow coming later than usual,
waiting on someone to pity us
while we finding beauty in the hideous.
The hypnotic refrain uses as its point of departure a quote from the final page of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye:
“…we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not passionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life.”
Mos Def and Kweli paraphrase the Morrison quote, trading off lines (Kweli’s words are in italics):
Not strong, only aggressive
Not free, we only licensed
Not compassionate, only polite
Now who the nicest
Not good, but well-behaved
Chasing after death
So we can call ourselves brave
Still living like mental slaves
Hiding like thieves in the night from life
Illusions of oasis making you look twice
(The last two lines are sung by both).
A quick time machine trip: back in the day (Three Feet High and Rising) De La Soul dropped unorthodox rhymes like Three is the Magic Number. Mase often begins a line with the final word (or even a flipped phrase) from the previous line:
Difficult preaching is Posdnuos' pleasure
Pleasure and preaching starts in the heart
Something that stimulates the music in my measure
Measure in my music, raised in three parts
Later on, Pos continues:
Focus is formed by flaunts to the soul
Souls who flaunt styles gain praises by pounds
Common are speakers who are never scrolls
Scrolls written daily creates a new sound
By echoing the last word of a line at the outset of the following phrase, Mase imparts a distinct quirkiness to the rhythmic flow. Back to the future: Mos Def recalls De La's quiet revolution, adding his own special twist. He initiates phrase after phrase using the same technique, but instead of an echo he manufactures a rhyme from the previous line (shown below in italics).
Most cats in my area be loving the hysteria
Synthesized surface conceals the interior
America, land of opportunity, mirages, and camouflages
More than usually; speaking loudly, saying nothing
You confusing me, you losing me, your game is twisted
Want me enlisted in your usary
Foolishly, most me join the ranks cluelessly
Buffoonishly accept the deception, believe the perception
Reflection rarely seen across the surface of the looking glass
Walking the street, wondering who they be looking past
Looking gassed with them imported designer shades on
Stars shine bright but the light rarely stays on
Same song, just remixed, different arrangement
Put you on a yacht but they won’t call it a slave ship
Strangeness, you don’t control this, you barely hold this
Screaming brand new when they just sanitized the old shit
Suppose it’s just another clever jedi mind trick
That they been running across stars through all the time with
I find it’s distressing; there’s never no in-between
We either niggaz or kings, we either bitches or queens
The daily ritual seems immersed in the perverse
Full of short attention plans, short tempers, and short skirts
Long barrel automatics released in short bursts
The length of black life is treated with short worth
Get yours first, them other niggaz secondary
That type of illing that be filling up the cemetery
...and so on. Then Mos Def tops it off with a mind-bending second chorus, illuminating a new species of rhythmic variation: an internally generated rhyme, one that expands from within. Even the most intricate of Rakim’s rhymes are embellished externally; they don't undergo such nascent development. Below, the original lines of the first chorus (the original, loosely quoted Morrison passage) are shown in regular type and the internally developed exegeses in italics:
Not strong, only aggressive, cause the power ain’t directed
That’s why we are subjected to the will of the oppressor
Not free, we only licensed, not live, we just exciting
Cause the captors own the masters to what we writing
Not compassionate, only polite; we well trained
Our sincerity is rehearsed and the stage is just a game
Not good, but well-behaved, cause the camera survey
Most of the things that we think, do, or say
We chasing after death just to call ourselves brave
But every day next man meet with the grave
I give a damn if any fan recall my legacy
I’m trying to live life in the sight of God’s memory
Like that y’all
Also, notice the manifold internal rhymes, including the mirror scheme in the first two verses quoted above: ABBA (no Swedish pun intended). You have to hear this poetry in motion to believe it; the page can’t do it justice.
Nerdy digression (beware!): Messiaen’s concept of non-retrogradable rhythms (outlined in his Technique de mon langage musical) is another example of rhythmic cells expanding from the inside out. The process – probably arrived at through his study of birdsong or via his odd brew of faith and numerology – often applies to smaller phrases. But Messiaen does employ it in larger sections; for example in the Vingt regards sur l’enfant Jésus (the piece, incidentally, which inspired me to begin composing) themes undergo internal augmentation, stretched across ever-lengthening time values as musical material is inserted.
I’d bet that close analysis of Cecil Taylor’s or Eric Dolphy's compositions and improvisations would yield similar internal motivic development. And these types of structures have elements in common with Theme and Variations form (e.g. Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, Schumann…). But Blackstar achieve their variation with words, revealing layers of meaning that set their accomplishment apart from purely instrumental works. Their particular brand of rhythmic surgery – slicing open the chorus and expanding it from within – is a novel architectural model for rap music, perhaps for any song form.
Do such innovations have wider implications for composers and creators? Yesterday I was discussing this rhyme with my buddy G-Spot out in L.A., and he made an astute observation: “The structure reinforces the message.” It’s true; the circular and internal aspects of the development so clearly evoke the cycle of despair and the patterns of behavior that Mos Def and Kweli strive to elucidate in the song. Any breaking of conventional barriers can encourage artists of all stripes – consciously or unconsciously – to forge beyond the familiar. Blackstar made only one album, but in doing so they upped the ante immeasurably; for that I shall always be grateful.