Monday, December 04, 2006

Mos Def and Talib Kweli: Rhythmic Surgery


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 n****z or kings, we either b*****s 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 n****z 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.
  (Toni Morrison)


7 comments:

POPS said...

this is profound, money. seriously.

Coltrane Jenkins said...

Great breakdown.

Simon666 said...

Derek, it's great to read some technical analysis of hip hop delivery, particularly in the context of such a great song. Thanks again.

J-Writes said...

wow. to what muses do you pour libations?

John Flores said...

thank you for this.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely incredible analysis. I love Mos Def and Talib Kweli, and it brings me great joy to know that a classical composer appreciates the intricacies of hip-hop lyrics. I would have never guessed!

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled upon this after I finished The Bluest Eye and figured a connection between Kweli and the novel. The Blackstar album is incredible and Thieves in the Night is atop my all-time favorite hip-hop songs. I feel truly lucky that when I hopped on to google to dive into this artistic connection that I found this page. Thanks for the truly enriching article.
-Steve (1-25-11)