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A Twist of JP Lime: Lyric Analysis – “Hip Hop” by Mos Def, Verse 2


This week JP Lime’s Prof delivers a Lyric Analysis of a Hip Hop classic, Yasiin Bey’s (formerly Mos Def) song “Hip Hop”, off his 1999 solo debut ‘Black on Both Sides’. Find more at – we are your Old School Hip Hop fix. Enjoy and Lime On.

A while back I did a Lyric Analysis of the first verse of Yasiin Bey’s (formerly Mos Def) “Hip Hop”, one of my favorite tracks on my favorite album from one of my favorite artists. Today we’ll return to the second song from Black on Both Sides for an analysis of his second verse, digging further into Hip Hop’s complicated nature as Yasiin sees it.

Hip Hop is prosecution evidence
An out of court settlement
Ad space for liquor
Sick without benefits (hungh!)
Luxury tenements choking the skyline
It’s low life getting tree-top high
It is a back water remedy
Bitter and tender memory
A class E felony
Facing the death penalty (hungh!)
Stimulant and sedative, original repetitive
Violently competitive, a school unaccredited (there it is)
The break beats you get broken with
On time and inappropriate
Hip Hop went from selling crack to smoking it
Medicine for loneliness
Remind me of Thelonius and Dizzy
Props to B-Boys getting busy
The war-time snap shot
The working man’s jack-pot
A two dollar snack box
Sold beneath the crack spot
Olympic sponsor of the black Glock
Gold medalist in the back shot
From the sovereign state of the have-nots
Where farmers have trouble with cash crops (hungh)
It’s all-city like Phase 2
Hip Hop will simply amaze you
Praise you, pay you
Do whatever you say do
But black, it can’t save you


Throughout this verse and the first as well, Yasiin follows a thin line between praising Hip Hop and pointing out its faults. It’s a song of dichotomy, of explicating the complicated species of a genre grown from minority and poverty finding economic and social success. That polarity, between praise and indictment, creates a fantastic tone to the track, not quite ironic or tongue-in-cheek because the sentiments are completely genuine, but uncommonly self-aware with a subtle note of despair. It’s not just that Hip Hop has positive and negative traits but that in the combination of the two the more complete picture of the art-form is painted. Remember, this is Yasiin near the beginning of his career, the first solo release after Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Black Star, a 25-year-old artist spilled out over 17 all classic tracks. It might seem appropriate for an older version of the artist, one marginalized by Glam Rap over the last fifteen years, to deliver a scathing condemnation of Hip Hop (which he doesn’t do, by the way). But that’s not who he is at this point and that’s not what he’s doing. He is passionate about his art-form, with a unique ability to remain in it but not of it. “Hip Hop” is not a song of doom but it is a note directed equally to those inside and outside the industry that this thing we’ve built is complicated and flawed and beautiful and very much incomplete.
With no hook, only samples taken from A Tribe Called Quest, Eric B. & Rakim and O.C., the second verse of “Hip Hop” is a continuation of the first especially in its referential tone, which ended with nods to Run-DMC, LL Cool J, and Afrika Bambaataa. The first verse gives significant detail to the position and identity of the author, a man “on the ave where it lives and dies” with his “eyes on tomorrow”. In the second verse all first-person narrative is left behind and attention turned to describing the state of the art-form through a further series of contrasts.

Hip Hop is prosecution evidence
An out of court settlement
Ad space for liquor
Sick without benefits (hungh!)
Luxury tenements choking the skyline
It’s low life getting treetop high

Yasiin wastes no time, jumping right into the tactic of description through piecemeal details. Many have attempted to use Hip Hop music and lyrics in criminal trials, from the famous 2 Live Crew obscenity case, to Vonte Skinner in 2008, to the recent case of Tiny Doo in San Diego. The mistaken concept of using art as evidence of criminal activity is what Bey references in the first line. He then plays on the judicial language with a powerful and nearly glossed over metaphor of Hip Hop as a sort of out of court settlement. What have we traded in return for lesser prosecution that Hip Hop is the settled middle ground? Equal voice? Real social representation and advancement, instead settling for money and fame? That superficiality and emptiness comprises the next four lines beginning with Rap’s proclivity for tracks about their favorite (or sponsored) liquors – “Brass Monkey,” “Pass the Courvoisier,” “8 Ball,” “Thug Passion” and “Gin ‘n Juice” are name-specific, along with hoards of others glorifying drinking as a whole. At the end of the “sick without benefits” line Bey brings back the poetic devise of “hungh” punctuations from the first verse, a reference to Sterling Brown’s “Southern Road”. The “luxury tenements choking the skyline” is another metaphor that packs more punch than meets the eye. Though the real-life image of skyscrapers built amidst (and ignoring) New York’s lower income environments is the product of outside forces and money, in the metaphoric sense Hip Hop’s stars, actors, and agents are equally to blame, themselves becoming the skyscrapers, the “low life getting treetop high” and allowing their own environments to be choked of their identity and culture.

bey 2015It is a back water remedy
Bitter and tender memory
A class E (or C) felony facing the death penalty (hungh!)

He answers the “sick without benefits”, “choking” theme with the contrasting notion that Hip Hop is also a “backwater remedy”, a term that carries nostalgia and dismissal in equal parts. A bitter and tender memory, like an exposed nerve, Hip Hop reminds us that the difficult road that black folks in America have traveled is intrinsically and tenderly tied to their identity. There is strength in that struggle, beauty in that destruction and Bey’s carefully chosen words speak to this finer point.
The last line returns to the judicial talk comparing Hip Hop to a crime with an inequitable punishment. Though I always thought he said “Class C,” the classification including robbery, assault, larceny, and drug distribution, most think he says “Class E,” which probably makes more sense given that it is the lowest rung on the five-letter system (not included in all states, though it is in NY).

Stimulant and sedative, original repetitive
Violently competitive, a school unaccredited (there it is)

Yasiin then rolls out four phrases, stylishly staccato with compound rhymes. The first two are some of the most succinct dichotomies in the song, posing our beloved art-form as both upper and downer and then hitting on a contrast central to the genre, “original repetitive”. Founded on the reproduction of past works as a means to create something new, is there a more appropriate turn of phrase to describe Hip Hop?
In their own way the second two phrases contrast each other and the line concludes with the “there it is” adlib used in the first verse and referencing several performers before him. In writing about the first verse I learned that the phrase was an interpolation of a Run-DMC lyric from “Peter Piper,” then sampled on the Beastie Boys’ “The New Style.” I also recently learned that it seems to be a reference to Rakim’s “When I Be on tha Mic,” though that album was released a month after Black on Both Sides, so that would instead seem to be a matter of common source.

The Sovereign State of the Have-Nots, READ ON…