Bars Evaded, Bars Created: On Phenomenological Contemporary Rap Lyricism

Something was not dead within me, in the depths of my heart and conscience it would not die, and it showed itself in acute depression. For the most part I jostled my way through the most crowded business streets” Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

“The themes of lawlessness frequently found in hip hop dissent may not, then, be an expression of “nihilism,” at least not if that term implies a rejection of all values—moral, legal, and religious. Rather, they may be a public declaration that positive law (the rules that comprise a legal order) has no normative force, at least not for the ghetto poor.” —Tommie Shelby, Impure Dissent Hip Hop and the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth

Bars Evaded, Bars Created: On Phenomenological Contemporary Rap Lyricism

The purpose of this article is to examine the ways in which existentialism in contemporary rap lyricism offers an account of the phenomenology of structural violence through the lens of dynamic, black masculinity. I will offer a treatment of existential and phenomenological elements of contemporary rap lyricism, by way of 1) lyrical exegesis and 2) comparative analysis of lyrics to canonical existential texts, of what I will refer to as “the black Underground”.

Fear and Trembling in the Black Underground

A key tenet of the growing body of afro-pessimist literature and theory rests on the relationship between black life and social, described by Jared Sexton in “The Social Life of Social Death: On Afro-Pessimism and Black Optimism” as follows:

Black optimism is not the negation of the negation that is afro-pessimism, just as black social life does not negate black social death by inhabiting it and vitalizing it. A living death is as much a death as it is a living. Nothing in afro-pessimism suggests that there is no black (social) life, only that black life is not social life in the universe formed by the codes of state and civil society, of citizen and subject, of nation and culture, of people and place, of history and heritage, of all the things that colonial society has in common with the colonized, of all that capital has in common with labor—the modern world system. Black life is not lived in the world that the world lives in, but it is lived underground, in outer space.

The italicized concepts, when merged with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s classic conceptualization the Underground, represent what I will refer to as the black Underground.

Giving content to the previously mentioned form, J. Cole offers the listener an emotional and graphic bildungsroman in his most recent album 4 Your Eyez Only. The varied components of his coming-of-age aural narrative are carefully expressed with words, phrases, and insights that aren’t buried under abstract concepts. Simple yet thorough, concise and precise, yet far from one-dimensional, Cole explores themes of hope, sacrifice, friendships lost to death, and coping with life in a time of growing civil and political unrest from the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrative with visceral and reflective lyrics. He presents the listener with an emotion-driven raconteur who’s turned unanswerable questions into a rhythmic, lyrical, existential manifesto; an anxiety-ridden teleological suspension of the expected or commercially accepted. Even without words the album is an aural presentation of creation, transition, evolution, and the cyclic nature of reality. Cole utilizes both methods of expression in a fluid, dialectical way that shines a light on the lived experience of various narrators through a thoughtful, fearful, wordsmith of a vessel. Qua vessel, Cole provides a treatment of the lived experience of black social life and death. In various tracks, he grapples with questions related to life and death while describing his pain. “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, for instance, explicitly addresses whether or not the narrator ought to continue living:

“The bells getting loud, ain’t nowhere to hide,
got nowhere to go, put away my pride,
tired of feeling low even when I’m high,
ain’t no way to live, do I wanna die?
I don’t know, I don’t know.”

Likewise, in “Immortal” he wrestles with suicidal ideation while still exploring the fear, anxiety, and trembling associated with life in the black Underground:

“…death creepin’ in my thoughts lately. My one wish in this bitch: make it quick if the Lord take me. I know nobody meant to live forever anyway,and, so, I hustle like my niggas in Virgini-A. They tellin’ niggas sell dope, rap or go to NBA; in that order. It’s that sort of thinkin’ that been keepin’ niggas chainedat the bottom and hanged. The strangest fruit that you ever seen; ripe with pain.”

Cole’s allusion to “Strange Fruit”, the 1939 classic first performed by Billie Holiday, further highlights the themes of death and coping with life in a time of growing civil and political unrest. Adapted from the Abel Meeropol protest poem about southern lynching, “Strange Fruit” describes “blood on the leaves and blood at the root” and “black bodies swinging in the southern breeze” akin to Cole’s imagery of blood-stained concrete, death around every corner. As poet-lyricist, Cole exemplifies a mode of expression described by Sören Kierkegaard as “[purchasing] the power of words, the power of uttering all the dread secrets of others, at the price of a little secret he is unable to utter . . . and a poet is not an apostle, he casts out devils only by the power of the devil” and Frantz Fanon as “ruling the world with his intuition, the Negro recognized, set on his feet again, sought after, taken up, and he is a Negro—no, he is not a Negro but the Negro, exciting the fecund antennae of the world, placed in the foreground of the world, raining his poetic power on the world.”

In similar fashion, Kanye West, Mos Def, and Freeway examine similar themes and ponder similar questions related to fear, anxiety, and trembling in the black Underground. “Two Words”, the eighteenth track on West’s 2004 album College Dropout, evokes the theme of hopelessness in myriad ways starting in the chorus by asserting that there are “only two places you end up, either dead or in jail” if you live a life “in the streets”. “Still nowhere to go”, the chorus repeats between verses that quickly enumerate various societal ills that disproportionately affect black America:

“Two words, United States, no love, no breaks, low brow, high stakes, crack smoke, black folks, Big Macs, fat folks, ecstasy capsules, Presidential scandals, everybody move,”

Stylistically and thematically, West explores these topics in other lyrical spaces in this discography. In “We Major”, the fourteenth track on West’s 2005 album Late Registration”, West, Nas, and Really Doe narrate about a space in which “projects [are] to’ up, gang signs is thrown up” and Nas feels compelled to “build [his] very own Motown ‘cause rappers be deprived, of executive 9 to 5’s” highlighting a desire to provide opportunities for upward mobility for those in the black Underground. Throughout Late Registration West uses inter-song skits to describe the anxiety that accompanies poverty. A fictional fraternity, Broke Phi Broke, becomes a tool for creating a space for West to employ humor and reflection as vehicles for examining the struggle. “We have no money; we are sharin’ jeans”, the narrator begins in Skit #1 before he proceeds to list the forms of social capital the narrator lacks that prevent him from escaping his circumstances: “ain’t got no clothes, ain’t got no cars, ain’t got no hoes”; an unfortunate but classic tricolon that permeates the album. In “My Way Home”, West samples Gil-Scott Heron whose assertion that “home is where the hatred is; home is filled with pain” mirrors Common’s reflective soliloquy:  


“The young smoke grass in grassless jungles, rubber band together in cashless bundles. We wear strugglin’ chains, divided only hustle remains, makin sense of it we hustle for change. Revolution ain’t a game it’s another name for life fightin’.”

The bolded phrases represent Common’s reference to life in the city, varied logics of survival deemed “hustling’”, and fighting for one’s life. Again, qua vessel, these artists evoke imagery of the lived experience of black social life and death via lyrics. These logics of survival are, as Shelby writes, the artist’s way of

“signaling publicly that they are withholding their allegiance from the state and other mainstream institutions. They are registering that they do not recognize the state’s authority over them and are voicing their lack of respect for society’s unfair rules. In its most radical form, this type of dissent is a way of publicly declaring one’s unwillingness to submit freely to society’s unfair expectations.”

These references run rampant throughout the discography of another contemporary rap artist who not only cites Late Registration but also examines the themes heretofore mentioned with complexity, nuance, and inter-album dialectics: Kendrick Lamar.

Aside from Lamar’s explicit reference to political language in his sophomore studio (To Pimp a Butterfly) and third major release album (DAMN), his treatment of varied logics of survival, themes of death, and coping with life in a time of growing civil and political unrest is extensive.

In To Pimp a Butterfly he utilizes a repeated stanza that serves as the foundation for his reflective exploration of the phenomenology of structural violence:

“I remembered you was conflicted, misusing your influence, sometimes I did the same. Abusing my power, full of resentment; Resentment that turned into a deep depression; found myself screamin’ in the hotel room. I didn’t wanna self-destruct. The evils of Lucy was all around me so I went runnin’ for answers.”

The resentment, depression, and self-destruction of which he speaks are recurrent themes throughout the album that serve as addendums to the previously mentioned topics. In “Institutionalized” he asserts that the narrator is “trapped inside the ghetto and [he] ain’t proud to admit it; institutionalized, [he] keep runnin’ back for a visit” wanting his master to remove his chains and in “The Blacker the Berry”, similarly, he asserts that the narrator is “guardin’ [his] feelings” while his community is sabotaged and he emancipates himself through the lyrics. Continuing, he explicitly confronts racial stereotypes with a sardonic and confused tone that highlights the anxiety that accompanies his analysis of life in the black Underground:

“So’ don’t matter how much I say I like to preach with the Panthers,Or tell Georgia State “Marcus Garvey got all the answers”,Or try to celebrate February like it’s my B-Day,Or eat watermelon, chicken, and Kool-Aid on weekdays,Or jump high enough to get Michael Jordan endorsements,Or watch BET ‘cause urban support is important.So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the streetwhen gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!”

The bolded “hypocrite” is Lamar qua narrator qua embodied black masculinity grappling with life and the varied images that haunt his existence. This grappling is representative of a source of contention as explored by Sexton when he asserts that

“what [Sexton takes] to be a certain aggression, or perhaps anxiety, in the deconstruction of the structure of vulnerability and the grammar of suffering that undergird afro-pessimism is not a sign of pathology in the moral register, but rather a matter of the apprehension of psychic—and political— reality in the properly psychoanalytic sense: an effect of misrecognition, a problem of register and symbolization, an optical illusion or echo that dissimulates the source and force of the propagation.”

In “u” the hypocrite breaks down and addresses his own depression, unpacks the grammar of suffering in spite of the misrecognition described through blatant hypocrisy:

“I know your secrets, nigga. Mood swings is frequent, nigga. I know depression is restin’ on your heart for two reasons, nigga…and if this bottle could talk…I cry myself to sleep, Bitch, everything is your fault.”

In this verse, another element of life in the black Underground is examined: substance abuse; a theme that lyrically runs rampant in Lamar’s discography. A brief catalog of references to substance abuse include lines such as “some people like the way it feels, some people wanna kill their sorrows”, “I’ma drown in some poison, abusin’ my limit”, “as blood rush my favorite vein, heartbeat racin’ like a junkie’s”, and “the feelin’ of bad dope” to name a few. Lupe, Kweli, and West also describe how substance abuse affects the lived experience of inhabitants of the black Underground with lines such as “they need somethin’ to rely on, we get high on all types of drugs, when all you really need is love to get by”, “these niggas off that ghetto beer and that ghetto rum”, and most prominently in West’s “Crack Music” where he offers an analysis of black addiction to crack by comparing it to  white addiction to and consumption of rap music by black artists:

“When our heroes and heroines got hooked on heroin, crack raised the murder rate in DC and Maryland. We invested in that; it’s like we got Merril-Lynchedand we been hangin from the same tree ever since. Sometimes I feel the music is the only medicine,so we cook it, cut it, measure it, bag it, sell it; the fiends cop it.”

Lupe Fiasco offers a similar analysis in “Deliver” where he raps that:

“White people in the attic, niggas selling dope, white people is the addicts. White folks act like they ain’t show us how to traffic; all that dope to China, you don’t call that trappin’?”

Both West and Lupe comment on the ways in which whites respond to and frame black involvement with drug culture. A less general and more personal account of black addiction is described by Lil’ Wayne in “I Feel Like Dying”, a deeply introspective soliloquy about the effects of depression and unhealthy methods of coping with pain that highlights how substance abuse can represent a logic of survival. He details his addiction with lines like “only once the drugs are done do I feel like dying”, “swimmin’ laps around a bottle of Louis the XIII”, “jumping off of a mountain into a sea of Codeine”, “I am a prisoner Locked up behind Xanax bars”, and “if my dealer don’t have no more then (I feel like dying)” that are thematically similar to those previously mentioned.

Collectively, these artists’ treatment of life in the black Underground reveal aspects of a key element of the genre as examined in Metaphorical Conceptions in Hip-Hop Music by Scott Crossley:

“This pervasive conceptualization of neighborhoods as restrictive objects exemplifies how African Americans have allegedly come to understand their environments and is likely a key to the general suspicion and disenfranchisement that many of the hip-hop generation have toward US power structures. Alongside the myth that the majority of Americans live in secure neighborhoods with little rational fear of crime or danger is the myth that African Americans have for generations been raised and come to age in environments that are rife with danger and delinquency. This contradiction in mythic US neighborhoods is clearly seen in the metaphors used by the hip- hop generation and shows a trickle- down effect in the amount of faith the hip-hop generation has in those civil institutions charged with providing a safe haven for African Americans.”

Their understanding of their environments as examined through their lyrics offer insight into the lived experience of life in the black Underground from an inside perspective.

Flight from the Bottom

In “Deliver”, the twelfth track on the 2015 album Tetsuo and Youth, Lupe Fiasco evokes themes and employs literary techniques that permeate canonical existential texts as he examines life in the “basement”; a metaphysical space bound by socially constructed images and material phenomena representative of his idea of the ghetto. A “physical manifestation of hate in a place where ethnicity determines your placement”, Lupe’s ghetto is examined through a critical yet reflective lens. Using pizza delivery as a tool for exploring how perceptions of danger and violence affect the inhabitants of his locative subject, he asserts that the “pizza man don’t fuck with [the inhabitants] no more” and paints a picture, similar to Kweli, “with a pen like Norman Mailer”. Kweli’s direct reference to a prolific raconteur while using varied methods of storytelling in his lyrics is stylistically similar to Lupe with regard to references of the phenomenology of structural violence via rhythmic narration. Whereas Lupe succinctly describes the history of the ways in which race affects drug trafficking perceptions of drug use, Kweli describes the history of the ways in which race affects policing and incarceration but both use their lyrics to deconstruct societal ills that affect black Americans over repetitive, rhythmically simplistic beats that have an iambic quality representative of the pulse of the struggle. Lupe’s contextualization of “the basement” mirrors the black Underground.

With regard to varied logics of survival within the black Underground, a common theme evoked is an idealistic relationship to other worlds reached by flight, ascension, or rising up. Like the imagery related to flight in College Dropout, the artist Kemba laces his album Negus with constant references to flying; to escaping the basement, the black Underground. From the “Superhero” interlude where he asserts that “if you teach that boy to run, he’ll learn to hide for another day but if you teach that boy to fly, you saved his life” to the “Brown Skin Jesus” outro where he asserts that

“…if you teach that boy to fly, don’t be surprised, he doesn’t stick around Keep your head up to the sky, you never know, he could be looking down and travel all over the world, and tell all the little boys and girls about that land that taught him everything…”


The flight imagery represents the desire for escape from circumstance; the lived experience of black social death despite an embracing of the vicissitudes of black social life. Flight imagery becomes another logic of survival. Relatedly, West’s “Spaceship”, too, evokes flight imagery that serves a similar function when he states that he wants to buy a “spaceship and fly past the sky”, a desire reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man who wishes to experience “flights into the sublime and the beautiful”.

Brining it All Together 

Giving meaning to life and reflectively examining the varied aspects of the lived experienced of man “condemned to be free” remain key elements of canonical existential texts. This practice, as evident in contemporary rap lyricism, reveals the phenomenological nature of the genre and highlights the complexities of the black Underground. Shelby asserts that “much political rap is best understood within a non-consequentialist political ethic” and provides artists with the “[a discursive space] of their own, where they can give voice to their distinctive concerns in their own style and idiom without having to conform to mainstream expectations.” Contrary to the myriad interpretations of rap lyricism that frame it as nihilistic or immoral, as seen in much contemporary discourse, there is an opportunity to interpret rap lyrics as a site of philosophical inquiry steeped in the phenomenological and representative of a form of liberatory praxis; expression and reflective for the sake of doing so as a way to make sense of life in the black Underground.















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