This needs to be the case, given that the musical accompaniment is invariably trite and adds little or nothing to the performance. This means, in effect, that the words should be able to stand alone, which is definitely not true of most of the rap music I’ve heard. I will therefore confine my comments to those rap lyrics that do feature clever rhymes and interesting use of words. Take this example:
We ain’t nothing but mammals. Well, some of us cannibalsOverall, this song is an attack on modern pop culture, but I’m interested only in the rhyming involved. First, I note that the first ‘rhyme’ depends on the American pronunciation of ‘cantaloupe’ (the British English pronunciation would rhyme this word with ‘scoop’). Then, after two nondescript rhymes, Eminem switches to assonance (elope…antidote), which the average rapper appears to think is the same as rhyming. It isn’t. ‘Antidote…pantyhose’ is a neat piece of assonance, and a typically abrupt change of scene; the verse ends with another routine rhyme.
who cut other people open like cantaloupes
But if we can hump dead animals and antelopes
then there’s no reason that a man and another man can’t elope
But if you feel like I feel, I got the antidote
Women wave your pantyhose, sing the chorus and it goes…
Eminem, The Real Slim Shady.
The staccato imagery that Eminem’s best work conjures up reminds me of a song released 35 years earlier, and the promotional video that accompanied it. The song was Subterranean Homesick Blues, the singer was Bob Dylan, and the video showed him holding up the key words for the camera, each written in block capitals on a separate piece of paper.
Look out kidDylan rarely uses assonance in this song (‘clean nose…plain clothes’, from the second verse, is the only clear example). But, although Dylan’s is a more overtly political song, the only significant difference that I can see between it and the Eminem track is the musical accompaniment. There is an illegitimate rhyme—‘manhole…candle’—but the rhyming skills evident in these two extracts are broadly similar. The point to note is that in both cases the need to rhyme creates a series of non sequiturs: there is no obvious reason for a given line, other than that it ends with a rhyming word.
They keep it all hid
Better jump down a manhole
Light yourself a candle
Don’t wear sandals
Try to avoid the scandals
Don’t wanna be a bum
You better chew gum
The pump don’t work
’Cause the vandals took the handles.
And neither artist can hold a candle to W.S. Gilbert, the man who supplied the words to Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music. It isn’t often appreciated nowadays, when a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is likely to be regarded as mere light entertainment, that these works were intended as satires on the English middle class. Even The Mikado, ostensibly set in Japan, lampoons the manners and mores of this class. And the barbs are sharper and more to the point:
And the idiot who praises with enthusiastic toneHowever, Gilbert is seen at his best in I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General from The Pirates of Penzance. The first point to note is the sheer breadth of education required to ‘get’ all the references. Second, every rhyme in this song is a three-syllable rhyme, which requires considerable linguistic virtuosity. And Gilbert was not afraid to invent words if required:
Every century but this and every country but his own.
W.S. Gilbert, I’ve Got a Little List.
I’m very good at integral and differential calculus,The italicized words are pure invention, but there is no difficulty in apprehending the intended meaning. That this song is partly about rhyming can be deduced from the ending of each verse, where Gilbert deliberately backs the singer into a corner and challenges him to find a particularly problematic rhyme. It is worth quoting the whole of the final verse, which is sung at a much slower tempo than the rest of the song, to see how this works. One can sense the inexorable build-up to the most difficult rhyme of all:
I know the scientific names of beings animalculous.
I can quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous.
In fact, when I know what is meant by ‘mamelon’ and ‘ravelin’,Dylan would be more likely to use the word ‘strategy’ than Eminem, although I can’t imagine either of them attempting to find a rhyme for it. This is Gilbert’s solution:
When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin,
When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at,
And when I know precisely what is meant by ‘commissariat’,
When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery,
When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery,
In short, when I’ve a smattering of elemental strategy…
You’ll say a better major-general has never sat a-gee.‘Sat a-gee’, meaning ‘sat astride a horse’, which is imaginative if not entirely legitimate. And the musical accompaniment, as it is for both the Dylan and Eminem tracks, is bland and does not intrude upon the song. I can envisage such a patter song being sung to a hip hop beat, but I do not believe that any modern rapper is capable of performing, let alone writing, anything similar. For this reason, I say, without equivocation, step forward Sir William Schwenck Gilbert, nineteenth-century rapper extraordinaire.