How Hip-Hop Lyrics Mean
STEPHEN LESTER THOMPSON
Rap is the black CNN. Widely attributed to Public Enemy's Chuck D, this view implies that rap informs the culture at large about ideas current in the black community. It follows that hip-hop lyrics mean the way messages do. They are meant to be true as they conform to regular patterns of meaning.1 So there should be a straight line from a fact to an idea about it in the lyricist's mind to the lyric's meaning. This communicative-message model of hip-hop lyrical meaning holds that a successful hiphop lyric must be a genuine testimony about the lyricist's real self, telling the truth from the standpoint of a real person. Ice-T really had scrapes with the law, Lauryn Hill really had scrapes with the wrong kind of man, and Eminem really learned his craft in scrappy Detroit. And the messages their lyrics convey are rooted in these real experiences.
The communicative-message model answers numerous questions arising in hip hop. For instance, rap is so black-identified that the perennial question arises about whether non-blacks (such as Eminem or the Beastie Boys) can create rap music. The dispute isn't about the mere ability to rhyme over beats. It's over whether non-blacks can report truths thought to derive from
1 The philosopher David Lewis develops a similar idea for general communi-
cation in his classic 1968 paper “Languages and Language,” reprinted in his
Philosophical Papers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp. 163–188.