“Amazing or Malaising” is a new series in which Daily Arts Writer Harry Krinsky decides if a piece of culture is wonderful or trapped in malaise.
I’m gonna throw out some rap lyrics. Stop reading when you see a pattern.
“I look good as your dad on a Friday.” –Young Thug
“I want the M’s and I’m not talking Micky D’s. My jewelry gold like the tokens at Chuck E. Cheese.” –Young Thug
“I’m a Pisces but I’d rather be a killa whale.” –Andre Nickatina
“Chuck Taylor down like the Ramadan / Catch a feelin’, slipped in on a banana peeling / You got a scheme homie what you dealin’.” –Andre Nickatina
“Who come through doing kung-fu / Jinjitsu, eating kung pow when the thunder storm tornado sized symbol on my Guess jeans / You on the guest list? You wanna French kiss? I gotta double check your French tips.” –Riff Raff
“I’m at the Pizza Hut / I’m at the Taco Bell. I’m at the Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” –Das Racist
“Timmy Timmy Timmy Turner, He been looking for a burner.” – Desiigner
That was sort of a trick question. There really isn’t a pattern. Really, the only pattern is that none of those lines make any sense. There is no connection between a Pisces and a killer whale, or Chuck Taylors and Ramadan — and no amount of Rap Genius will help you figure out what these lines mean. They are barely coherent.
Now, it’s really easy to call this rap low quality. It’s easy to frown at this departure from substantive, highly lyrical, socially conscious rap music that just about everyone from Kurtis Blow to Jay Z has taken a part in. Even when they were being vulgar or superfluous, at least they were being witty (and even when they weren’t being witty, at least they made sense).
So, one way of grouping the above songs is that they are connected by the fact that they are all lyrics from shitty vapid rap songs made by shitty upstart internet rappers. (With the exception of Nickatina; he’s been making no sense longer than I’ve been alive). It’s really not that hard, then, to extrapolate that my generation’s obsession with these rappers points to millennials’ short attention spans, lack of appreciation for tradition and inevitable destiny to ruin the world. That is the 2002 USA men’s basketball team way of grouping those songs.
I like to categorize those lyrics, of which I have only included a small sample size, as something called Curated Nonsense.
Curated Nonsense, on one level, is rap music that intentionally doesn’t make conventional sense. It’s defined by punchlines that don’t quite hit, or non-sequitur bars or dated references or just straight-up gibberish. My favorite Curated Nonsensical rapper ever is Young Thug. Thugger is by far the biggest and most mainstream of the above list. He is the biggest rapper to ever not make any sense. This is important, generational, and I think has something to do with the internet and all the fucked-up, senseless shit going on in the world right now. He isn’t, however, the first rapper to not make any sense. Thugger, consciously or not, is just the newest member of a lineage that at least includes Bay Area legends Mac Dre and Andre Nikitina, and contemporaries like Das Racist, Lil B and Riff Raff. Thugger also, if you need any more evidence of his proclivity for nonsense, just changed his rap name to “No, My Name is Jeffery.”
You might say that curated nonsense is a ridiculous way to describe anything, let alone rap music, and I’ll admit, it’s a bit contradictory, even oxymoronic. But Big Sean is little and Lil John is old; music is laden with contradiction and hypocrisy, so why can’t my made-up subcategory have a splash of the sauce?
Also, full disclosure, I think curated nonsense is a great name of a category. It rolls off the tongue and sounds vaguely intellectual, like the type of thing someone who also says “postmodern” a lot might say (which, for better or for worse, I do). But what’s most important about giving a name to this type of rap music is that it acknowledges Thugger, Mac Dre, Riff Raff et al. as legitimate contributors to the contemporary artistic landscape, not just a bad version of normal rap music. I’m not saying the music deserves an A or even a B; I’m saying it deserves a grade.
Parsing out good Curated Nonsense from bad Curated Nonsense is no easy task, and I think that’s one of the reasons it gets lumped together with bad rap music.
For example, I’m listening to Anderson Paak as I write this piece. Anderson Paak is NOT Curated Nonsense. If anything, he’s curated sense, which is ostensibly the goal of most music and doesn’t need its own category. Paak gets the people that call Curated Nonsense trash, excited. (Also Anderson Paak is just fucking dope and transcendent, and unquestionably amazing.) To compare Anderson Paak to, say, Kendrick Lamar, might be difficult since they’re both great artists that have relatively different sounds, but it’s ultimately way easier than comparing, say, Young Thug to the Ying Yang Twins.
The Ying Yang Twins weren’t Curated Nonsense either, they were just nonsense. Intention is crucial to fit into my category. But tracking intention is exponentially more difficult than tracking lyrics or drum progression. Welcome to postmodernism (ugh). Thugger and the Ying Yang twins both don’t make any sense — they’re both sort of southern rappers — but Thugger is unquestionably better in my mind. His nonsense makes sense. His voice is an instrument, and he’s aware of the fact that it’s hard to comprehend. Part of the joy in listening to Thugger is constantly having to play catch-up. It’s possible that Thugger’s rise to fame simply coincided perfectly with some cultural current that made his music more accessible than the Ying Yang Twins were in 2005, which complicates the comparison even more.
Comparing Kendrick to Paak is like comparing J-Kidd to Steve Nash. They do very different things on the court, but they play the same position. Comparing Young Thug to the Ying Yang Twins is like comparing Draymond Green to Yi Jianlian.
This debate matters more than just giving credit to a few quirky rappers. The debate exposes the skewed way many people look at rap.
So much of rap listening culture is based in decoding the lyrics and then, and only then, getting to the heart of a song. Rap Genius, Reddit threads and the entire Drake ghost-writing fiasco are evidence of this idea. Curated Nonsense rap challenges the assumption that, in order to relate to a song, we must understand where it came from and what it means. That might sounds simple, but in practice it requires a fair amount of mental gymnastics.
I get the rap OG narrative. Lyrics are really important. It’s not too much of a stretch to call rap music poetry with a beat. Actually, it’s not a stretch at all. That is exactly what rap music is. Ironically, though, the comparison to poetry shows what makes Curated Nonsense special.
We are taught in school that the best way to consume poetry is to do so without attempting to break its code. Poetry is just meant to exist in the world and be taken in; it can have multiple, conflicting and complicating meanings. To steal from Emily Dickinson, the goal of poetry is to “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” The way a poem makes you feel is just as important as the words on the page. Poems are interpreted, not understood. To argue that poetry needs to make sense is simultaneously reasonable and deeply limiting. Just like calling a Young Thug song convoluted is both reasonable and deeply limiting.
We are left, maybe, with some schools of analytical thought that are at odds with each other. The pervasive rap narrative is: bitterly analyze, fact check and code break. The traditional poetry narrative is: don’t analyze too much, feel, introspect, drink Sweetwaters coffee and be nostalgic. My main question is: Why can’t Young Thug be a poet?
When I listen to Young Thug and can only make out syllables and shifts in the tone and speed of his voice, I feel something. When I listen to Paak or Kendrick spit bars that make me think, I also feel something. Most people would feel the same if they got off their pretentious hip-hop high horse.
Final verdict: Amazing.