What it takes to be a modern rap storyteller

Tuesday, December 3, 2019 - 5:16pm

NOSELL

Atlantic Records, YouTube

Back in the day, one of the benchmarks for being a great rapper was the ability to tell a story well. The ability to paint a vivid picture of life made some rappers into either mainstream icons or underground legends that inspired the icons. It could’ve been a story about anything. On “Da Art of Storytellin (Pt. 1),” Big Boi and Andre 3000 recount their individual experiences in the pursuit of women. Raekwon and Ghostface Killa’s “Heaven and Hell” tells the story of the duo’s experiences on the block in Staten Island. Organized Konfusion’s “Stray Bullet” follows the harrowing journey of a stray bullet after it leaves the barrel of a gun. On “Morals and Standards,” Mac Dre recounts a story of betrayal and vengeance between former friends. Big L’s “Casualties of a Dice Game” details just that — the casualties of a corner game of dice. These songs are just a handful of visceral and vivid examples of the power of storytelling in rap; the list could go on forever.

Despite a rich history of storytelling across rap’s many regions and subgenres, somewhere along the way the art of storytelling was lost. Rappers are still telling stories, but storytelling is no longer the main measure of a rapper’s skill. However, every so often, the art of storytelling re-emerges, and this is usually a good thing. In the past 10 years, there have been several attempts to bring back storytelling from figures like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole, and the end product has been good. The series of songs from Meek Mill and Speaker Knockerz are examples of what and what not to do to properly execute the art of storytelling.

Meek Mill’s “Tony Story” series (part one released in 2011, two in 2013 and three in 2016) and Speaker Knockerz’s “Rico Story” series (all three installments released in 2013) both recount similar stories. Speaker Knockerz, over a series of icy trap beats similar to those of his hits like “Dap You Up” and “Lonely,” tells the story of a man down on his luck named Rico who, after attempting to rob a bank with his girlfriend, is sent to jail and meets a man named Pedro who introduces him to the dope game. Things quickly spiral out of control, Rico kills his girlfriend who turned out to be an undercover cop, Pedro shoots Rico in the head, the two reconcile and eventually succumb to their fast lifestyles. Similarly, Meek Mill, aided by a set of cinematic and hard-hitting instrumentals, tells the story of two friends, Tony and Ty, who eventually turn on each other, resulting in the deaths of Ty at the hands of Tony and of Tony at the hands of Ty’s cousin Paulie. The “Tony Story” continues as it follows the rise and fall of Paulie, ending as Paulie is shot and arrested by the police after shooting his pregnant girlfriend who alerted the police of Paulie’s crimes. Both stories are deeply sad and urgent accounts that delve deeper into the problems within the system of America. Importance aside, the “Tony Story” is often considered one of the best modern examples of storytelling while the “Rico Story” is nothing more than a few deep cuts from a promising young artist who died way too soon.

This raises one question: How are two series with similar stories regarded so differently? Both series tell heart-wrenching stories that continue to be written in cities across America, yet one stands full-bodied and the other falls flat. It comes down to storytelling. 

Speaker Knockerz tells his story point-blank, using only the occasional adlib to provide variation. He seldom attempts to rhyme more than the last word of each line, and there is little wordplay. Outside of the heavy, drowning autotune and the occasional “Damn” and “Oh my God,” the Columbia, South Carolina rapper shows little emotion. He tells a heartbreaking story, but instead it sounds like he’s slick-talking. Simply put, there’s no vividity. There’s very little variety. Speaker Knockerz tells a story, but he is not storytelling. 

Meek Mill, on the other hand, is a storyteller. The Philadelphia rapper isn’t always known for being the most poignant or insightful rapper, often falling prey to classic hip hop tropes, but the “Tony Story” series is different. Not an anomaly, but not commonplace either. He tells us every little thing about Tony, Ty and Paulie. Each song in the “Tony Story” series perfectly describes every scenario and situation. It’s like listening to an audiobook — that’s how much detail there is in these songs. “Tony Story 2” is especially vivid as Meek explains, through his words and his robust delivery, the paranoia induced in Paulie due to his lifestyle and choices, rapping, “And Paulie he ain’t slipping, yeah he got that thang on / You know what he did to Tony, he won’t get the same song so / When he hit the crib he spin the block before he park it / Paulie ain’t bitch he just cautious / But little did he know n***** in the streets talking / And out his rearview its like he seen a reaper walking.” Meek’s rhymes aren’t otherworldly, but they’re still complex, using end rhymes and internals as he carefully explains Paulie’s every move. He still has the modern rap prerequisite slick talk, but it doesn’t hurt the songs. Instead, it adds to them, perfectly accenting the more substance-heavy lines. Meek is so specific with his imagery and emotional with his delivery, it’s almost like listeners are watching every event unfold in real-time through the entire series is. It’s masterful.

The difference between Meek Mill and Speaker Knockerz is clear. Each song from the “Rico Story” series feels like reading the newspaper, matter-of-fact and to the point. With each song from the “Tony Story” series, though, Meek paints a full picture, mincing no words in the process, and that’s what storytelling is supposed to do. That’s the difference between simply telling a story and storytelling. There’s emotion, imagery and insight when someone is storytelling; none of that is there when someone just tells a story. On the outro of “Tony Story 3,” Meek exclaims that “Tony Story 4” is going to be a movie. As if the previous three installments were not.