Learning from rap lyrics
13 May 2022
Let's talk about rap.
Below I write about some songs that have lyrics I think have something interesting to say. This isn’t a list of the classics of rap. They're just lyrics that for one reason or another, have resonated with me. While most songs I've listened to have gone in one ear and out the other, these have stayed.
Young Dolph: I'm Everything You Wanna Be
"Don't ask me how I do it, I just do it"
Some understanding is innate.
We might not know how we do what we do. Why we create, expressing yourself in the way we do, who knows? You can maybe break down some of the tactical techniques used. But that origin of that spark of creation is a mystery.
This makes good teachers all the more valuable. Looking back to my days as an English as a foreign language teacher, I actually think that people who speak English as a second language make for better teachers of it. When you speak a language as your first language, you don't know the rules. You just communicate. But if you had to go through the process of learning in a later stage of life, you can better express why the language’s rules are as they are.
Not every person who is great at what they do makes a good teacher for this reason. Their knowledge is so much a part of them that they can't detach from it and pass it along to someone else. Not everybody as the temperament to teach either. This makes those who can both do and teach incredibly valuable resources.
Applying this to my creative coding, I can't fully explain why a piece of artwork resonates with me, or how I come up with the ideas I try. They just happen. That process of discovery is the interesting part. I’m never sure of what I’m going to make.
Future: Blood on the Money
"They got blood on the money and I still count it"
We benefit from the suffering of others. Every day. Even if you live like a saint, the society you interact with was created by people who did terrible things to make it.
Take modern nation states as an example. Nation building is an ugly business. Countries all over the world forced people by hook or by crook into their model of an ideal citizen, and did away with those who wouldn't play along. Pick any country you want, and you'll find a long list of atrocities done in the name of that state and its ideals.
Creating and sustaining a company is similar. Think of the labor and environmental harm needed to make what we buy. Furthermore, how many lives have been reduced to ruins because someone wanted to chase the almighty dollar instead of looking after their health and relationships?
Borrowing an idea from one of my favorite essays, Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed, all of the well-publicized problems we have in the United States are because of, not in spite of, the pursuit of the eye-popping financial returns we expect of our economy. If people didn't rely on prescription drugs, checked social media infrequently, didn't watch television, bought only what they needed, and shunned junk food, how much would the companies that provide these products and services be worth? You don't need an MBA to figure out the answer.
But alas, we contribute to our pensions, go to work, and hope for things to go on as they have. We've all done it, and do it. Myself included.
The Notorious B.I.G.: Ten Crack Commandments
This one isn’t a single lyric, but an entire song.
Besides being funny, the song is insightful. You can take things away from it even if what you sell is on the right side of the law. It has deep insights into human nature, molded by an environment of violence, scarcity, and competition, packaged into easy-to-remember rhymes and clever turns of phrase. It's brilliant.
It can be tempting to think that the side of humans shown in the song is how humans always are. In the above paragraph I thought about only saying the song has insights about human nature, but without the socio-economic qualifier. But we are very much products of our environments.
You may have heard of the WEIRD problem of psychology, the problem academics in that field have had once they realized that the participants in their studies were mostly people who are western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Forming an acronym with those adjectives gives you WEIRD. The issue with this is that this type of person, in the grand scheme of things, represents a very, very, small slice of the human experience. And in many ways they’re, well, weird. They have beliefs, behaviors, and values that are particular to this group.
An analogy to the WEIRD problem would be calculating the average height of everyone on earth by only measuring the height of NBA players.
Findings taken an American liberal arts student don’t neatly map to the psychology of a farmer in Bolivia, or a village elder in Thailand. How someone acts in ‘90s Brooklyn isn't how they'd act in one of the many other cultures that have existed in human history.
I’ve viewed rap as an avenue for knowledge for years, ever since I took a seminar on hip hop culture and history as one of my college courses. Where else but in such a class could you listen to rap and write papers about it? It helped me better understand and appreciate how rap fit into and shaped the broader tapestry of American culture.
I enjoy learning, and for me that learning can come from anywhere. A walk in the park, a good book, or an insightful song expose me to lessons I can apply in other areas of my life.