Words By Patrick M.
One of the best ways for a lyricist to get across a message is through subtlety. When writing to get a point across, it’s tempting to be as blunt and straightforward about it as possible. Sometimes, this is necessary if you are trying to provoke a rise or simply piss people off. (2pac starting off “Hit em Up,” by saying “I fucked your bitch you fat motherfucker” is an example where subtlety probably couldn’t have improved the message.) But great writers know how to vary and disguise a message through word choice, or irony. And great writing can make the listener work for the message all the while making the experience more rewarding and meaningful.
One of my favorite songs ever is a prime example of subtlety in songwriting and the powerful effect that lyrical discovery can have on a listener. The track is Sly and The Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf).” It takes a solid ten listens for the lyrics to stand out on the track due to the strength of the music itself. The complexity and brilliance of the music, which helped lay the ground and define funk, make it difficult to focus fully on what Sly is saying as you find yourself lulled into distraction by the horns and guitar riffs. The message initially seems positive, as the chorus sounds like a typically uplifting Sly and the Family Stone song.
But dig deeper and, you realize how much more is being said. Sly, given the context of the times, delivers a poisonous dagger to the ideals of the 60’s. Rather than a true moment of change, of coming together, the same racial and social divisions that existed before are there to stay. The “devil grinning with a gun” has effectively killed off the opportunity, as events like Dr. King’s death and the 1968 Chicago convention have shown.
Sly’s lyrical response to said devil is devastating show of strength. He implies an acceptance of the fundamental truth that two groups of people will never integrate culturally or socially. The line “Thank you for the party, but I could never stay,” epitomizes this philosophy. It may seem like a kind gesture, but it’s a full fuck you to those who believed they were taking part in a cultural transformation, dismissing it at misogynistic drugged out dreaming. And to hear this song coming from the band Family Stone, a model of gender and racial integration that hasn’t been matched since, must have really made fans feel like they had officially reached the end of the dream.
We don’t see subtlety used in Hip-Hop as often; because it’s the antithesis of one of the culture’s fundamental tenets: “Do everything you can to get yourself noticed.” You do sometimes see great lyricists – The B.I.G’s, Andre’s and more recently Lupe – willing to disguise their message and make the audience work. But too often, Hip-Hop artists go for the roundhouse when a jab would do the trick.
When you think about, Hip-Hop should be ripe with opportunities to utilize literary and oratorical techniques to improve the depth and power of the lyrics. I wish more artists had faith in the listeners’ ability to discern; as Sly would tell you (in between hits from the crack pipe) it’s not always about what you say, but sometimes how you say it.