Rap, Language & Meaning!

Hi class! I hope you guys are all surviving this finals week. It is I, Emily Vega, ½ of the Latina Dynamic Duo and your rap enthusiast! If for some reason you weren’t in class last week or you just dozed off, here is a quick review of what my project is all about! 🙂

Hip-hop, specifically rap, has always been a huge part of my life. My two older brothers were growing up during the 90’s when rappers like Tupac and Notorious B.I.G. were popular. Although I was really young at the time, my brother’s were my first exposure to rap culture. So kudos to them for giving me the basis of inspiration for this project.

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Something that I’ve realized is that many of the artists that I listen to on a daily basis write in ways that convey deep and profound meaning. My music taste really ranges over a long period of time, however, I never compared how these messages have changed or stayed the same. Therefore, I decided to study the following question: How do old school and new school rappers, specifically black men, use language and tone to convey messages to their audience? Before I decided to analyze lyrics, I predicted that through the use of African American Vernacular English, rappers from the 90’s and present day are both addressing similar problems about race however through different forms of performance.

As a part of my way to figuring out my methodology, I looked at many different research projects to see what others have studied. Below are a few of what I came across in my research:

  • Washington U St Louis – the movement of language across the world because of rap
  • Standford – the social significance of rap & hip – hop culture, specifically a dissection on the violence
  • The Alantic – rap lyrics and white racism
  • Marcyliena Morgan – author of many books on the sociolinguistics, power, and knowledge of hip hop

The first step in my project was choosing three well-known rappers; specifically three old school and three present day rappers. Here are mini profiles for each of the rappers I choose.


The New Generation (present day)

j_cole_st_johns_credit_nicole_fara_silver_4Jermaine Cole, the love of my life, also known as JCole is a rapper originally from Fayetteville, North Carolina. After moving to New York to go to college, his rap career really took off. Beginning with three classic mix tapes, Cole was able to find a large fan base (myself included) who loved his lyricism and personality. In 2014, Cole became one of six artists whose album was number one on the billboards without any features. If you can’t already tell, I love JCole and you should too.

Childish-Gambino

Donald Glover, who now goes by his rap name Childish Gambino, was born and raised in South Mountain, Georgia. He first began his career as a writer and actor in a series called Community. Around the same time as Cole, he released his first album that received a lot of positive reception. Since then, both artists have been incredibly successful and respected. They can be considered the new faces of hip hop.

However, we must never forget the past rappers who were the foundation for this genre.


The Old School (early 90’s)

tupac-shakur-1Tupac Amaru Shakur, also known as 2Pac, was born in East Harlem, New York. Beginning as a backup dancer and MC, Shakur was first exposed to the hip-hop world. However, after the release of his first album he instantly received a lot of love for his expert skills at storytthe_notorious_bigelling.

Christopher Wallace, also known as Notorious B.I.G, was also born  in New York. From Brooklyn, Biggie gave visibility to East coast rapping. Despite their short careers, these two artists have been ranked as two of the greatest and most influential rappers of all time. At the age of 24/25, both the rappers were killed.


Old School vs New School

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N*ggaz Wit Attitudes (NWA) was a rap group from Compton, California that was made up of Ice Cube, MC Ren, Eazy E, Yella, and Dr. Dre. Together, they made some of the most profound, thought provoking raps of all time. They were the forefront of discussing racial tensions of the late 80’s, early 90’s. Although their group received fame together, they eventually did fall apart due to financial reasons and ultimately because of the death of Eazy E from AIDS.

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Kendrick Lamar, also known as KDot, is also a rapper from Compton. He is now one of the most lyrically conscious and well known rappers of our generation. So far, he’s won 7 grammys and his latest album, To Pimp a Butterfly, has been considered a classic.


After choosing my artists of study, I choose specific songs to focus on:

  • J.Cole/Childish are a reflection on the societal views of race and blackness.
    • J. Cole – Be Free
    • Childish Gambino – Hold You Down
  • Tupac/Notorious are reflecting on their personal struggles with their identity.
    • Tupac – Changes
    • Notorious B.I.G – Suicidal Thoughts
  • NWA/Kendrick both have a reflection on what it means to be black in America at the time.
    • NWA – Fuck the Police
    • Kendrick Lamar – Blacker the Berry

As I analyzed each song, as you’ll see below, I kept these three questions in mind:

  1. How do the black male artists use AAVE in their lyrics?
  2. What messages are they trying to convey? How have these messages changed between rappers from the 90’s and today?
  3. How are these messages interpreted by audiences of differing levels of hip-hop knowledge?

I conducted linguistic analysis of these songs by doing the following:

  1. Select sections of each song
  2. Analyze lyrics for AAE features such as verbal markers, deletion of letters, etc. that were present
  3. Highlighted slang words that were used
  4. Analyze the tone they rapper portrays

Here is a key to my linguistic analysis! Screen Shot 2016-05-03 at 2.42.19 PM

JCole – Be Free

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Childish Gambino – Hold You Down

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Tupac – Changes

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Notorious BIG – Suicidal Thoughts

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NWA – Fuck the Police

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Kendrick Lamar – The Blacker The Berry

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(Please ignore green underlining, that was Microsoft Word, not me)


Overall there were many overlapping themes throughout:

  • Hopelessness and exhaustion VS faith and will to fight
  • Police brutality/death of young black men
  • Blackness/race/identity
  • Call for social change
  • The white perspective/how society views them

Tone, however, definitely has differed with time. In the work of all the artists from the 90’s, you can hear the anger and emotion in their words. They want you to hear them and they’ll make sure you feel what they are. However, in the present day pieces, I could only find that same emotion in some sections of each artist. Although their tone has changed, their messages are the same. They speak explicitily about police brutality in both generations and how blackness affects their lives.

Finally, to conclude, I interviewed members of the Gettysburg Community who all range in different hip hop knowledge. I mostly wanted to see how an audience interprets rap’s messages and specifically how those messages have changed from the 90’s till now. Below is the mini documentary I have made to conclude my project!

Thank you! #Yasssss

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