Mos Def’s contribution to the song “Respiration” on Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star (1998) is notable for it’s use of imagery. That is why I think it’s important to have an analysis of a song like this. Respiration succeeds because of the emotion it creates in the listener, the same way poets have done for ages. Learning how to create emotion without using the force of personality and persuasion tactics is the least discussed technique in rap music.
Discussing techniques to apply to your own lyrics is important to keeping the culture and it’s tropes alive, and we can only do that by analyzing great lyrics. Some may argue that music critics and reviews also fill this role. I disagree. Critics have no obligation to talk about technique, structure and meaning. They are there to inform your opinions. A critic may not necessarily know anything about the art they are criticizing.
It is not enough to say that Respiration is a great song. Showing people why it is special and different from most rap songs, so we can see more songs like it, advances the culture.
So without further adieu, here it is, the analysis, bar for bar, of Mos Def’s verse from the song “Respiration”…
Escúchela, la ciudad respirando
(Translated from Spanish means, “Listen To Her, The City Breathing”)
“The new moon rode high in the crown of the metropolis,
Shinin’, like “who on top of this?”
People was tusslin’, arguin’ and bustlin’,
Gangstas of Gotham hardcore hustlin’.
I’m wrestlin’ with words and ideas,
My ears is pricked, seekin’ what will transmit,
The scribes can apply to transcript…
This ain’t no time where the usual is suitable,
Tonight alive, let’s describe the inscrutable.
The indisputable. We New York the narcotics,
Draped in metal and fiber optics,
Where mercenaries is paid to trade hot stock tips
For profits, thirsty criminals take pockets,
Hard knuckles on the second hands of workin’ class watches,
Skyscrapers is colossus, the cost of living
Is preposterous, stay alive, you play or die, no options,
No Batman and Robin, can’t tell between
The cops and the robbers, they both partners, they all heartless,
With no conscience, back streets stay darkened,
Where unbeliever hearts stay hardened,
My eagle talons stay sharpened, like city lights stay throbbin’,
You either make a way or stay sobbin’, the shiny apple
Is bruised but sweet and if you choose to eat
You could lose your teeth, many crews retreat,
Nightly news repeat, who got shot down and locked down,
Spotlight to savages, NASDAQ averages,
My narrative, rose to explain this existence,
Amidst the harbor lights which remain in the distance…
So much on my mind that I can’t recline,
Blastin’ holes in the night till she bled sunshine,
Breathe in, inhale vapors from bright stars that shine,
Breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline,
Heard the bass ride out like an ancient mating call
I cant take it y’all, I can feel the city breathin’,
Chest heavin’, against the flesh of the evening,
Sigh before we die like the last train leaving.”
– Mos Def
Mos Def prefaces his verse with an 8 bar intro. It is more conversational than the body of the verse. It sets the stage for the song, establishing an ethereal mood.
“The new moon rode high in the crown of the/ metropolis, shinin’, like “who on top of this?”
He starts the introduction with a metaphor. The moon is a crown jewel. The sky is a crown on New York. He also mentions the new moon. A new moon is black, bringing in themes of blackness. He accomplishes a lot with the two opening bars.
He also cleverly uses personification, by making the moon speak. And apparently the moon is a hip-hopper, speaking a phrase and using the bravado that a hip hop head would. He also uses a multi-syllable rhyme. Metropolis/ Top of this.
To write vivid imagery, use the subject of your bar to put an image into the minds of the audience. What does the audience see? In this case, we see a moon, a sky and a city. Your lyrics need to have something the audience can picture in their minds. Speaking about abstractions (which Mos Def also does in this verse, to prove a point it seems) like time or justice, anything you can’t touch or see, the audience has nothing they can picture in their head.
“People was tusslin’ arguin’ and bustlin’/ Gangstas of Gotham hardcore hustlin”
Now he brings a criminal undercurrent into the verse. The setup bar contains an internal rhyme (“tusslin”) and multi-syllable rhymes. The payoff bar uses alliteration to increase the rhythm. He alludes to Batman comics with a reference to Gotham. The image of Gotham itself makes us picture a crime-ridden metropolis. The Gotham reference is also a setup for another reference to Batman later in the verse.
“I’m wrestlin’ with words and ideas, my ears is/ Pricked, seekin’ what will transmit/ The scribes can apply to transcript”
Mos Def mentions himself only a couple times in the verse. He establishes himself as the writer observing the city, writing words that people will want to hear. He spends most of the duration of this verse talking about things you can picture in your mind, instead of talking about a single character.
He continues the rhyme scheme from the previous bar with the partial rhyme “wrestlin,” it keeps the rhythm but also allows the rapper to transition without a jarring juxtaposition of sounds. Mos also fits in a low key internal rhyme with “ideas” and “my ears.” The phrase ‘my ears is pricked’ crosses the bar line, and continues the enjambment until the end of the intro.
This line is also interesting because he mentions the scribes who will write about his art, which is what I am doing right now. It’s as if he wrote this verse to be analyzed in literary circles, instead of the streets or the club.
“This ain’t no time where the usual is suitable/ Tonight alive, let’s describe the inscrutable/ The indisputable.”
This is the one time in the verse where Mos Def talks entirely in abstractions. There is nothing you can picture in these two bars. I don’t think this is an accident, because he makes reference to this: “describe the inscrutable,” followed by a brief pause and a change of rhythm.
He starts the verse “in medias res,” in the thick of things. Like we are entering upon a story already in progress. It’s a common technique used in literature. Further evidence of the literary intentions of this verse.
“We New York the narcotics/ Draped in metal and fiber optics”
Such an interesting way of saying ‘we sell drugs in New York’. By turning New York into a verb that means ‘distribute.” The phrase ‘New York the narcotics’ is also alliteration.
Bending the meanings of words by changing the parts of speech – noun to a verb, for example – is a form of wordplay. It helps with imagery because of the words being used. When you ‘Google’ something, you are changing a noun to a verb. You mail your mail, switch your lights on, drink your drinks, etc.
“Draped in metal and fiber optics,” is more relevant now than it was in 1998. Mos Def is commenting on our increasing dependence on technology. We have computers in our phones and our watches. Soon everything we have will be ‘smart.’ Smart sunglasses, smart shoes..
Every word in this sentence creates an image in your mind. Using concrete nouns and verbs is a technique used by the best storytellers in hip hop. Nas is one of the best to use this technique.
“Blood of a slave, heart of a king,” is the refrain of Stillmatic. “Freedom or jail, clips inserted, a baby’s being born/ Same time a man is murdered, the beginning and end,” the first two bars of Nas is Like. “Through the lights cameras and action, glamour glitters and gold/ I unfold the scroll, plant seeds to stampede the globe,” from Verbal Intercourse, I can keep going..
“Where mercenaries is paid to trade hot stock tips/ For profits, thirsty criminals take pockets”
Comparing stockbrokers to mercenaries is a form of metaphor, by changing the meaning of the setup word in the payoff. ‘Mercenaries’ is the setup. It sets us up to expect a violent payoff, instead we get ‘paid to trade hot stock tips.’
Paid to trade is also an internal rhyme. Stock tips/ profits/ pockets, are great slant rhymes. The word ‘thirsty’ is an emotional word. We all know how it feels to be thirsty. The word ‘thirsty’ beats any sloppy adverb or adjective you can slap on to the page to add syllables.
Criminals is usually pronounced with the stress on the first syllable. CRIM-in-al. You can tell by emphasizing different syllables and see if it sounds correct. CRIM-in-al. crim-IN-al. crim-in-AL. Which one sounds correct? The first one is the standard way of pronouncing criminal. Mos Def uses the third example, crim-in-AL. But he isn’t doing this to make a rhyme fit, the way most MC’s do. He is doing this to keep the flow on beat. Putting your stressed syllables on the beat keeps your flow on-time. Putting the rhyme on the same beat two bars in a row gives the flow a musical symmetry.
For PROfits, THIRsty criminALS take POCKets,
ο | 1 ο 2 ο 3 ο 4 ο |
The phrase ‘take pockets,’ is a figure of speech called metonymy. Metonymy is when you choose a word closely associated with a reference instead of the word itself. Heavy lies the crown (‘crown’ instead of ‘the burden of being a king or queen’), for example.
“Hard knuckles on the second hands of workin’ class watches”
This phrase can have several meanings. ‘Hard knuckles’ is a reference to the calloused hands of blue collar workers. ‘Second hand’ is a phrase that describes things, like your clothing, that have been previously owned. Things you would get at a thrift shop. But, the second hand of a watch gives it a double meaning.
The phrase itself, when juxtaposed with the previous bar, takes on a different meaning. It points out the fact that the corporate criminals who steal from the working class, are not the ones who pay the price for the money they steal. The working class sacrifices a part of their paycheck, and therefore their time, only to have it stolen by rich people.
“Skyscrapers is colossus, the cost of living is/ preposterous, stay alive, you play or die, no options”
‘Colossus’ conjures images of a giant. A huge human being or monster. It contrasts with the cost of living, to convey the insignificance of the poor, who can’t pay the cost of living.
The rhymes are unorthodox, not quite rhyming. ‘Preposterous’ is four syllables, unlike ‘Colossus’ and ‘no options’ which are 3 syllables. To make ‘preposterous’ fit the rhyme scheme, Mos cuts out the ‘e’ syllable in a Shakespearean way, turning the word into a conjunction: ‘Prepost’rous,’ to make the word fit the pattern.
It’s easy to see ‘stay alive’ and ‘play or die’ are internal rhymes. But, it’s not easy to see that the the word ‘cost’ rhymes with second syllable of preposterous, and in a lowkey way, with ‘colossus’ and ‘options,’ creating a form of Assonance. Repeating a vowel sound in 2 or more words.
“No Batman and Robin, can’t tell between the cops and the/ Robbers, they both partners, they all heartless/ With no conscience”
The Batman and Robin reference calls back to when Mos referenced Gotham in the intro. It makes us picture Gotham in the absence of Batman, with no justice, a wild-west like crime capital.
None of the bars seem to rhyme in this instance. Yet, Mos Def provides the illusion of several internal rhymes. Robin/ Robbers/ Partners/ Heartless/ Conscience..
“Back streets stay darkened/ Where unbeliever hearts stay hardened”
These bars actually do rhyme. He sprinkles in some alliteration. Streets/ stay, hearts/ hardened. Still continuing to create strong images by using strong nouns and verbs.
He uses a figure of speech called ‘synecdoche.’ Referring to a part to signify the whole. Calling businessmen “suits” or calling your vehicle your “wheels,” for example. The references to ‘back streets’ and ‘unbeliever hearts’ are synecdochal phrases.
Referring to something indirectly in your lyrics requires the audience to be insightful. Instead of saying, “a bad man doesn’t feel feelings,” Mos Def says “unbeliever hearts stay hardened.” It makes a line more poetic. And it respects that the audience will understand what you are saying and doesn’t dumb it down.
“My eagle talons stay sharpened, like city lights stay throbbin’/ You either make a way or stay sobbin”
‘Eagle talons’ may be a reference to America, and it’s symbol of freedom: the Bald Eagle. He may be taking on the point of view of America itself, observing the dark side of capitalism, crime, in an objective way without feeling.
“The shiny apple is bruised but sweet and if you/ choose to eat, you could lose your teeth”
The big apple is a common metaphor and symbol for New York. He takes this symbol literally, elaborating on the effects of eating the forbidden apple (also a lowkey reference to the Bible) and how it corrupts you. Also, the way he uses the multi-syllable rhymes to shape the meaning is masterful.
“Many crews retreat, nightly news repeat/ Who got shot down and locked down, Spotlight to savages/ NASDAQ averages”
He continues the multi-syllable rhymes into the next bar, using ‘nightly news repeat,’ to transition the topic to news networks like FOX who use violence to gain ratings. Then they use the fear that they create to get you to consume more, hence the reference to NASDAQ.
“My narrative/ rose to explain this existence, amidst the/ Harbor lights which remain in the distance”
Finally, Mos Def brings the focus back to himself. Showing the purpose of his lyrics, in essence, his mission statement: showing the reality of the streets with an objective eye.
He closes the verse with an image of the harbor lights receding into the distance as the viewer sails away, creating a sense of finality.
Chorus’ and refrains are structured differently than verses in a few key ways. They don’t use enjambment like a verse would. Enjambment is when the content of a bar spills over into the next bar. Verses use enjambment freely, sometimes making an entire verse one long run-on sentence. A chorus usually ends a sentence when the bar ends.
A chorus is also more musical and repetitive. It is meant to be sung by a large group, hence the name ‘chorus.’ So it will often have syllables that carry on for more than one beat, the way a beat would be sung.
It will have a repeated phrase that states the theme of the song, hence the phrase ‘refrain.’ A chorus/ refrain/ or hook as it is often called requires audience participation. So MC’s will often put call and response sections into a chorus to fulfill this requirement, as Mos Def does here.
Only the best MCs can reject these tropes and still make a classic song. It requires the touch of a master. Mos Def doesn’t repeat himself in the chorus. He doesn’t sing. He doesn’t even say the name of the song in the chorus. He keeps the chorus poetic, not pandering to wide audience.
“So much on my mind that I can’t recline”
‘Much on my mind’ is alliteration. Using the term ‘recline’ instead of ‘sleep’ avoids a cliche, and replaces it with a descriptive verb that puts an image of lying down into our minds.
Great MCs find unique descriptions that avoid cliches, the way Rakim said that the mic “magnetizes” him, instead of saying that he is drawn to it. Also, the word ‘mind’ is an internal rhyme.
“Blastin’ holes in the night till she bled sunshine”
One of the best uses of imagery in Hip Hop. It’s kinetic. It’s complex. It’s a remarkable way of describing something so ordinary, the way only a poet could. Oh, and it’s a metaphor for stars, to be technical.
“Breathe in, inhale vapors from bright stars that shine”
The reference to respiration, ‘breathe in,’ is an instance of call and response. The audience is compelled to say the phrase at the same time as the rapper.
‘Vapors from bright stars’ reminds us that everything is stardust. That we consume stardust everyday. It also advances the recurring theme/ image of space and the cosmos.
“Breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline”
‘Breathe out’ completes the pattern of call and response, creating symmetry. It confirms that the vapors from the previous bar are indeed weed smoke. ‘Skyline’ continues the space motif, and rhymes with ‘recline.’
“Heard the bass ride out like an ancient mating call”
‘Bass ride out like an ancient mating call’ is personification. Another example of personifying abstractions to create an image.
“I cant take it y’all, I can feel the city breathin”
We all know how it feels to see a city skyline lit up in the night time. That is the feeling that Hi-Tek’s incredible beat and the songs lyrics are trying to create.
“Chest heavin’, against the flesh of the evening”
‘Chest heaving’ is an internal rhyme, it also serves to create an image. ‘Flesh of the evening’ is, again, personification.
“Sigh before it die like the last train leaving.”
‘Sigh before it die’ deviates from the end rhyme scheme with an image of breathing, tying in one last time with the songs title. The chorus ends with a final image of departing, mirroring the end of the verse.
The subject of this discussion is how to use imagery, not the song Respiration. That is why I focus only on Mos Def here. I don’t analyze Common or Talib Kweli’s verse because they are the more standard fare in hip hop. Focusing on the speaker. Using 1st person perspective to elaborate on their point. Don’t get me wrong I still love their verses..
I can’t imagine Mos Def having written this verse with these techniques consciously in his mind. It must have been written during a session with heavy inspiration. Or possibly, slowly pieced together in many sessions of focused writing with editing and rewrites. I get this feeling because many of the phrases have an improvisational feel that can only be achieved in the moment of writing. You can only write this way if you are a master.
The method I recommend is to write a lot of lyrics, and combine the best ones into a verse. It comes across differently than someone who writes a verse in one sitting. More contrived, less improvisational. To write a finished thought in one sitting requires you to internalize a lot of techniques. To be aware of the technique, but not to use it in a way that calls attention to itself.
The techniques I outlined above are the most nuanced, and some of the hardest to practice. Practice them overtly until they become a part of your lyrics without being aware of it.
Use descriptive metaphors comparing two things that create strong images. The 5 senses: sight/ smell/ touch/ hearing and taste. Give your audience the full experience. And most of all, put concrete things into your phrases, do not describe abstractions, thoughts, ideas, concepts. If you have to talk in abstractions, then use personification. Give intangible things human qualities.
The most common way people describe abstractions is by using inaccurate nouns and verbs. We ‘go home’ nowadays. But there are better ways to say it. I jetted home. I slid to the crib. I bounced, broke out like a rash, crept, split, etc. Why do you think these phrases are popular in rap lyrics? Because they create images in the mind. How do you picture the word went?