or Word-play, literally playing with the meanings of words to inspire humor or amusement. Many writers use wordplay to entertain an audience, hip hop artists who use it well become legends.
Street Rapper’s Delight
Wordplay is the highest leveraged ability in the rapper’s arsenal. Most times when you hear a crowd go “Oooooooo,” it’s because of a clever and complex use of wordplay. All rappers need to learn how to effectively use wordplay, because many styles of rap rely on wordplay to sway a crowd in their direction.
Battle rappers who make references to their opponents using wordplay always get a reaction from the crowd. Comedic rappers use humorous wordplay to make you laugh. Street rappers use wordplay and street themes to entertain. The best place to see a street rapper’s skill is on a posse cut.
A posse cut is a cypher on wax. Cypher: a DJ puts on a beat and several rappers take turns rapping over it. Posse cuts that will be released as singles all have hooks. Examples: “Fuckin’ Problem” by A$AP Rocky, “Forever” by Drake, “All About The Benjamins” by Puff, and remixes that feature many artists over popular beats like “I Got 5 On It (Remix)” by Luniz, “Welcome To Atlanta (Remix)” and more.
A true posse cut is strictly for the culture, not the radio, and they don’t contain hooks. And most of those types of posse cuts are the best place to find wordplay on wax.
The Best True Posse Cuts In Rap
Posse cuts started as a showcase for a whole group to rap together and show the group united. The first hit in hip hop history was a posse cut: “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Hill Gang. All of the first personalities in hip hop were all crews: The Furious Five, The Cold Crush Brothers, The Funky Four + One, etc. So posse cuts were born out of necessity. But, the early hip hop records don’t use wordplay compared to the following examples…
The Juice Crew is: Masta Ace, Craig G, Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane (also MC Shan and Roxanne Shante, but they don’t appear on the song) with production and DJing by Marley Marl. The best wordplay: when BDK says “Put a quarter in your ass ‘cuz you played yourself.” He takes a popular phrase, “you played yourself” and takes it literally. A way to use wordplay and idioms at the same time.
The great thing about The Native Tongues Movement (A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers and others) is that they kept the tropes that made hip hop what it is and rejected what they believed to be passe, like negativity and violence, and championed individuality. So I’m not surprised that De La dropped a posse cut with no street talk or focus on wordplay. They just have to be different.
The Tribe got together with the Leaders of The New School to make one of the greatest rap songs ever. I think Busta Rhymes’ verse at the end was the foundation for Nicki Minaj’s entire style. The best wordplay: “I’m all that and then some, short, dark and handsome/ bust a nut inside your eye, to show you where I come from.” Phife Dawg makes a clever double entendre with the word “come.”
Wu-Tang members didn’t use a lot of wordplay in this song, instead opting to use metaphors, similes and colorful imagery to get their point across. But no list of posse cuts would be complete without this song.
Big L, Lord Finesse, Microphone Nut, Party Arty, Grand Daddy I.U. and a young Jay-Z who raps about break dancing after finishing a poem. The dark menacing beat by Buckwild is a great example of archetypal boom bap most often found on great posse cuts. The best wordplay: Big L’s line at the end of the first verse “Big L be fuckin’ with more keys than a janitor.” Flipping a double meaning of the word ‘keys’.
An all-star cast of The L.O.X., Beanie Sigel, Sauce Money and Jay-Z in his prime. The Erick Sermon beat flips a sample of the “Theme From Shaft” by Isaac Hayes. Best wordplay: Sauce Money is too underrated. He is a prime example of a wordplay driven street rapper. “Picture me fallin’ off… I’m camera shy,” or “Whips phatter then them shits they beat slaves with,” and “For you Phil Jackson niggas on that Bull Shit.” Sauce Money’s primary means of wordplay is making references to things outside of rap and changing the meaning.
Most posse cuts don’t tackle a subject, but Ice Cube and Friends (Deadly Threat, Kam, WC, Coolio, King Tee and J-Dee) use the theme of gang violence to make a classic posse cut. The real wordplay in this song comes in the references to red and blue gang colors and the repetition of the phrase ‘color blind’ at the end of each verse.
This song is famous for being the debut of the boriqua bomber, Big Pun. The Beatnuts laced a dope beat and featured Terror Squad MC’s Cuban Link and the aforementioned Pun, for the single from their album ‘Stone Crazy.’ Best wordplay: most of the best lines in this song are metaphors. But there are a few interesting uses of wordplay. Pun: “spelling murder in reverse, it deliver redrum,” using interesting word games to entertain. Or Psycho Les’ phrase “roll up on you like sleeves” which is also a simile, in a multi-syllable rhyme.
Def Squad All-Stars Keith Murray, Prodigy, Foxy Brown and Fat Joe kick murderous raps over a classic Trackmasters beat, for LL Cool J’s “Mr. Smith” album. Best Wordplay: Not too much wordplay on this one, but Keith Murray comes with many similes, metaphors and references… “Break your concentration, murder your camp… y’all commercial niggas better have a Coke and a smile.”
Mafioso rap at the peak of it’s popularity. AZ, Cormega, Nas and Foxy over smooth strings that sound like a gangster movie soundtrack. The Firm uses mafia themes more than wordplay. A different way of approaching a posse cut, using the mafia form of street themes. Best Wordplay: Nas opens his verse with a good reference “My mind is seeing through your design like Blind Fury.” A reference to the 1989 film Blind Fury and a paradox of seeing while blind.
DJ Clue and Duro assembled one of the best crews of rappers ever for Clue’s 2001 album The Professional Pt. 2. The highlight of the album is the posse cut “Fantastic Four Pt. 2.” Nature, Cam’ron, The LOX and Fabolous trade bars of classic street rap. The wordplay on this song is fantastic, pun intended. Especially Cam, Jada and Fabolous. Too many examples to include in a caption.
A posse cut of the best rappers in 2010’s rap music. The Track features A$AP Rocky, Kendrick, Joey Bada$$, Yelawolf, Danny Brown, Action Bronson and Big K.R.I.T. Lots of wordplay here but my personal favorite is Joey Bada$$. Best Wordplay: “I don’t drop bars I drop prisons.”
The indie rap cypher of the 2010’s trying to be the underground version of “Flava In Ya Ear”. Despot, Das Racist, Danny Brown, El-P and Mr. Muthafuckin’ eXquire drunk drivin’ on a Wedesday. Danny Brown has a decent following, but still more people need to know about him. He is at least as good as J. Cole or Joey Bada$$, for real. Best wordplay: “Like a stray bullet, you niggas misled…”
The Symphony redux with Q-Tip playing Marley Marl and Masta Ace. I just love this song! Tip was really on one for “The Renaissance” album. Though The Abstract, Busta and Raekwon aren’t really known for wordplay, instead preferring metaphors and street talk. Lil Wayne is known for his own brand of wordplay, often taking slang literally (“money on the table like, let’s eat cash!”) and idioms (“I’m so ahead of my time with my next week-ass”).
The most star-packed posse cut of all-time. Cast: RZA, Tech N9ne, Eminem, Xzibit, Pharohe Monch, Kool G Rap, Chino XL and KRS-One. Sway, King Tech and DJ Revolution have always been doing it for the culture and this track proves it. I can’t decide who has better wordplay in this one, Eminem or Chino XL. Stans will say Eminem: “I might as well erase my face with Wite-Out/ ’cause y’all can’t see me like Mase’s eyebrows,” but Chino’s references always hit “I fuckin’ murder your young style like Jon Benet-Ramsey”
Every rule is made to be broken. There are a few posse cuts with hooks meant to be released as singles that were for the culture. The best of those hits is Flava In Ya Ear. Beat by Easy Mo Bee, all-star Bad Boy emcees: Biggie, Craig Mack, Rampage, LL Cool J and a young Busta Rhymes. The best wordplay comes with the first line Biggie drops: “Niggaz is mad, I get more butt than ashtrays…”
Other Posse Cuts That Don’t Fit The Criteria But Are Still Dope:
- “Live At The BBQ” by Main Source (The Birth of Nas, dope track)
- “Watch For The Hook” by Cool Breeze (Dungeon Family, the best southern posse cut)
- “Monster” and “So Appalled” by Kanye West
- “4,3,2,1” by LL Cool J
- “We Takin’ Over” by DJ Khaled
- “Swagga Like Us” by T.I.
- “Mercy” by Kanye West
- “Bia Bia” by Lil Jon
- “Vice City” by Jay Rock
- “Detroit vs. Everybody” by Eminem
- “Some L.A. Niggaz” by Dr. Dre
- “Sippin’ On Some Syrup” by Three Six Mafia
- “Stay Fly” by Three Six Mafia
- “Make ‘Em Say Ugh!” by Master P
- “Bling Bling” by B.G.
- “24 Hours To Live” by Ma$e
- “Lefleur Leflah Eshkoska” by Heltah Skeltah
- “Control (HOF)” by Big Sean (I think a posse cut should have 4 or more rappers)
- So, any song featuring more than 4 members of the Wu-Tang: Protect Ya Neck
- And D.I.T.C. and Hierogyphics and Boot Camp Clik and Slaughterhouse and Demigodz and fuck this is never gonna end…
- and here‘s a cool article about posse cuts
How To Use Wordplay In A Rap
This is the most important post I have ever made. If there is a single technique missing in new music that is leading to the decline in hip hop, it is the decrease in proper wordplay. It’s not because the new kids have less creativity than old heads. I think it’s because there is no guide on how to practice writing wordplay. MC’s just had to listen to records and figure it out. Not a good thing for kids who don’t like old school sounds with lo-fi production.
The best place to start in learning wordplay is explaining exactly what it is. Wordplay is using the multiple meanings, spelling and structure of words and sentences to surprise a listener and create humor.
Shakespeare used wordplay. In Romeo & Juliet, the character Mercutio realizes he is about to die after a sword fight. He says: “ask for me tomorrow, you shall find me a grave man.” A brilliant pun. A pun is wordplay. It plays on a double meaning of a word to make a joke. Wordplay techniques like these are the most effective way to sway any crowd. It’s the three point shot from beyond the arc. The right hook to knock out any contender. If it lands you win.
Technique #5: Puns
Using puns in a rap requires finesse. Bad puns are what makes a line cringe worthy. It’s hard to pin down what makes a pun effective and what makes it awkward. The only way to know is to write puns yourself, trial and error.
A pun relies on the double meaning of a single word within a sentence. “Atheism is a non-prophet organization.” Prophets or profits. The key to writing puns is finding words that sound the same but have different meanings or spellings. Those are called ‘homophones.’ Bear / Bare. Fair / Fare. Wear / Ware.
Start with a list of homophones. Google it. Then use the list to write as many lines in a row as you can. Choose two words with the same pronunciation but different meanings and make a rhyme with it.
Homophones as a Set-up
Two parts two a bar. Subject and predicate. Set-up and payoff. The first half of the bar is the subject. What the bar is about.
The subject usually contains the set-up. The set-up is the first part of the joke that creates an expectation, which is then subverted by the payoff.
Let’s analyze the above bar by DOOM. “Got more soul than a sock with a hole.” This bar relies on the difference between soul and sole. “Got more soul” is a commonly used phrase. Like “you got soul” as in being soulful. It sets us up for a phrase that relates to having soul. “Got more soul than Ray Charles” or something. It becomes a pun when he subverts our expectations by comparing it to shoe soles.
This pun becomes even more effective because the meaning doesn’t become clear until the very last word, creating surprise. This is the best way to structure any rhyme, not just puns and wordplay.
Homophones as a Payoff
The easiest way to practice writing wordplay is to use a list of homophones to write a bar and think of alternative meanings as a rhyme. In the above example Big L uses the reference to “Beavis and Butthead” and flips it to “nothing but head,” referring to his game with women. The payoff word doesn’t come until the rhyme.
I’ll choose some homophones at random and make a rhyme. Morning/ Mourning. First, choose a word to rhyme and a couple of homophones, make a reference to the alternative meaning then use the other word as a rhyme, and lastly, make sure the double meaning doesn’t become apparent until the last syllable.
“early bird of prey, hit you without warning/ when I catch you in the A.M. your mama gon’ be mourning…”
A decent rhyme off the top of my head. I need to practice more. The Process: Choose the rhyme/ homophones first. Then fill in the context after. Rinse and repeat. As you get better, you can advance the structure and complexity.
– Kanye West
The skillful bending of the meaning of a brand-name or pop culture reference will always get a reaction from the audience. Especially when paired with a multi-syllable rhyme like Kanye does in the above example. Most wordplay depends on references and many rappers become known for their colorful use of the technique. Try to use them as much as possible in your wordplay. There are no rules or restrictions, just practice.
It is considered a generally sloppy practice when you rhyme the same word with itself. It is only acceptable when the meanings of the two words in question are different, but sound the same.
Cam’ron is my favorite rapper to use this technique: rhyming two homophones together. He twists unorthodox phrases to make them sound the same. From “Boobies real” to “My boo be’s real” (“Hey Ma”). “We move the H in our block, in front of H&R block” (“Certified Gangstas”).
“From the back of a cop ride/ to black on black, black, when we cop rides/ I will not hide, hi ma, hot thighs/ Dick on her nose, now she’s cock-eyed/ From whippin the bacon rolls, to outside whippin’ the bacon Rolls.” – Cam’ron (“Family Ties”)
From cooking bacon rolls to a bacon colored Rolls Royce, in case you didn’t understand. What makes Killa so adept at this technique is the fact that he is unpredictable with the way he uses it. And he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He takes ownership of his rhymes and doesn’t care if you think rhyming words with themselves is wack. Because Cam himself is dope.
Taking Idioms Literally
“Won’t shoot nothin’ but you will appear in court/ I put your brains everywhere so you can share your thoughts.” – Jadakiss
This is another technique where you can use commonly used phrases to your advantage. Look up lists of idioms and cliches on Google, we will be using the lists to create more rhymes. In the above example, Jadakiss uses the phrase “share your thoughts” and takes it literally, creating a violent image to coincide with his street persona. A great way to use wordplay.
To practice this, choose an idiom or cliche from your list and take it’s literal meaning to make a joke. It requires creativity to make certain phrases make sense in a wordplay context. It may take an unorthodox comparison. It may take a slant rhyme. Or you may have to change the way you say a word to make it fit. Luckily, these things only make your wordplay sound better.
Let’s make an example of this technique. Random idiom: Red carpet treatment. I’ll try use it as a payoff for a two bar wordplay. Which means I have to use “red carpet treatment” as a rhyme. Using your idiom as the rhyme is the easiest way to begin practicing wordplay.
“indecent on the frequent, creep in while you’re sleepin’/ leave you bleedin’ on the rug, the red carpet treatment…”
For some reason it’s easier to practice wordplay using violent imagery. As you get better the subject matter will evolve though. Do what comes easiest to you in the beginning. The path of least resistance.
Technique #6: Playing With Words
There are other ways to use wordplay by manipulating the structure and spelling of your lyrics. This is the way the earliest rappers played with words to add more creativity to their lyrics.
Spell It Out
“I’m the M-A-S, T-E-R, the G with the double E…” Try spelling your words out to add more flavor to loose bars. Spell your name, especially if it has a strange spelling. “The B-I-G, D-A double D-Y-K-A-N-E/ Dramatic, asiatic, unlike many…” And if you can make it a little faster, it can be a nice way to add a different rhythm to your flow. “It’s the capital S, oh yes so fresh N-double O-P/ D-O-double G-Y-D-O-double G, ya see?”
“It don’t matter see, I’m not picky/ Let me spell my name out for you, it’s Ricky:/ R – Ravishing, I – Impress/ C – Courageous and Careless/ K for the Kangols which I got/ That I wear everyday, and Y? – Why not?” – Slick Rick
The technique here is taking parts of a word or phrase and mixing them up. Fighting a liar/ Lighting a fire, for example. They call this a spoonerism.
“Guess who’s back in the motherfuckin’ house/ with two big tig ‘ol bitties for your mouth” (Da Brat). most times rappers use this technique in a racy way, with sexual or violent lyrics. Otherwise this technique can come across a little campy.
“Shit just don’t change to this day/ I’m this way, still tell that utslay itchbay/ uksay my ickday ‘scuse my igpay atinlay/ but ukfay a igpay…” (Eminem). Pig latin may not be the most original thing to add to your lyrics, but it’s another idea to practice for better lyrics. “Niggas talking, they bitchmade, ixnay off my dicksnay/ That’s pig latin, itchbay, who gon stop me, huh?” (Kanye)
Creating a unique vocabulary is also a form of wordplay. Snoop Dogg is known for his unique style of speech. Fo’ rizzle. E-40 has a unique slang, shortening words, joining words together. Slanguistics. The unique way you say things can become your trademark. Like the way Too Short says “biatch!”
Besides using slang and combined words, rappers also use languages other than english to entertain. Cypress Hill often add spanish words to their bars to show their East L.A. affiliations and Spanish heritage.
But, often rappers who are not spanish add spanish words, bars and sometimes entire phrases of spanish lyrics. Biggie uses a few spanish words in “Ten Crack Commandments.” So does Jay-Z in “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Kanye in “Dark Fantasy” and The Game in “El Chapo,” just off the top of my head. But perhaps the best (and possibly the worst) example of a spanglish rap is Kendrick’s verse in “Collard Greens.”
“This your favorite song/ Translation: Ven aqui mami, asi culo/ Tu quiero coger mi huevos/ Y papi molestes pero/ Chuparse puto pendejo/ El pinche cabron… let’s get it” – Kendrick Lamar
Technique #7: Phrasing and Structure Wordplay
You can change the way you structure your sentences and phrases to increase the wordplay value. Creative usage of pauses, sentence structure and transitions between bars can improve your lyrics.
“In your city faded off the brown… Nino/ She insist she got more class… we know/ Swimmin’ in the money come and find me… Nemo/ If I was in the club you know I balled… chemo.” – Drake
I don’t know who invented this technique. I’m convinced it was Dipset. Some say it was Weezy. But because of rappers like Drake and Nicki Minaj adopting it, this technique is one of the most common forms of wordplay in rap in the 2010’s. I call it The Afterthought: a one-liner, with a set-up, a pause for a beat, then a single-syllable pay-off that is also a pun. The Drake lyrics above are the most famous example of The Afterthought. It has a New Jack City reference, a Finding Nemo reference and a homophone set-up: Balled/ Bald.
“Before & After”
Wheel of Fortune has a category called ‘Before & After.’ It takes two phrases with the same ending and beginning word and puts them together. Rome Wasn’t Built In A Daycare Center. Cry Like A Baby Boomer. Go Tell It On The Mountain Goat… It’s a good technique to use as a setup, payoff, whatever way you can.
I think it would be especially good as a way to transition between bars. Just like the Miss Mary Mack Hand Clapping Game: over a clapped rhythm, you recite funny rhymes that end in a swear word, but instead of saying the swear you transition to the next line. Jamila Woods uses the technique in her song “VRY BLK”…
“Black is like the magic, and magic’s like a spell/ My brothers went to heaven, the police going to, yeah, they’re going to/ Hello operator, emergency hotline/ If I say that I can’t breathe, will I become a chalk/ Line up to see the movie, line up to see the act/ The officers are scheming to cover up their, cover up their/ Ask me no more questions…” – Jamila Woods
Crossing The Bar Line
“Styles will change, they say change is dange-/…erous. Like a King standing on a terrace.” – Andre 3000 (“Royal Flush”)
Not completing your rhyme from the previous bar until the beginning of the next bar. Three Stacks uses the second half of the word to change the rhyme scheme in a smooth way, by emphasizing the difference in the sound of both syllables. He bends the pronunciation of the word “dangerous,” another form of wordplay I won’t address until later.
It’s not always what you say that results in wordplay. It can also be the words you don’t say…
“Last wish: I wish I had two more wishes/ and I wish they fixed the door to The Matrix, there’s mad glitches/ Spit so many verses sometimes my jaw twitches/ One thing this party could use is more… /…Booze. Put yourself in your own shoes…” – MF DOOM
By not saying the word “bitches,” Villain subverts our expectations with humorous results. These lyrics are notable because of how DOOM sets up our expectations. He sets us up for a big punch by waiting until the end of a four bar rhyme scheme to drop the best payoff. That is how you should structure every verse. Save your best punchlines for the ends of rhyme schemes and at the end of the verse.
I was watching a Sway In The Morning 2018 Cypher (Day 2, Part 1) at SXSW on Youtube. They invited amateur MC’s to spit 16 bars in front of a early morning crowd in Austin, TX. To judge who was good and who was wack, came down to audience response. And like every hip hop crowd they were harsh with their judgement. For most of the MC’s, when Sway called out, “Do we have a Hyeeena?” Most often the crowd said “No!” One notable exception was a rapper named “The Philharmonik”.
After a gang of No’s, he hit the stage and you didn’t expect him to be dope, based on his image and presentation. But when he rhymed it showed the difference between the no’s and the Hyenas. It was simply a few bars of wordplay that made him better than the rest. He said “you’re Microsoft when you see me excel,” the final line of his verse being, “I do ’em like Aubrey Graham I tell ’em to Take Care.” It was the best wordplay of the morning and it got an enthusiastic response.
That is the difference between the amateurs and the pros. Simply a couple lines of wordplay per verse. All amateurs don’t use wordplay effectively, because they aren’t aware that it is missing from their rhymes.