Technique #3: Similes
Comparisons are the most commonly used technique in rap music. For an explanation of Metaphors and Similes check out MC Lyte’s classic single “Lyte As A Rock”…
Milk (of Audio Two, most famous for “Top Billin'”): Do you understand the metaphoric phrase ‘Lyte As A Rock?’ It’s explaining how heavy the young lady is, you know what I’m saying King?
King of Chill (a Producer for Lyte, made the beat for “Paper Thin”): Yes my brother, but I would consider ‘Lyte As A Rock’ a Simile, because of the usage of the word “As…”
That is the distinction. Similes use the words ‘like’ or ‘as’ to compare two dissimilar things. “Cold as ice.” Or, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” A simile is also a metaphor, which is an artistic comparison of two things. However, a metaphor is a little harder to practice and requires a deeper explanation.
“All the world’s a stage, and all of the men and women merely players” is Shakespeare’s most famous metaphor. For our purposes we will try to isolate words to build metaphors, like we can easily do with Similes.
But first, let’s delve a little deeper into the concept of Similes…
“I smoke on the mic like Smokin’ Joe Frasier/ The Hellraiser, raisin’ Hell with the flavor/ Terrorize a jam like troops in Pakistan/ Swingin’ through your town like your neighbourhood Spiderman.”
Inspectah Deck, Wu-Tang Clan “Protect Ya Neck”
Wu-Tang’s “Protect Ya Neck,” the first single from their debut album, is full of creative comparisons, especially similes. Nearly every member of the Wu comes with dope similes that express their rap style and how good they rhyme. Raekwon: “Rhymes rugged and built like Schwarzenegger.” Ol’ Dirty Bastard: “I’ll be stickin’ pins in your head like a fuckin’ nurse.” GZA: “Now that thought is just as bright as a 20-watt light bulb.” And many more…
“Protect Ya Neck” does not tell a story, nor does it have a rhetorical purpose (except for GZA’s verse at the end,) other than trying to prove how dope the Clan really can be. PYN doesn’t contain a complex internal rhyme scheme, or crafty multi-syllable rhymes. No, “Protect Ya Neck” succeeds solely because of dope metaphors and brutal imagery.
Certain styles rely more on comparisons. The more conceptual styles, like storytelling and hip hop with a message, don’t use metaphors and similes as much. But the the more street and crowd oriented styles, like battle rap, braggadocious and shock rap styles use comparisons extensively. So it is essential that you master similes and metaphors first, before moving on to song writing.
The Principle of Comparisons
The more dissimilar the two things being compared are, the better the metaphor.
“Your reign on the top was short like leprechauns.” Biggie starts “Kick In The Door” with the most famous simile in hip hop. A veiled insult to Nas, or maybe Tupac, or the whole west coast. Or no one. Hip-Hoppers have vivid imaginations. What makes this line so brilliant is the complexity of it. Comparing a ‘reign on the top’ to a leprechaun shouldn’t work. Add in the multi-syllable unorthodox rhyme of “leprechaun” and “rapper dons” and you have one of the great rap lines in history.
Often a rapper will compare himself or his actions to an inanimate object or abstraction. “We do dirt like worms, produce G’s like sperm/ ’til legs spread like germs.” (Jay-Z “Can’t Knock The Hustle”) These bars follow an image system of dirty things associated with money. That is why we compare a noun to another noun. It creates an image in our heads that we don’t expect, creating surprise in the listener.
Combining Techniques Creates Complexity
Rarely will you ever find a good simile or metaphor in a bar without another technique beside it. Often rappers will mix in wordplay techniques, complex rhyme scheme or other figurative language to make a bar more complex. The more creative the MC, the more unorthodox of a technique he will use. For example, MF DOOM uses onomatopoeia to great effect in “All Caps” on the Madvillian LP: “The pot doubles, now they really got troubles/ mad man never go *pop!* like snot bubbles.” But, instead of using the word “pop” he makes a popping noise with his mouth. True creativity.
Like My Name Was…
One way to practice adding more techniques to your metaphors is to add in references. Compare yourself to a famous actor, another rapper, the fucking pope for all I care. Rappers do it all the time by using the phrase “like my name was,” as a conjunction. “Pimpin’ hoes and clockin’ a grip like my name was Dolemite.” (Snoop Dogg in “Nuthin’ But A G-Thang”) Or, to use a more recent example, “Got Draggin’ balls like my name was Vegeta.” (Joey Bada$$, “Christ Conscious”) he literally compares himself to a Dragon Ball Z character, and uses wordplay with the word “Dragon/ Draggin'”.
Technique #4: Metaphors
Hip-Hoppers use the word ‘metaphors’ to refer to all comparisons and metaphorical concepts that we use in lyrics. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t help us to learn the nuances of figurative language. And sometimes we call certain phrases metaphors that are not metaphors.
To properly learn to use Metaphors in your rap lyrics, we first need to discern techniques that allow us to use them effectively to move a crowd. The best way, it seems to me, is to use connecting words to flesh out comparisons, the same way we do with similes that use ‘like’ or ‘as.’
Metaphors using “Than”
“I’m cooler than a polar bear’s toenails, oh hell/ There he go again, talking that shit…”
-Big Boi, Outkast “ATLiens”
Big Boi is just that cool. He points out the fact that people are aware his speech is outlandish and dope at the same time. When it comes down to it, the purpose of rap is to give people the dope lines and slick vocal game of a pimp and a player. The purpose of a pimp’s slick talk is to convince people how cool he is. By referring to it indirectly. But still letting you know, using a metaphor.
Refer to a quality you have and compare it to something else. the formula is: you, or one of your qualities is better than (insert a related abstraction). Example:
I’m doper than a pound of weed, richer than a thousand G’s/ Fresher than a summer breeze, you know you don’t want none of these…
I just made that up. The first thing that came to my head. You have to use creativity, and remember: the more unlikely the comparison the better. It often combines an insight with a cool phrase. My buddy always used to say, “you’re cooler than the other side of the pillow.”
Metaphors using “Is”
“It drops deep, as it does in my breath/ I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death.”
-Nas, “NY State of Mind”
The most famous metaphor in hip hop history. Nas uses the word “is” to express a relation between sleep and death. Using an “is” metaphor usually compares two abstractions and uses them to say something about the speaker. Eminem’s last truly great song, in my opinion, is 2006’s “No Apologies.” He starts the song: “In my mind I’m a fighter, my heart’s a lighter/ My soul is the fluid, my flow sparks it right up.” He uses a metaphor to describe his passion for music, and how it is burning him out.
The formula to practice this technique: My (abstraction) is a (abstraction)… then elaborate… Example: (off the top)
My soul is a hole, I don’t know what it means/ You’re on the rise or you fall and there’s no in-between…
My soul is a hole. I like that. It conveys a lack of belief and meaning. An “is” comparison tends to be deeper, more poetic. Often it expresses negative emotions. But it doesn’t have to. Try to use it in different ways.
“I start to think, and then I sink/ Into the paper, like I was ink/ When I’m writing I’m trapped in between the lines/ I escape, when I finish the rhyme…”
-Rakim “I Know You Got Soul”
This is where it starts to get really deep. Personification is when a rapper compares himself to an inanimate object, or he gives an object human qualities. Rakim is the God of this technique. He can take you on a journey with personification. When I hear the above bars he spits at the end of “I Know You Got Soul,” I picture ink on a page spontaneously writing itself. And when it ends Rakim pops out of the page. This line also references the fact that it is the final rhyme of the song.
But instead of taking the point of view of an inanimate object to show how dope you are, you can give inanimate objects human qualities. Like “Cashmere Thoughts” by Jay-Z. “I talk jewels and spit diamonds/ All cherry like a hymen, when I’m rhymin’/ With remarkable timing/ Caviar and silk dreams/ my voice is linen…” Hov uses luxurious imagery to convey high class rapping skills. I call this an ‘image system’, when a rapper uses images that can be categorized together to elicit an emotion in the audience.
It’s a hard technique to practice, because it is difficult to breakdown in a simple way unlike the previous techniques. And it is better used in the context of an extended metaphor, and not as a one-off technique. I will have to think of a proper way to practice this technique and come back to it later.
The master level of metaphors. Making a metaphor last the entire duration of a song. An analogy. An allegory of sorts. My favorite use of extended metaphor is Nas’ “I Gave You Power.” Nas raps from the point of view of a gun, to highlight the evils of gun violence. My favorite 50 Cent song is “A Baltimore Love Thing,” where 50 personifies Heroin and it’s effects on addicts. I wish more people knew about this song. I guess everyone was too busy bumping “Candy Shop” to check out a deep cut.
The most interesting use of this technique is Common’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.” He talks about a carefree woman who is true to her roots. Eventually, she compromises her beliefs by selling out and becoming mainstream. He doesn’t reveal until the very end of the song that the woman he is talking about is actually Hip Hop itself, creating a revelatory moment. Although I don’t think anyone was fooled by this songs structure, we all kinda knew he was talking about our music or you never heard the song because you skipped it. If you skipped it because the song is too slow or something, that’s okay. The song isn’t for you anyway.
How To Practice Writing Metaphors & Similes
Actively practice the above techniques, they are the main keys to the rap game. The best rappers all have great metaphor game in their arsonal. I practice by once a day alternating doing ‘like’, ‘as’, ‘than’ & ‘is’ metaphors. I make it a part of my daily routine to practice each one of those words at least once a day. Until it becomes second nature. Soon we will practice the more nuanced ways of writing metaphors but this is great for a start. For now, let’s move on to the most crowd pleasing techniques: wordplay.