In July 2009, one of my favourite bar spitting, grimey, consistent, versatile and witty rappers Fabolous released “I Miss My Love“. In this joint Fabo plays the role of storyteller over a production from Sean C and LV, the results? Fabulous!
“I Miss My Love” tells a story of betrayal, love, and trust. Fabolous paints cinematic visuals that follow him from the start to the finish of an interesting journey with a drug dealer who’s girlfriend was almost his downfall. With some very sick production, this track flows well and delivers a great story!
From the moment I heard it, my mind was enamored with a story that featured simple yet intricate details, fascinated by what a rapper who wrote not just as a songwriter but as a creative author.
Rap music has a long list of exceptional narrators. While the game has changed in terms of the style and approach many artists take with their music, the basis of most rap songs is still fundamental: storytelling.
In my two decades as a hip-hop fan there have been an astounding number of rappers who understand that the creative mind can be vast and limitless; artists who approach their craft with new and inventive blueprints to deliver imagined ideas through our speakers.
The art of storytelling is one that many have attempted, but few rappers have succeeded at. We don’t talk much about these tale tellers, so I’ve decided to draw up a list of 5 of some of my favourite storytelling songs.
Disclaimer: This is not one of those greatest of all time lists
J. Cole – 4 your Eyez Only
Told from an outside perspective, Cole put himself in the shoes of a late childhood friend who is profiled under the pseudonym James McMillian. The song is an eight-minute rendition of memories leading up to James’ final moments and Cole fulfilling the request he promised to complete.
Listening to this song I entered the mind of dude approaching death, getting perspective of his life as the grim reaper approached. J Cole becomes the mouthpiece of his dead friend who has a posthumous message for his living daughter. The emotion and feel put into this song, you wouldn’t be mistaken to think it was Cole’s own story, but it isn’t! There’s a layer of intricate focus necessary to build such narratives and identities for other characters,and Cole executed with absolute finesse!
Eminem – Stan ft Dido
I wanted to put it first, but, so obvious a choice lol. It is a song people will remember for years to come. It is a song that created a new term in the English language: “Stan.” The term “Stan” seems to have many meanings: the most popular meaning is obsessed fan.
Eminem’s “Stan” is such a breathtaking tale of deranged hero worship and obsessive fandom. Em had to become Stan, give him a world with a wife, a nephew, and an undying desire to reach a man he knew only from afar. Building the story around letters and voice recordings allowed for both Stan and Em to issue a final response as isolated narration, a dialogue that was still connected without requiring the two to communicate. From a friend’s death to a fifth of Vodka, we enter the maddening world of Stan before the grand finale of Eminem’s long-awaited response. “Stan” is a flawless display of the disillusionment between fan and artist, genius from concept to execution.
Kendrick Lamar – Sing About Me
Kendrick’s Sing About Me is one of the deepest, most personal tracks on Good Kid, M.A.A.d City. “Just life, in general, is the meaning behind it,” Lamar explained to The Boombox. “It’s a certain situation that I had to go through; I had to bump my head a few times to know what I had to do to get back right.”
“It’s probably one of the deepest songs on [the album] that I’ve written,” he added. “It’s real short though, probably only a minute or two. When people listen to the album a few more times, and go back and forth, they really understand the setting and the actual position that it has in the album and why it’s in that track listing.””It’s probably one of the deepest songs on [the album] that I’ve written,” he added. “It’s real short though, probably only a minute or two. When people listen to the album a few more times, and go back and forth, they really understand the setting and the actual position that it has in the album and why it’s in that track listing.”
Kendrick raps about the ins and outs of the harsh reality that his life has been is split into three parts.
The first section Kendrick is rapping from the perspective of his late homie, Dave, who when he was alive made the young rapper promise that he’ll dedicated a song to his brother and himself. “First verse is speaking from my partner talkin’ to me, speakin’ on a story of how I was there when his brother passed,” he explained.
The second part is from the perspective of the real-life sister of prostitute Keisha, whom Lamar rapped about on the tragic 2011 Section.80 track, “Keisha’s Song (Her Pain).” Lamar tells us how Keisha’s sister chastised him for revealing intimate and embarrassing details of her late sibling. ” ‘Keisha’s Song’ is a real song too, and what I didn’t understand was the fact that she had a younger sister,” he told MTV News. “I met her sister and she went at me about her sister Keisha, basically saying she didn’t want her to put her business out there and if your album do come out, don’t mention me, don’t sing about me.”
On the second half of the song (“I’m Dying of Thirst”) Kendrick raps from his own perspective about opting out of this hazardous life. “And you’re right your brother was a brother to me. And your sister’s situation was the one that pulled me. In a direction to speak on something that’s realer than the TV screen,” he spits.
Immortal Technique – Dance With the Devil
In my late teens I discovered a song that instilled terror through gruesome imagery.
From the moment the song begun my ears were filled with a gentle, melancholy piano. The Immortal Technique’s voice steps in unexpectedly, bombarding the sad tune with a dreary tone. He’s a storyteller reciting the history of a kid named Billy, whose mind only yearns for material possessions; riches, cars, chains, a gluttonous ambition to obtain the treasures won by street kings.
“His primary concern, was making a million
Being the illest hustler, that the world ever seen
He used to fuck moviestars and sniff coke in his dreams”
Immortal Technique uses imagery to captivate the dark, graphic, and realistic actions and consequences associated with those who attempt to follow the gangster images portrayed in the mainstream hip-hop media. “Dance with the Devil” is the story of the young gangster Billy Jacobs and the desires that he had which lead him on a destructive pathway. The line “He used to fuck movie stars and sniff coke in his dreams” demonstrates Jacobs yearning for the luxurious lifestyle of hyper-sexuality and drug use that he has seen through others and has begun to fantasize for himself. The escalation of his desire is further conveyed by imagery. Billy Jacobs was not content with small time hustling and this is evident by the line, “smoked until his eyes would bleed, but he was sick of selling trees and gave in to his greed.” This simple rhyme indicates how smoking so much that “his eyes would bleed” along with the petty crime of selling “trees”, slang for marijuana, was no longer enough for him to feel contempt. After giving into temptation, his egregious acts were emphasized and well described through the use of Immortal Technique’s powerful imagery that sticks with the listener. Once Billy Jacobs got to meet the real gangsters that exist in society, his reality would forever be changed. The dark picture that many face, but the media doesn’t portray, is painted through Immortal Technique’s story.
The story ends, and I’m left in awe. Sinister, brutal, hyper-realistic. I felt like I just swallowed a grenade and was waiting to explode. Immortal Technique’s lyrics felt like talons clasping flesh. It’s rare for a song to fill you with overwhelming grief and amazement.
Dance With The Devil is a classic in its own right, maybe not on the level of “Minds Playing Tricks On Me,” but once you hear it, you’ll never be able to forget. Every Halloween I hear the keys of that melancholy piano, and a slight echoing of words that sound like, “I’m falling and I can’t turn back.”
Joyner Lucas – I’m Sorry
I’m Sorry is a gut-wrenching yet scathing introspection about a family member’s suicide. It wasn’t until I heard Lucas’ record that I kind of got the idea of what it means to lose a loved one to suicide.
Lucas delivers two equally-poignant verses on “I’m Sorry”: the first as a mental health sufferer and the second as a person left as collateral damage. The beat – itself impeccable – combines an ’80’s New Wave-esque vocal sample with Joyner singing farewell from the voice of the lost one, repeating the title’s refrain.
The influence of Eminem’s instant classic “Stan” – Slim Shady is Lucas’ favorite emcee – is obvious, but Lucas doubles down on his artistic effort by starring in the video, showing true emotion and a genuine virtuoso disposition. Real tears are shed as Lucas bears his strife with uninhibited anguish.
If the song’s lyrics, emotions and visuals aren’t a wake up call for anyone who has yet to be impacted by suicide, the video ends with a sobering suicide statistic and the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Already a buzzmaking emcee who should be on your radar, Joyner Lucas has quietly carved a niche as an introspective, cerebral creator with a penchant for seeing two sides of a story and portraying both with equal sincerity.
As these songs illustrate, it isn’t just the story, it is how you tell it. It is putting in those small, seemingly insignificant details, which make the listener feel like they are there. It is using a metaphor that captures a situation in a way that a description could never do.