I understand the appeal of trap music. Drill too. Really. The combination of heavy bass, minimalist lyrics. It reverberates in such a way that it becomes easy to lose oneself, become one with the vibes. It’s automatic, effortless, difficult to separate where the beat starts and the body begins. Lyrics. Flow. Little by little they are broken down, until they melt into the beat rather than stand apart. The goal is fusion, the music creating a space where a vibe can exist. And to partake in the vibe is to be the vibe.
I get it.
But I don’t get it enough to unbind the chains of a different era; an era I got to relive this past Saturday when Ghostface and Raekwon took the Verzuz stage.
90’s era hip hop was not a vibe. It required effort, both from emcees engaged in ever-escalating acts of lyrical acrobatics, and from the listener, fingers perched lightly over rewind, deciphering bars like lines from the dead sea scrolls. There are verses that elude me to this day, wordplay and trickery that conjure up silhouettes of meaning I just can’t bring to light. But that was the beauty of it. When the bass dropped, the gauntlet was thrown down. The world stood still. And fire burst from the speakers.
Both hands clusty, chillin’ with my man Rusty/Low down, blew off the burner, kinda dusty
The world can’t touch Ghost, purple tape, Rae co-host
-Ghostface Killah “Mighty Healthy”
This latest Verzuz wasn’t just a battle. It was a master class in lyrical virtuosity, a legacy written in liquid swords and cuban links. It was two gods stepping on stage as if they’d just stepped out of the hyperbolic time chamber. And as they traded banger for banger, Ghost and Rae made it clear to viewers what more than two decades of lyrical excellence looks like. This wasn’t just a battle. Quite simply, this was emceeing of the highest calibre.
As an old head, it’s easy to sit back and think: “No one rhymes like this anymore.”
But did they ever?
The Wu-tang vernacular is singular in hip-hop. It hits like a combination of myth and scripture, a poetic edda of crime families, street parables, and pop-culture references. These are the men who turned grey poupon mustard into a status symbol, whose slang is so rich, the jewels they drop still sparkle more than twenty years later.
Slang doctor, medicaid the kids pay it, say it/ These niggas in affect dun stay rap related
Cassette rhymer, 5G co-signer, line for liner/ Poet designer, sharp like linus
Raekwon “Black Jesus”
And out of the whole clan, there’s no doubt that Raekwon the Chef and the Ghostface Killah have always draped themselves in colorful metaphors. Over the course of more than two and a half-hours, they exhaust the English language, contorting syntaxes and birthing lexicons.
The Specialist who eyeballed the mistress necklace/ Perpetuous, this curly head kid’s treacherous
Leggo the Eggo, so we can dip dip dive the gleego/ Throwin’ can-can, eat that plus this instrumental
Ghostface Killah “Black Jesus”
But it’s not just the slang. The pauses in between songs are punctuated by nostalgia-laced asides and studio stories that speak to the process behind the poetry, “the artistry,” as Ghostface says at one point.
Artistry. Showmanship. Deadly penmanship. These are the elements that combine to create a god MC, someone who can hold the crowd enraptured. That’s what Ghostface and Raekwon are: god MCs. And when they rhyme, I am reminded that there was once a time when giants walked the earth.
Fake be fronting, hourglass-heads niggas be wanting/Shutting down your slot, time for pumping
Poisonous sting, which thumps up and act chumps/Rae’s a heavy generator, but yo, guess who’s the black Trump?
Raekwon “Incarcerated Scarfaces”
The culture is ever expanding, like some gaseous blue giant, pulling sub-genres into its orbit before ultimately consuming them to fuel its expansion. But with expansion comes loss, entire schools built around the art of wielding a microphone pass into legend, taking their techniques with them.
Yet, every once in a blue, an old master emerges from the shadows. They come down from the mountain atop which they built their legacy, blade still sharp, ready to take on all challengers. Ready to remind us that, even in a sea saturated with rappers, there must always be a master of ceremonies.