Rap lyrics sure ain’t what they used to be. Excerpt from The Lost Art of Lyricism by GZA on Medium
I’m sure there are great lyricists out there today, but when you look at mainstream hip-hop, lyricism is gone. There are some artists out there that think they’re great storytellers, but they’re not. Nowadays there are certain things I don’t hear anymore from rappers: I haven’t heard the word “MC” in so long; I haven’t heard the word “lyrical.” A lot of rappers think they’re hardcore or say they’re from the streets and there’s that thing where they always say, “I live what I rhyme about, I rhyme about what I live.” But you don’t always have to do that. Because for me it’s not about telling the story — it’s about weaving the tale.
I think sometimes most rappers’ imaginations are sterile. I can write about anything and it will be interesting. If someone gave me a beat to a song and said the title of the song was called “Drinks On Me” and then gave it to another artist, lyrically theirs would probably be all about the same types of things and mine would be completely different. I wouldn’t talk about buying bottles up in the club; I’d talk about someone that’s putting date rape drugs in drinks. You have to use everything as a vehicle. If I’m writing about a pencil I might say something like, “So I bang him in the head, just lead / No eraser / One shot, no chaser / Who’s your replacer?” It’s all a metaphor, in a sense. When you say, “So I bang him in the head / Just lead” that could be about the pencil or the gun. In a way I’m still saying the same thing other rappers are saying, I’m just saying it differently.
When I was in Wu-Tang, and even before that, it’s always been about being lyrical — who can craft the wittiest, the most intellectual, the smartest and the cleverest rhymes. It’s always been that for us as MCs from Day One. It’s the same for me now. It’s all about the story.