Can't Understand Rap? Experts Offer Free Translations
Jan 18, 2011 – 7:45 AM
Ben Muessig Contributor
Rap music raises plenty of questions, from "What's my name?" to "When's the last time you heard a funky diabetic?"
Thankfully, a number of analytic hip-hop experts are willing to share the answers. Online and in print, lyric lovers have crafted rap Rosetta stones that can help new listeners parse through some of the genre's most difficult-to-understand rhymes.
"Most rap listeners, like most rock listeners, are more interested in a hot beat and a catchy hook than deep, meaningful lyrics," said Tom Lehman, one of the founders of the Internet rap interpretation site Rap Genius. "The difference between rock and rap though is that with rap there's actually meaning to uncover."
When Lil Wayne says "I got through that sentence like a subject and a predicate," he's not just talking about his grammar. According to William Buckholz, the man behind Understand Rap, the rapper is also referencing a recent prison sentence.
With their complicated flows and ever-changing slang, some rappers like Lil Wayne can confuse casual listeners and even their biggest fans.
For example, in Lil Wayne's "6 Foot 7 Foot" he raps, "I got through that sentence like a subject and a predicate."
According to Bill Buckholz, the mind behind Understand Rap, Lil Wayne isn't necessarily rapping about his grammar. It's a sly reference to his recent prison sentence in a quip that could be translated to:
"I can endure a supposedly stressful incarceration as easily as the component parts of a basic grammatical unit come together in my mind to form these lyrics which I have just skillfully rapped."
When Ice Cube rapped "heard the bird circle while I was eating fish and watching Urkel," what did he mean? If you buy a copy of "Understand Rap" by William Buckholz, you'll find out.
By playing up the disparity between rap lyrics and proper English, Buckholz has built one of the more prominent rap interpretation hubs. First available online and then in his book "Understand Rap: Explanations of Confusing Rap Lyrics You and Your Grandma Can Understand," his translations of MCs like Slim Thug and Fat Joe can be both informative and humorous.
"The reason I made the website was so that anyone who wanted to post a confusing lyric could do so without feeling embarrassed, and anyone could browse through the lyrics that need explanations without feeling like they're being quizzed or put on the spot," explained Buckholz, a technical writer by trade.
Figuring out the meaning of rap songs isn't always easy -- especially when dealing with particularly tricky lyricists like Cam'ron or Ghostface Killah. But Buckholz is confident that any listener can figure out the meaning of complicated rhymes, even those who don't know the difference between Biz Markie and Wiz Khalifa.
"I think anyone can learn to understand rap -- it just takes time, and you can't get frustrated and give up," he said. "It's a quickly evolving language, so you have to stay current by listening to all the latest songs if you want to keep up, but once you build a solid rap vocabulary, you should be able to pick up on new terms quickly."
Buckholz certainly isn't the only person offering lyric interpretations. In fact, a rival group that deciphers rap says it has "beef" -- rap lingo for bad blood -- with Buckholz.
In the first salvo of what could be rap's most meta feud to date, the creators of Rap Genius told AOL News that Understand Rap misses the point.
"[Understand Rap's] entire project is dedicated to a single joke: rap lyrics sound funny when translated into intentionally white-sounding language. But translating rap into white-speak is only peripherally related to analyzing its meaning," Lehman told AOL News.