Onomatopoeia and Slang in Hip Hop

One of the driving factors that makes rap music as fun to listen to in 2017 is the way rap artists use language. The ambiguity of lyrics creates a puzzle for the listener to unpack and assemble, adding a layer of appreciation because you feel in on the secret, convinced you know the artist on a personal level. Some people may find this an annoying amount of work to do for just listening to a song, but for most of us rap music is the only place to feel included. Understanding spoken dialects drive culture and slang has long been a way to identify oneself as a part of or showing respect for a culture.

The way the voice is used in today’s landscape is completely different than at any part of Hip Hop history. As years flew, and rap grew in popularity, an interesting thing happened. I noticed that instead of the music adapting to contemporary mainstream norms in an attempt to be better understood and to make Hip Hop more accessible to a wider audience, rap shoved back against this easy way inside. As geographical interest in the scene expanded from New York City to the south, naturally accents got heavier, kids learned new words—or new, inventive ways to enunciate old words—and things seemed to be less inclusive in a way. The mainstream had to let go of their own control of what people wanted to listen to, Hip Hop seeing this and running like it was their only chance to make the championship.

After the shift from DJ to emcee as the star of the music, what you rapped about became the focal point, and over time it became the make or break factor that made the music not only good Hip Hop but made it Hip Hop at all.

I can understand this viewpoint. I was born and raised in the 90’s, learned all the classics and saw parallels between the mid-2000’s as Hip Hop’s formative teenage years through my own.

Similes were huge, and with content discovering a voice online simultaneously with the explosion of battle rapping, the punchline became king. This was an easy transition from the Golden Years when rap was poetry, concentrating on telling stories—their stories, America’s stories, political views—all this because they now had a platform in which to be heard. The punchline was still for all intents and purposes poetic, literary, braggadocio and hyper masculinity in rap carrying over seamlessly through generations. The mid-2000’s rap awkwardly at times tried to find their footing following the steps laid out before them.

Times changed slowly. When Lil Wayne popularized the term bling on B.G.’s “Bling Bling,” in 1999 nobody would have guessed that 3 years later it would be added to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary in 2002 and added to the Merriam Webster dictionary in 2006. This continued to cement Hip Hop’s staying power beyond its innovations in music. People started to see rap artists as reflections of themselves and not only as entertainers.

Following Weezy’s rise and icon-solidification, alongside his concurrent self-awareness of his own influence—ever-bragging his own “invention” of bling—the onomatopoeia has found a new home in contemporary trap music.

Lil Wayne’s mimicking of T-Pain’s autotune usage, subsequently inspiring Kanye West’s own usage has led to a major shift in how the voice is used in rap, particularly artists inspired by the trap scene. Previously what you said was important, marking you as a poet or lyricist, a younger generation is more concerned with how you use the voice, making rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, Future, Lil Yachty, Desiigner, Black Kray, Young Thug, SahBabii, Migos, and a plethora newer artists essentially instrumentalists. Skkrt and  pshw pshw, principal ad-libs of Gucci Mane and 21 Savage respectively (skkrt being heavily adopted by many), are widely used not only as ad-libs but terms within the verse to be manipulated for auditory purposes rather than their annotated meaning. To many long time fans of rap music this is blasphemy, and while I am able to admit that conceptually it’s wild, to me it only shows that Hip Hop is here to stay in mainstream American culture.

Credit: Marcus Scott Williams

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