Personification in Rap (KYH Episode 22)

Hip-hop has the power to make things come alive. Whether it is due to the process of storytelling, the persuasive message behind the song, or through an infectious rhythm or hook. Hip-hop has power. Of course, that is one of the reasons we celebrate it each and every month on this segment of DOPEfm, we call Know Your History.

My name is Chase March and I’ll be with you for the next half hour as we explore personification in hip-hop. You can download the podcast of the show for free, stream it with the player below, or continue reading.
When you think about where hip-hop cam from, it might be surprising to hear that rap music has even employed this literary device. However, rap has grown and developed over its long history. It may have started out with simple, pithy rhymes, but it was not content to stay there.
Certain artists have pushed the boundaries of what this art form is capable of, and in so doing, have changed the entire culture. There’s no better way to start our discussion today than with this song that really changed the face of hip-hop. It came out in 1994 and immediately took hold of the hip-hop audience. It sparked a lot of discussion, a few answer records, and kicked off the idea of concept songs in hip-hop.
This is “I Used to Love H.E.R.” by Common Sense. Listen to this brilliant track and we’ll be back to discuss it in detail.

That was from the album “Resurrection” that was released in 1994. It was Common’s second album and while he made a little bit of noise with his first release, it was this song and album that made him a star.
A band fought him over the name “Common Sense” so he dropped the “Sense” part of his moniker and became “Common.” Strangely enough, this shortened name really works for him. He’s a great lyricist and artist but he is also very close to the regular people. In that sense, he is a common man.
The track we just played was anything but common, however. It’s hip-hop’s first example of a concept song. When listening to the song, we assume that he is talking about a lady. Everything in the song leads us to believe that. It’s one of those songs that upon hearing the ending, you immediately want to hear it again to see exactly what he has done with the lyrics. Of course, I’m not going to do that right now. That is what rewind is for. If you’re listening to this on the radio, go find the track yourself to listen to it again, or check out our podcast on DOPEfm.ca.
That song was produced by NO I.D, by the way, a dope producer who has crafted quite a few hip-hop classics. Common starts off the song by saying, “I met this girl when I was ten years old. And what I loved most, she had so much soul. She was old school when I was just a shorty. Never knew throughout my life she would be there for me.”
He talks about how this girl grew up and how a few things led her astray. It’s a familiar tale that’s been told in books and movies, although Common really flips it by letting us know that he hasn’t been talking about a girl at all. Instead, he’s been talking about hip-hop.
Common personified the culture of this music as a woman, and in so doing, charted brand new territory for this art form. Prior to this song, the speaker in the poetry we had always heard in rap music, was the rapper himself. Now, all bets were off. Rappers could go into character, they could rap from different perspectives, they didn’t always have to stand behind the persona of the rap icon or superstar MC. This song, literally, took hip-hop in a brand new direction.
Organized Konfusion ran with that concept in their song “Stray Bullet” later that same year. Let’s drop that song right now and come back to talk about it. This is Know Your History: Episode 22 – Things Come Alive: Personification in Hip-Hop. This is your host Chase March and this is the group that introduced the world to Pharoah Monche. This is Organzied Konfusion’s “Stray Bullet” and be forewarned, it tells the graphic tale from the perspective of a stray bullet.
That was “Stray Bullet” from Organized Konfusion’s 1994 album “Stress: The Extinction Agenda.” It’s the first story rhyme within hip-hop to be told from the perspective of a bullet. Since this iconic song, this concept has been done to death (pardon the pun.)
That song gets rather graphic. The bullet kills a kid at a playground and the bloodshed continues with a lot of innocent life lost. Hopefully this song makes people think twice before shooting a gun off near a playground or a busy crowd on a street. It’s a shame that we have to deal with gun violence like this at all.
This concept was done again by Nas a few years later in his 1996 release  “It Was Written.” And while it’s true that this song, “I Gave You Power” probably owes its entire existence to the first two songs we played today, it’s hard not to be blown away by the story Nas weaves in this tale.
This is “I Gave You Power” by Nas. We’ll be back to discuss how he uses personification in this song to tell a great story and deliver a powerful message. We’ll be back with more Know Your History.
Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. That’s what they say anyway, and that’s what Nas illustrates in the story we just heard. The gun had no choice in the matter. He was used in ways that a gun should never be used. Nas says that himself with the lyric, “I’ve seen some cold nights and bloody days. They grab me, bullets spray. They use me wrong, so I sing this song to this day.”
At the end of the song, the gun fights back and jams at a critical moment so he doesn’t have to take any more lives. He is actually happy when his owner is shot dead because he thinks his days of being used to kill people are over. He has a brief celebration until someone comes by and picks him up. That’s the story of a gun and Nas paint s powerful tale with the song “I Gave You Power.”
Of course, personification in hip-hop can go beyond woman and guns. In the next song, the object that gets personified is ignorance. Ignorance is a villain in this tale that plays out like a comic book. It is Jeru the Damaja’s “You Can’t Stop the Prophet.” I really love this song.
Check it out and we’ll be back to explore how hip-hop using personification to craft brilliant concept songs such as this one.

That was the first time I ever heard a comic book being played out over the radio waves. Jeru the Damaja gives us an origin tale along with an arch nemesis. “One day I struck by knowledge of self. It gave me super-scientifical powers. Now I run through the ghetto, battling my arch nemesis Mr. Ignorance.”
I love how Jeru has constructed a story rhyme that basically makes him a super-hero. And he isn’t battling an ego-maniac. The evil that he fights is real, even though the song is based around a high concept. The enemy is persuasive and attacks everyone. The song ends in a cliffhanger, much like the old Batman television series. “Will the Prophet be able to get out of this jam?”
It symbolizes the daily battle we all have against ignorance. It lets us know how important it is to learn as much as we can about ourselves, our situation, and our society.
Hip-hop has used personification to deliver some great stories and political messages all at the same time. The songs we’ve played today are the best example I can think of. XXL has compiled a list of the Top 25 Personified Rap Songs and you can check it out if you want to find out more. I would have trimmed the list down a little. I don’t think all 25 of those songs deserve that shine.
A few songs that I think use personification well are Eminem’s “25 to Life” from his album “Recovery.” That song is a Dear John letter to hip-hop where he considers divorcing the music. Ultimately he comes to realize that hip-hop is so ingrained into who he is that he could never really leave it alone. It’s like what they say about women. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t leave ‘em alone.
I also really like Masta Ace’s “Hold You” featuring Jean Grae. This track deals with Masta Ace’s relationship with hip-hop, and in particular, with the microphone. Papoose goes undercover to police hip-hop in his track “Sharades.” Krs-One’s “I Can’t Wake Up” is an interesting tale where KRS-One dreams that he is a blunt and is being passed around by a who’s who of hip-hop celebrities.
And then of course, there is Mobb Deep’s “Drink Away the Pain” where they focus their lyrics on alcohol dependence, while Q-tip uses his verse to tackle to subject of some people’s obsession with name brand clothing.
Those are a few of my favourites.
It’s hard to believe that hip-hop went nearly twenty years before employing personification. Common changed the game forever in 1994. Since then we’ve had nearly twenty years of records and I’m sure we’ll have plenty more. We’ll probably have someone else come out with a game changing song as well.

Thanks for listening. This is Chase March and you better Know Your History! 

Download this episode now or stream it with the player below.

2 Comments on Personification in Rap (KYH Episode 22)

  1. Just for clarification, Krs One “wake up” and Spice One “187 proof” both employed personification and were released before “I used to love HER” , but thanks! A good read.

    • Chase March // October 1, 2017 at 2:18 pm //

      Hi Zach,

      Thanks for the comment. Those are both good songs, but I think it was Common that really brought light to this concept in hip-hop. I am sure there are plenty of other examples too.

      Peace,

      Chase

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