Explicit Lyrics: Who Gives a *#@%

For my English coursework last year I had to do research into something ‘English Language-y’. Rather than Shakespeare or children’s language, the inspiration behind mine was Azealia Banks and the c-word. In the end, I looked at the difference between female and male rap music. Anyway, I’m at uni now (miracle), and as I did fairly well in it I thought I should put the summarised compressed ‘radio edit’ (if you will) online (if anyone is interested in the 2000 word essay, ‘drop’ a comment at the end of the article). So here goes.

Fifty edits and Azealia Banks’ controversial 212 was deemed fit for radio. But does anyone really care?

Azealia Banks: too rude? Touché. Photograph: Tyrone Lebon/ASOS.com

Azealia Banks: too rude? Touché. Photograph: Tyrone Lebon/ASOS.com

Since rap music burst into the mainstream in the early nineties, the typically male-dominated genre has become infamous for its explicit content. One example is Hit ‘Em Up by 2Pac & the Outlawz, a brutal diss track notorious for its copious use of expletives (124, to be precise).

However, in the past year and a half, a new wave of female rappers are causing a stir with their lyrics. From Azealia Banks ‘licking plums’ to Iggy Azalea calling herself the ‘slave master’, the one facet they share in their lyrics is the inclusion of a similar number of expletive terms to the ‘founding fathers’ of rap. In contrast to them, should the lyricism of these new female artists be taken at the same face value? No, in a word.

At face value, their use of expletives could be seen as attention seeking. Although Azealia Banks has developed a somewhat cult-like following in the last year and a half, she still is yet to have a hit following 212. Therefore, Banks could merely be trying to recreate the hype and controversy that it generated. Her foul-mouthed ‘Twitter wars’ (most notably with Perez Hilton) would also suggest that she is attention seeking. However, she may be gaining attention for the right reasons.

Admittedly, it will be argued by some parties that Azealia Banks’ use of the ‘c-word’ throughout 212 is vulgar. Though, in context, there is beauty to be found here. The song itself is about the difficulties that some musicians struggle with in the music industry, due to their sexuality. Hip-hop as a musical genre has always been a step behind mainstream society with it’s stance on homosexuality, so it is vitality important that Banks conforms to norms within rap culture to transmit these messages.

This is a stark contrast from the messages in male lyrics; they use their lyrics to convey a sense of hedonism. A$AP Rocky, another relatively new rap artist, uses expletives in a particularly vulgar manner. The rapper gets ‘wild for the night’ in his songs, particularly in lyrics such as ‘strippin’ of their [a female’s] clothes’. Suddenly Azealia Banks’ lyrics don’t seem so obscene.

And it’s not just gender differences that are uncovered in the lyrics, there are also subcultural differences. Both Banks and A$AP Rocky are from New York, so their collective use of expletives could expose certain cultural traits. Therefore, to fully understand this subculture, it is necessary to fully embrace their use of expletives. They are also paying homage to their musical heritage, as New York is often considered as the home of hip-hop.

Therefore, the use of expletives may also represent the normalisation of expletives in hip-hop culture. Basil Bernstein wrote in the early nineteen-seventies about how expletives suggest that a person has been educated to a low standard. However, there is huge intelligence in the lyrics of artists such as Azealia Banks or Iggy Azalea because they are trying to educate deprived areas and social groups that are stereotypically associated with rap, and are doing it in a manner in which they’ll listen. By conforming to the hip-hop stereotype, they aren’t alienating the devoted fan base that pre-exists, but are offering the listener something different.

Iggy Azalea: a new shade of feminism. Photograph: Matt Irwin/House of Holland

Iggy Azalea: a new shade of feminism. Photograph: Matt Irwin/House of Holland

There is also something very feminist about females using expletives in rap. Banks uses the word ‘b****’ fifteen times in 212, which at face value could be considered derogatory to females. Equally, Iggy Azalea uses the same word thirteen times during Demons. However, in context, Banks and Azalea could be seen to be reclaiming the word for woman-kind. This change may mirror that of the ‘n-word’, which was once a derogatory term used against black people. Nowadays, that word has been reclaimed and is now synonymous with ‘friend’. Therefore, female rappers in 2013 could be spearheading the next wave of feminism. Unlike Beyoncé though, they aren’t trying to ‘run the world’, merely change the perception and meaning of one of the most anti-feminist words. People tried (and failed, fortunately) to censor the Suffragette movement in the early twentieth century, so why try again over one hundred years later?

Finally, these rappers are offering something new and left of centre, so their use of expletives should be treated in the same manner. The current Top 40 is clogged with pedestrian rappers making ‘tunez 4 da club’, and although Iggy Azalea’s and Azealia Banks’ new singles (Work and Yung Rapunxel, respectively) are highly dance-able, they are interesting too. The former offers a realistic insight into her childhood and the latter is a Prodigy-style aural onslaught. Unfortunately, the latter isn’t going to be touched by radio with a mile long barge pole.

Ultimately, will a song with fifty expletives be played during Nick Grimshaw’s Radio 1 Breakfast Show? Clearly not, but it’s time to embrace expletives. They’re no longer exclusively masculine and they can and are being used intelligently. Maybe it’s even time to re-name them ‘beauty-isms’.

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