Good, great, or destined to be discarded in the gutter, every song and verse are put under the same critical microscope of judgment. Any fan of rap can take their favorite sweet sixteen and cut it open like a coroner—from flow to cadence, punchlines to metaphors, no detail is overlooked, from the big to the little. Hearing a verse that is so insane your mind is left spinning in a frenzy like the Tea Cups at Disneyland is why rap is fun. We live for a verse you will rewind, replay, and repeat until you’re reciting the entire thing to the sheep in your dreams.
In all my time listening to hip-hop, dissecting and analyzing, I always viewed verses from beginning to end. I was at a loss for words when Nathan asked what songs have great opening lines?
He didn’t ask for popular songs with memorable bars or classics that can be recited front to back with ease but records that grab you from the start. If the first few lines of the song were all you heard would you still call it great? The thought reminds me of approaching a woman for the first time and how important the first thing that comes out your mouth is. Do you lead with a joke, a cheesy pick-up line, a compliment, or a literary anecdote? You only get one first impression, and that can be the difference between soul mates and soul-crushing rejection. The same goes for the opening lyrics—what rappers are able to leave the strongest first impression?
“His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti.”
One of the first songs that came to mind is Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” This is a song everyone knows from the serious hip-hop heads to heehawing cowboys that love Tim McGraw and Nelly, a true universal hit. The opening line is an excellent example of storytelling at its finest. Em propels us immediately into the story, introducing a character that is in the middle of a panic attack. Sweaty palms, heavy arms, weak knees, very familiar to anyone who has suffered from any kind of stage fright or nervousness. Eminem is rapping from the perspective of a man who is the opposite of the confidence and boastfulness that’s accustomed in rap. You want to know more.
Mom’s spaghetti in the form of vomit just adds another layer of relatability and mystery. You can almost visualize the orange stain that’s been poorly washed away on his shirt, you can almost smell the aroma of the regurgitated cuisine made by his mother. The way Em articulates the imagery jumps out at the listener. He gives us just enough so that we want more. Who is he? Why he is he so nervous? Does he take his spaghetti with or without Parmesan cheese? It’s a great opening for a great story that is worthy of its acclaim.
“I'm from the streets where, the Hood could swallow 'em and, bullets'll follow 'em and there's so much coke that you could run the slalom.”
You will rarely meet two people with the same favorite Jay Z verse. That’s how good Jay is, a rapper that has hit more grand slams and home runs than most have hit singles. With such a huge catalog it's hard to select just one record, “U Don’t Know” might not be the best Jay song ever, but its opening is impressive. Jay paints a portrait of his surrounding that could easily be used as the opening to an episode of The Wire. He makes it clear the street that raised him was a hood where people were swallowed just by living there. He pushes the point by mentioning bullets that follow, showing that this is a place you simply can’t escape by running, almost as if they were shooting heat-seeking missiles.
Jay gets clever when mentioning coke and juxtaposes skiing, an activity that isn't the norm in areas where guns are being fired and the streets are devouring the young. There are no ski slopes in Harlem or Brooklyn but Jay still makes the connection work, putting on alert that he's also capable of some serious metaphors. Jay draws you into the madness—his ability to paint these pictures is why we hang his verses in our mind’s museum.
“Sir Luscious gots gator belts and patty melts and Monte Carlos And El Dorados; I'm wakin up out of my slumber feeling like Rollo.”
Andre and Big Boi are well-known wordsmiths who knew a thing or two about grabbing people’s ears and filling them with unforgettable words. I’ve always loved Big Boi’s ability to illustrate, he was the pimp to Andre’s poet, and never broke far from character. On “So Fresh, So Clean” he kicks the verse off by avoiding calling himself by his usual rap name. Instead, he decides to go with one of his many monikers, a specific change that gives the verse a sense of style. Back then Terrence Howard wouldn’t come to mind after hearing the name Sir Luscious but it does give off an aristocratic vibe, someone that has a bit of money.
The juxtaposition of gator belts and patty melts give you a man with an expensive fashion sense and inexpensive eating habits. He isn’t eating crumpets and drinking tea with the queen but is a pimp that’s driving slick whips and relating himself to the sleaziest character on Sanford & Son. You have his name, a sense of his taste in cars, clothes, food, and the idea he wakes up with lady-chasing on his mind. Just like a pimp, Big Boi is vibrant, loud, and this image of him will loom around your mind long after he leaves the scene.
“It was him, the corner store and a buttered roll, The shit dropped when I gave him two stomach holes, One to the face, he fell sideways, I was up close, so part of his nose was stuck to my padres.”
Nathan played a role in getting me hip to the artistry of Ghostface Killah, a rapper who has an affinity for telling stories unlike any other. It’s not just what he says but how he says it that truly sets Ghost apart from others. One song that proves his prowess is “Walk Around” from the 2007 album Big Doe Rehab. In just a couple of lines, Ghost gives us a location, characters, and conflict. It’s hilarious how he goes from the delicious, innocence of a buttered roll to shooting the guy twice in the stomach. Then it gets gruesome as he details shooting the man in the face and how he was so close that part of his nose landed on him.
You could take these lyrics and create a trailer for a movie people would believe Quentin Tarantino is directing just by the vivid details and extreme violence. Ghost has a screenwriter's pen, he’s able to capture scenes with words. He starts the song after the climax, which is intriguing. Just like Eminem, you want to know why. What possessed him to shoot this man on the corner? Did he owe money? Does he work for the mob and this is him carrying out a hit? To shoot a man close enough where his nostril hits your shoe means you wanted him good and dead.
“I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven, When I awoke, I spent that on a necklace, I told God I'd be back in a second, Man it's so hard not to act reckless.”
“Can’t Tell Me Nothing” needs no introduction, from the Jeezy ad-libs to the endless quotables, it’s everything we love about Kanye in under five minutes. The most quoted line comes from the start. This is Kanye West, a man who knows God and temptation, heaven and the allures of hell, constantly being tugged by his faith and his fascination with materialism. Only Kanye could make Heaven seem like a popular club with a line so long he’s prepared to buy his way in but, instead, he chooses to buy a Jesus piece instead of sitting in the court of Jesus.
Who else would tell God “one second” and then acknowledge his tendencies to act rash and careless? The first few lines of “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” perfectly captures the man who can make “Ultralight Beam” and rap about bleached assholes on the very next song.
“Brace yourself, I'll take you on a trip down Memory Lane, This is not a rap on how I'm slinging crack or move cocaine, This is cul-de-sac and plenty Cognac and major pain.”
Kendrick is also really good at holding your attention the moment you hear his voice. On “HiiPower” he says, “Visions of Martin Luther staring at me, Malcolm X put a hex on my future, someone catch me.” What makes these two so compelling is that he uses Martin and Malcolm, two names that will stop you dead in your tracks. You want to understand his relationship with these two leading figures of Civil Rights. But if we’re talking about being pulled into a story due to vivid lyricism, “M.A.A.D. City” is impeccable. Kendrick masterfully walks us through what is happening like a guide to the blind. He lets us know that this is a trip into the past, not the present, and not to expect him to be rapping about crack or cocaine—we get a sense of who he is. Cul-de-sac gives us a sense of location, a neighborhood where there’s a lot of drinking and a lot of pain. Now you’re hanging on to every word, you want to ride shotgun down this road of painful memories and see where it goes.
I never explicitly considered it before, but first lines are a great way to measure an artist's ability as a lyricist. There’s plenty of rappers who will spit miracle after miracle, but can they grab your attention and hold it with just a few first lines. It becomes a game, hearing only the first few seconds of songs and wondering how does this measure up to the Em’s, Jay’s, Kendrick's and Ghostface's of the rap world? Some artists can end better than they begin.
Look at songs you’ve played for years with new eyes and ears. Forget the rest of the verse, forget the rest of the song, just focus on those first few lines and ask yourself, who did it best?
By Yoh, aka Yohzus, aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Imagine Entertainment