A sensory experience like music doesn’t always benefit from having a story, but many of the rap canon’s classics tend to carve out deep literary footholds. More than a handful of those tell their stories using skits.
As opposed to having to craft a story completely out of rhythm and rhyme, skits have offered countless MCs a direct line of communication. De La Soul and Prince Paul spun game show whimsy and self-deprecation into comedy gold on their first two albums, while everyone from Biggie and Wu-Tang to Dr. Dre and Eminem padded their albums with comedic, dramatic or educational skits to mixed results.
They poked fun at rap cliches (including other rappers), served as a bridge for concurrent themes, or just added dimension and color to an album. My personal favorite skit series of all time involves the perpetually bummy Broke Phi Broke fraternity throughout Kanye West’s Late Registration, adding levity to Ye’s pompous musical shifts. The Adult Swim surrealness of MF Doom & Danger Mouse’s The Mouse and the Mask is a close second, but who’s counting?
By the middle of the 2000s, the skit wave had finally reached critical mass, and for better or worse the skit began to lose its once-great prominence. Loose .mp3s and eventually streaming helped fragment the album listening experience, on top of the practice becoming stale.
Jeff Weiss put it best near the end of his detailed “History of The Hip-Hop Skit”: “That’s just one more way to annoy people unwilling to pay for Spotify Premium.”
But even in this age of streaming, there are still artists working to recontextualize—or at least reinvigorate—the use of skits in rap music. Don’t be so quick to think that the hip-hop skit is dead.
Krizzle’s music is warm and familiar in ways that continue to touch fans outside of Southern rap’s orbit, and a big part of that has to do with his relatability as an artist. The jolt that comes from a family member banging on your door at 6:30 a.m. when you aren’t fast enough to hit that alarm pulled me right into Return of 4Eva, and no K.R.I.T. fan will ever forget the importance of 1986 again thanks to OG’s words on the closing of “Me And My Old School” from 4Eva N A Day. His reappearance at the beginning of It’s Better This Way is still the best thing about that project.
The world of Cadillactica surged to life when K.R.I.T. and some friends hit up a janky drive-thru serving biscuits with a side of famine and low self-esteem. K.R.I.T.’s loose world-building keeps the Cadillactica cinematic universe relatable and light, even when the concept begins to crumble around him.
Tyler, The Creator
Odd Future lived and died by its angsty punk energy, so it’s only fitting that leader Tyler, The Creator used his platform to create Dr. T.C., a therapist that serves the dual purpose of containing Tyler’s nihilistic venting and serves as a framing device for the story of Sam, Wolf and Salem, which stretches across Tyler’s first three albums.
Tyler uses T.C. to vent directly about his suicidal thoughts on his 2009 debut Bastard, poke fun at his self-image in the media throughout 2011’s Goblin, and cope with the death of his grandmother at the end of 2014’s Wolf; all while spinning a yarn of young love that would make Eminem blush even as Tyler’s musical palette expanded. The concept was more or less abandoned by the time Cherry Bomb reared its head, and especially given OF’s splintering and Tyler’s more positive outlook, it’s safe to say that T.C. helped Tyler exorcise some demons.
Kendrick’s had a knack for telling a great story since his Overly Dedicated days, but there’s a good reason that an album as monumental as good kid, m.A.A.d. city was billed as “a short film by Kendrick Lamar.” Kenny’s major label debut was a cinematic trip through streets once patrolled by Ice Cube, full of missed romance, brushes with the law and backseat freestyles.
Three dimensionality comes in the form of asides from Kendrick’s parents, dangerous encounters on the street, and religious revelations at the beginning and end of the album. The m.A.A.d. city runs through you by the time it’s all done, the skits creating a complete web in my memory that I might never unravel.
The world that Vince Staples creates on Summetime ‘06 is by all accounts gritty and unforgiving but shot with a neutral lens that leaves you pondering what it is you just watched. This is driven home by the “‘06” skit at the very end of the album’s second disc, which serves as a preview for the next episode of “Poppy Street.” “Next time, on Poppy Street” is calling out the audience as voyeurs of the Black experience as shown through a rap album. It’s a chilling moment that could’ve been straight out of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.
It’s a tactic he uses again at the end (beginning?) of his last EP Prima Donna, which is a meticulous mini-narrative about the pressures of the music industry pushing Vince to the edge. Skits of Staples coldly singing nursery rhymes before seemingly killing himself help keep that pressure on the listener, abruptly cutting off songs to remind us that this isn’t a happy place.
Yeah, I know the title says rappers, but given that Frank Ocean could likely out-rap your favorite rapper, I decided his inclusion on this list was appropriate.
Blonde was a cathartic moment of lush sounds and raw emotion for both Frank Ocean and his fans. He had come a long way from his Channel Orange days, and that growth can be seen as much in the vignettes across Blonde as it can in Ocean’s songwriting. His mother’s urges to stay away from drugs on “Be Yourself” inform the acid-laced love of “Solo.” A friend’s story of denying a relationship status update on “Facebook Story” speaks volumes about Frank’s own relationship with social media since deleting his Twitter and Instagram back in 2013, and in keeping his Tumblr on a slow drip for hungry fans.
Frank uses these moments as an emphasis in the same way he did on his debut Nostalgia, Ultra, which itself had three different skits; two of which were named after fighting games. It may only last 22 seconds, but “Bitches Talkin’” encapsulated Ocean as an artist trapped in a bubble. He just wanted to listen to some Radiohead while everyone else was asking for Jodeci, but once “American Wedding” came on, we were all singing a different tune.
By CineMasai. Follow him on Twitter.