For as long as I can remember, I’ve had an uncanny ability to memorize rap lyrics. If this sounds like a brag, I assure you it’s not. Bragging is an act that denotes pride, which is a sensation I feel none of regarding this particular skill.
Truth be told, it’s not something I’ve ever thought of as particularly noteworthy, it’s just something that unconsciously happens. Given an option, I would have undoubtedly channeled this aptitude for memorization into something much more useful a long time ago—like a career in medicine—but, unfortunately, it only seems to apply to rap lyrics. Sadly, I’ve never been on a plane and heard the captain transmit an urgent message, asking if there’s anyone on board who can recite the entirety of Big L and Jay Z’s “7 Minute Freestyle.”
One of the side effects of possessing this mental repository of rap lyrics, however, is that I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time throughout my life rapping in public. At 26 years old, I can now appreciate that there may have been a few, sporadic instances where this behavior was obnoxious. Did the older lady working at the grocery store really need to hear me rap the entirety of Kanye’s “Touch the Sky” at the tail-end of her tiring, 12-hour shift? Probably not, but, in my defense, I didn’t even realize I was doing it until my friend pointed it out.
Such is the subconscious impulse of someone who possesses their own internal Genius database. And yet, on the opposite side of the equation, there are definitely scenarios where these impromptu karaoke sessions are warranted—encouraged even. Thankfully, after a lifelong process marked by much trial and error, I’ve finally gleaned enough insight to discern which type of scenario is which. And, much like an immigrant parent who moves to a new country to give their child access to greater opportunities, I’d like to think I endured those hardships so that you won’t have to.
In order to help you navigate this minefield, I’ve distilled all my learning into this brief guide for you to peruse: the unspoken etiquette of rapping in public.
1. Environment is Everything
The primary principle that governs whether a given instance of rapping in public is appropriate is the same principle that governs success in the real estate industry: location, location, location.
Here is a short list of locations where it is appropriate to rap in public: bars, house parties, wedding receptions, karaoke establishments, concerts*, etc.
*A quick note about rapping at concerts: While I can certainly appreciate the urge to try to rap louder than everyone else standing in your vicinity, I can assure you that doing so will, in no way, distinguish your “true fan-hood” from the sea of people who bought a ticket simply to take pictures and collect likes on Instagram. Your shallow fantasy that the artist is going to notice your veracity and pull you up on stage to rap with them is not going to come true, and the only thing you’ll succeed in is greatly diminishing the experience of other concertgoers around you. This isn’t one of those cases where you’re in the land of the blind, and you’re the one-eyed king. It’s more like, you’re in the land of the blind, and even though you have one eye, you’re wearing sunglasses and holding a cane, and you’re virtually indistinguishable from all the other blind people.
Here is a short list of locations where it’s not appropriate to rap in public: retail outlets, buses, commemorative museums, funeral homes, waiting rooms, etc.
2. Don’t Do It Unless the Flow Is On Point
Hearing someone stumble their way through an off-beat rendition of one of your favorite rap songs is a cringeworthy experience. It feels like when someone is trying to show you a magic trick and they keep incorrectly guessing the card you’d initially selected from the deck. It creates this awkward tension for both parties, as the embarrassed magician is ultimately forced to acknowledge their failure. “I swear I know how to do this trick,” they might say. “It’s okay, I don’t even like magic that much anyways,” you might reply politely.
When rapping along to a song, it’s important to keep in mind that knowing all the lyrics is only half the battle. Without the intricate cadence and breath control that can often take an artist years to perfect, you’re only going to embarrass yourself. It’s why I’ll never have the audacity to publicly rap along to Kendrick Lamar’s “Rigamortus.” As well as I know the lyrics, I wouldn’t dare disrespect the song—or myself—like that.
3. Be Conscious of Your Memorization Window
Have you ever seen a former basketball player attempt to dunk a basketball in their middle age? It’s not a pretty sight. They begin with full confidence, their mind filled with memories of the many years where they could effortlessly soar through the air. Midway through, however, their face changes, as they realize that their body no longer responds to mental cues the way it once did. It’s the closest thing you’ll ever see to someone instantaneously reckon with the inevitability of their mortality.
This is what happened to me the last time I tried to rap along to Lupe Fiasco’s “I Gotcha.” Eight years ago, I could rap along to the entirety of Food & Liquor without missing a beat. On this unfortunate day, however, I was reminded of the concept of the memorization window. I began rapping with full confidence, but after the signals between my brain and mouth were tangled several times, I soon realized that I could no longer recall the lyrics as flawlessly as I once could. Needless to say, it was an embarrassing experience for all those involved. Unfortunately for me, it also triggered the onset of a burdensome existential crisis.
4. Self-Censor. Obviously.
For the most part, this comes down to exercising your common sense. If you’re at a wedding reception with your family and “Mercy” comes on, you may want to avoid screaming “Drop it to the floor, make that ass shake.” Even if Grandma is super cool and she’s told you all about how she used to be a hippy back in her day, I promise it can never hurt you to err on the side of caution.
Of course, the practice of common sense censorship seems to elude a large number of people these days, so it doesn't hurt to remind readers of one fairly simple rule that applies to rap karaoke, just as it does to the broader society: If you’re not black, don’t use the n-word.
Before you take objection and try to explain that it’s harmless, allow me to state that I’ve already heard all your potential arguments and that none of them make sense:
“But, but, it sucks to interrupt the flow of the song just to censor myself.” Does it suck as much as being the victim of hundreds of years of structural oppression? No? Well then, don’t say it.
“Chris Rock said in his stand-up that it’s okay for me to do it. ScHoolboy Q said the same thing in this interview.” Did I miss the election where ScHoolboy Q and Chris Rock were democratically elected as the policy-making representatives for the entire black community? No? Well then, don’t say it.
“The meaning of the word has been changed and it’s now a term of endear—“ What the fuck are you even arguing at this point? Just don’t say the word.
“But, I’m at a concert where thousands of other white people are doing it. If everyone else is doing it, how bad could it really be?” Isn’t this literally an argument that the Nazis used to use? JUST DON’T SAY IT.
5. When in Doubt, Refer Back to These Guidelines
Now that you’ve finished reading these guidelines, I have full faith that you will have absolutely no trouble traversing the challenges of rapping in public. Go forth and rap your hearts out, my pupils. If you ever encounter any sort of gray area, please do not hesitate to refer back to this comprehensive document.