If you were to ask me what the worst rap line I’ve ever heard is, I would not hesitate for a second before quoting the song “Black Mask” by the rapper Push!. One minute in, Push! delivers a line that is so horrendous that it somehow managed to subtract years from my life expectancy. Affecting a delivery that is meant to sound menacing, Push!—formerly known as Push! Montana—raps the following: “I say what’s quacking, then I have ‘em duct tape ‘em up.” To this day, I cannot handle a roll of duct tape without experiencing a mild bout of PTSD.
This line does not hold this distinction exclusively because it’s cheesy—though, it is. It stands atop this sad podium because of how starkly the word choice conflicts tonally with the message Push! was trying to convey. If I’m inferring correctly, it suggests that Push! is the type of guy who, in the middle of coordinating robberies and/or kidnappings, hopes to intimidate his hostages with tepid wordplay. It paints this image of Push! standing beside a group of people he has just pistol whipped, saying, “…Get it? Because ‘duct’ sounds like ‘duck’ and ‘quacking’ sounds like ‘cracking,’ and ducks make a ‘quacking’ noise? Do you guys get it? Guys?”
On one hand, it seems misguided to glean insight about an entire genre by studying a random song that is destined to remain buried forever in obscurity, but on the other hand, there is something to be learned by asking ourselves what it was that compelled Push! to write this lyric. If he’d thought about it for even a second, he would have undoubtedly realized that this lyric would tarnish his verse’s integrity, yet he included it nonetheless, thinking, as many emcees do, that punchlines are an essential component of good writing.
This is not actually an unreasonable conclusion for Push! to have arrived at. For almost four decades now, punchlines—a broad term encompassing similes, metaphors, and wordplay—have been the primary poetic device used within hip-hop. As a rap fan, you hear them everywhere, from JAY-Z’s bravado-packed verses to the militant rhymes of Dead Prez, to the more introspective lyrics of André 3000. Without punchlines, rap would be a much less colorful genre. Classic lyrics, like Biggie’s “n----s is mad I get more butt than ashtrays” wouldn’t quite carry the same charm when rewritten in much more literal terms, like “people dislike that I have a lot of sex.”
And yet, in more recent times, there seems to have been a noticeable pushback from fans towards rappers’ excessive reliance on this device. It’s difficult to track when this shift began precisely, but I personally began to notice it a few years ago, when the cultural tide turned against Fabolous and his topical reference-heavy lyrics. With his penchant for crafting lines that mine the latest news stories for inspiration becoming an increasingly prominent feature of his music (e.g. “I chase the money like Joe Budden do Drake fans”), the internet did what it does and turned this into a meme. Twitter continues to jokingly speculate what kind of punchlines Fabolous might write about the latest cultural events.
Fast forward a couple of years, and this increased scrutiny towards punchlines has only become more pronounced. Recent album releases by Eminem and Big Sean, for example, have been mocked all over the internet—and rightfully so—for including a plethora of horrible punchlines that call to mind the life-sucking one from the beginning of this article. To wit, consider Eminem’s “Twist it ma, like an air conditioning knob” or Big Sean’s “Sean a legend, my bro is John Legend.” Each of these albums is filled with countless examples of terrible lyrics that conjure images of the worst vice principal you’ve ever met, trying out stand-up comedy at a sleepaway camp talent show for dads.
Of course, not all the punchlines on these records are equally awful, and after four decades of hip-hop music, it’s probably worth questioning how bad they actually are when graded against the mean. Still, our desire to even ask these questions is indicative of the fact that there is now an emphasis amongst rap fans to re-examine the previously accepted axiom that wordplay is inherently good. To this end, the comparison to stand-up comedy is instructive. Going back to the roots of the term “punchline” can tell us a lot about why certain punchlines work and why others make us long for a world without the concept of spoken language.
In comedy, punchlines function by subverting the expectations of a setup. The comedian will introduce some sort of premise and/or anecdote and then, crucially, conclude this setup in a way that the audience can’t predict. Similarly, rap punchlines succeed or fail based on their ability to do the same thing. They don’t necessarily need to be funny like their comedic counterparts, but the element of surprise is paramount. When Big Sean raps “Sean a legend, my bro is John Legend,” it doesn’t work because it’s far too obvious. When Eminem raps “Twist it ma, like an air conditioning knob,” it doesn’t work because there are no stakes here to subvert. No one is at home thinking, “I wonder how she is twisting it,” so Eminem’s choice to delve further into the specific details feels pointless.
To a certain extent, rap punchlines may be even harder to execute successfully than comedy punchlines. The reality is that most people will watch a comedy special once or twice before discarding it forever, but rap lyrics are meant to withstand the test of time against repeated listens. As such, rappers should think carefully about the construction of every punchline they write and ask themselves whether they honestly think it will continue to offer value 20 listens down the road. Even if Eminem thought that the line “her booty’s heavy duty like diarrhea” was super hilarious when he initially wrote it, I can’t imagine that the minority of listeners who agreed with him will sincerely be able to say the same thing 10 years from now.
By contrast, the best punchlines are those that are able to genuinely enhance the poetry of a song, either rhythmically or conceptually. On OutKast’s “Millenium,” for example, 3000 opens his verse with a thoughtful simile that checks all the right boxes. “Me and everything around me is unstable like Chernobyl,” he raps, adding a layer of depth and imagery that serves to drive home the feeling of hopelessness he’s trying to express. Admittedly, much of this is entirely subjective—and I completely acknowledge that my preference for this André 3000 line doesn’t make it objectively “good” nor does my criticism of those Eminem lines make them objectively “bad”—but that said, the broader communal pushback against punchlines does not have a bias towards taste.
Perhaps the best way to track this, then, is to ask: why now? Corny rap punchlines are certainly not a new phenomenon, nor is the concept of criticism, so why is it that this resistance feels like it’s coming to a head at this particular moment? It’s hard to say for sure, but I’d argue that much of this stems from the fact that we’ve finally passed our saturation point. For decades now, rappers have released songs featuring punchlines for no other creative purpose than to feature punchlines. Entire careers, like those of Chino XL and Cassidy, have been built off the backs of such songs, before fading into obscurity. Punchlines have even become a spectacle of mainstream culture, displayed prominently on battle-rap television shows like Drop The Mic and in the depressingly popular Youtube seriesEpic Rap Battles of History. At the risk of understating the problem a bit, I’d say that the novelty of punchlines has worn off.
Going hand-in-hand with this saturation is the fact that rappers have really begun to scrape the bottom of the creative well for inspiration. For years, rap fans have heard the same overused similes (“kick it like Liu Kang,” “can’t see me like Stevie Wonder,” “sick like the flu,” etc.) repeated throughout countless songs, and we’ve begun to grow tired of this repetition. This isn’t to say that there aren’t still many great, inventive punchlines being written today, just that they are fewer and more far between. Much more common are the Fabolous-style topical references, groan-inducing puns, and nonsensical metaphors that seem clever on first listen, but are meaningless when dissected. There are sporadic moments when these are clever enough to serve the artistic purpose of a song, but most of the time they just feel disposable.
If I sound like some joyless monster who hates clever turns of phrases, I assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I still find myself grinning every time I listen to “Last Call” and I hear Kanye West say “mayonnaise colored Benz, I push miracle whips.” That said, as the current era of rap pivots further away from the neatly-packaged lyrics of yesteryear to the more confessional, visceral style of today, awkward punchlines are beginning to sound like an increasingly outdated relic of a previous era.
If the goal of punchlines is indeed to subvert audience expectations, then perhaps the best way to do this in 2018 is to skip them altogether.