Wale has always had an affinity for the TV show Seinfeld, which Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David originally pitched around the inane minutiae of their lives—subject matter that some people could refer to as "nothing." What Wale picked up on early is how much comedy (Seinfeld's and others') and rap music both celebrate and dissect "nothing." While Wale's definitely turned "nothing" into something (see this month's Complex cover story featuring Folarin himself with Jerry Seinfeld), he's not the only one in hip-hop whose songs contain a whole lot of nothing. Complex asked Eric and Jeff Rosenthal (@ItsTheReal) to dig deep and research 10 somethings, in the hope of not finding anything at all, like a bizarre plotline of True Detective 2. Here now, 10 Great Rap Songs About Nothing.
Eric Rosenthal and Jeff Rosenthal are hip-hop sketch comedians living in New York City. Follow them @ItsTheReal.
The Sugarhill Gang “Rapper's Delight” (1979)
With all due respect to Wale, when it comes to songs about nothing, there's only one champion, and that's "Rapper's Delight" by the Sugarhill Gang. Let's set aside the fact that the three rappers (Wonder Mike, Master Gee, and the late Big Bank Hank RIP) lacked a common background—they were actually thrown together in a studio on a whim to take advantage of what seemed like a fad. And let's forget that Hank's verses were straight up taken from Grandmaster Caz's notebook of rhymes. And let's look past the fact that that rap era leaned heavily on live scatting and shout-outs over one constant record loop at a park or in the club or in a rec center basement….
THIS IS A 14-MINUTE SONG ABOUT SWIMMING POOLS ON THE WALL, AN UPSET STOMACH, SUPER SPERM, HOTELS, MOTELS, AND HOLIDAY INNS, AND IT'S AN UNFORGETTABLE, UNDENIABLE CLASSIC.
With zero through-line, but an addictive sample and sing-songy rhymes, the Sugarhill Gang takes the listener on an incredible journey through a million and one boasts and brags—reciting them all from memory is not just a parlor trick, but a pleasant achievement. Over the last 30 years, "Rapper's Delight," whether via the group's live performance music video or via the old grandma in The Wedding Singer or via the Brian Williams version on Jimmy Fallon's Tonight Show, has turned out to be the best gateway into the wonderful genre that is hip-hop.
Dr. Dre “Nuthin But A G Thang” (1992)
There's no better twosome in hip-hop history than Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg. Is it the tenor of their voices that makes them stick out? Maybe. Is it how laid back they sat on those G-Funk beats that sets them apart? Possibly. Is it the Long Beach and Compton lingo they brought to the table that made them shine brighter than everyone else? Perhaps. Is it the substance in their rhymes that lives on? Not one bit.
We say that with love because “Nuthin' But a G Thang” is a legendary, all-time classic song that I can recite word for word in each man's voice, as well as emulate every record scratch. But let's be real here, even if the whole song is about strange ways to pat yourself on the back, “I'm just like a clock when I tick and I tock,” is a flat-out bizarre boast. And "Never let me slip because if I slip then I'm slipping" makes no sense at all. But maybe we're looking at the song wrong: Since it lacks a clear vision, let's instead consider the track not with rose-tinted glasses, but rather green ones....
Redman & Method Man “Da Rockwilder” (1999)
There are duets that speak to people on a certain level. Sonny and Cher's “I Got You Babe.” Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney's “The Girl Is Mine.” Peaches & Herb's “Reunited.” The list of memorable songs that can touch the deepest part of your soul thanks to one universal quote that you think applies just to you, goes on and on. But try to name more than one duet that says absolutely everything in nothing…. You're left with only Method Man and Redman's “Da Rockwilder,” an ode to…who knows what. But the weed-infused energy mixed with the weed-infused imagery mixed with the weed-infused weed works so beautifully it makes Diana Ross and Lionel Richie's “Endless Love” seem like a kindergarten crush.
Ghostface Killah “One” (2000)
When Ghostface Killah speaks, RapGenius commenters ready their MacBooks, projecting half-baked meanings on phrases so cloudy they could be fake diamonds. This takes nothing away from the Ironman; the whole point is that his vernacular is so particular as to be foreign—he makes Staten Island seem like some mystical wonderland.
Take a song like “One,” riding head-nod production from Juju: We spend so much time deciphering the hieroglyphic lyrics that it doesn't matter that he's saying nothing. Sure, “Ziploc your ear, hear thistle” is just an interesting way of shooting brains out, but he's mostly introducing himself and describing his surroundings: There's Method Man, there's Cappadonna, hanging with “Dru Hill bitches” and “tangerine sofas, two super soakers in the Rover/Hit the sports bar, tell a young lady to bend over.” He's taking imagery from Face/Off and Five Percenters, crumpling images in a ball, and rolling it downhill. He is a poet.
Nas “Made You Look” (2002)
Find a person who doesn't love this song and slap the drink out of their pimp cup. Unforgivable. It's about nothing, though. I mean, he takes six bars in the first verse just to say what you can do with your hands while listening to the song. Just take that in for a second, and how weird that would be in any other context. He says you can: count money, play pool, shoot hoops, spin, and use them to dance (a la raise the roof actions). Like…what? Think about it: What are we even listening to? This is a man telling you how to use your own hands, but making it sound so good that you're probably screaming it with him in concert. So weird. We are all such sheep. We all need to listen to the words we say.
50 Cent “What Up Gangsta” (2003)
Whether you're at a rap show and the DJ is getting everybody warmed up, or you're in the car in line to pick up the kid you're babysitting after pre-school, or you have your earbuds in at the library while studying for the Veterinary Medicine National Board Exam, there's no wrong time to blast 50 Cent's introductory anthem “What Up Gangsta.” Don't know anything about 50 Cent the man? You'll find out in just under three minutes!
Seemingly a first-date song, 50 rattles off a number of small anecdotes about himself, like: “Front on me, I'll cut ya, gun-butt ya, or buck ya/You getting money; I can't get none with ya, then fuck ya.” He follows that up with talk about stashing money, shooting guns, and dissolving bodies. Maybe it's more of a second-date song…. So even if this is clearly a very dark way of relaying salutations to his gang-related comrades (“What up, Blood/What up, Cuz/What up, Blood/What up, gangsta!“), he must be saying something, right? Well, 50's no fool: he's not looking to indict himself on record, so technically, he is saying nothing….
Snoop Dogg “Drop It Like It's Hot” (2004)
In the 1950s, TV sitcoms—pioneers in a wild frontier—followed a simple and reliable template: get from Point A to Point B in 30 minutes. On Leave It to Beaver, for instance, the show would go as follows every time: Beaver gets into a bit of trouble; his brother Wally finds out and creates a harebrained scheme to get Beaver out of a jam; his parents find out and laugh and laugh because it wasn't that much trouble at all, and everything gets wrapped up neatly. The story could've been told in a fraction of the time.
“Drop It Like It's Hot” is similar: Snoop says how cool he is and how he could kill men and pimp women, if it should come to that. These are all things he (and sure, Pharrell) have said before; this isn't exactly like machete-ing one's way through the brush. Most party songs don't really say much, but this is Snoop as his izzy-dizziest, filling up space to get to the end.
Tyler, The Creator “Yonkers” (2011)
Remember when Tyler, the Creator, evil ruler of the flesh-eating, soul-sucking rap/art/trouble-making collective Odd Future came on the scene? People didn't know how to react to the way he dressed. People didn't know what to do about the comma in his name. People didn't know what to make of his lyrics, which seemed to be Halloween nightmares come to life; the worst sounds to circle American youth's ears since Eminem at the turn of the century!
But really, what if anything was Tyler saying? As typically happens with high school-age kids, there's not much substance in their yelling. “I'll crash that fucking airplane that that faggot n***a B.o.B is in/And stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus/And won't stop until the cops come in/I'm an overachiever, so how about I start a team of leaders/And pick up Stevie Wonder to be the wide receiver?”
Funny thing is, the song does go hard, and certainly led a new generation of kids against the formulaic, radio-friendly pop songs with a message (simple and straightforward as they may have been). And in retrospect, the best takeaway from the vastly complex rhymes in “Yonkers” is a simple nursery rhyme: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt B.o.B or Bruno or Stevie.
GOOD Music “Mercy” (2012)
The point of most of these songs is the beat, and whatever supercalifragilistic brags one can put on top of it? That's the gravy. This in particular is an empty anthem: What are we celebrating? To simplify a deceptively simple song, Big Sean lists puns that could start with “ass,” Pusha mines ground he's mined before, Kanye puts wings on things that normally don't, and 2 Chainz equates wealth to food items, usually sauces.
It's enjoyable, a perfect mix of hi-lo. But it's four guys just sitting in the studio, laughing about the things people laugh about. Is it art? Does it advance the body politik or challenge the status quo? No. It's just funning around. And it's glorious.
Young Thug “Danny Glover” (2014)
OK, OK, the easy joke is that this song is about nothing because Young Thug is saying gobbledygook. But those are real words, put together in unexpected and exciting ways. But back to the subject: This song—which, again, has very real words—is about nothing because it's about…nothing. Like, the feeling that one has when one is high is not a tangible thing. One can describe and describe and describe, but that doesn't make it any more “real” to the touch. It is about no thing and nothing. Whoa. “Whoa.” Whoa. Doesn't a word sound crazy when you repeat it? Fabo, Fabo, Fabo. Andalé, andalé, andalé. I'm a stoner, I'm a stoner, I'm a stoner :) :) :)