Lack of comprehension, it must be said, can always be due to the audience or to the speaker. At least one hip-hop group, Wu-Tang Clan, has expressed their opinion that the former is at play. Their Triumph lyric suggests that most people listen to hip-hop for the beats and not the lyrical content: “The dumb are mostly intrigued by the drum”. I surely have fallen into this category before, as come on, I listen to Super Bass when, for example, I run; understanding the lyrics is a less pressing issue than making it up that killer flight of stairs.
But on the flip side, if hip-hop artists are taking such liberties as purposeful mispronunciation; use of auto-tune, slang, and features of African-American English; rhyming quickly; having the beats drown out the lyrics; and not publishing their lyrics, one could make the case that hip-hop artists don’t really want the mainstream public (think Sophia Grace) to understand what they’re saying.
It seems a less-than-intuitive marketing strategy, to say the least: why would artists interested in mass appeal want to make their songs difficult to understand? The answer largely has to do with creativity and innovation: hip-hop places a premium on these ephemera that is absent in other popular genres. For example, last fall there was a controversy about Justin Bieber being part of a cipher on BET because it was speculated that Ludacris would have written Bieb’s rhymes. Outside of hip-hop, who writes the songs artists perform doesn’t matter nearly as much. As I discuss in my most recent article on hip-hop, part of this creativity is using cutting-edge, in-group language and vocabulary. If you’re part of an in-group seen as “cool”, as soon as mainstream culture adopts the innovative language you’re using, that language somehow loses its luster. This process is perfectly illustrated in a 30-second MTV cartoon about the life and death of the word bling. This clip shows the diffusion of the word bling, as it starts with Black hip-hop artists and is subsequently adopted by less and less “cool” people, until it finally “dies” upon being uttered to an elderly White woman.