Verses That’ll Get You Charged

A breakdown of four killer verses by wordsmiths who’ve spent their lives behind bars.

Verse 3, “Phenomenal” by Eminem

This song features on the soundtrack for the film Southpaw, which Eminem was originally going to star in but music commitments took precedent. There are parallels between his life and that of the lead character, not least because he’s the lefty of the rap game: dangerous and completely unorthodox.

Since this song plays on the sweet science metaphor, let’s get technical. The first observation is how many shots Eminem throws in a single verse. He flows with back-to-back multi-syllable rhymes, few heavyweights have such stamina. Then there’s the power of the punchlines.

Who the fuck taught you how to persevere?
There ain’t no situation that you ever had to respond to that’s adverse
The messiest thing you’ve ever gone through was your purse

And finally there’s the unpredictability of it all. Eminem doesn’t confine himself to four corners, helping to string together great combinations. With a typical four bar rhyme scheme, the sentence ends on the beat. But take a look at the four bars above, the second line spills over into the third which becomes “…respond to that’s adverse.” The punchline follows which shares the same syllable as the last word of the first bar. This technique, known as crossing the bar line, changes the rhythm of the verse. Putting all this together, you just don’t know what Em’s gonna throw at you.

Now Eminem has a catalogue of tracks about the grind, he concedes in the third verse “It’s a subject that I don’t know how to shut up about.” As good as these are, “Phenomenal” is a personal favourite because of the wordplay and the way that the theme is carried until the very last line:

Prevail at all costs, be the only one left standin’
In the end, but I ain’t gonna be the only one with the advantage 
Of knowin’ what it’s like to be southpaw
Cause you’ll bet your ass you’ll be left handed

Verse 2, “Rigamortus” by Kendrick Lamar

Arguably the only person that can challenge Em lyrically is another of Dr Dre’s proteges: Kendrick Lamar. This is probably why nobody other than the Compton native was allowed the privilege of rhyming on the Marshall Mathers LP 2. That was a collaborative effort with both rappers tickling ears with witty narrative on the track “Love Game”. There was nothing amusing about this song though.

He makes his intentions clear from the go, boasting about killing your favourite rapper. And he does so with consummate ease to a sax riff that adds colour to the dark tone of Section.80, the album on which this song features. This musical motive runs throughout the entire track and Kendrick actually increases the density of his rhymes as he builds to the climax of the second verse. There’s no booming 808 and the hook isn’t really a hook, it’s another four bars that is merely a warning for what’s coming…

Kendrick Lamar’s verse on “Control”

Hopefully your favourite rapper isn’t Big Sean because he falls victim to Kendrick’s lyricism, evidently this was premeditated. The Top Dawg frontman marked his territory in the hip-hop landscape with his incredible debut Good Kid M.A.A.D. City. But he took this opportunity to attack everyone embarking on the path to be a great rapper. Technicality and skill are never absent in a Kendrick verse, but it’s his statements that were much reported. He called out the most relevant artists and threatened to murder them.

As if this wasn’t enough, Kendrick uttered words that, taken out of context, could be the most controversial lines in hip-hop:

I’m important like the Pope, I’m a Muslim on pork
I’m Makaveli’s offspring, I’m the King of New York
King of the Coast; one hand, I juggle them both
The juggernaut’s all in your jugular, you take me for jokes

Jay Z has never proclaimed to be the king of New York, Biggie still holds the crown. Sovereignty and jewels don’t matter to Kendrick, he just wanted beef. And nobody was gonna deprive him of it. He even named Jay Electronica as a target who had the thankless job of following him on the track. Despite the spirituality radiating from his verse, the revered MC received little gratitude.

“If” by Rudyard Kipling

As insightful as scripture can be, I think that all of life’s lessons are condensed into this single verse. These words penetrate the heart in the absence of a beat and a snare.

Granted there are some notable omissions including Nasty Nas’ “Can’t stop me now” and Notorious BIG’s “Notorious thugs”. These songs had me reeling on first listen and are no less impactful now. But nothing could compare to the lyrical atrocities committed by the men in question. When my time comes, I hope that Kipling’s words don’t cause me too much pain:

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’