Dropping bars. Spitting fire. Any music fan worth his or her salt knows that these are terms for that special moment when a rapper truly makes some magic on the mic. Every so often a rapper comes up with a line that makes you want to immediately hit rewind and hear it again. It could be for skillful entendre-laced wordplay, a timely cultural reference or something that is just plain funny.
However, more times than you might think, rappers have been known to borrow a few verses from another rap song and repurpose them. Sometimes they tweak the lyrics in order to put a different twist on the meaning. At other points, they might keep the original as homage to the rapper who first came up with those lines. At worst, they might pass plagiarized lyrics as their own (especially those taken from unknown rappers who have yet to make it big) and hope that nobody notices the theft.
Rap titans Kanye West, Drake and Kendrick Lamar are all expected to release new albums in the coming weeks that hopefully won’t disappoint both musically and lyrically. Yet even big names such as these have been guilty of repurposing others’ lines. There are plenty of cases of lyrical looting/borrowing in the hip-hop world to choose from, here are a few interesting ones.
1) “Worst Behavior” by Drake and “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems” by The Notorious B.I.G & Ma$e
The warm-up song (at least for last season) for our very own men’s basketball team features some lifted lines from one of the most iconic songs in rap history. When the tempo changes at 2:42, Drake spits nearly line for line Ma$e’s opening verse on Biggie’s posthumous 1997 smash hit. While there was no problem from Drake borrowing these lines, he was not so lucky this past summer. Drizzy reportedly paid $100,000 after using bars from a 1994 Rappin’ 4-Tay track for his feature on YG’s “Who Do You Love?”
2) “Otis” by Jay-Z & Kanye West and “Top Billin’” by Audio Two
The pairing of Jay-Z and Kanye on “Watch The Throne” produced several memorable records. On “Otis,” the two refer to another iconic rap track. At the 2:27 mark, they adapt a line from Audio Two’s heavily sampled and funky late 80s song. Give “Top Billin’” a listen and see if you can pick out other lines that been modified or reused over the years by artists other than Yeezy and Hova.
3) “Dr. Carter” by Lil’ Wayne and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” by Kanye West
While Lil’ Wayne blatantly steals a line from Kanye on “Dr. Carter,” at least he admits it in the very same verse. After taking a notable Kanye line that references Magic Johnson, Wayne continues, “And that was called recycling, or re-reciting something cause you just like it so you say it just like it. Some say it’s biting but I say it’s enlightening.” Even if you don’t accept Wayne’s artistic license defense, you have to give him credit for being honest about it his borrowing.
4) “The Ruler’s Back” by Jay-Z and “The Ruler’s Back” by Slick Rick
“The Blueprint” was one of Jay-Z’s most critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums—and for good reason. However, younger fans might not pick up on the nod that Mr. Beyoncé is giving to rap forefather Slick Rick in this track. Here, Jay interpolates numerous lines from the original “The Ruler’s Back” by one of hip-hop’s legendary storytellers. Many rappers have come after Jay-Z over the years, criticizing him for liberally reusing lines and styles from other rappers in his own music.
This week’s web bonus is a “20/20” special from 1981 about the rise of hip-hop and rap in America. Enjoy!