This week saw a mix of the tragic and the triumphant, as the Trayvon Martin case took up headlines around the country at the same time as the long-awaited return of prodigal son Earl Sweatshirt to rap’s shock troop Odd Future Wolf Gang. Both, in one way or another, work their way in to our list this week, as do an inordinate amount of references to the 5 percent Nation of Islam. The 5 percent Nation, also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths, is a Nation of Islam offshoot that has had an outsized impact on hip-hop. While in recent years references to “the original man” and announcements that “word is born” have died down a bit from their late 80’s-early 90’s heyday, they resurfaced in force last week, including from one of the genre’s biggest stars. Below, the lines of the week.
Danny Brown was the bright spot of an otherwise poor XXL Freshmen cypher. Everyone else veered from blah (Hopsin) to terrible (Future), but Danny showed originality, fire, attitude, and a bit of weirdness. This line was a highlight. At first glance, it seems like a solid verse-ending punchline, but a closer look reveals something a little more bizarre. “White lines”? Doesn’t he mean “white paper”? Or does it make sense after all? The mere fact that he keeps us wondering is reason enough to give Danny our number five slot for the week, and a hearty congrats for killing the cypher.
4. “Dead spouses in red blouses/Children who fled houses on mustang horses and went jousting” – Hodgy Beats, “Oldie” lyrics
Love them for their youthful energy and wordplay or hate them for their sexist ultraviolence (sadly, all too many seem to have that formulation reversed), Odd Future Wolf Gang was an unstoppable rap force last year. Now, with the return of long-missing group member Earl Sweatshirt, the group released a mixtape, The Odd Future Tape Volume 2. This lyric by Hodgy finds them mixing both sides of their personality, and the horse references make the line stick out — jousting references are, after all, are the surest way to our hearts.
3. “Eighty-five percent of y’all is blind to the facts/That’s the reason y’all don’t get a lot of rhymes in my raps” – Apollo The Great, “Hammer Dance Freestyle” lyrics
The first of the 5 percent Nation references comes at us this week courtesy of New Jersey rapper Apollo The Great. The doctrine that gives the group its name holds that black people are divided into three groups — 85 percent of the population who are “blind to the knowledge of themselves and God”; 10 percent who know “the truth” (in this case, that the “Asiatic black man” is God) but teach a lie for their personal gain; and the remaining five percent who are what the sect calls “Poor Righteous Teachers” — those who know and teach the truth. Here, Apollo nods to that doctrine while managing to big-up his own cleverness — not a bad combination.
2. “I been out rhyming since born knowledge/Like prophet Muhammad said, the ink from a scholar/Worth than the blood of a martyr/So I’mma keep it on ‘til I see a million dollars” – Nas, “The Don” lyrics
Our second 5 percent rhyme of the week comes from Nas, whose new single ‘The Don’ is a fantastic first look at an upcoming album. His first line here might seen nonsensical or impressionistic, but if you look a little deeper, it makes perfect sense. The 5 percenters have a concept called “Supreme Mathematics,” a kind of numerology that associates words with numbers. In that system, “born” goes with the number 9, and “knowledge” with 1. Thus, Nas has been rhyming since 1991 — the same career-starting year he famously gave in his song “Ether” (“Been in the game since ‘91” was how he said it then). He follows up this bit of riddling with a reference to an Islamic hadith (a non-scriptural saying) which has been kicking around rap a lot lately, having recently also made an appearance in a Lupe Fiasco song.
1. “Trayvon never gave his cousin his Skittles/Missed the All-Star Game, didn’t see another dribble” – Jasiri X, “Trayvon” lyrics
Rapper Jasiri X laid down a powerful re-imagining of Trayvon Martin’s murder over the ‘No Church in the Wild’ beat, and this couplet from the final verse captures all the tragedy of a life gone far too soon, more than earning it our top slot for the week.