A talent that was once renowned is now deemed corny–what happened?
Punchlines once ruled hip hop. In the ‘90s and 2000s, rappers like Big L, Lil Wayne and Eminem dominated the genre by rapping some of the most clever lines imaginable. Then, towards the end of the decade and at the beginning of the 2010s, it seemed hip hop began to turn its back on punchlines.
Rappers like Childish Gambino and Drake have coasted on barely passable punchlines that are more cringe than clever. Drake infamously rapped “Got so many chains they call me Chaining Tatum” on the egregious Views track “Pop Style.” Gambino’s 2011 track “Freaks and Geeks” was a haven for corny punchlines that, to a teenage version of myself, sounded astoundingly clever but in reality, are lazy and frankly gross (“An elephant never forgets/ That’s why my dick remembers everything”).
In fact, Childish Gambino, an artist who essentially blew up because of his punchlines, has never really been good at them. The entirety of his debut album, Camp, was based on them. On “Bonfire,” he raps “Okay, it’s Childish Gambino, homegirl drop it like the NASDAQ / Move white girls like there’s coke up my ass crack.” While those lyrics may have been clever for a young audience, they’ve aged like milk.
The juvenile lyrics were a foundation for Pitchfork’s devastating 1.6/10 rating that baffled all his fans. I asked myself: “How could something so clever and funny be so bad to them?” TheNeedleDrop also infamously gave him a 2/10 after primarily critiquing the weak bars. He followed with the album, Because the Internet, which fared better with critics but was still largely criticized for Gambino’s poor punchlines; he raps “Got no patience, cause I’m not a doctor,” on hit single “3005.”
While Gambino isn’t solely responsible for the steady decline of punchlines in rap during the 2010s, he was certainly a catalyst. But what made Lil Wayne, Big L and Eminem’s punchlines from hip hop’s rise to prominence so incredible?
Lil Wayne is constantly debated as one of the best rappers of all time for his smart play on words and unique ability to create punchlines. On “6 Foot 7 Foot,” Wayne raps “Real G’s move in silence like lasagna,” a bar that might seem like nonsense on first listen, but a quick backtrack will show how sneaky the pun in the bar is. True, the song is one of Wayne’s more recent songs, but the punchline is a reflection of how clever Wayne was in his prime.
Big L was also as iconic before his untimely death in 1999. Known to be a master of punchlines, some of his bars are truly hilarious, like on “98 Freestyle” where he raps “Before I buck lead and make a lot of bloodshed/ Turn your tux red, I’m far from broke, got enough bread/ And mad hoes, ask Beavis I get nothing Butthead.”
Punchlines haven’t exactly left; Eminem is still writing some, as can be found on his newest album Music to be Murdered By. However, the bars are substantially weaker than the rhymes back on his earlier works like The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, both of which remain some of the best-written hip hop albums of all time.
Music to be Murdered By featured lyrics like “How can I have all these fans and perspire?/ Like a liar’s pants, I’m on fire.” It’s evident that Eminem has become lazy. It’s no secret that his lyricism has been questioned all decade.
Lil Wayne has also toned down the number of punchlines he’s rapped since Tha Carter IV. In 2020, punchlines seem to have become a thing of the past; no one particularly likes them anymore.
The most popular songs from the latter half of the 2010s offer less on the rapping front and more on melodies and captivating instrumentals. Rappers like Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, and Roddy Ricch have written songs with fun, albeit simple lyrics about their lives that are ultimately more compelling than a forced joke that tries to act as proof that the rapper is sharp with their pen.
Lyricism has been about more than just wordplay. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is lauded for its smart lyrics and substantive subject matter. While certainly not everyone’s favourite album from the Compton rapper, it’s a hallmark of lyricism with raps that tackle complex themes without breaking them down into cheap one-liners.
Hip hop fans at the end of the 2010s couldn’t care less about punchlines. They’ve become an important piece of history within hip hop but the genre has moved past them. Rest in peace to rap punchlines—it’s been real.
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