Identity shaping in rap music: Britain versus the US

Rap music across the pond

Britain and the US both enjoy a strong rap heritage

Rap artists – they’re a very chatty bunch of people. They like to talk about all manner of things, from their egos to their…egos. In fact, when you look at the political dimension behind the words, it soon becomes apparent that the large majority of songs serve one purpose: to emphasise the status of the rapper to their audience.

One of the interesting ways in which rappers attempt to define their identity is through talking about themselves relative to other individuals. Doing so enables them to depict a power relationship that they share with the world around them. To demonstrate what I mean, let’s have a look at some of the lyrics of Tinie Tempah’s hit song, Pass Out.

(Tinie Tempah, Pass Out)

Yeah, I’m in charge now

I’m a star and I bought my f****** cast out

I live a very, very, very wild lifestyle

Heidi and Audrina eat your heart out

I used to listen to “you don’t wanna bring arms house”

I got so many clothes, I keep some in my aunt’s house

Disturbing London baby, we about to branch out

Soon I’ll be the king like Prince Charles child

 In the lyrics above, Mr Tempah wastes no time in establishing the framework of his relationship with the world, “Yeah, I’m, in charge now”. The subsequent references to other identities help to solidify this portrayal, for example, when he describes himself as a “star” this status is realised through the ownership of a “cast”, a group of people under his direct control. The references to “Heidi” and “Audrina”, reality TV stars famed for their partying lifestyle (I had to look that up)  serve to add a quality to this status: not only is Mr Tempah capable of commanding large swathes of people, but he is also a specialist in the art of being “wild”, an essential attribute if one is to write a song about losing consciousness.

The second verse attempts to explore further the nature of Mr Tempah’s power. We receive a little more information about his life: he used to listen to “you don’t wanna bring arms house”, a reference to the signature bars of M.C. Demon, a rather aggressive high pitched rapper from East London – an association that serves to highlight Tempah’s “toughness”. But then in the next line, we are introduced to Mr Tempah’s Aunt who lovingly stores his abundant apparel.  The bathos is an interesting one; on the one hand we are led to consider his monetary wealth, on the other Mr Tempah remains grounded in honest values by acknowledging the existence of his family. The final two lines again build on status, but in a different way. Mr Tempah acknowledges growing influence of Disturbing London, the label he is signed to, and as a result of their progress he predicts that he will eventually attain regal eminence.

Now that we have looked at some of the examples, it seems a trend has developed: Mr Tempah has a tendency to introduce other identities in a positive light – his association with them helps to emphasise his unique status. The only exception to this rule is the reference to Heidi and Audrina, who he places as below his level of skill, although in doing so he marks them out as being particularly unique.

Now let’s have a look at an artist from the States to see how they invoke other identities in their lyrics to emphasise their authority. I have chosen Timbaland, since his music his similar in style to the register of Mr Tempah.

(Timbaland Give it to me)

When Timbo is in the party, everybody put up they hands

I get a half a mil’ for my beats, you get a couple gra-an-and

Never gonna see the day that I ain’t got the upper hand

I’m respected from Californ-I-A, way down to Japan


I’m a real producer and you just a piano man

Your songs don’t top the charts, I heard ’em, I’m not a fa-an-an

N****s talkin’ greasy, I’m the one that gave them they chance

Somebody need to tell them that they can’t do it like I can

The opening line of Mr Timbaland’s ditty is comparable to Mr Tempah in that he makes a declaration of his supremacy. However, unlike Mr Tempah, this power relationship is reinforced using a different strategy. Consider the second line – Mr Timbaland compares his monetary wealth with that of “you”, a pronoun standing for other musicians and critics of his work. The result is that he portrays other identities in his political system negatively. This is solidified in the next line “never gonna see the day that I ain’t got the upper hand”.

There is a positive mention of identity with regards to the geographical scope of Mr Timbaland’s influence (California to Japan), however this is then cast aside in favour of returning to the old topic: explaining why other muscians/critics are lower than his level of standing. Again, to clarify Mr Timbaland’s power, he places his context in direct portrayal to that of his adversaries. He is a “real” producer, someone in charge, unlike the “piano man” who simply takes instruction. The songs of his competitors fail to “top the charts”, and he does not rate them. Any of the marginal success achieved by his critics was in fact in reality attributable to him. The verse ends with the appeal that “they” can’t achieve the same success as Mr Timbaland and implies their efforts to do so are embarrassing and futile.

So, it seems Mr Timbaland has a predominant tendency to portray others in a negative light, something very common to US rap music when one considers other artists such as Eminem, 50 Cent, DMX who are all famed for their invective.

In conclusion, then, it seems that both Mr Tempah and Mr Timbaland invoke identities to illustrate the power relationship which they share with the world around them. One way of achieving this is through positive narration, i.e. associating yourself with other figures of excellence. Another way is through negative narration, i.e. disassociating yourself with others because they are weak or beneath you. If one were to take a snapshot of the music scenes across the pond, one might be led to assume that artists from the UK converge more on the positive attitude, compared with artists in America who show a tendency to the negative attitude. Both styles are equally effective at helping to enhance the status of the rapper.




  1. Both of the songs, interestingly, were charttoppers, so it helps to brag. Then again, so was In Da Club.

    MC Heasman must brag too, it seems. But what rhymes with Cicero?

  2. In Da Club was a good song, even if a bit repetitive…and I can only think of piccolo as a rhyme??

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