This may form part of the introduction to a forthcoming monograph, provisionally titled Digital Flows: Internet-Based Hip Hop Music and Culture.
Hip-hop artists get a bad rap for writing about the same old things. Often, criticism is levelled at lyrics associated with materialism, consumerism, misogyny, drugs, and violence. Although these themes – and the racial, gendered, and class-based judgements involved in commentary on them – are important, complex topics of study, I want to draw attention to some under-examined but prevalent lyrical territory. Specifically, I am interested in how rappers address the internet. Of course, what with the intrusion of the internet into so many aspects of daily life, ways of writing about the web are diverse, but they can be divided into specific themes for analysis. Some of these are more enthusiastic about the effects of the internet on how we experience social lives, while others dismiss or outright disavow aspects of web-based activity. In any case, such analysis provides detailed insights into the aesthetics and politics of contemporary hip-hop, as well as revealing how popular musicians understand and negotiate articulations of digital culture.
Although the title of this post poses a ‘how’ question, I’m more interested in the ‘what’ – as in, ‘what do rap lyrics communicate about the internet’ – interleaved with the ‘so what’, i.e. their wider significance. The focus here is on the semantic content of text, but future work will expand this study to include sound and listening (ultimately more important than the logocentrism that haunts the study of hip-hop). These are mostly lyrics as I heard and transcribed them, then confirmed by reference to crowdsourced hearing on Genius. For the sake of readability, I won’t give all the examples in my dataset, but the most representative and interesting ones will be cited throughout. (Anything in “double quotation marks” is a lyric). I’ve identified five broad trends or tendencies in lyrics about the internet:
- Embracing the internet as an educational and performative space
- Dismissing social platforms as fake, inauthentic places of activity (usually contrasted with a ‘real’, ‘offline’ life)
- Viewing the web as an arena for confrontation or disrespect, often mockingly so
- Using social networking sites to pursue or maintain sexual relationships
- Criticising the internet as a source of privacy violations or producing negative psychological effects
Logging on and coming up
For avid web users, it’s tempting to see the internet as the default environment for our various daily activities. Many rappers describe the internet as a place they live, with emphases on the educational, developmental, and performative aspects of spending time online. Four lines sketch out the web as a space where performers either grew up or came up. In ‘Oh Shit’, Injury Reserve reject critics’ assessment of their music as “jazz rap” and propose instead the highly specific label of “raised by the internet ain’t had no dad rap”, which speaks volumes about the time spent online during childhood and adolescence. The responsibility assigned to the web here given parental absence – raised by – also warrants consideration of how young people rely on internet technologies for educational and leisure activities. Rich Brian adopts a similar line of thinking in ‘Amen’: “I don’t need no education, internet’s my favourite teacher”. Praising the internet’s informative potential is certainly interesting given the special place of ‘street knowledge’ in hip hop’s mythos 1See Gosa, T. L. (2015) ‘The fifth element: knowledge’, in Williams, J. A. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 56–70., although it is far from the predominant framing.
Rather than viewing the web akin to an instructive person, it is more commonly depicted as a place enabling expressive performance and career development. For example, in his comedy rap song ‘Words Words Words’, Bo Burnham reflects on his early career success on YouTube: “I’m an internet provider / Came from the web like a horny spider”. Although his wordplay-heavy track prioritises sexual humour (and he is far from a quintessential hip hop artist), the idea of being ‘from the web’ implies originating online, perhaps as the primary domain from which fans will recognise him (or even the site of his own self-realisation). Indeed, cultural producers who gain popularity online often become inextricably associated with specific platforms, as demonstrated by the term ‘SoundCloud Rap’, used to group a number of artists finding success on that site2SoundCloud rap could fruitfully be analysed in terms of genre, given the emergent musical qualities shared by particular artists, as well as performative codes, image-based conventions, release schedules, and so on. I mention it here as an example … Jump to footnote. ‘Bleed’ by A Boogie wit da Hoodie references his own status in this regard using the couplet “They call me a SoundCloud boy / They stealing my sound now, boy”. These lyrics reference the capacity of specific websites to help develop artist careers, such that others see Boogie as a SoundCloud rapper, but also how sharing-based platforms can generate a wave of derivatives. Unoriginal rappers are obvious sources of contempt in hip-hop, part of a larger discomfort with inauthenticity or inaccurate self-representation that spans the culture in general3Forman, M. (2020) ‘“Things Done Changed”: Recalibrating the Real in Hip-Hop’, Popular Music and Society. doi: 10.1080/03007766.2020.1814628.. The centrality of realness makes the mediated performance of selfhood on social web platforms a prime target for disparaging lyrics.
Fake looks and instant shams
Although a few artists face up to the importance of the internet for personal and artistic development, there is also a general attitude in hip-hop that online communication is in some way fake or inferior compared to face-to-face interaction. The kind of web-based clout expressed by Boogie gets a near-direct response in Kari Faux’s ‘On The Internet’, the hook of which states, “I don’t give a fuck if you’re famous on the internet”. Distinguishing herself from “internet people”4Ironically, this label has become adopted (proudly, one would suspect) as the name for a Spotify-curated playlist of viral rap tracks: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/37i9dQZF1DX6OgmB2fwLGd?si=b01dbc00d82442f0 who are “mad sus in real life”, she decries social media popularity (follower metrics) as a superficial performative stance. This is an extremely common trend in rap lyrics5Such lyrics are widespread, though often without the flare of Kari Faux, who also rhymes ‘number/Tumblr’, ‘don’t give a damn/Instagram’, ‘bitter/Twitter’, and ‘don’t give a shit/YouTube hits’ (‘On The Internet’)., with a real intolerance for the apparently meaningless flexing that takes place online. Examples abound:
“I’m rich in real life, not Instagram” (Kyle, ‘Girls’)
“On the internet all with the gang shit … / But when they come around me they don’t say shit” (Megan Thee Stallion, ‘Realer’)
“You [are] famous on the internet, I’m real life hot” (J. Cole, ‘Villuminati’)
“Don’t let the internet make you brave / When you wouldn’t say it with bass” (Denise Chaila, ‘Down’)
“Everything you won’t say, you tweet it” (Childish Gambino, ‘III. Telegraph Ave. (“Oakland” by Lloyd)’)
“Y’all on the ’Gram holding money to your ear / There’s a disconnect, we don’t call that money over here’ (Jay Z, ‘The Story of O.J.’)
The targets are clear: money, fame, and speaking truthfully. The vain performance of wealth on image-based social platforms (monopolised in the West by Instagram) is seen as distasteful or clearly false compared to actual (offline?) financial wealth. There’s been plenty written on the ‘money phone’ that Jay Z references6XXL’s Peter Berry described this pose as “the most basic flex imaginable, but […] so ubiquitous it feels like a rite of passage for rising rap stars”. Berry, P. A. (2015) ‘13 Rappers Talking on the Money Phone’, XXL. Available at: … Jump to footnote, although this pose of course predates image-sharing platforms.
Viewing such images might evoke feelings of inferiority, envy, or disbelief that warrant outright dismissal and, notably, it’s rare for artists to claim different forms of (e.g. spiritual) wealth as an alternative. Instead, flexing online is taken as fodder for emphasising one’s more tangible (and sometimes private) wealth and entrepreneurship. It’s just as performative to rap that you’re rich, of course, but lyrics seem to be considered more acceptable as they’re not visually staged7On Jay Z, realness, wealth, and artistry, see pp. 75–78 in Watkins, S. C. (2005) Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.. As for purely online fame, it seems strange to downplay the internet’s capacity to generate audiences given that social media networks are deeply entrenched in almost all artist promotion and advertisement. However, there is a provocative image of virtual popularity here: imagine the artist with significant follower metrics performing to an empty hall, discovering their anonymous audience is non-existent, in comparison to the figure of rapper as community leader, entrenched in a local scene and surrounded by people that they know personally in a physical environment. This contrast informs perhaps the most famous take on internet inauthenticity, Kendrick Lamar’s vow on ‘ELEMENT.’: “I don’t do it for the ’Gram, I do it for Compton”. The idea that posting online is worthless, empty, or unimportant compared to face-to-face communication is so prevalent that it becomes the basis for a specific trend: viewing the web as an arena for confrontation, and usually pointless or meaningless forms of conflict at that.
Not all rappers take online beefs lightly. The big rap beefs in the internet era are well known – and avidly discussed by journalists and fans – so it’s not simply that hip hop sees the web as insignificant across the board. Approaching the internet as a realm of interpersonal conflict and disrespect through lyrics emerges along two lines: either treating such conflict as valid and meaningful, or mocking those who make web-based threats. A good touchpoint for taking things seriously is Stormzy’s ‘Shut Up’: “mention my name in your tweets / oi rudeboy, shut up”. The track is disparaging about the impact of online disrespect, sure, but he does spend an awful lot of time (almost 30 seconds) responding to comments circulated on social platforms. He reaches a point of exasperation (“how the fuck can I–?”) and half a minute later, intensifies the threat, pointing out his armed “man over there with the pouch”. So while some might claim not to be affected by criticism circulated on the internet, there is evidently a lot at stake for artists trying to maintain a particular persona8Bozzi, N. (2021) ‘Dramatization of the @GANGSTA: Instagram Cred in the Age of Glocalized Gang Culture’, in B. Wiest, J. (ed.) Theorizing Criminality and Policing in the Digital Media Age. Emerald Publishing, pp. 69–88. doi: … Jump to footnote. Online or not, reputation matters.
Still, a number rappers refuse to engage with conflict on web platforms, and treat it as pretty vacuous. In ‘CHICK’, Brockhampton mock “all these internet gangsters”, their distance from gun violence demonstrated by “aiming with their keyboard, they’re shooting uppercase”. Young M.A makes the contrast between urban gang warfare and the web crystal clear: “my goons in the fields, not the internet” (‘Eat’). Naturally, Drake has got in on it, observing that “trigger fingers turn to Twitter fingers” (‘Back to Back’), although ironically this punchline arrives in the middle of one of Drake’s high-profile online spats (with Meek Mill, in this case)9For more on Drake, his plural identities, and rap beefs, see Boutros, A. (2020) ‘The impossibility of being Drake: Or, what it means to be a successful (Black) Canadian rapper’, Global Hip Hop Studies, 1(1), pp. 95–114. doi: … Jump to footnote. The viral potential of arguments amplified by vast online audiences and the algorithmic spotlight is surely not lost on popular celebrities like Drake, whereas JID distances himself from social media disputes with the snappy line “online beef, not my motif” (JID & J. Cole, ‘Off Deez’). The one-way nature of some kinds of web discourse evidently creates some discomfort, as exemplified by Lil B’s iconically based, dismissive stance in ‘Wonton Soup’: “suckers stay talking on them internet comments”. Perhaps not participating is the simplest way to rise above. So there is a real spectrum of approaches to online conflict – taking it seriously, although claiming not to; deriding internet gangsters across the board; and keeping out of it altogether – although most of these share the notion that the internet is ‘less real’ than offline contact. However, there is one domain of online activity that rappers by and large view as having pretty tangible effects on social life, and that is pursuing romantic and sexual relationships.
re. courting artists
The internet, and especially Instagram, is well understood by rappers as a space for the performance of sexuality (often hand in hand with glamour and wealth). Expressions of misogyny – deeply normalised in hip hop – are maintained and potentially exacerbated on online platforms that trade in capturing visual attention10Duffy, B. E. and Hund, E. (2019) ‘Gendered Visibility on Social Media: Navigating Instagram’s Authenticity Bind’, International Journal of Communication, 13, pp. 4983–5002.. Quite a lot of Childish Gambino’s album because the internet focuses on this aspect of the web, but I’ll pull out just three lines that map out the territory. He reflects on the promiscuity facilitated by swipe-to-match apps like Tinder: “Two dates and he still wanna get it in / And they’re saying it’s because of the internet / Try her once and it’s on to the next chick” (III. Telegraph Ave. (“Oakland” by Lloyd)). He comments on trading sensitive photos with a potential lover: “send them pics to my phone, GPOY” (‘II. Earth: The Oldest Computer (The Last Night)’). Finally, he puns on the performance of (contextually sexualised) dancing: “showing off her ass, that’s a net twerk” (Childish Gambino, ‘II. Worldstar’). With various courting practices implicated, the performance of a sexually desirable self on social media platforms is widely discussed in rap lyrics.
Some lyrics are pretty innocuous and speak to everyday sociality. Take, for instance, Jaden’s straightforward line “You know she know I’m the man, I got her number on the ’Gram” (‘George Jeff’). In his syrupy ballad ‘Like Me’, Pop Smoke is surprised by an encounter with a woman who “said she got me on the ’Gram”. Far more crudely, YG recounts “some Twitter pussy I met on the internet” (Jeremih and YG, ‘Don’t Tell ’Em’). Although the platform may differ, this kind of objectification and sexist slurs span languages: the German rapper Kollegah brags, “Ich klär Internetschlampen bei Facebook” (Kollegah & Farid Bang, ‘Halleluja’). Women in mainstream rap don’t actively participate in their own derogation. For example, in ‘Up’, Cardi B describes the presentation of herself with a partner on Instagram as an extremely serious commitment, one which would necessitate engagement: “If ain’t no ring on my finger, you ain’t going on my ’Gram”. Other artists describe sexual activities enabled by internet technologies with light-hearted glee, as in Doja Cat’s celebratory ‘Cyber Sex’. However, such targeted odes to specific affordances like intimate video calls are relatively rare compared to critical perspectives on a range of ramifications of the web.
RAMifications (ok, I’m running out of steam here)
“Internet got no chill”: that’s Rapsody, on ‘Nobody’. She’s right, for a number of reasons. Kanye West voices a few complaints about the internet in ‘Saint Pablo’. He cites a reliance on audience feedback provided on social platforms: “Checking Instagram comments to crowdsource my self-esteem”. In fact, he has argued for the removal of the public display of ‘follower’ and ‘like’ metrics on social media platforms (voicing such critique on Instagram itself), a notion which has gained some traction online.
Childish Gambino takes a similar stance in ‘III. Life: The Biggest Troll [Andrew Auernheimer]’, indicating he’ll “Never forget this feeling, never gon’ reach a million / Eventually all my followers realise they don’t need a leader”. Although this is almost the opposite approach to Lil B’s nonchalance about “suckers” posting online, artists from many genres have described (in interviews and lyrics) the negative effects of social media affirmation on mental health11Take food house for one forthright example: “Get your ass off Twitter ‘cause it gives you fucking mental illness” (‘8 now’). Studies of social media envy and social media addiction are in their infancy, although meta-analyses by Huang … Jump to footnote. The internet is claimed to not only effect Kanye West’s self-esteem, but to infringe upon his legal rights, as he notes that “a million illegally downloaded my truth over the drums” (‘Saint Pablo’). Post Malone shares this concern about the public release of unfinished material, claiming he’s “paranoid since they’ve been leaking my shit… fuck the internet, and you can quote that” (Post Malone, ‘Internet’). The effects of piracy may be damaging, but so too is speculation about Kanye West’s mental stability playing out across social media platforms. As such, he resents “people trying to say I’m going crazy on Twitter” (‘Saint Pablo’). As a final point of comparison with Kanye West, Logic is less specific about his unhappiness engaging with the web, although he implies the use of dynamic feed-style social platforms, scrolling endlessly on a smartphone: “off the internet, that’s when I’m at my happiest / Scrolling so much, my thumb fucked up / We call that carpal tunnel vision” (‘Open Mic\\Aquarius III’).
There are other issues associated with internet use. In ‘Send the Addy’, Flo Milli expresses concerns about the unauthorised use of images of her – “I can’t let him post me on the internet” – though also flaunts her impressive online appearance (“You keep stalking my page and you gon’ end up crying”). Because of this latter line, the verse seems more concerned with curating and maintaining a competitive social media profile than related to the important ethical interventions around nonconsensual humiliation of women (a.k.a. ‘revenge porn’). Whether you interpret this as the viewer being driven to tears from social media envy or as a threat of violence in retaliation for harassment, the track demonstrates the harmful interactions afforded by social networking sites.
Political themes regarding the internet as a source of disinformation or groupthink have also emerged, with Run The Jewels reworking Gil Scott-Heron’s best-known poem: further expanding a critique of mass media to the internet, ‘goonies vs E.T.’ gives the couplet “ain’t no revolution is televised and digitised / You’ve been hypnotised and Twitter-ised by silly guys”. Indeed, Twitter seems to get the brunt of hip-hop’s critical attention, which merits further examination of Black Twitter in the context of this project12See Florini, S. (2014) ‘Tweets, Tweeps, and Signifyin’: Communication and Cultural Performance on “Black Twitter”’, Television & New Media, 15(3), pp. 223–237. doi: 10.1177/1527476413480247; Harlow, S. and Benbrook, A. (2017) ‘How … Jump to footnote. Noname decries those “Twitter ranting for martyrdom, unified as capitalists” (‘Regal’), a lyric reflecting a broader Black communist politics that informs her creative output and public work. Although she has not written about it in song, Noname began a very popular reading club promoted on Twitter which links to Black-owned bookstores online and across the US (also using Patreon to support community-based projects). So, there may yet be hope for progressive hip-hop artists to benefit from communication networks accrued through social platforms.
There are contradictions and paradoxes in these approaches to the internet, to be sure. Online conflict is sometimes seen as fake, but physical hookups or the psychological effects of social media use are manifestly real. Artists’ own social media success might be a cause for celebration, but the online performances of others are treated as inauthentic or superficial. Social network sites have become such an significant topic for artists to address precisely because their logics overlap with certain cultural priorities of hip-hop (individualism, self-expression, competition, personal authenticity, participation) while distorting or impairing others (collaboration, social justice, uninhibited communication). Pre-internet prejudices endemic in the culture have undoubtedly been preserved (and possibly deepened) by hip-hop in the context of internet sociality, as exemplified by misogynistic commentary crystallised in slang (just the title of Pi’erre Bourne’s unreleased ‘Instagram Hoes’ probably says enough about that). Hip-hop’s view on the web is expressed in other forms, not least non-musical statements, fashion, theatrical performance, dance, and graffiti (as in the multivalent mural below). As an introductory analysis, this look at how song lyrics implicate online practices, digital technologies, and specific platforms enables a clearer picture of artists’ and listeners’ contextual understandings of the internet and its place in everyday social life.
|↑1||See Gosa, T. L. (2015) ‘The fifth element: knowledge’, in Williams, J. A. (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Hip-Hop. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 56–70.|
|↑2||SoundCloud rap could fruitfully be analysed in terms of genre, given the emergent musical qualities shared by particular artists, as well as performative codes, image-based conventions, release schedules, and so on. I mention it here as an example of the umbrella term’s origin, which is simply many artists who uploaded material to SoundCloud, and thus are understood as ‘coming from there’. See pp. 226–7 in Waugh, M. (2020) ‘“Every time I dress myself, it go motherfuckin” viral’: Post-verbal flows and memetic hype in Young Thug’s mumble rap’, Popular Music, 39(2), pp. 208–232. doi: 10.1017/S026114302000015X.|
|↑3||Forman, M. (2020) ‘“Things Done Changed”: Recalibrating the Real in Hip-Hop’, Popular Music and Society. doi: 10.1080/03007766.2020.1814628.|
|↑4||Ironically, this label has become adopted (proudly, one would suspect) as the name for a Spotify-curated playlist of viral rap tracks: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/37i9dQZF1DX6OgmB2fwLGd?si=b01dbc00d82442f0|
|↑5||Such lyrics are widespread, though often without the flare of Kari Faux, who also rhymes ‘number/Tumblr’, ‘don’t give a damn/Instagram’, ‘bitter/Twitter’, and ‘don’t give a shit/YouTube hits’ (‘On The Internet’).|
|↑6||XXL’s Peter Berry described this pose as “the most basic flex imaginable, but […] so ubiquitous it feels like a rite of passage for rising rap stars”. Berry, P. A. (2015) ‘13 Rappers Talking on the Money Phone’, XXL. Available at: http://www.xxlmag.com/news/2015/05/rappers-money-phone-pose/ (Accessed: 6 May 2021).|
|↑7||On Jay Z, realness, wealth, and artistry, see pp. 75–78 in Watkins, S. C. (2005) Hip Hop Matters: Politics, Pop Culture, and the Struggle for the Soul of a Movement. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.|
|↑8||Bozzi, N. (2021) ‘Dramatization of the @GANGSTA: Instagram Cred in the Age of Glocalized Gang Culture’, in B. Wiest, J. (ed.) Theorizing Criminality and Policing in the Digital Media Age. Emerald Publishing, pp. 69–88. doi: 10.1108/S2050-206020210000020010.|
|↑9||For more on Drake, his plural identities, and rap beefs, see Boutros, A. (2020) ‘The impossibility of being Drake: Or, what it means to be a successful (Black) Canadian rapper’, Global Hip Hop Studies, 1(1), pp. 95–114. doi: 10.1386/ghhs_00006_1.|
|↑10||Duffy, B. E. and Hund, E. (2019) ‘Gendered Visibility on Social Media: Navigating Instagram’s Authenticity Bind’, International Journal of Communication, 13, pp. 4983–5002.|
|↑11||Take food house for one forthright example: “Get your ass off Twitter ‘cause it gives you fucking mental illness” (‘8 now’). Studies of social media envy and social media addiction are in their infancy, although meta-analyses by Huang (2020) and Ivie et al. (2020) generally support correlations between social media use and mental ill health. Huang, C. (2020) ‘A meta-analysis of the problematic social media use and mental health’, International Journal of Social Psychiatry. doi: 10.1177/0020764020978434; Ivie, E. J. et al. (2020) ‘A meta-analysis of the association between adolescent social media use and depressive symptoms’, Journal of Affective Disorders, 275, pp. 165–174. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2020.06.014.|
|↑12||See Florini, S. (2014) ‘Tweets, Tweeps, and Signifyin’: Communication and Cultural Performance on “Black Twitter”’, Television & New Media, 15(3), pp. 223–237. doi: 10.1177/1527476413480247; Harlow, S. and Benbrook, A. (2017) ‘How #Blacklivesmatter: exploring the role of hip-hop celebrities in constructing racial identity on Black Twitter’, Information, Communication & Society, 22(3), pp. 352–368. doi: 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1386705; Sharma, S. (2013) ‘Black Twitter?: Racial Hashtags, Networks and Contagion’, new formations: a journal of culture/theory/politics, 78(1), pp. 46–64.|