Waxing Lyrical: WHY?'s Yoni Wolf on his favourite couplets
Madvillain (MF DOOM) – Figaro
(from the album Madvillainy, 2004)
I knew I wanted to choose something from MF DOOM as he is, in my mind, one of the best rap writers of all time. Always so good with the word play, double meanings, intricate internal rhyme schemes and of course always with a great dry sense of humor. There are SO many great lines by the Metal Faced villain but a song that I constantly find myself going back to is off of the Madvillainy album – Figaro is just one long disgusting verse. The first time I heard it, I had to rewind it and listen to it ten more times. I couldn't pick a couplet but I chose the run that starts with
‘Too hot to handle, you got blue sandals…’
and ending with
‘Off pride, tikes talk wide through scar meat,
Off sides, like how Worf ride with Starfleet.’
Just a sick barrage of ‘ooh/aah/andle/oh/ill’ sounds and beautifully dry wit. The stanza that starts with ‘Do not stand still..’ but then ends with the opposing cautionary line, ‘Not supposed to overdose 'No Doze' pills’…Genius!
Silver Jews (David Berman) – We Are Real
(from the album American Water, 1998)
'My ski vest has buttons like convenience store mirrors and they help me see
That everything in this room right now is a part of me.’
An elevated Zen idea said in such a down-to-earth pedestrian manner. That's what David is SO goddamned good at. Sort of an ‘I am the Walrus’ mantra for thoughtful Kentucky pot-heads.
And in that same vein, I gotta give it up for another one of Mr. Berman's lines that comes to mind. It's a classic line off of the Starlight Walker song Trains Across the Sea. We played with them in Chicago back in 2006 and when they opened with this song, my weeping in the front row could be heard over the band in the balcony.
In my mind, the pivotal line is:
‘In twenty seven years, I drunk fifty thousand beers,
and they just wash against me like the sea into a pier.’
Themselves (Adam 'Doseone' Drucker) – Poison Pit
(from the album The No Music, 2002)
‘For some reason changing selves is twice as hard as situations.
We couldn't run a single solitary X-Mas light with all our put-together patience.’
I knew I had to pick a Doseone line, not because he is one of my best homeys, but because he's one of the most imaginative and original lyricists in music ever. My bandmate Doug always liked this line a lot off of The No Music from the early 2000s. Such an awesome line, I wasn't gonna turn it down.
Joanna Newsom – Jackrabbits
(from the album Have One On Me, 2010)
‘I was tired of being drunk. My face cracked like a joke.
So I swung through here like a brace of jackrabbits with their necks all broke.’
Don't really have to say too much about that one. She is just so good with the vivid imagery and evoking a feeling from that. I love her. I can't wait for another album to devour. I must have listened to Have One On Me 500 times. She is just such an ambitious song writer. She's like the rap-game Homer (Odyssey-fame, not Simpson).
Neil Young – For the Turnstiles
(from the album On the Beach, 1974)
‘All the Bushleague batters
are left to die on the diamond.
In the stands, the home crowd scatters
for the turnstiles.’
Another one that Doug recommended. An excellent line from one of Neil Young's under-appreciated albums in my opinion.
Kool Keith – Women Turn On Your TV
(from the album Lost Masters Vol. 2, 2005)
‘That watch on your arm; you said it was real. You lied you know,
acting like a Spanish guy, going crazy over one girl.’
This song is on a sort of B-sides compilation called The Lost Masters. It was put out in Japan by a label called Contrarede, who brought out Why? a couple times. The guys from the label were so proud of this release and gave us a copy. I instantly fell in love with this line. It just feels so visceral and real and funny.
Outkast (Andre Benjamin) – Elevators (Me & You)
(from the album ATliens, 1996)
‘…True I got more fans than the average man, but not enough loot to last me
to the end of the week. I live by the beat like you live check to check.
If it don't move your feet then I don't eat, so we like neck to neck.
Yes, we done come a long way like them slim-ass cigarettes
from Virginia. This ain't gonna stop, so we just gonna continue.’
This was my favorite line from my favorite song from one of my favorite albums of my late high school days. The stanza comes right after a guy comes up to him in the mall asking him how rich he is. Hard to separate the lyrics from the way Andre delivers it but I think it stands on its own on the page pretty well… Of course though the preferred way to experience these lyrics is loud as fuck from the mouth of the man.
Rihanna – Birthday Cake
(from the album Talk That Talk, 2011)
‘cake cake cake cake cake cake cake cake cake cake cake
cake cake cake cake cake cake cake cake cake cake cake’
If you please, I'd like to lick the icing off.
Jay-Z – Thirty Something
(from the album Kingdom Come, 2006)
‘I'm a bully with the bucks. Don't let the patten leather shoes fool you, young'n, I got the fully in the tux.’
Though I hate to pick something so thoroughly mainstream and over played, I have to admit that Jay-Z has some really clever couplets. I'm sorry but that couplet is hard as fuck. I first heard this song in 2007 on the radio in my rental car driving from the studio in Nashville where I was mixing Eskimo Snow. I had to turn it way up. He's so acid tongued and sharp on this song.