Hip-Hopera and the Art of the Skit

Posted on November 5, 2012

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by Colleen Powers

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Colleen Powers is from Rockford, Illinois, but has officially abandoned it for Northeast Minneapolis. She works as a proofreader and serves as managing editor for MPLS.TV/MPLS Collective, and admits to deleting the skits on “Late Registration” from her iPod.

Artists have been using rock music to tell stories like Next to Normal for decades, so it makes sense that hip-hop performers would apply the idea of opera to their work, too, creating the narratives we know as hip-hopera. But despite that word’s delightfulness, not a lot of rappers and producers have chosen to use it. You would think the Internet’s love of mashing up “high” and “low” culture would have made the genre explode, but so far, hip-hoperas have been surprisingly few.
That doesn’t mean that hip-hop artists don’t know how to tell stories or carry them throughout entire albums. They just call them skits. These acted interludes were a staple of rap music throughout the ‘90s and into the 2000s, right up until fans started abusing “shuffle” and realized they could just delete those boring spoken tracks from their iTunes. From the first time they appeared–1989’s 3 Feet High and Rising by De La Soul, which uses a game show conceit from beginning to end–skits were used to shape hip-hop releases and give them thematic weight.

One of the most expansive and personal uses of skits came in 1994, on The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die. The first track starts with audio of a baby’s birth, then follows Biggie through a troubled childhood to violent crime and jail in adulthood. That intro skit ends with Biggie (or his alter ego) promising, “I got big plans,” but the album’s last track finds him contemplating suicide. In half-skit, half-song “Suicidal Thoughts,” Biggie raps over the words of a friend he’s phoned in the middle of the night, who ends up begging him not to take his own life.

Like Next to Normal’s Diana as she faces up to a razor blade, Biggie seems in a trance, seeing only the possibility of escape. His words lamenting the fucked-up-ness of his life come flatly but steadily, ignoring and overlapping his friend’s crying out for him to be okay. As with Next to Normal’s characters, Biggie doesn’t believe he deserves happiness or normalcy, saying, “When I die, fuck it, I wanna go to hell… It don’t make sense goin’ to heaven with the goodie-goodies,” and even claiming, “I know my mother wish she got a fuckin’ abortion.” Diana survives her suicide attempt, but “Suicidal Thoughts” offers Biggie no such chance for recovery: Gunshots ring out, his friend calls his name in vain, and a thumping heartbeat slows to silence.

Play “Suicidal Thoughts”

Not every hip-hop skit is as bleak as Biggie’s album-closer: Skits tend to have more in common with comedy sketches than theatrical dramas and were often used to send up aspects of daily life for hustlers and gangsters, diss rivals, or poke fun at the rappers themselves. Even some of the lighter ones offer heavy truths, though, as in “Woodrow the Base Head,” from Ghostface Killah’s 2000 album Supreme Clientele. The exchange between addict Woodrow and dealer Ghostface starts out friendly and kind of funny, but Woodrow’s increasing aggression as he demands product underlines the alienation of drug dependency.

Woodrow’s all-encompassing need for crack destroys his friendship with Ghostface, just as Natalie’s abuse of cough syrup and pills endangers her relationship with Henry in Next to Normal. Ghostface repeats, “You[‘re]  like fam, man,” and “I love you” even as Woodrow insults him and threatens to get a gun. Henry, too, continues to affirm how much he cares for Natalie despite her pushing him away. The kinship of dealer and crackhead may pale in comparison to the love between Next to Normal’s teenagers, but their romance isn’t without drug-related roots: Natalie accuses Henry of introducing her to drugs in the first place by encouraging her to smoke weed. The play leaves hope for its youngest characters, but Woodrow and Ghostface never reconcile–at least not in the skit, which ends with the dealer kicking Woodrow out of his house.

Play “Woodrow the Base Head”

Some rappers have used skit characters and concepts across multiple albums. Eminem, for instance, has often staged conversations between him and fictional manager Steve Berman. His creation of characters hasn’t been limited to skits, though: The Marshall Mathers LP’s “Stan” is told almost entirely from the perspective of an obsessive fan who kills himself and his girlfriend after his idol, Eminem, ignores his letters. By the time Eminem reads Stan’s words and realizes how angry and self-destructive he is, it’s too late. “Stan” isn’t a skit, but the adopted point of view and use of sound effects make it feel like part of a hip-hopera.

Like Next to Normal, “Stan” gets inside the mind of someone struggling with depression and delusions and illustrates how that can ripple out from the individual to affect those closest to him or her. Next to Normal hints that Diana’s erratic behavior, from setting the house on fire to running over the cat, has genuinely endangered her family. Both “Stan” and Next to Normal also show how fixation on a half-imagined figure–Stan’s idealized image of Eminem, Diana’s vision of her lost son–can become the center around which mental health struggles revolve. Stan really only has Eminem’s lyrics; Diana, her memories, but the personas they build become more real to them than the actual loved ones they’re hurting.

Watch the “Stan” video
Listen to Just the song

Now that skits have fallen by the wayside, maybe artists will revisit hip-hopera as a way of incorporating characters and narratives into their music. If R. Kelly’s announcement that he’s releasing new chapters of Trapped In the Closet is any indicator, that might already be happening. In my next post, I’ll tackle Kells’ opus, the crowning achievement of hip-hopera to date.

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