Image: Andre Hunter via Unsplash
It’s been a strange old year. As 2021 draws to a close it’s tempting to want to hark back to simpler times. But time moves in one direction, my friends. Like a birdwatcher in a neck brace, we must look forward. And we will, once I’ve done this self-indulgent look back over the first 500 entries into my database of notable rap similes. Allow me this.
I can say with some certainty that I am the Internet’s most prominent, or perhaps only, forensic compiler of rap similes. But what led me to where I am today? Like ihhsdb.com inductees Pete Rock and CL Smooth, please do allow me to reminisce.
A few years ago I was listening to Ghostface Killah’s Fishscale album – and a line from boxing ode The Champ stood out:
liar liar pants on fire, you burning up like David Koresh.Killa, G., The Champ, 2006
This is a classic hip-hop simile: simple, clever, evocative and arguably funny. But something twigged in my brain: I was sure I’d heard this somewhere else.
A quick visit to Google confirmed my suspicions. Enter fellow Wu-Tang extended family member Streetlife on Method Man’s Suspect Chin Music:
verbally possesed never second guessMan, M., Sweet Chin Music, 1998
blow minds like David Koresh
Like David Koresh my synapses were on fire. But it turned out that it wasn’t just Wu-Tang related rappers who’d run with this as a simile. We have Beastie Boys:
step into the party with the Fila fresh gearBoys, B., The Scoop, 1994
people looking at me like I was David Koresh here
And Long Island’s finest De La Soul:
fell in love with this fish who got caught in my meshSoul, D.L., Itsoweezee (HOT), 1996
but yo she burned my scene up like David Koresh
And also some bloke called Masta Ace:
sick messiah like I’m David KoreshAce, M., Too Long, 2001
you done picked the wrong nigga to test
Ghostface’s 2006 Koresh reference now seemed pretty old hat. Koresh has clearly remained an icon in (US) pop culture since the 1993 Waco siege that led to dozens of deaths.
I felt like a homicide detective in a gritty police drama gazing at a corkboard covered with pins and ribbons. Had I uncovered the most popular subject of hip-hop simile of all time? There was only one way to find out.
This stupid idea bubbled away in my brain for another couple of years before I decided it was time. I’ve now catalogued over 500 hip-hop similes over 32 tracks, and exactly zero of them reference David Koresh. Bollocks. So maybe my hunch had been wrong all along. Or maybe I’d underestimated the sheer inventiveness of hip-hop artists.
Now I’ve hit this half-millennial milestone, I thought it would be interesting to look back over the data thus far. If it’s not David Koresh, who or what – from my sample so far – is the most popular subject for hip-hop similes?
I’ve been phenomenally lazy recently and haven’t got much else to offer. So this can also serve as a kind of ‘round up of the year’ post. Prepare to gorge yourself on hip-hop simile statistics.
- Tracks analysed: 32
- Similes recorded: 502
- Average similes per track: 15.69
- Total words analysed: 18,466
- Rappers in the database: 60
Those 32 tracks comprise 2 hours, 9 minutes and 22 seconds of hip-hop – with a simile arriving like clockwork every 15.46 seconds. I put together a Spotify playlist with most of them on if you’re interested.
Obviously I pick out tracks with loads of similes, otherwise most posts would be (even more) tedious. Reader-submitted tracks (a rare treat) tend to be less densely packed with similes. I doubt a simile every 15.5 seconds is typical of all hip-hop. Like Goldilocks’s worst nightmare, bear that in mind.
But it does put into perspective how impressive Pharaoh Monche’s simile flexing in Official is. Like a broken vending machine, he churns one out every 9.08 seconds – a simile per minute score that will take some beating.
Of the 60 illustrious wordsmiths to go into the database so far, only seven are women. This is something I’ve anguished over before and gives me a good idea for a New Year’s resolution. As you might expect, the majority (50) are from the USA, the birthplace of hip-hop. Coming up the rear are the British (eight) and Canadians (two). I’d love to offer more international diversity, but for now I’m restricted to English-speaking rappers for obvious reasons.
Size me up and you will find nothing’s larger
What can we surmise from this reasonably big sample? We can say with some confidence that the average hip-hop track:
- is about 243 seconds long (just over four minutes)
- has around 577 words (ignoring samples and spoken bits). That’s over a page of A4, stationery fans
We can also assume that the average hip-hop posse size is 1.88. Though to be fair, 15 of the tracks I’ve looked at feature just one rapper. So the true mean posse size probably sits around 2.65. So somewhere between Kriss Kross and De La Soul.
Hip-hop simile themes
All told I’ve added 1,561 tags to my collection, so about three per simile. 789 of these tags are unique, which demonstrates how wide-ranging the rap references spread. But these tags do help me look at more general themes.
I’ll admit my taxonomy system is a bit of a mess, but I do try to be consistent. Here are the top ten tag categories from my first 502 similes:
|Food and drink||34|
While it’s satisfying to see quite a bit of consistency in the numbers, there’s quite a bit of overlap. And ‘uncategorisable’ is a category that no-one wants to see, least of all me. But it has its uses for when I’m completely stumped, which is evidently about one in 20 similes.
This table gives us an idea of the broad themes in hip-hop simile, but little else. So like a miner who got a spade for Christmas let’s dig a little deeper. It’ll get more interesting I promise.
Let’s start with the most frequent tag, ‘celebrities’.
32 of my 502 similes reference musicians. How very meta, but not really surprising. Hip-hop is a genre born from piggybacking off samples from countless places. The musicians represented in hip-hop simile reflect these eclectic influences. Out of these 32, artists from soul, pop, jazz, rock and disco pop up. And of course hip-hop. But it’s soul that’s way out front, perhaps unsurprisingly: funk and soul have always been a huge influence on rap beatmakers.
So far only one musician has been the subject of more than one simile: take a bow walrus of love Barry White. Way back in my third track, Biz Markie claimed to be ‘not as White as Barry‘. We sadly lost Biz in 2021, giving him the chance to compare whiteness with Barry wherever musicians go when they shuffle off their mortal stage. Grand Puba gave us the other simile, when telling us his ‘rhymes carry like the weight on Barry.’ Nice.
After musicians in our simile popularity contest comes those from the sporting sphere. These aren’t all sportspeople, there are a few managers in there (and one mascot). I should point out that 11 of these come from one track, which no doubt skews things a bit.
No sporting heroes were mentioned in similes more than once. But looking at the sports involved, it’s easy to spot the US influence at play. We have ten from basketball, and six each from baseball and American football. Bringing up the rear are boxers (three) and one lone ice hockeyist (think that’s what you call them). US sports are far from my area of expertise, and this is where genius.com’s annotated lyrics and Wikipedia articles come into their own.
After music and sport, film and TV completes our pop culture celebrities triumvirate. Something that jumps out at me like a kickboxer playing hide and seek is that a lot of these are action movie stars. I think this is because a lot of tracks I’ve looked at are from the early 90s, when action-packed Hollywood blockbusters were impossible to avoid.
We’ve seen Wu-Tang’s Raekwon tell us he’s ‘built like Schwarzenegger‘, Abdominal make a clever reference to Jean-Claude van Damme and Del throw a confusing simile about Mr. T at us. But the hip-hop simile action hero of choice so far is Sylvester Stallone, the only actor to crop up more than once:
You’re still a soldier, I’m like Sly Stone in CobraNas, It Ain’t Hard to Tell, 1994
[I’m] sly like StalloneYoung MC, Know How, 1989
Both tracks are from the peak Stallone period, his opus magnum surely being 1992’s Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
Keen simile spotters among you might have noticed that two of the examples above are what I call switcheroos. These aren’t standard similes that compare one thing with another. Switcheroos use wordplay based on famous people’s surnames. This is a very common form of hip-hop simile and may explain famous people’s popularity with rappers. Because I’m cool like Phil, I’ve looked at switcheroos in more detail before.
That’s it for people, but I wanted to take a closer look at two of the other common themes I’ve found: food and drink, and animals.
Food and drink
I didn’t expect this one, but it seems rappers have an appetite for similes that reference food and drink. Unfortunately there isn’t much interesting to pull out of the 34 food and drink-related similes we’ve seen. So we won’t dwell on this. But you might be interested to know that the only ones that repeat are about chewing gum and jam (or ‘jelly’, for our friends across the Atlantic).
Animals are a mainstay in idioms, fables and figures of speech, so it’s no surprise to find them high on the list of simile themes. Having said that, that one track about bird-watching does give animals a boost. Excluding Heem’s ornithological obsession, we have had three other bird-related similes. But it’s the marine world that’s truly taken the bait, with piranhas, sharks and whales providing simile inspiration. Melle Mel ‘was writing more rhymes than the shark could chew‘, while Kool Keith bites the bottom of an unfortunate mademoiselle ‘like a piranha’.
It’s thanks to Danny Brown that we have a reigning animal champ: the humble whale. I won’t repeat them here, because one makes me feel a little queasy.
Like an overexerted whale, I’ve had enough of this deep dive. I’m keen like Roy (there it is again) to get to 1,000 similes and see if the similescape has changed. At this rate, it’ll be sometime around 2025.
Hip-hop simile of the year 2021
There only remains one thing to do: announce the inaugural hip-hop simile of the year. Try and contain yourself. I’ve taken it from tracks I’ve looked at over the past 12 months, rather than 2021-released music. That would involve being way more up to speed with new hip-hop than I’m prepared or able to be.
In my book, the best similes have three desirable qualities:
- they are (sometimes deceptively) simple
- they raise a smile
- they conjure up a vivid image.
And you get bonus points if it’s a diss at someone. The Hip-hop Simile of the Year 2021 certainly ticks these boxes. So it’s congratulations to Talib Kweli for this evocative exemplar of the format, which turns 20 this year:
I clutch the mic like your grandma clutch her rosaryTalib Kweli, Good to You, 2002
Lovely stuff. Happy new year and here’s to a 2022 packed full of more hip-hop similes. Somebody has to do this, so it may as well be me.