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I’m picking words like the best crops

A woman in a hairnet harvesting a cannabis crop

Image: Terre di Cannabis via Unsplash

  • Track: Rice Torture
  • Artist: The Four Owls
  • Album: Natural Order
  • Year: 2015

Today we return once more to the UK. It’s been a while. During lockdown, I’ve obviously spent more time at home than normal. To fill this void, I started to plough through Romesh Ranganathan’s excellent Hip Hop Saved My Life podcast. Anyone with even a passing interest in hip-hop should do the same. I’ve managed about 60 episodes so far, even though Romesh omits the hyphen in hip-hop, which irritates me.

Thanks to the podcast, I’ve discovered loads of new classic and contemporary hip-hop. An early-ish show features a couple of members of British crew the Four Owls. I liked what I heard, and decided to check them out. I’m glad I did. Now I’m the wrong side of 40 (deep breath), it’s getting harder to discover new music. I’ve really enjoyed feeling, even if for a fleeting moment, that I have my finger that little bit nearer the hip-hop pulse. Thanks, Covid-19, you’re the greatest. 

Flocking together from Brighton, London and the South West, the Four Owls sport weird owl masks. I’m not sure if this is a nod to the mighty and permanently masked DOOM, but it might be. There are worse artists to take your cue from. They also use owl-related pseudonyms. I guess this makes them a parliament of rappers. (I promise this is the last terrible owl joke.) So this now makes three (roughly) bird-related posts in a row. Somebody call Bill Oddie. But these four must be doing something right; their 2020 album Nocturnal Instinct features DJ Premier, IHHSD inductee Kool G Rap and Masta Killa. Not bad.

Permit me to sound (even) old(er) for a second. I’ll admit that I hadn’t given much attention to the UK rap scene in recent years. I’ve let myself fall into the trap of thinking it was all, well, trap and grime these days. My tender, decrepit ears can’t take that stuff. But as The Four Owls prove, there are still British artists making what I’d wankily refer to as ‘pure’ hip-hop. This is boisterous, energetic (but not 140bpm) hip-hop with a classic focus on bass and snare beats. And, importantly for a middle-aged simile detective, lyrics delivered at a pace that I can understand.

This stone-cold banger opens The Four Owls’ second album, 2015’s Natural Order. I’ve not had time to fully digest their back catalogue yet (I’m straining to avoid an owl pellet reference here). So it’s possible there are Four Owls tunes with way more similes, but this one grabbed my attention right away. All Four Owls are expert simile users. Check out this one from BVA (pronounced ‘beaver’ I think, rather than as in the Blinded Veterans Association):

Forever defiant, skinny frame giant
Always lean going round corners like Robin Reliants

Defiant by the Four Owls

When I get round to organising some sort of hip-hop simile world cup, this one’s going to be a strong contender for at least a quarter-final spot.

I normally find a thread to riff on through my ‘analysis’, but I’ve struggled a bit here. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because this is a fairly straight-forward set of rhymes without a common idea running throughout. Or it’s possible that it’s easier to gently take the piss out of twenty year old rap tunes than contemporary ones. It’s definitely harder when the rappers in question are young enough to easily batter me senseless. So what follows is more straight down the line than normal.

If you’re wondering what rice torture is, I would take the Urban Dictionary definition with a pinch of salt (or maybe brown sugar). There’s not much about it out there, at least as far as I can stomach looking. But I’m choosing to believe this slightly more prosaic explanation (it’s still gross).

Oh, and one more thing. You should definitely check out this track’s video. It’s brilliant.

The lyrics

View full annotated lyrics on genius.com

[Verse 1 – Deformed Wing (Leaf Dog)]

The end is where I found a new beginning
Teaching a silkworm to make [something] with some fresh linen
Still spitting
Head spinning
Like a cobra with his teeth missing

I ain’t drinking what they’re sipping

First up is Leaf Dog (AKA Deformed Wing), who also doubles as the Owls’ beatmaker. It’s an in your face arrival, setting the tone for both the track and the album. I can’t work out what he’s teaching the silkworm to make, but I’m not going to dwell on it. The Genius transcription is solid, but has a few mistakes that I’ve corrected here where I can.

Subtle (and not so subtle) references to owls abound in the Four Owls’ lyrics, and here’s our first, in simile form too. Woo. It’s a nice bit of imagery, though I’m not sure what he was actually going for. It makes me think of a dodgy snake charmer (a snake oil charmer?) who’s tampered with his pet snake.

You can get the Hateorade edition
Pissed ‘cause no-one listens
We’re all about green like low emissions

I normally like to break lyrics down into groups of rhymes to not interrupt the flow. But because of Leaf Dog’s (ahem) dogged rhyming, it’s going to be tough here. So I’ll do the similes in smallish chunks. It’s worth listening to his verse a few times, because the acrobatics of his flow are easy to miss the first time.

Leaf Dog sets the standard for simile use in this track, with his three owl friends not quite living up to his example. This one’s obviously a declaration of love for marijuana. That’s why I chose the post title and picture. The Four Owls are not shy about this (if you didn’t watch the video, I suggest you do. You’ll see what I mean).

Here’s a new edition
Sent with no hesitation
All you see is flashing lights like interrogations

This simile makes me think of a blow to the head and seeing stars. I guess this bit is also introducing the album. I’ve categorised this simile under ‘police’ too because of the flashing lights thing, but it could be a more sinister type of interrogation.

Bad presentation
Every bar’s a revelation
No dub samples, hold the Leaf’s reservation
Fuck with us like fornication
Ready to bust like a virgin on his penetration
Treat a sample like a mummy’s preservation

When you’re dealing with such a densely-packed simile spectacular, every bar is indeed a revelation. ‘Hold the Leaf’s reservation’ is what I hear, and it sort of makes sense, so let’s go with it.

Things turn a little blue here, but we’re all adults (I hope). Straightforward similes like this are by no means bad, it’s just hard to think of anything interesting or amusing to say about them.

Mildly interestingly, these first two similes are only the 7th and 8th in the database to be about sex. I’ve catalogued well over 300 so far. Given the tropes that people associate with rap music, you might find this surprising. And Kool G Rap skewed this with his priapic rap epic Talk Like Sex.

It’s also our first entry about mummies, but that’s less surprising.

You never have heart, you’re just racing
Need a machine to put the pace in
Never know who’s got your back like a Mason
Stick to tracks like the dog just pulled the sleigh in

Given how many rhymes Leaf crammed in, I reckon we can let him off ending on ‘sleigh in’. That’s what I hear anyway, the Genius transcription has ‘stick to tracks like the dog just booed his legging’. I’m not having that.

The Freemasons are obviously notorious for being a shady secret society. Though I think they’re trying to change that, I saw some on a recruitment drive in Stockport recently, of all places.

Oof. Eight similes in the first verse. That’s quite the start. Leaf Dog’s done a lot of the simile heavy lifting here, nearly half of them on the entire track. It’ll be good to have a bit of a breather then, as BVA (AKA Rusty Take-Off, the best owl pseudonym of the lot) can only muster two. But we’ll let him off because it’s still a great verse.

[Verse 2 – Rusty Take-Off (BVA)]

Burnt out connections idiot infection
Cannabis collections for paranoid reflections
Took classes A through C in a dream
Woke up and found the knowledge in a poorer g-string
I’m an untrained animal, I built a dam out of the manual
But keep dropping it like my hands are full

There’s no way it’s poorer g-string’, but the best I can come up with is ‘porridgy stream’ which makes even less sense. BVA wears his drug-taking heart on his sleeve here, obviously not afraid to ruffle a few feathers (sorry).

This is the first of many of the track’s simile that I can’t think of anything interesting to say about. So let’s move swiftly on, because the next one is ace.

Something’s watching, but is it following?
Case on the table, is it my name they’re honouring?
But keep manoeuvring
I keep it smoother than the average type hooligan

Nice. Who cares if BVA’s similes are thin on the ground when the quality is this good? Your average hooligan will of course favour the skinhead look.

Didn’t meet but you knew my pen
Or knew my friends, that’s the High Focus
Call a doctor, this shit is sick, better grow the dosage
Comatose kids when the flow kicks back
Girls pop ’em out so fast, they get tit lash
Too many quit rap, bring Slick Rick back
We’ll sing rest in peace to the artists that switched rats

[Verse 3 – Big Owl (Fliptrix)]

I have no idea why artists would switch rats. I guess owls might, but it’s probably something else, maybe ‘racks’, like in a record store. That would make sense given the reference to quitting rap.

High Focus is the Four Owls’ record label, founded by our next feathered friend Fliptrix. Like his fellow Owls, he has a laid back, languid style that fits this beat beautifully.

My profession’s mic murdering
Approach from all angles, I’m climbing out of the furnishings
See the cops, then I’m swerving ’em
Three point shots, nothing but net, I’m serving ‘em
The queens head, I’m burning them
I’m living’ proof you get you dreams if you work for ’em
I lost memories like fam, I’m writing verse for ‘em

To Fliptrix, losing his memory is as bad as losing family members. He might want to lay off the green for a little while, it might help.

Pissy gift not a curse when I is turbulent
When lies emerge, protect your chest like your sternum does

While ‘pissy gift’ is almost certainly wrong, it makes me smile, so I’m leaving it in. But I’m going to pull Fliptrix up on a technicality here. The sternum more or less is the chest, protecting the heart and lungs. But that would be hard to make scan.

Sharpie with the flow, yeah, you know it’s so permanent
I percolate where the stench of pain permeates
My words are straight unlike the curves on the girl I date
Four Owls stay masked, like a burglar’s face
Flying so high, we’re found right by the Pearly Gates

Ooh. It’s been a while since we’ve seen a negative simile, they’re as rare as owls’ teeth. Because owls have beaks, obviously. And Fliptrix sticks with chicks with hips.

As mentioned above, the Four Owls are normally seen in their interesting looking masks. Mind you, it would take a ballsy burglar to rock these masks.

Now with a sound that gives the opposite a breakdown
Real will recognise real, the skill will take the fakes out

We’re three quarters of the way through the track, and (checks calculator) 82% of the way through the similes. So just a few more to tick off from Verb T, who wins the award for the least inspired owl-based alias.

[Verse 4 – Bird T (Verb T)]

Live and unleashed viper tongue T
Tie your tongue around your neck, man, I’m climbing up peaks
The mountaineer, now it’s clear, a new cycle
Pedalling fast, they’re messing with our survival
Terror to the eyeballs, effective to the brain
Blood, sweat and tears smeared over the terrain
It’s the path less travelled, the front is unravelling
The fabric disappears, now there’s just a hollow mannequin
Standing in the wilderness, bewildered by the silence
Unforgiving pain hidden deep like a sniper

Like a lot of hip-hop, and most of this track, Verb T’s verse isn’t about anything specific. It’s about flexing his wordplay muscle. There are loose themes here: being good at rapping, being hard, being successful. But it’s best to not get bogged down with it all. Enjoy the flow and the rhyming. Not everything needs to tell a story.

War and the military imagery crop up in hip-hop quite a bit. So it surprised me when I checked the records and saw it was only the fourth such simile to go in.

Take your best shot, fuck ’em up when I got ’em open
Like the virus on your desktop

I’m picking words like the best crops

These two lovely little examples wrap up our latest rap simile odyssey. I like the image of carefully picking words like a weed grower selecting their best buds.

Stress not while you seeing red and getting sent off
The rep got bigger and I’m still saying ‘F’ the critics
Been dope for years and I’m still getting better with it
Biatch!

And that’s that then. A healthy 17 similes from the Four Owls, earning them a spot in the similes per minute top ten. I’ve only done 22 tracks so far to be fair, but it’s still good going. They are now leading the way in the race to be crowned the UK’s top hip-hop simile dogs.

Although the focus has been on birds over the last three entries, today we welcome two new animals into the database: snakes and dogs. We’re building up quite the menagerie of similes here. It’s like I’m the Noah of nerdy hip-hop analysis.

The stats

Similes:17
Words:562
Words per simile:33.06
Length:3m 57s
Similes per minute:4.30
Dreadful owl puns written and subsequently deleted:Twinty Twoo

2 Comments

  1. Henry B.

    Great stuff Dar. A parliament of owls? colour me tought. Oh, don’t call B. Oddie bless, the Lithium’s hit him hard during lockdown. Thanks for the intro to Romesh’s podcast – 70+ episodes damn! Danke. H

    • Rayner

      Cheers! The podcast is great. I wrote this before learning about Bill Oddie’s recent troubles, and feel bad. Like Michael Jackson running his fingers over…actually, I’ll stop there.

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