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She like a white-rumped sandpiper

A white-rumped sandpiper on a beach

Image: seabamirum via Flickr

  • Track: Birding
  • Artist: Swet Shop Boys
  • Album: Sufi La EP
  • Year: 2017

After our last outing got very heavy pretty quickly, this time I wanted to consider a more wholesome side of hip-hop. This track is definitely in the top five hip-hop tracks about the joys of bird-watching.

Birds are very much on my mind at the moment. This is the time of year when herring gulls nest on my roof. These antisocial, massive and fearless things are as annoying as living next to an amateur drummer. Which I also do. He hasn’t improved in three months, and I’m wondering where he gets his unwavering optimism from. Still, I look forward to a time where he can at least keep a rhythm. And at least he doesn’t start at 4am like the gulls do.

I’m contractually obliged at this point to mention that gulls wouldn’t be living on my roof if it weren’t for over-fishing. So they aren’t the real monsters here. But they are really annoying.

Anyway, when I’m not analysing rap similes, I’m quite partial to grabbing my binoculars and heading out to the hills myself. There are several parallels between the gentle, harmless hobbies of twitching and hip-hop simile collecting. Both need patience, attention to detail and a weirdly-obsessive streak. But only one requires going outside, so I prefer to concentrate my efforts on the simile stuff. Until my neighbour starts up his daily assault on his tom-toms that is. It sounds like a toddler has remixed the EastEnders cliffhanger sound using a Fisher Price four-track. At about 180 dB.

I also toyed with the idea of looking at similes in The Anfield Rap, given that Liverpool just won their first title in 30 years. Also one of the fans of the blog who definitely exists has repeatedly suggested it. But unfortunately it has about as many similes as Arsenal have decent centre backs. We’ll get to it eventually of course, maybe in time for Liverpool winning their next title.

Swet Shop Boys is a collaboration between American-Indian rapper Heems and English-Pakistani MC, writer and actor Riz Ahmed (AKA Riz MC). Ahmed’s one of those annoyingly talented people that can do anything they turn their hand to. Luckily he’s horrendously ugly. Oh no, wait. He’s gorgeous, of course. But I don’t think Riz is on this track, unless he’s doing the bird noises, which wouldn’t surprise me. Talented bastard.

This little treat of an EP comes from 2017. In it, Heems and Riz wryly cover all sorts of themes in typically playful style. It’s also jam-packed with similes. Swet Shop Boys often take a revealing look at modern race politics from two different trans-Atlantic angles, and their stuff is well worth your time. It’s also often very funny. But this track stands out as an unapologetically silly diversion. I love it.

Nearly all these similes relate to species of birds. It’s quite hard to think of whimsical commentary for them all, especially when a herring gull’s given you a 4am wake up call. So at heart this post is really about the beauty of nature, and I’ve found lovely pictures of any birds mentioned in the similes.

I’m also ignoring the idea that the whole thing might be an elaborate metaphor for hitting on women. I just want to believe this is simply a hip-hop track about birdwatching.

Quack quack.

The lyrics

View full annotated lyrics on genius.com

[Intro]

Birdsong
Birdsong
Birdsong
Birdsong

[Hook]

You know I’m birding baby (birdsong)
Where my binoculars at? (birdsong)
I’m with the trees (birdsong)
I’m looking for birds, yo (birdsong)

[Verse 1]

I’ve been to Hell and back and then Hell again
Brown pelican, streets is where I dwell again
All you rappers on the mic sound dull
Me? I’m fly, swallow-tailed gull
I drop facts, call me Snapple
I’m in the sky, I’m a boat-tailed grackle

As with about 80% of hip-hop, Heems opens the track by emphasising his credentials. All the birds mentioned in the entire track are genuine by the way (even boat-tailed grackle). Heems has done his homework.

For the curious, Snapple is a brand of fruit drink. I don’t think you get them over here. Each bottle has a fact printed on the inside of the lid.

I’m on a block like I’m coke or heron
Fit very colorful, tricoloured heron

Heron is of course a street name for heroin, which is why he’s pronouncing it this way, it’s not to force the rhyme. In our first example of what I like to call ‘the or rule’, this counts as two similes. Heems takes this to extremes in the last verse. I hope you can contain your excitement.

I’m with your girl tucked under the duvet
She very beautiful, she like a blue jay

Tut tut, Heems. You wouldn’t find any self-respecting RSPB member in bed with someone else’s girlfriend. But it’s undeniable that blue jays are beautiful:

A blue jay in the grass with a peanut in its mouth
It is blue though. Clearly. Image: Jon Sailer via Unsplash

Hip-hop bird nerd fact! According to this psychopath, if you crush the wing of a Blue Jay the resulting powder (powder?!) will be brown. They are not blue at all, but you’ll only discover this yourself if you decide for some reason to make bird wing powder.

She don’t like you, she said you was a peasant
She said I’m classy like a ring-necked pheasant

A ring-necked pheasant
Why did the ring-necked pheasant cross the road? Image: K Schneider via Flickr

As you can see here, pheasants definitely do have a lot of class. In the UK at least, they are bred for classless upper-class arseholes to shoot when they’re not ruining the country.

I like to talk to her and pipe her
She like a white-rumped sandpiper
Ey yo I asked her if she needed a manager
Go out and look for her, flame-colored tanager

White-rumped sandpipers are graceful, long-winged shorebirds. They have one of the longest migration routes of any American bird. So hopefully Heems doesn’t mean she’ll disappear across North America for a month.

Hip-hop bird nerd fact! The rump of the white-rumped sandpiper is actually brown. This makes two misnomered birds we’ve met so far. This suggests that those responsible for naming them are either quick to jump the gun or a bit lazy.

[Hook]

You know I’m birding baby (birdsong)
Where my binoculars at? (birdsong)
I’m with the trees (birdsong)
I’m looking for birds (birdsong)
You know I’m birding baby (birdsong)
Where my binoculars at? (birdsong)
I’m with the trees (birdsong)
I’m looking for birds, quack quack

[Verse 2]

Blue-winged teal, green-winged teal
Up in our fields and we’re bumping Seal
She looks like she blush when we feeling the rush
I’m a curve-billed thrasher, she a grey-cheeked thrush

I’m not sure why you’d expect to bump into soul crooner Seal in the middle of a field. There’s certainly no mention of a fondness for twitching on his Wikipedia page. It’s possible this is a mistranscription, but what else it could be escapes me. This is not the most impressive simile by any means, so let’s move quietly on.

We move around the sky like we cargo
Yo we move around the sky like a plain-capped starthroat

With a level of pedantry I can only aspire to, the Genius transcriber notes that one should not confuse ‘birders’ with mere ‘birdwatchers’. Apparently birders are more far keener, travelling the globe so that they might catch a glimpse of their quarry. It seems that Heems is similarly dedicated to his art.

The cargo simile is our 300th simile by the way. I know the really dedicated simile-spotters among you would want to know this.

Plain-capped starthroats are large hummingbirds, and are rather beautiful:

A plain-capped starthroat sitting on a twig
Doesn’t look much like a star to me. Image: Budgora via Flickr

Hip-hop bird nerd fact! One of the collective nouns for a group of hummingbirds is a ‘tune’. Get it? Who says bird fanatics don’t have a fun side?

She very hippy-dippy, she a Deadhead
Shouts out Redinho, yo, he a redhead
Plus he sampled a bird on the tune
To me yeah he sounds like, yo, a red-throated loon
Yellow-billed loon, pacific loon, maybe it’s a common or arctic loon

Maybe it’s not Riz MC making the bird noises after all. Redinho is the UK producer behind the Swet Shop Boys’ beats. And Deadheads is of course the collective name for Grateful Dead fans.

This section is where an avid simile-watcher like myself will find it difficult to maintain composure. But in the name of simile taxonomy, I shall try to keep my cool. Here, Heems crams in five in two lines as he takes some time to decide which loon species Redinho may have sampled. Lovely stuff. What’s impressive is that he’s name-checked every species of loon known to man. Eat your heart out, Chris Packham.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate their beauty. Apparently one of the collective names for a group of loons is an ‘asylum’. I take what I said back about bird fanatics having a funny side.

A red-throated loon sitting on the water
The red-throated loon, also from the no-nonsense school of bird naming. Image: Mick Thompson via Flickr
A yellow-billed loon sitting on the water
The yellow-billed loon. Image: Tim Wilberding via Flickr
A pacific loon sitting on the water
This specific loon is the pacific loon. Image: Tim Wilberding via Flickr
A common loon sitting in water
The common loon probably isn’t named after Common the rapper, but it should be. Image: Sunny via Flickr
An artic loon swimming
Last but not least (but probably the coldest), the arctic loon. Image: logan khale via Flickr

Hip-hop bird nerd fact! I don’t know where ‘loon’ comes from, but in the UK we call them ‘divers’. Not as cool a name, but you can’t fault our no-nonsense approach to naming birds.

The final verse sees Heems descend into some sort of birding ecstasy. He throws the hip-hop rule book to the wind and starts rhyming as many bird species as he can. And he does a pretty good job of it. No similes though, which saves me from having to think of something to say about the 24 species he crams into this bit. Phew.

I’m eating muffins, with a nightingale
Atlantic puffin, Montezuma quail
Virginia rail, California black rail
If you tried to rhyme bird names you would fail
Black-footed albatross, Cassin’s auklet
American bittern, Brewer’s blackbird
Mountain bluebird, brown booby
Indigo bunting, bushtit
Canvasback, Northern cardinal, grey catbird
Chickadee, chickadee
American coot
Cormorant, cowbird, American crow
Common ground dove, Eurasian collared dove
Dowitcher

I like to imagine this is what David Attenborough sings to himself in the shower.

So all that remains is to remind us, if you’d somehow forgotten, that this song is about birds.

[Outro]

That’s a bird!
Yo, that’s a bird!
This the birdsong, yo, that’s a bird!
That’s a bird!
That’s a bird!
This the birdsong, yo, that’s a bird!
That’s a bird!
Yo, that’s a bird!
This the birdsong, yo, that’s a bird!
That’s a bird!
That’s a bird!
This the birdsong, yo, that’s a bird!

If there’s a better hip-hop tune about the joys of bird-watching, I’m yet to hear it. 

Having put down my metaphorical binoculars and consulted my literal notepad, that’s a respectable 13 similes in this track, mostly bird-related of course. Without the lunacy of the loon section, we’d only have a distinctly average eight. That’ll skew the database in the favour for birdlife for a bit, but these things even themselves out. Simile-spotters might not have the kind of recognition that birdwatchers do, but surely it’s only a matter of time.

All of this got me wondering what the collective noun for a group of similes might be. Funnily enough, one doesn’t seem to exist. So I’m staking my claim to it here. Take note dictionary writers: it’s an ‘equivalence’ of similes. Because why not?

The stats

Similes:13
Words:398
Words per simile:30.62
Length:3m 04s
Similes per minute:4.24
Bird species referenced:42

Leave a comment. Bonus points for similes.