This sentence is a lot shorter than the last one; and unlike the last one, I don’t know who wrote it. It goes like this:
“N.B. Rakim is NOT saying ‘frienemy’.”
This requires some context. This is an annotation for the song “I Ain’t No Joke” by Eric B. and Rakim, on the website Genius.com, which used to be called Rap Genius and before that Rap Exegesis. I am not a head, but I really enjoy listening to hip hop, and go through occasional kicks of listening to older stuff, like Eric B. and Rakim. I know enough that I was able to guide my mother through most of the hip hop references in Hamilton. And I was listening to Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full a few months ago, and following along some of the words, and I was pretty sure that I heard Rakim say “frienemy”. (It would not have occurred to me, by the way, to put an i in frienemy; I usually spelled it “frenemy,” valuing ease of pronunciation over preserving the “frie” of friend. But I like the more letter based one and I’ll stick with it). So I clicked on the annotation for that line, and was instructed to note well that Rakim is NOT saying frienemy.
The line goes like this: “Another enemy, not even a friend of me/Cause you’ll get fried in the end when you pretend to be”. (“Frienemy” as a reading of what’s actually “friend of me” would make a lot less sense). Here’s more fun with “frie” and “friend” though — “fried” reads as being more like “friend” than it is (since it has a whole new vowel sound in the middle), but coming just before “end” it makes the constituents of “friend” and something that gets about as close to a repetition as you can get without repeating. It’s so good! This though is close to all I have to say for now about the song, as I turn again to the sentence that is the text of today’s blog. It’s somewhat obtuse, I guess, to write a post about Eric B. and Rakim in which I focus so much on an anonymous annotation instead; but the post is only accidentally about Eric B. and Rakim and is actually about attitudes of annotation. So here’s “I Ain’t No Joke” for your listening pleasure, and now here’s some more on the ideas of annotation and its ability to help or hinder the enjoyment of music.
One of my tics on the blog that I made the last time I tried to have a blog that made any sense was a kind of slide into oracular pronouncements, usually about language and some glob about the power of language to do whatever stupid thing. I will probably keep doing it. The usual thing about language’s power to do anything, though, is that it decreases insofar as it explains. “Those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it” doesn’t really explain anything; its ubiquity is a testament to its power. In my less charitable moments I find myself making fun of Aristotle because of his willingness, in the Poetics, to explain it all: “A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be.” That’s nobody’s senior quote, but it explains something.
What’s striking about “N.B. Rakim is not saying ‘frenemy'” is that it combines the explanatory and the powerful, at least to me. The note is actually the second part of the annotation; it follows a straightforward gloss on what Rakim’s lines mean (“Don’t bother pretending to be R’s friend, cause once you’re found to be his enemy…game and career over.”) It sticks around — a friendly warning not to get your timeframes screwed up and assign anachronistic (and contextually nonsensical) portmanteaus to Rakim. It gets some of its power (and charm!) from its position, unlike the earlier gloss, that’s a little pulled apart: it’s not just explaining what Rakim meant, but connecting to us (to me!) the bad listener who naturally would assume that he was saying frienemy, and setting me straight.
There is a strain of alleged humor that arises from using the language of scholarship to talk about hip hop writing, as though there is something inherently ridiculous in applying the language of Great Geniuses like I guess F.R. Leavis to schlumps like Slick Rick. I find this inherentness suspect; if there’s anything worthwhile in F.R. Leavis, it’s something that’s portable to any instance of language, and something that will only work insofar as it’s not ridiculous. Is “I hold the microphone like a grudge/B’ll hold the record so the needle won’t budge” less worthy of the English Department’s apparatus than “At the round earth’s imagined corners blow/Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise”? Obviously not. And Genius, when it was called Rap Genius, and when it had significantly less input from the artists who make up what it mostly tracks, had some dubious events in its orbit. These aren’t things to forget; but there is also the amazing and thriving community of annotators and of fascinating commentary on the site of verified commenters (i.e., the people who created this content in the first place). Without needing to say that Genius has transcended its tech-bro, casually-racially-insensitive-at-best-origin, I do think that it’s now the location for interesting and engaged exegesis — which is to say, people helping each other.
And that’s why I like “N.B. Rakim is NOT saying ‘frienemy'”. It might read as a little close to the intentional fallacy for some — “what if I hear ‘frienemy’?” — but really, it’s just trying to help you out. I get the feeling that that sentence has been there, too — that it heard frienemy and had to forewarn others — and in that I find great fellowship.