In response to our recently assigned close reading assignments, I’ve decided to do a four part study of one of my favorite songs: Brother Ali’s “Uncle Sam Goddamn”. I believe that the four inquiry approach to lyric analysis provides the listener with a much deeper and complex understanding of artistic expression as a whole. To begin with, I’ll explore the first degree of inquiry, linguistics. The passage I’ll examine comes from the first verse of the song (which goes as follows).
Smoke and mirrors, stripes and stars
Stolen for the cross in the name of God
Bloodshed, genocide, rape and fraud
Written to the pages of the law, good lord
This passage has very unique and carefully chosen vocabulary and grammar in order to set the tone for the rest of the song. Ali strictly uses nouns in the first and third lines, while implying that “stolen” and “written” are past tense verbs in the second and fourth. The nouns he chooses are of a very specific quality in that “smoke and mirrors, stripes and stars” is far less violent than “bloodshed, genocide, rape and fraud”. Furthermore, “cross”, “God”, “law”, and “lord” are all used within this small passage, a very important aspect of the song. Also, the syntax is idiosyncratic because Ali uses parataxis to compare phrases and words that normally aren’t associated with one another (I know I’m going beyond first degree here but this is a very important literary tactic to acknowledge). Moreover, the descriptive nouns in the first and third lines definitely don’t follow traditional sentence structure because they solely exist for comparison to the following lines. Additionally, Brother Ali goes beyond the normal denotation of the descriptive nouns. “Smoke and mirrors” refers to a metaphor that describes deception, disguise, and obscurity. The phrase “stripes and stars” (more commonly seen as stars and stripes in pop culture) acts as a metaphor to the United State’s flag, a popular image that also refers to the pride American’s feel for our country. The first line of this verse, containing both the metaphors previously described, contains another distinct form of figurative language. The “s” sound in “smoke”, “stripes”, “stars”, and “stolen” forms alliteration that Ali uses to stress the importance of these words. The combination of vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and figurative language help for a distinct style in Brother Ai’s rapping. He sets a mellow pace immediately and stays with that for the entire passage. His pace slightly increases on the first and third lines because he lets the first beat of the line fall without saying anything in order force those lines to be faster. His tone is also very similar to the pace in respect to its even characteristics and his smooth delivery. Ali uses his charming (slight) Southern drawl to compliment the pace, and they work hand in hand to produce a very deep, assured tone that oozes confidence. In order to enunciate certain words, Brother Ali shapes his diction so that the word that falls on each beat is also enunciated pretty heavily. Although this isn’t a revolutionary rapping style, it reinforces the importance of those words to the reader. If you look back to the highlighted pieces of the lines, those are the words that fall on the beat and are also enunciated. Perhaps the beat itself stresses the words, but when I listen to the song I hear very clear distinctions between certain words. These three aspects, pace, tone, and diction, combine to form an utterly confident and wise rapping style. Brother Ali is comparable to a pastor preaching a sermon with extreme dedication and conviction. He’s trying to inform the listeners and teach them a lesson about something he knows a great deal about. He engages in a mutualistic relationship with the words by integrating his unique style with potent vocabulary.
Look for my second degree analysis next week guys!