Epik High garners respect as a Korean hip-hop group in part because of their innovative use of lyrics. Because many of their songs are in English, they provide an opportunity to appreciate the complexity of their rhymes and their skill manipulation of language.
While many critics focus on the social and political message of rap, Mtume ya Salaam reminds us that rap is an art, and when done well, “possesses at least one–and usually more than one–attribute such as sincerity, originality, honesty, or creativity” (303). We should not focus on critique to the exclusion of the artistry found in hip hop. Looking at the lyrics of a rap song is comparable to appreciating poetry. Both make use of “simile, metaphor, and alliteration as well as creative expression, originality, and conveyance of emotion” (305).
With that in mind, Epik High songs frequently use creative metaphors and innovative verbal phrases to describe the skill of rapping or critique the industry in which the group participates. Frequently, Epik High positions itself as cerebral rappers, targeting the minds as well as the feet of their audience. That stance marks them as unique in the K-hip hop world.
Follow the Flow (ft. Myk, D-tox)
“Follow the Flow” comes from the 2005 Epik High album, Swan Songs. The track reinforces the intellectual appeal of the track through references to the mental powers of the audience. Lyrics such as “I just did flipped your lid and gave your brain a kiss” demonstrate that the group targets the way people think and suggests they want to leave the audience pondering their words. Because of this kind of originality, they diverge from other groups: “We travel on into unknown don’t follow the roadsign/We just try to form the rhymes that read yo’ mind.”
Epik High frequently also includes plays on words in their lyrics. “Like an empty hospital/I’m out of patience” uses the word “patience” both in its literal meaning (lacking the capacity to remain calm when waiting) and its related meaning to patient (someone who needs medical treatment) within the context of a hospital. “I’m a prohibition MC – I speakeasy” uses the context from the 1920 and 1930s to underscore lyrical skill. In the United States, the prohibition era created speakeasys, or illegal clubs, so when the song references a “prohibition MC,” it taps into the rogue nature of the rhyme.
“Follow the Flow” also uses literary references to celebrate originality. The song draws from Irish literature to establish his skill as an MC:
Yes I am…the rap game’s voice
Every cat’s main choice, the rap James Joyce
It’s a piece of cake, gimmie a break,
I kill MCs, then speak at they Finnegan’s Wake
I’m much mo’ than a cheap CD
Any student forced to read the Irish writer James Joyce would understand the resonance of the reference. Joyce represents one of the most challenging writers in the English language. His novels, such as Ulysses, are complicated and dense, but also innovative, thus contributing to his reputation as a classic writer. The song uses this literary giant to underscore his own lyrical prowess in the song. The MC is rap’s James Joyce, which suggests that his raps are equally deep and complicated.
Free Music (ft. Myk)
While “Follow the Flow” celebrates the skill of the MC, “Free Music,” from the 2009 album Map the Soul, is a critique of an overall lack of originality in rap. In the first verse, MYK contrasts the mental work he puts into his rhymes (“I jog my mind around the writer’s block/Till it’s out of breath and asthmatic”) with the preoccupation with fame he notices in the industry:
I’ve had it with the paper chase, need I mention?
The rap game is all show and lyrical dissension
Pretension, obsession for physical possession
MYK faults the commercialism and quest for money as the primary motivator for some rappers. This has a negative impact on the creativity and artistry of their production. It is all show and no substance. Tablo’s verse focuses more on his skill:
Temporary relief so I’m makin’ it last
Takin’ it fast, lacin’ buds in raps, tracin’ raps with facts
Steppin’ up the game but not reppin’ for fame
Spittin’ truth up on the booth, then we settin’ it in flames
Here, Tablo focuses on his own skill. He is all business in the recording booth, seeking to be the best for his own sake, not to gain attention and make money. His rap is more substantial, filled with “facts” and “truth.”
In both of these tracks, Epik High seek to distinguish themselves thought their thought-provoking and creative lyrics.
“Epik High – Follow the Flow ft. MYK & D-Tox + Lyrics (HQ) (HD).” YouTube. 29 Jul 2011. Web. 1 Feb 2014.
“Epik High – Free Music (Tablo And MYK) (Ft. MYK).” YouTube. 29 Mar 2009. Web. 1 Feb 2014.
Salaam, Mtume ya. “The Aesthetics of Rap.” African American Review 29.2 (1995): 303-315.
“Steady Shaking the Ground”: Lyrical Skill in Epik High’s Music by Crystal S. Anderson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.