Phasing out the skit: How hip-hop outgrew one of its most frustrating traditions
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My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s most powerful track is the one I can’t play on a jukebox. An hour into the album, Kanye West finally snaps on “Blame Game.” After cheating on his girl during a rough patch, he panics, bombarding her voicemail with a series of increasingly vicious messages. The song ends with his stark realization that he’s blown any chance for reconciliation—or, rather, that’s where I wish the song ended. Instead the track rides out for another two and a half minutes with a raunchy, curiously out of place Chris Rock routine extolling what the stand-up describes as “some Cirque du Soleil pussy.” “It’s like you got this shit reupholstered or some shit,” Rock cracks, apparently unaware that he’s crashed such a sober song. “Who the fuck got your pussy reupholstered?”
Comedic interludes of that sort once came standard on most rap albums, but they’ve been steadily phased out over the past half decade or so. West, who couldn’t cram enough skits onto his first two albums, has been weaning himself from them; his 2011 album with Jay-Z, Watch The Throne, didn’t include any. The once skit-happy Eminem is kicking the habit, too. His dour 2010 album, Recovery, was his first without a single sketch; his Bad Meets Evil album with Royce Da 5’9’’, Hell: The Sequel, didn’t have one either. Nor, for that matter, did most of last year’s other best-selling rap albums: Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter IV, Drake’s Take Care, J. Cole’s Cole World, Wiz Khalifa’s Rolling Papers, Wale’s Ambition, and Mac Miller’s Blue Slide Park.
None of those albums are worse for their absence. Whatever their strengths as rappers, J. Cole and Wale aren’t natural cutups, so it’s hard to imagine there are fans clamoring to hear them read lines with Kat Williams. Drake may have a better sense of humor, but Take Care probably would have lost some of its heart-crushing poignancy if, for instance, after bidding a tender “maybe in the future” to a great love on the title track, he had a zany run-in with an overzealous fan, or he got an earful from an opinionated drive-thru worker.
Skits are one of hip-hop’s oddest innovations and most tiresome traditions. No genre before rap had taken periodic comedy breaks on its albums, and for good reason: Recorded comedy is hard enough for professional comedians to do right, let alone moonlighting musicians. Countless great rap albums are marred by unfunny skits. Outkast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below contains some of the duo’s most vibrant work, but it’s so lousy with interludes that I’ve never made it completely through either disc without hitting the skip button. The Fugees’ 1996 breakthrough, The Score, carries itself with a rare dignity, which makes its offensive Chinese restaurant skit that much more confounding. Wyclef Jean, it seems, has a particularly terrible sense of humor. The rapper packed his otherwise masterful 1997 solo debut The Carnival with some truly witless interludes, including “Words Of Wisdom,” a boorish cautionary tale about being accused of rape. (The word is screamed repeatedly, destroying the romance of the hit ballad that precedes the track, “Gone ’Till November,” in the ugliest way possible.)
When De La Soul introduced skits on its 1989 debut, 3 Feet High And Rising, the group wasn’t trying to be a trendsetter. The interludes on that album were just another manifestation of De La Soul’s eccentric individualism, and the humor was decidedly dweeby. “I like Twizzlers,” rapper Posdnuos introduced himself on the 3 Feet High’s opening game-show sketch, “and I like the alligator bob, and my favorite movie is Bloodsucking Freaks, just like your mama.” I still have no idea what the alligator bob is, but I’m guessing Posdnuos cited it for the same reason he name-checked Twizzlers: It just sounds goofy.
The group’s skits took a markedly more pointed turn on its 1991 follow-up, De La Soul Is Dead, which it framed as a storybook about a trio of teen thugs who discover a cassette of the album and provide a disapproving running commentary on it. “What happened to the pimps? What happened to the guns? What happened to the curse words?” the teens conclude, tossing the tape in the garbage. “That’s what rap music is all about, right?” It was with no small irony, then, that what began as an expression of outsider values was swiftly appropriated by the very establishment De La Soul mocked.
By the early ’90s, gangsta rap albums were fat with skits, many of them indeed involving pimps, curse words, and guns. (For a period, it seemed there was about a 25 percent chance any given skit might end in sudden gunfire.) As album lengths swelled during the CD boom—a time when even the bottom of No Limit’s roster was regularly releasing 77-minute albums—skits served as the perfect, cheap filler. The notion seems especially ridiculous now, in the age of infinite free music streaming and mix-tape overload, but at the time budget-minded rap fans really would have been more likely to buy a 17-track album over a 13-track one. Today listeners prefer to digest rap in MP3-sized bites rather than in album-sized wholes, and they no longer see filler as valuable bonus content. If anything, skits are more of a nuisance now than they’ve ever been. They gum up otherwise fluid playlists and make for embarrassing moments when they pop-up on shuffle.
The rise of the MP3 isn’t the sole reason that skits have fallen out of favor, though. It seems that rap music has simply outgrown them. In the ’90s, rap was still a young genre, not far removed from the whimsical flows of old-school hip-hop or the jokey novelty singles of the late-’80s, like the Fresh Prince’s “Parents Just Don’t Understand” or Biz Markie’s “Pickin’ Boogers.” The ’90s brought grimier sounds and more explicit content, but the juvenile sensibilities of early rap didn’t completely vanish; they lived on in skits that brimmed with ever-crasser sexual references and scatological humor. Rap was, after all, still music primarily made by young guys, for young guys.
And that’s why skits were so popular for so long: Teenagers loved them. When I was a 13-year-old listening to rap albums with my friends in their basements after school, turning down the volume whenever a parent approached earshot, the skits were some of our favorite tracks. We’d replay them ad nauseam, memorizing choice lines the same way we did with the best bits from The Jerky Boys or that Adam Sandler CD with the talking-goat sketch. (We didn’t have very discerning tastes in comedy back then.) In these nonmusical interludes, we found crucial common ground with rappers who otherwise seemed to come from a very different world than ours, a shared sense of humor that bonded us to rap music during our formative years.
Chappelle’s Show—a program that frequently examined the ways hip-hop has shaped our psyche—illustrated how powerful that bond was in one of its simplest sketches. Dave Chappelle plays the victim of a brutal assault, speaking to the press from his hospital bed. “It was torture, straight torture, son,” he says. “He sewed my asshole shut, and kept feeding me, and feeding me, and feeding me. This all took place in the slums of Shaolin. It was the RZA, the GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Inspectah Deck, Raekwon The Chef, U-God, Ghostface Killah and, of course, the Method Man.” The joke, to the extent that it even is a joke, is the reference. Chappelle is riffing nearly verbatim on a notorious Method Man monologue that anybody who came of age listening to the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) knows by heart. It’s an in-joke that feels intimate and exclusive, even though it’s lost on nobody, to judge by the audience’s roars of laughter.
In some ways, Method Man’s torture rant was as significant as any actual verse he delivered on Enter The Wu-Tang. For me, it’s the moment that made the record click. At first exposure, the album struck me as loud, violent, and alien—why are all these people yelling at me, and why are there so many of them?—but Method Man’s skit was so over the top that it clued me to the black humor that ran under the record’s stern surface. If I were hearing the skit for the first time with the cynical ears of adulthood, it would no doubt strike me as insufferably crude, but at the time that crude humor served an important purpose. Without it, I might not have given the record a second chance.
Today’s rap listeners don’t need that gateway, though. The genre’s sensibilities, and especially its humor, are so widely understood now that there’s no need for skits to spell them out explicitly. Like a lot of listeners who grew up on ’90s hip-hop, I can’t help but be a little nostalgic for skits, if only because they had such a distinct presence on so many of the era’s great works, but mostly I’m relieved to see rap finally move past them. Rap is a much more sophisticated genre today, with an ever-widening emotional range. It has become, to the surprise of its early skeptics and probably even some of its fans, a genre that you can grow old with. No longer having to sit through lame prank phone calls or tired impressions of uptight white guys on rap albums is just another happy by-product of that maturation.