Rap Quines

A Quine is a form of poetry in which a poem, through formalism or sometimes more literally, states that it is going to state part of itself, and then does so. This is related to the modern programming art form of a quine, which is a computer program that outputs itself when run.

Rap in particular offers some notable quines and quine-forms, some of which I would like to present today. The simplest and perhaps most illuminating example is the following, a construction taken from a not-entirely-respectful caricature of rap to its obvious conclusion; that is:

My name is Alexander, and I’m here to say:

“My name is Alexander, and I’m here to say!”

In this short rap verse, line 1 is a promise to the audience that the narrator has something to say; in line 2 the tension is momentarily broken by revealing what it is Alexander set out to say. However, then we wonder: has Alexander indeed said, “My name is Alexander and I’m here to say,” or is this a promise of future effusion? But we think back to the first line, and realize the narrator has indeed said what he promised to, in addition to promising to say it. Thus the quine is complete, and the effect is one of whiplash between future promises and their already-past satisfaction.

We will scrutinize one more example, this one from popular culture: Taio Cruz’s spectacular self-referential and obviously heavily quine-influenced song, “Dynamite.” In it, Cruz masterfully intertwines promises to act or explain with both previous and past references to performing that act or giving the promised explanation. To start with, the song opens with the following:

I throw my hands up in the air sometimes,

Saying AYO! Gotta let go!

This is already a complex lyrical dance. We have what begins as a simple opening clause: “I throw my hands up in the air,” a relatively standard gesture of celebration. This immediately comes down with the addition of the word “sometimes” — is Cruz throwing his hands up now, and shouting the declaration “gotta let go,” or merely letting us know that he sometimes does? Is this describing an action, or foreshadowing later revelations?

To skip ahead somewhat (Cruz did need to get this masterful formalist poetry on the airwaves after all; some of it is straightforward), we find the following in the chorus:

‘Cause we gon’ rock this club, we gon’ go all night,
We gon’ light it up like it’s dynamite!
‘Cause I told you once, now I told you twice,
We gon’ light it up like it’s dynamite!

The chorus on its own is very nearly a quine! The first line is somewhat out of place without the context of the rest of the song serving as setting, but otherwise this holds its own amongst historical quines. It inverts the normal poetical structure of a quine somewhat: normally, as in the first example we saw, a quine explains what it’s going to say before saying it (or simultaneously). In this case, however, we have a symmetry around line 3, reminiscent of classic presentation advice: first Cruz says what he’s going to say, then he explains very clearly what’s up next: he’s going to repeat himself. And he faithfully does.

Interestingly, this refrain is repeated word for word later in the song. Cruz is trying to get us to carefully evaluate the number of times he’s told us we’re going to “light it up like it’s dynamite,” by saying it for the third time, then claiming he “told [us] once, now [he’ll tell us] twice”, but actually following up by telling us for the fourth time! In one sense, this is inaccurate, but since when is poesy supposed to be factual? He is both telling us another two times, and at the same time in a sense resetting us to the earlier appearance of the lines, reminding us of the cyclical, symmetric nature of his proclamations.

I don’t want to ruin the fun of analyzing all the depth in this poem for you, but let me leave you with a final observation. Harken back to that ambiguity from the introduction: is Cruz declaring that he is raising his hands, or suggesting his intention to, at a later point? While I cannot claim a final answer to this enigma, I will say that whatever his earlier status was, he surely raises his hands during the triumphant bridge:

I’m gonna put my hands in the air!
Hands, hands in the air!
Put your hands in the air!

This is, while not the end of the song, the moment where the potential energy set up at the beginning (and repeated before each chorus) is definitively resolved, allowing the listener to release her breath. Cruz insists repeatedly that he “sometimes” puts his hands in the air. Here, though, it is realized: in another masterful use of three-line symmetry, Cruz is first reaching tentatively, as if unsure of himself, to raise his own hands. In the middle line, his hands are clearly in the air, and in the final line he turns it around on us: now you, too, must put your hands on the air and join in the aura of celebration.

It is worth noting that, enhancing the reflection about the middle line here, the middle line itself can be read as a part with either of the others: “I’m gonna put my hands in the air/ [my] hands, [my] hands [are] in the air!” reads just as naturally as “Hands, hands in the air!” being in the imperative voice, the way a police officer might say it, which aligns with the unambiguous exultation of “put your hands in the air!”

The allusion to police language in a rap song by a black man could not possibly be accidental, but I will leave it to the interested reader to look further into it.



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