If you have it, flaunt it – right? It’s not a boast if you can back it up, right? Well, no. It’s not that simple. Bragging about the laurels you’re resting on is a bona fide art from, infinitely more arcane and complex than a garden variety Instagram feed – which is most of them – would have you believe it is. For the finer points on hitting that sweet spot where self-affirmation meets one-upmanship, we look to people who live at that very sport for a living: Rappers. Behold the tao of the brag.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE COMPETITION – THEN, DESTROY IT
Rap, more than any other discipline of popular culture, is a battlefield. There are victors and losers – and winning and losing happens publicly and definingly. That accounts for why the stakes are so high. In the arena of hip-hop, careers/reputations are made and ended by just how high one can elevate oneself relative to the rest. The crabs-in-a-bucket analogy, though illustrative, doesn’t apply here. When you’re rapping for your life, it’s best to think of yourself as a great white shark chomping down on a bucket of crabs.
The best, most complete way of besting your foes is by acknowledging their existence – and making them pay for it.
The late, great 2pac showed how this tactic could be weaponised to devastating effect. His discography is charged with songs that detonate like nuclear warheads but none so aggressively as “Hit ‘Em Up”, where he affirms his total victory over his rivals:
“Now you tell me who won / I see them, they run, hahahaha”
In an another world, laughter is the best medicine. Here, it intimates that all the medicine in the world isn’t going to save you from loserdom.
FLEX WITH EVERY MUSCLE IN YOUR BANK ACCOUNT AND BEYOND
While related, flexing and and bragging are not interchangeable concepts. The flex is but a subsidiary of the brag. To mistake one for the other is to do a bad job at both. Rappers, though, rarely get it wrong. And when they reach the summit of flex-heavy ostentation, the view is panoramic.
2 Chainz, one of the best to do it, is in peak form on Travis Scott’s “3500”, wherein he snarls:
“My bathtub the size of swimming pools / Backstroke to my children room / Maybach in the living room / I spent racks on these tennis shoes”
He doesn’t need trifles like nuance or wordplay: He’s going for the jugular with sheer literality. The lesson here is simple: Don’t sugarcoat your words. If you’re going to flex, then flex.
He repeats that wining move on “Champions”, which contains this plainspoken clincher:
“I got gold on my neck / Lookin’ like a Super Bowl on my neck”.
Shakespeare himself would blush at Chainz’s audacious use of language. And the best, deal-sealing part of it all is that he makes it seem as if it comes so naturally to him. That he talks like that. That he thinks like that. That he just is like that.
BE HUMBLE, BUT NOT REALLY
Over the years, the phenomenon of the humble-brag has been normalised in popular discourse as a legitimate mode of communication. But even before it had a(n) (oxymoronic) name, rappers were engaging with the paradox of bragging with humility with a path-lighting gusto.
Last year, Quavo, 1/3 of the Migos, gave a particularly potent and historically grounded performance of what that entails, on the song “Avalanche”:
“I think that my skills gettin' better / With a stick, come in peace, Mandela / I'm willin' to feed whoever / How can I help you?"
There are few things being conveyed there: 1) He’s honing his powers 2) Like Mandela, he comes in peace – but he’s still armed 3) If you want something from him, just ask and ye shall receive, because he has a lot to give.
If you read/heard it and feel that you’re being condescended to, then the line is working.
Should you worry of coming off as insincere, J. Cole, wielder of one of the most insistently no-nonsense pens in contemporary hip-hop, has a remedy for that in “Middle Child”, where he confesses:
“To the OGs, I'm thankin' you now / Was watchin' you when you was pavin' the ground / I copied your cadence, I mirrored your style / I studied the greats, I'm the greatest right now”.
Honour your heroes. Give them their due. But show them who’s boss, now.
AFFIRM THE RICHES MORE THAN THE RAGS
Don’t write off humility as hyper-effective brag-fuel. When deployed the right way, a monastic veneer is the perfect Trojan horse for some panoramic better-than-thou positioning. How this differs from being faux-humble is that it’s even more disarming than the latter strategy.
Consider what Kendrick Lamar implies in “DNA.”:
“I was born like this, since one like this, immaculate conception / I transform like this, perform like this, was Yeshua new weapon”.
In the bars prior, he outlines with bristling nuance, amidst searing, indignant rage, how a lineage of royalty and persecution flows through blackness. But in those following lines, he gets biblical, elevating himself to a godly remove, where all the non-hims exist – and can only exist – below him.
Then, there’s Nas, whose approach on “Hate Me Now” is a lot more…earthy:
“My bad, should I step out my shoes, give 'em to you? / Here's my cars and my house, you can live in that too / Criticize when I flow for the streets, hate my dress code / Gucci this, Fendi that – what you expect”
Those who have should give. But those who have a lot should remind the haters of it. Lil Wayne, long formidable in painting a picture with words, issues an elemental masterclass on the form on “Mr. Carter”:
“Man, I got summer hatin' on me cause I'm hotter than the sun / Got spring hatin' on me 'cause I ain't never sprung / Winter hatin' on me 'cause I'm colder than y'all / And I will never, I will never, I will never fall”
When it’s always you season, even the four seasons don’t matter.