Me, Myself & UI
From subtle subliminals to multilayered metaphors, hip hop lyricism has something to offer everyone. Including software developers.
Yes, even coding has a place in hip hop. Some of the most popular rap lyrics of all time speak directly to “the coding struggle”. You were probably just too deep in “the zone” the last time you heard them to realise it.
The four songs we’re about to examine contain hidden words of wisdom to help you pull through your next build sprint. So, sit back, set Slack notifications to silent, pop your headphones on, and, in the words of Maurice Moss:
You can make a legitimate case that LL Cool J had the most impressive debut album by a teenager in hip hop history. Nas was 17 when he began recording Illmatic; Dizzee Rascal dropped Boy In Da Corner aged 19. LL was just 16 years old when he announced himself to the world on Radio.
“Computer wise, and the engineer's eyes /
Have to be very acute, education level high”
This line from the album’s eighth track, I Need A Beat, shouts out all the software engineers in the house. But it’s also a veiled piece of advice. Speaking directly to the developers sat hunched behind their desks, squinting at screens long after everyone else in the office has gone home, LL seems to be saying, “Yeah, you may be smart, and you may know your way around a computer; but you need to look after your eyesight to remain at the top of your coding game.” In other words, take your health seriously and give those blinkers a break every once in a while. The song resonated with programmers back in the 1980s (this song is rumoured to have inspired the popular Pomodoro Technique), and it remains just as relevant in today’s age of screen addiction. Powerful stuff.
A Tribe Called Quest’s first three albums (People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, The Low End Theory, Midnight Marauders) sounded unlike anything else in hip hop. Their fourth release, Beats, Rhymes and Life, served up more of the same: engrossing storytelling, braggadocious wordplay, and jazzy instrumentals that you can’t help but bop your head to. It didn’t reinvent the group’s sound, but it may have perfected it. TL;DR: it bangs.
"I really know how it feels to be, stressed out, stressed out /
We're gonna make this thing work out eventually"
Most fans don’t know that Faith Evans is actually singing about coding on the catchy chorus to Stressed Out. While that’s not a popular interpretation of her lyrics, it’s obvious to listeners with any programming experience that “stressed out” and “we’re gonna make this thing work out” can only be referring to the experience of finding errors in your code that you don’t know how to fix. Faith understands that these problems can be difficult and confusing, which is why she suggests we work together to find solutions. Sooner or later, we’ll make it work out.
Before the obnoxious air horns and incessant requests for hotel room service, there was M.I.A.M.I. Pitbull made such a name for himself with this album that within a year after its release, he’d bagged a cosign from P. Diddy and his own record label. According to the Wikipedia tracklisting, most of the songs consist of producer/hype man Lil Jon dialling crunk levels up to eleven while some artist called ‘Oobie’ sings over the top. Okaayy…
"I suggest, I suggest that you (back up)"
I haven’t listened to this album, nor do I plan to; I don’t care much for the rest of Mr Worldwide’s oeuvre. But the idea of Pitbull rapping about version control software tickles me, and that’s exactly what we get on the chorus to Back Up, as he urges us to commit our code to git. If you’ve ever lost work because your laptop froze or your local file system suffered damage, you’ll relate to his wise words. Still, I can’t bring myself to accept Pitbull as my single source of truth - not with criminally lame lyrics like these.
In a departure from his largely self-produced mixtapes, Joey Badass leaned on an all star cast of producers (J Dilla, The Roots) to help shape the sound for his first commercial release. The result was B4.Da.$$; a fantastic album full of incredible instrumentals that served as the perfect backdrop for the Brooklyn-born rapper’s buttery smooth flow.
"And on, and on and on, and on and on /
And on, and on and on, and on and on /
And on, and on and on, and on and on"
*Warning: spoilers ahead for Mr Robot*
On the TV show Mr Robot, Joey plays a character who knows a thing or two about programming concepts. On this song, he shows us he can rap about them too. I mean, to make a song about infinite loops would have been one thing; but to rap from the perspective of one? That’s genius. All developers fear infinite loops, but we never put ourselves in their shoes. The repetitiousness of this chorus really conveys the feeling of running endlessly, without rest or reward, before being unceremoniously terminated. On and On ranks up there with I Used to Love H.E.R. and I Gave You Power as one of hip hop’s greatest concept songs.