Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the epic 10-minute long freestyle by Black Thought on Hot 97. The video is available here:
Today we’re going to be breaking down these bars and describing some of the references he makes in this performance.
Remember, we walked past the teacher,
take the chalk and laugh.
We wrote punishments: “I will not talk in class.”
This is a reference to an old style of punishment in school — making the student repetitively write down a broken rule. A perfect example of this punishment can be seen in the opening theme of the show The Simpsons, where Bart is subject to this punishment;
I hate to say I told y’all, but I told y’all
Things fall apart when the center to weak to hold y’all
This is a reference to the poem called “The Second Coming”by W.B. Yeats about post-WWI Europe, predicting the oncoming violence of a second world war. The author of the poem describes the destabilization of government giving rise to external conflict, such as war.
I never thought you’d give me a reason to do this
Cain and Abel, Jesus and Judas
Caesar and Brutus, I see intruders, avert your eyes
I told you keep out of the hood, circumcise
These lines refer to three stories of betrayal, highlighting a sense of impending doom by those around him. The last line in particular comes off both as a threat and clever wordplay; he is telling these “intruders” to stay out of the hood and referencing circumcision (removing the hood of foreskin from a penis).
Ay yo, you heard the line, ‘Everybody plays the fool’?
Well, I’ll be the exception to the rule
The principal that hand-deliver lessons to the school
This is a reference to the classic hit song “Everybody plays the fool” by The Main Ingredient. In the song they state “everybody plays the fool, there’s no exception to the rule.” Black Thought is challenging this statement by making the claim that he is the exception to the rule and the last line suggests that he will personally teach the next generation, contrary to the actions of those before him, as principals don’t typically “hand-deliver lessons,” but rather operate and administrate the school.
I was making major moves, my dollar deja vu
My mission was my ambition was brandishing a tool
Here Black Thought is referencing a former occupation possibly as a thief or hitman.
To be a icon, wearing slippers made of python
Get mine quicker ’cause I’m slick as a pipeline
Often the pursuit of success is driven by the need for material goods, such as fancy clothes or “slippers made of python.” Black Thought is saying that, due to him being clever, he can traverse this journey more quickly than others.
Got my crown tilted, my gown quilted, silk with cashmere
Burning Rome down in a minute, built it last year
There’s a famous saying: “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” Black Thought capitalizes on this statement and highlights how quickly something can be destroyed relative to how long it takes to create it.
My homie told me to come with him to the masjid
Them brothers said, “Don’t go from written bars filled with rage
To primetime television and your gilded cage
Then forget it’s people in the world still enslaved.”
Masjid is another word for mosque, wherein Black Thought received some wisdom and a warning from his peers about pursuing success and forgetting his past struggles. His band, The Roots, is the band for Jimmy Fallon’s late-night show, perhaps indicating a form of selling out (“gilded cage”).
Pre-Kardashian Kanye, my rhymeplay immaculate
Same cadence as D.O.C. pre-accident
Maybe, my acumen’s on par with Kool G. Rap and them
Give me the proper respect, mothafucka, we back again
In this section Black Thought is comparing himself to some of the greatest rappers of all time (pre-Kardashian Kanye, etc.) and demanding respect for this talent.
For a couple things we lost in a fire
The drive, the desire to perform on a high plateau
I’m at that show, lost in a mire
Wondering how we got so far from inspired
This is an honest retrospective on the path of his career, from struggling to make it to being so successful that he feels “far from inspired.”
Look, when photos were sepia-toned
And record players were somethin you would keep in your home
Yo, the traveler, the meaning of Tariq, he was known
For the exemplary performance, uniquely his own
Back in the day (“when photos were sepia-toned), Black Thought was known for his higher quality of rap skills, and in this line he is also referencing the meaning of his name (Tariq, the traveler).
As babies, we went from Similac and Enfamil
To the internet and fentanyl
When all consent was still against the will
This section refers to the corruption of an individual– going from birth and development (similac and enfamil, substitutions for breast milk) to the internet and fentanyl (an extremely strong opiate drug). Furthermore, it highlights the difficulty of drug addition (“consent … against the will”).
Listen, somebody said a price tag was on a rapper’s head
So we gon’ see a nice bag when the rapper dead
The mask black, the flag green, black and red
Black Thought is referencing killing rappers (presumably with words/skill, not violence), and doing so while sporting a black mask and the pan-african flag;
No doubt, yo, the game went they own route
I can’t explain what these lame kids is talkin’ ’bout
Or how they fit they whole foot into they own mouth
Here he is referencing the downtrodden pathway the rap game has traveled along; from mumble rap to constant faux pas (e.g. Lil Yachty not listening to Tupac), the scene is almost laughable nowadays compared to the past when it was powerful and represented a struggle against oppression.
I’m sneaker shoppin’ with my son, a size 8
Prior to they release, ’cause why wait?
Look, in my estate I got electrified gates
For these blase guys hating at a high rate
One of the benefits of being an icon and being successful is having VIP access to products before their official release, and Black Thought is referencing this benefit. He also highlights his success by referencing his electrified gates, something that is not typically owned by someone.
The mic I spray, resemblin’ the sickle of death
It ain’t strenuous to come from a continuous breath
This is quite an interesting combination of bars. First, Black Thought is comparing himself to the grim reaper on the mic (killing people with his rapping skills). Second, he is referencing his ability of circular breather, which he learned at performance art school. This method allows performances to breathe through their nose while continuing a performance.
Yo, these weaklings is claiming they cutting up in the street
Nigga, peace, you ain’t working with nothin’ but the police
In this section Black Thought is calling out snitches and double agents — people who work with the police to incarcerate others while pretending to do the dirty deeds themselves.
Y’all just regular, I’m a apex predator
Brim stay fresh, feathered up, etcetera
An apex predator is at the top of the food chain — it is not hunted, it is only the hunter. An example of this is a hawk (“feathered up”), which hunts smaller animals such as mice and snakes but has no direct threat in the wild. Black Thought is saying he is at the top of the rap game and ready to slay his opponents with no others able to hurt him.
Lord, we got Padma Lakshmi for you
Let her massage your back with black seed oil
This one has a bit of a double meaning. Padma Lakshmi is one of the hosts of Top Chef, a show on the Food Network, and the reference here revolves around black seed oil, which can be used both as a cooking ingredient and a tool for massages.
They tried to capture me and brand me on the cheek
With a fleur-de-lis
Fleur-de-lis is the symbol of New Orleans and its French roots, and this was used as a symbol to brand escaped slaves from Louisiana.
We like Henrietta Lacks up in the cells
This is clever wordplay with the term “cells.” Henrietta Lacks was an African American share cropper whose DNA (cells) were taken without her permission and are used for cancer research.
I ain’t one of y’all peers, I’m the sum of all fears
Somebody stronger than me? Who that? I’m all ears
Like Obama, I wish he had another four years
Again Black Thought is emphasizing his skill and prowess in rapping, referring to himself as the “sum of all fears.” He also lets out a side comment about Barack Obama having more years in office, taking shots at Donald Trump’s continual failed policies.
Panther mind, I’m made of elements you can’t combine
I’m at a level of intelligence you can’t define
Einstein, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Tesla
Here he is referring to his ancestry (black panther) and his intellectual prowess, comparing himself to some of the greatest minds of history.
Brain matter contain too much data
I tell a story like fingerprints and blood splatta
Black Thought is full of ideas (“too much data”) and his wordplay carefully constructs lyrical narratives in the same way that fingerprints and blood splatter tell the story of a crime.
Disclaimer: Most of this article is a summary/analysis of lyrical annotations from genius.com.