I sense that the popularity of Common’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.”Â is due in large part to its poetic and ideological simplicity. The music is evenly contoured and lurks behind Common’s vocals; the narrative is uncomplicated to a fault; the rhetoric is frustratingly binary; the profuse wordplay that characterizes the rest of Resurrection is largely absent. The song’s enduring popularity is hard to fathom otherwise. It is not a catchy song. The chorus is unexciting, even languid, and there is not a single element you’ll find yourself humming to pass the time in an elevator. Common telegraphs a nostalgic sentiment but the song is not especially effective at communicating a wistful mood; he seems more disinterested than doleful in the wake of hip hop’s alleged grotesque transformation into a crassly commercial freak show.
It may be that “I Used To Love H.E.R.” succeeds in spite of itself, that Common’s sentiment and style manage to strike a chord through subtlety. For whatever reason, it survives as a familiar “back in the day” jam, the opening salvo in his beef with Ice Cube, and as a purist-revisionist anthem. But the song is part of a larger discussion, a tradition of genre personification.1 Â This cycle includes songs that predate “I Used To Love H.E.R.”, such as Pharycde’s “4 Better or 4 Worse” and “Muzic Appreciation” by Boogiemonsters, as well as those that expand upon, challenge, or complicate its central conceit.
Pharcyde’s “4 Better Or 4 Worse,” like many songs from Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde, sounds in every way as if an unsuspecting topical rap song was set down in front of a fun-house mirror and distorted to fit the group’s riotous, tragicomic vision. J-Swift’s stacked samples set a mood that jarringly alternates between jazzy lushness and nervous hazy funk, as if Q-Tip collaborated with the Bomb Squad on a shelved side project.2 Slim Kid Tred, Imani, and Fat Lip match the frantic shifts of the music with styles that reflect the increasing desperation of their lyrics.Â I would venture to guess that Common was minimally aware of the song. In 1992 he was a fellow non-NYC, non-gangsta3 rapper known for his lighthearted lyrics and playful delivery. By the time ofÂ Resurrection‘s releaseÂ Common had streamlined his style, begun writing more introspective lyrics, and nixed the use of screechyÂ onomatopoeia, so “4 Betta or 4 Worse” sounds positively insane next to “I Used To Love H.E.R.”4
It’s a good kind of insanity though, the kind Pharcyde would often flaunt during their early career. Tre walks us through his courtship and marriage to “Rhymelinda”, expressing a sliver of doubtful dread as he reluctantly accepts his vows. His outlook has not been totally sullied yet, so through romantic lenses he looks forward to a generative relationship and swears his life to his bride with naive conviction. Imani’s verse picks up at the point where the artist is forced to relinquish creative autonomy to the demands of the marketplace; the union of creativity and commerce proves to be mutually degrading. He reveals that Rhymelinda is a seductive homewrecker with expensive taste; to secure her fleeting attention he finds himself scheming for ends in the manner of a drug addict. Their love is now insincere and destructive.
Imani’s feelings of consternation and resentment are audible throughout his verse and especially when he throws in a “bitch!” prior to begging Rhymelinda to accept him … for better or for worse. This segues nicely into Fat Lip’s verse, which plays something likeÂ a phantasmagoric version of aÂ De La Soul Is Dead skit. It seems to be set in a future after the relationship —i.e. the group’s viability in the market— has dissolved, and is structured to sound like a perverse, harassing phone call. After repelling Rhymelinda with his loony stalkerish threats, his verse devolves into a parody of the group’s kinetic rhyme styles. There is a subversive glee in his maniacal rant, as if Â to suggest that the ruination of the musical career should be embraced as a humbling return to one’s impoverished but blissfully free origins.
It is interesting that “I Used To Love H.E.R.” characterizes the artform of hip hop as an initially autonomous entity that gradually falls under the spell of the glamour and glitz, while “4 Better Or 4 Worse” introduces Rhymelinda as a kind of femme fatale trickster who embodies the artform but also the commercial product. In Common’s narrative, the studious, virginal girl is corrupted by the industry and becomes a debauched caricature of her former self5 while the Pharcyde describe an affair that was sordid from the start.6 “4 Better Or 4 Worse” depicts a female who is cunning, aggressive, and cruel, but she seems to possess far more agency than Common’s victimized muse, whose moves towards nationwide expansion, musical eclecticism, and experimentation with vice turn out to to be less than liberating. In both cases integrity and authenticity are decidedly male attributes, while ethical weakness and degradation are ascribed to —or inflicted upon— female characters.
“Muzic Appreciation” offers a more reverential view of music-as-woman. In this case, it is neither the hip hop genre nor hip hop the commercial phenomenon that is the object of affection, but music itself. Vortex eroticizes the character in a manner similar to Common7 by imagining a physically manifested physique but drops the sultry rhapsodizing in favor of earnest praise for her nurturing, ahem, motherly virtues.8 There is no fable of misfortune and downfall, only borderline saccharine rhymesÂ like “I’m obsessed with her/ I’m my best with her.” This is redeemed by a surprisingly mature appreciation for music’s potential to change and grow over time when he observes that he’s “infatuated with the many styles of she”; music is not circumscribed by male gaze but rather lauded for its multi-dimensionality and changeability.
In 2009, Bobby Creekwater’s “Junkie” personifies hip hop as a woman in the vein of “I Used To Love H.E.R.” and also explicitly incorporates the addiction motif found in “4 Better Or 4 Worse.” His dependence to the allure of fame and wealth is presented as a positive alternative to drug dealing, however, so signing his life on a dotted line and having his ability to reason snatched away in the midst of a high is conceptualized as a transcendent experience. Unlike “Muzic Appreciation” however, “Junkie” contains a fair amount of ambivalent sentiments, like when Creekwater alludes to “I Used To Love H.E.R.” to suggest that experience and wisdom have caused him to let go of his earlier feelings.
Creekwater’s tone is never resentful, however, and hip hop in female form is celebrated as a triumphant story within the continuum of black American music. This historically resonant approach is evident in a song from the early part of the last decade, Cormega’s “American Beauty” which combines the best tactics of his its predecessors. In addition to admiring hip hop as an illustrious cultural institution, Cormega also ascribes to her the power to survive and heal from any past abuse, as well as the power to forgive him for his criminal background. He then respectfully proclaims that his love for hip hop is as strong and true as his love for his mother and finishes his verse without indulging in one second of puerile fetishistic doggerel. — Thun
- The genre personified in these songs is sometimes the musical form, sometimes music itself, sometimes the musical form within an industry, sometimes the whole kit-n-kaboodle. Such is the way with rap, everyone’s a fucking theorist. Check this recent post for a look at other songs that personify hip hop. [↩]
- The instrumental is incredible on its own. [↩]
- I know, I know, problematic term. You know what I mean. [↩]
- Although it is worth pointing out that both songs do use a variant of tried and true old school rap stage chants to announce the artist’s respective affinities for the carefree bygone eras of the genre. [↩]
- He later renounces his view on how things turned out on his cameo verse on Erykah Badu’s “Love Of My Life,” the hip-hop personifying ballad from the silly hip-hop personifying rom-com Brown Sugar. [↩]
- Perhaps their beginnings as dancers inclined them to believe that any commercial concessions were ultimately problematic? [↩]
- Both songs appeared on albums in late 1994, with the Boogiemonsters preceding Common by two months. “I Used To Love H.E.R.” was also a 12″ single, not sure when in 1994 that dropped. Any vinyl nerds know for certain? [↩]
- From a Freudian perspective this is slightly unsettling but what can you do? [↩]