Punchline has become a common word in musical conversations especially in rap music. In those conversations, you will find that arguments arise because punchlines are understood or interpreted differently. What Kwaku understands a punchline to be is different from Kofi’s understanding. So arguments that never ends is what we are experiencing in such conversations.
In this article I do not intend to exhaust the topic, but rather give basic guiding principles, explanations and my understanding of what to look for when trying to determine a punchline in rap since it is a crucial part of rap. And it is “not the order of the day” as many say, but has been there since the inception of rap music especially Hip Hop.
The word itself does not have its roots in music. It is a borrowed word from telling jokes(music can also be story telling though. Probably one of the reasons one cannot and should not try to separate poetry from music- they are all arts). It is the part of the joke that’s intended to make the people laugh. You can relate to this by recollecting when your friend told a joke. It starts as a normal story, then it twists to something you never expected will happen in the story. That’s what makes you laugh. That’s the punchline! It is the last part of the joke after framing and narration. It’s the part of the joke that should punch or knock the listener off hence the name punch-line. Deservedly so.
This background makes the rest of the job quite easy for all of us. Punchlines in rap is rightly borrowed from telling jokes because it has the same parts and steps as jokes does. There isn’t much difference in fact. Victor Raskin, a professor of linguistics defined it as “The punchline is the pivot on which the joke text turns as it signals the shift between the [semantic] scripts necessary to interpret [re-interpret] the joke text.” This is simply what I’ve explained above in scholarly terms.
So punchlines in any form of music, in any language should conform to at least the three basic parts of a punchline just as it’s source (jokes) has. So let’s take them each and digest.
For a punchline to make sense, the tone has to be set at the beginning of the punch. Just as a joke starts with something to familiarise the speaker with the audience. When you say something all of a sudden without setting the tone, it ends up not making sense to the audience. If a comedian just ends a joke by saying something that happened in his or her mothers kitchen that is very funny to him but we do not know how it relates to us, it certainly becomes boring and doesn’t make sense to the audience.
Similarly, rappers have to introduce or “form” something in the minds of listeners before they actually “tell the story”. To illustrate this well, let me use one of the rappers who is great at punchlines as an example. It is not to say he is the best at it, but I can only use one rapper since it is only one example. I will use Flowking Stone’s line in his “Fire Burn Dem” remix. He said “me ne rap tes3 Ghana ne Burkina Faso, Flowking na te so”(rap and I are like Ghana and Burkina Faso, Flowking is on top). Imagine if he said “Ghana and Burkina Faso Flowking is on top” without preceeding it with “rap and I are like…..”, it would not have made much sense.
The telling of “the story” itself is extremely important. Punchlines in rap are not meant to be directly understood or to be taken literally. That been said, the words or sentence has to be familiar to the audience. It should be something they can relate to. Just as stated earlier, not things only you or a few people know about.
A rapper should have in mind how far his rap reaches and his audience. This doesn’t mean the rapper should be overly moderate. There are things that are common to most people. There is certainly some people who just want everything given to them in plain words. But plain words does not do what punches does- The deeper meaning and more than one meaning it conveys. Let’s take this as a punchline. “Yɛ w) Easter brɛ, Nti m’ɛtwa me brɛ so (we are in the Easter season so I’ve trimmed my palm branch). ““Yɛ w) Easter brɛ, Nti m’ɛtwa” then becomes the narration and formation.
PUNCHLINES When the punchline “me brɛ so ” came, you realise it took you aback a bit before you repositioned your thought. Not all punchlines in rap have dual or more meanings but they usually do. Considering this simple punchline used above. You will find at least two meanings. First, he is saying he has reduced or stopped his suffering or affliction because it’s Easter. Again he is saying with the same sentence that he has trimmed his palm branch to wave hossana as the Easter tradition goes.
Punchlines can be compared to parables in scripture. You get your understanding based on your personal enlightenment and level of understanding. But when a more enlightened person takes it to another level of understanding, you see the light so you can’t ignore. It becomes obvious.
However, there are some punches that has its formation and narration done in our everyday associations. The things that happens around and has happened in the past does the job. So all the rapper does is directly punch.
An example is Medikal’s line when he said his pocket is getting stretch marks. We don’t need him to set any tone before dropping this because it’s quite direct. Some punchlines can be names of people, events, places or imagery coined very well to make a statement that ordinarily wouldn’t have been made. An example of a name used “to punch” is Sarkodie’s conclusion of his song “Kanta”. Using Peace Hyde’s name he said “I need Peace, I wanna Hyde”. That’s simple but it made sense.
From great “punchers” like Andre 3000 and Eminem, we’ve learned that punchlines can take many forms. And it is sometimes difficult to layout a particular formula. But it’s important we all keep in mind that ordinary similes are not impressive anymore. Dropping a line already used by another rapper from another country without giving credit because you think we don’t know that isn’t cool anymore. Music lovers are beginning to think pass what’s common.
Rappers must work and “paint outside the lines” to give us something that will make us say in our minds “this guy is deep”. Party songs are acceptable if they are categorised as such. But on top of that, give us “the art”. Let us think pass the ordinary.
Written By: Tebby Hanson
Read more of entertainment stories on Tebby’s blog at TebbyHanson.com