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My blog is my space to highlight academic work outside of my formal publications. Posts vary from short essays to album reviews to exemplary student work to small sample-digs that I use as warm-ups for my courses. This blog also contains the burgeoning archive of artist interviews that I am collecting for my dissertation, "Writing in the Break."

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Shakers, Self-Love, and Storytelling: A Review of The Great Adventures of Slick Rick by Matt Wasyluk

Every semester I publish some of my students' exemplary work on my blog. Work is only posted with explicit written permission by the student and will be removed if the student requests it.

Containing everything from party anthems to power flexes and cautionary advice for younger fans, The Great Adventures of Slick Rick is a journey through what feels like the entirety of the titular MC’s mind. It lacks a linear progression between tracks, almost seeming to purposefully alternate “teaching” songs with braggadocio and harder-hitting material. Ricky “Slick Rick” Walters peppers the album with Oberheim DX-style shaker beats that provide a softer backing to match his unique relaxed delivery and drawn-out Britain-influenced accent. He seems to save the intensity for his lyrics, which are the focus throughout and helped build his reputation as a storytelling rapper (Sköld 54). In fact, Great Adventures can be considered the handbook for storytelling rap due to its widespread imitation (Hamiter). However, a discussion of his stories’ success would be incomplete without mentioning the culture that gave him a platform.


While some of the tracks wouldn’t sound out of place today, Walters’ style was much better suited to the earlier days of hip-hop—perhaps even earlier than its release year, 1989. Great Adventures holds true to the genre’s party-happy beginnings and connections to West African heritage, which were inseparable from the culture at that point (Nelson 55). Walters raps extensively about his music’s party-boosting ability, especially on the pure party anthems like “The Ruler’s Back” (“I was chillin’ at this outside jam / I seen folks havin’ a ball plus clappin’ their hands”)

and “Let’s Get Crazy” (“If I’m at a jam it must be pumpin’”).

The party theme has a dual effect of not-so-subtly applying some pressure on fans to show their excitement and helping Walters’ image “stay real” by referencing the parties that helped him get “up to par” before he was noticed by Doug E. Fresh (“Teacher, Teacher”, Hamiter). While Walters never explicitly references the notion of rappers as a modernization of the griot (West African singing storyteller) tradition promoted by the likes of Kool DJ Herc, he nevertheless participates in its prevalence by offering stories for every audience over percussion-heavy backings (Nelson 55). While scholars argue over the validity of such an analogy due to the tendency of griots to serve “the man” with stories of praise, Great Adventures offers a template to turn the blandest story into a work that could make the most dour literary critic smile (Sajnani).


The majority of storytelling songs on this album are designed with humor as a primary medium. With a talking car, a romantic interest blinded by his gold teeth, and even drum-playing genital lice making it into tracks, Walters’ creativity gets listeners chuckling at the goofy absurdity of his imagined situations. The humorous elements keep listeners both engaged with the lyrics and in good moods, essential to his goals of spreading positive messages and keeping parties high-energy. In “Kit,” for example, he self-promotes in a somewhat ludicrous dialogue with the talking car: “And oh, by the way I re-listened to your hit, hey Rick / What’s the scoop? Oh man, this one’s it!”

By shamelessly appropriating the intelligent car from the TV show Knight Rider, Walters creates a situation that derives its humor from unexpected twists on common tropes. For example, he convinces the car to leave its crime fighting-partner (rather than a woman to leave her man) and later in the track gets kidnapped by an imposter’s gang as if the

song were a spy story (but only because he wanted to stop at McDonald’s). That McDonald’s visit is an example of a “classic Slick Rick” storytelling element that Walters shares with the best sitcom writers: the ability to make mundane details interesting.


Most events in a human life aren’t especially memorable or significant. They make up such a large portion of our time, however, that they are instant points of relatability. Walters seems to know this well, devoting multiple bars to details like a bad dinner cooked by a date’s family and a “dope fiend” with bad hygiene habits. Even if the events themselves might not exactly reflect every listener’s experience, they allude to themes that apply even more broadly. For example, In “The Moment I Feared,” Walters’ character turns to vice after being humiliated, which only makes the situation worse and is quite possibly relatable to every listener in the track’s history.

While much of hip-hop can be inaccessible to general audiences that haven’t experienced the “hood” lifestyle, Walters manages to stay true to both his values and those of early hip-hop while keeping his stories inclusive to listeners (Sköld 60-61).


While it isn’t present in every Slick Rick story, some (especially the ones aimed at younger crowds) contain advice to help listeners fight negative social themes that trouble Walters. Some tracks, like the seemingly antithetical “Treat Her Like a Prostitute” and “Teenage Love,” preach emotional safeguarding (albeit with very different tones) so that listeners avoid being hurt by partners who don’t care about them. Others, like “The Ruler’s Back,” “Kit,” and “Lick the Balls” are Walters’ way of warning fellow MCs about the futility of trying to rap in his style. However, the most significant lesson (due to its rarity in hip-hop and role in this album’s commercial success) is that of trusting oneself to create the best possible future by refusing the easy “success” of crime and vice. While “Hey Young World” and “The Moment I Feared” both effectively depict undesirable outcomes as a result of taking such actions, “Children’s Story,” widely considered to be the consummate Slick Rick story (Craig), ends even more gravely despite the innocuous title.

The narrative begins with a boy “misled by another little boy” into mugging people to make money quickly and progresses into a police chase to which the boy eventually surrenders. Unfortunately, the police disregard his unarmed status and the track ends with a chilling rhyme: “He was only seventeen in a madman’s dream / Cops shot the kid I still hear him scream.” The narrative format is the perfect vehicle for showing how unfairly a relatively “harmless” entry into crime can end, and his focus on the injustice inherent to crime is as effective a deterrent as any. While not every lesson in the album is so hard-hitting, Walters’ desire to set a good example is admirable and an important component of the Slick Rick formula.


While Great Adventures can be understood as the sum of its messages, such an interpretation discounts the sheer genius of Walters’ presentation. Like a great jazz soloist, he makes skilled use of every technique in his storytelling repertoire to suit the track—no simple task on an album with topics so varied. The few tracks not containing a story could be thought of as obvious anomalies, but they fit the album too under the theme of variety. In fact, the album seems to glorify the tension between opposites; for example, the middle songs of the album are the raunchy, racial-stereotyping, consent-flouting “Indian Girl” and the sentimental ballad “Teenage Love.” Considering his status as having recently ascended to fame, Great Adventures becomes more cohesive when viewed as Walters’ attempt at securing hip-hop stardom by appealing to a wide audience. Whether such variety won’t cause some auditory whiplash depends on the listener, but this album should give listeners confidence that any story told by “Rick the Ruler” is guaranteed to enthrall.

Matt Wasyluk is a first-year computer science student at UNC Chapel Hill. While his studies this semester were his first in-depth exposure to hip-hop, he has a musical background that spans multiple instruments and contexts (his latest being the Carolina Ukulele Ensemble). His other interests include video games, water sports, and obsessive surveillance of the Carolina Dining Services menu.

References


George, Nelson. “Hip-Hop’s Founding Fathers Speak the Truth.” That’s the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, edited by Murray Foreman and Mark Anthony Neal, Routledge, 2004, pp. 45–55.


Hamiter, Johnathan. “King’s English: The Improbable Impact of Slick Rick.” Hip-Hop Golden Age, 8 Nov. 2015, http://hiphopgoldenage.com/kings-english-the-improbable-impact-of-slick-rick/.


Jenkins, Craig. “The 50 Best Storytelling Rap Songs.” Complex, Complex Media, Inc., 4 July 2013, https://www.complex.com/music/2013/07/best-storytelling-rap-songs/slick-rick-childrens-story.


Sajnani, Damon. “Troubling the Trope of ‘Rapper as Modern Griot.’” Journal of Pan African Studies, vol. 6, no. 3, Sept. 2013, pp. 156–180. EBSCOhost, https://auth.lib.unc.edu/ezproxy_auth.php?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?dir ect=true&db=aph&AN=90154228&site=ehost-live&scope=site.


Sköld, David, and Alf Rehn. “Makin’ It, by Keeping It Real.” Group and Organization Management, vol. 32, no. 1, Routledge, 2007, pp. 50–78, doi:10.1177/1059601106294487.


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