Thursday, June 20, 2013

The relationship between Kanye, Rap and African American English

This started out as an update to my post on Kanye West's song "I am a God," but wound up being nearly as long as the post itself, so I'm separating it out. But look over that first, or maybe keep it open in a separate tab.

A concern has been conveyed to me that I may have been equating rap as a lyrical form, African American English, and Kanye West in a problematic way. I wasn't really clear about my assumptions about how these three things are related, so I'll try to clarify.

So first, I definitely don't want to imply that the conventions of what is possible and not possible in rap is equivalent to the grammar of African American English. Rap is strongly identified as an African American art form such that people frequently malign hip hop as code for AAE, but as a linguist I know better than to draw similar equivalencies. As a lyrical and musical form, rap has its own conventions which aren't the same as AAE grammar. This must be the case, because speakers of other dialects and languages can produce songs which are clearly identifiable as rap!

I am assuming that Kanye West is a speaker of AAE as it spoken in Georgia, and that his phonology, as he acquired it, generates a bunch of representations. That's why I tied in the Labov, Cohen & Robins (1968) reference, to try to emphasize that these ∅ coda Go(d)s weren't just a quirk of Kanye, but rather reflective of larger dialectal trends in which Kanye is a participant. What does it matter? It's just more interesting if the reasoning I proposed here could generalize beyond just Kanye.

Next, I assume that Kanye has a personal filter, partially due to his personal taste, partially due to the conventions of rap, whereby he decides whether two words work as a rhyme. My reasoning is that if we understand Kanye's filter, and can see what comes out the other end, then we can make some assumptions about what went into it in the first place. Importantly, Kanye's rhyme filter is not AAE. In AAE, the set of words {God, Go(d), massage, ménage, garage, restaurant, croissants} definitely aren't perfect rhymes, but they all passed through Kanye's filter as rhyming equivalent.

My reasoning is as follows. All of these words passed some metric of Kanye's rhyming filter as being equivalent enough. The zero coda variant "Go(d)" is a product of Kanye's AAE phonology. If we can figure out what Kanye's filter is, then we can know something about the phonological status of "Go(d)",  which can tell us something about this feature of AAE phonology. Excluding "Go(d)", all of the final syllables of the words in this rhyming scheme have 1) a low-back vowel 2) a coronal obstruent. The coronal obstruents vary quite a bit in the sub-coronal place of articulation, their manner, and in their complexity. So, I want to conclude that Kanye's filter requires matching on the vowel quality, and the major place of articulation of the coda, but not its manner or complexity.

The zero coda Go(d) is an outlier in this pattern, unless we conclude that the missing /d/ actually counts as being there. Whether or not the missing /d/ counts as being there has more to do with Kanye's phonology than his rhyming filter, and since I'm assuming Kanye's phonology comes form AAE, this could also be a property of the phonology of many AAE speakers. So, I want to conclude that it is probable that for many AAE speakers, when they produce zero coda Go(d), the /d/ still counts as being there.

Now how gone is the /d/? That's where the phonetics comes in, and the answer seems to be "very."

This is just a very general view of how to use rhyming verse to figure out something about the phonology of any language or dialect. A speaker of some language has some phonology which generates forms, and then they have a rhyming filter to see what works. By working out what the properties of the filter might be, you can try to reconstruct what the properties of the phonology is.

Kanye's Codas and Vowels

This is just a quicky about Kanye's new song I am a God, which he collaborated on with God. The opening lyrics are:
I am a God
I am a God
I am a God
Hurry up with my damn massage
Hurry up with my damn ménage
Get the Porsche out the damn garage
I am a God
Even though I'm a man of God
My whole life in the hands of God
So y'all better quit playing with God
Kanye pronounces the final syllable of "massage" as [ɑʤ], which caught my ear so I went back and listened more closely. By my coding, this is how Kanye produces the final consonants of each of these lines.
God: [d]
God: [d]
God: [d]
massage: [ʤ]
ménage: [ʒ]
garage: [ʒ]
God: ∅
God: ∅
God: ∅
God: ∅
Those ∅ codas mean that the /d/ was just absent. I believe AAVE deletes simple codas more often than other dialects. I don't know more recent numbers, but Labov, Cohen & Robins (1968) reported that in Harlem it happened somewhere between 5% and 20% of the times for a word like "God", depending on the context.

The first thing that occurred to me was that for Kanye, [gɑ:] is rhyming equivalent to [gɑd]. That might be an interesting piece of evidence for the phonological status of these zero codas. That is, they really count as having a /d/ in them, even though it's not pronounced. Then again, I don't know if Kanye would be willing to rhyme "spa" with "God", meaning he doesn't really care about the content of coda, as long as the vowels match. Later on in the song, though, he pulls in "restaurant" and "croissant" into the same rhyming scheme, making the set of codas which are rhyming equivalent {d, ʤ, ʒ, nt, ∅}, all apical obstruents except for the zero codas. It seems like Kanye doesn't care about coda complexity, manner, or subcoronal place of articulation, but the major place of articulation does seem to matter, so I'm going to say that those ∅-codas actually count as apical obstruents for Kanye.

But, Joel Wallenberg asked me an interesting question on Twitter.
Well, there's only one way to find out! Break out Praat!

Here are the first three God's, which I heard with a [d]. They all have pretty clear formant transitions (marked by "tr"), especially the third one. (click for larger)

God 1
God 2
God 3

And here are the last 4 Gods, which I heard without a [d]. God 4 does actually have a pretty clear formant transition for an apical closure, and God 6 has something subtle going on that I'm not sure about. It looks less like a formant transition to an apical closure, and more like a return to a neutral vowel, but I've marked it "tr?" just in case. Gods 5 and 7, though, clearly don't have formant transitions to a following /d/.

God 4
God 5
God 6
God 7
So, for at least 2 out of the 4 zero coda Gods, the /d/ was really really gone.

One more interesting thing to me was that except for Gods 1 and 7, after reaching their peak F1 and F2 after the transition from [g], all of these vowels have a very steadily declining F1 and F2. In fact, I'd transcribe God 2 as being something like [gaɔ̯d]. I guess for Kanye the vowel in God is definitely long and in-gliding.


A concern has been conveyed to me that I may have been equating rap as a lyrical form, African American English, and Kanye West in a problematic way. I wasn't really clear about my assumptions about how these three things are related. I tried to clarify in this post.

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