Posted Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2009, at 9:52 AM
One of the most important components of a rap performance is one of the easiest to overlook: What a rapper chooses to do with his hands when he's rapping. Notwithstanding hip-hop's ancestral sibling, break dancing, it's a resilient trope in the genre that MCs don't dance—some might bop a little bit, rock their shoulders some, but like the archetypal pouting indie-rock frontman, the archetypal MC is too cool to move very much. This means that a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to selling a hip-hop performance (one we watch, that is, at a concert or in a music video, as opposed to one we listen to) falls on a rappers' hands—the one part of the body in which dramatic movement is unrestricted.
Typically, though not always, a rapper devotes one hand to holding a microphone. (When was the last time you saw one planted at a mic stand?) There's a stock vocabulary of gestures open to the free hand, most of which incorporate a square-one move: scything through the air in time with the words. Sometimes the hand forms a fist with the index finger extended, as though a lesson is being taught or a problem child is being scolded; sometimes the hand is flattened, so as to chop more aerodynamically.
In the video for "Juicy," the Notorious BIG's gestures are frequently unarticulated: He keeps his arms billowing at his sides in time with the beat; occasionally, his palms rise up above his shoulders as though borne aloft by a momentary slipstream. In the " Hypnotize " video, his hands moves are more precise, but still basic: pointing, waving, not much else. Biggie may have (rightly) decided that he had plenty physical presence as it was.
The slighter-framed Lil Wayne moves his entire body when he raps: doing little jigs, careening forward, whipping his spine. One hand move I've seen him do live more than once involves pressing together his forefinger and thumb, raising his three other fingers, and moving his hand as though he's signing an autograph on the air. He also likes to plant his feet, throw his arm backward so that his hand is about waist-level, and flatten his palm, as though calming some temperamental toddler a half step behind him. Kanye moves even more spastically, throwing his body into his lines—he does the toddler-calming move a lot (sometimes with more violence, as if he's shooing the kid away) and he also likes to touch his hand to the top of his head, like, "I can't believe I'm hearing this."
Eminem and his protégé 50 Cent share similar hand styles. They'll sway from side to side, either with their feet planted or lifting up one foot after the other as if they're climbing a little Stairmaster, all the while swinging an arm up and down before them like a pendulum .
Some of the most virtuoso rap handwork comes in the video for Jay-Z's "99 Problems." The clip owes as much to Mark Romanek's stunning Brooklyn street photography as it does to what Jay-Z does with his mitts: The way his palm almost jump-cuts from right to left when he raps "you could press fast forward"; the way he spirals his fists tightly on the line "pull over the car"; the way he turns his hand into a little chattering mouth on "loud as a motorbike."
Fred the Godson , a relatively new underground MC from the Bronx, has one of the best names in rap, some of the best punch lines, and, as illustrated in the video for his song, "King Kong," he's an especially good hand actor.
Unlike Biggie, Fred the Godson is a very big man whose hands are constantly slicing, tumbling, catapulting, and otherwise acting out his rhymes. He is not a wild gesticulator—his hands cut tight little figures. This juxtaposition of weight and nimbleness has a corollary in Fred the Godson's rhymes, which are sneaky, quick, and sound more like chuckles than the bellows you'd expect from a guy of his build. There isn't much to the video, and yet it's more transfixing than it has any right to be: I could enjoy watching Fred mime flicking dollar bills, throwing touchdowns, and aiming assault rifles with the sound off.