Saturday, April 5, 2008


Atlanta is now solidly established as the center of hip-hop, having produced dozens of chart-topping artists in the past decade, from the genre-bending duo Outkast to the King of Crunk, Lil Jon, and his countless protégés. Many of these artists are one-hit wonders, achieving fleeting stardom behind the momentum of one huge hit, usually a bass-heavy dance track with a catchy hook. These thumping clubbing songs had become virtually synonymous with Atlanta hip-hop, until the snap movement surfaced a several years ago. Songs of this sort rely on low-fi, minimalists beats (the CCG main theme of D4L’s Laffy Taffy epitomizing the genre), and a slow tempo to produce songs that are easy to choreograph a simple dance, or “two-step” to.

The subject matter of these songs is remarkably homogeneous, and its vapidity has been thoroughly discussed already. So rather than analyze the content of Southern hip-hop, I want merely to address the prevalence of a certain word in these songs: Yeah (or a close cousin of it). Yeah is an interesting word. Four letters long, its only consonant is a letter that suffers from an identity crisis. Y, we learn when we’re young, is both a consonant and a vowel. Depending on its position within a word, it is pronounced as some variation of the sound “ee,” represented linguistically by the letter i. The rest of the word is an awkward dipthong not found in any other English word (that I can think of).

Yeah is a casualization of the English affirmative yes, analogous to the French ouais, pronounced “way.” Rather than delve further into the etymology of the word, I’ll briefly discuss its use in Southern hip-hop. During the crunk era of the early part of this decade, Lil Jon was a ubiquitous guest on many popular tracks. Often his only contributions were sporadic exclamations of his catchphrases, delivered in his trademark southern stoner drawl. One of the most common was “Yeeeeaahhh!” The word was so popular that it grew into a hit single (Yeah!) from Usher, featuring backup vocals by the King of Crunk himself.

Yeah has only grown in popularity recently. In many of his recordings, Young Jeezy features his take on the word, a drawn-out, enthusiastic growl, best transliterated as “Jyeaaahhh!” (See And Then What). More recently, Shawty Lo, originally of the group D4L and now a solo artist, has featured his version, a more subdued southern stoner drawl, in many of his songs (Dey Know being the most well known). And the YouTube sensation Soulja Boy, proving himself something more than a one-hit-wonder, has taken perhaps the most creative direction with the word. Changing the terminal vowel sound to a more exclamatory “ah,” Soulja Boy created a catchy retort to people who may be bothering you. His song Yahhh! is a message to all the people who want to ride the coattails of his fame. being the most well known).

Clearly the use of yeah is flexible; for many rappers it is a handy filler word, and serves little purpose lyrically. For lyrics with more meaning, check out the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

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