Shawn Carter is many things—rapper, entrepreneur, husband, father—but at his core he’s a poet and certified word nerd. It was apparent from his first album, which included the wit-filled “22 Two’s,” that Hov loves to play with language more than your average MC. His lyrical gift is detailed in the 300-plus-page book Decoded, among others. One thing he is not, however, is an English professor.
On Drake’s song “Light Up,” Jay-Z boasts of his lyrical prowess, bragging about dropping a “triple entendre.” The line in question—(“Oww/Hoes turn their heads like owls/I’m the man of the hour/Triple entendre don’t even ask me how”)—may be a clever play on words, but it’s not a triple entendre, or even double entendre. It’s a hot line with a cool play on the homophones “owl” and “hour.”
With that said, are you really going to berate Jay-Z about figures of speech? If the man says something is a double entendre, it will be remembered in culture as such, and we’re okay with giving him that pass. Every line Hov’s mistakenly labeled a “double entendre” is still an example of high-level wordplay that’s worth knowing about, no matter what umbrella it technically falls under.
True double entendres rely upon more than just dual references; they require two parallel levels of meaning, one explicit and one coded. Traditionally, that coded meaning was usually of a sexual nature.
Regardless, double entendres always insinuate—they thrive on ambiguity. Something like, “Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense/But I did five mil’, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since” would not apply. In fact, the success of that lines relies upon Jay not insinuating at all, but making his meaning singular and explicit. It’s a great bit of wordplay (eliding the difference between “sense” and “since”), but it lacks any coded meaning.
We combed through some of our favorite examples of Jay-Z’s witty wordplay and asked Adam Bradley, University of Colorado Boulder English professor and author of The Anthology of Rap, to weigh in on the different types of wordplay Jay-Z employs in these various examples.
Jay-Z uses a lot of puns—where the humor derives from a similar sounding words and/or that word’s multiple meanings. Jay-Z also uses a lot of similes, and metaphors. Excellent lines like “I was moving birds like an Oriole fitted” and “I’m on the block like I’m 8 feet tall” do convey the sense of two distinct images, but as mentioned before, the meaning is clear, not coded.
No matter what you call it, Jigga’s wordplay is so nice you’ve got to hear it twice.
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