“One Deft Discursive Act”: Signifyin(g) on Police Brutality in Lil Wayne’s “Mrs. Officer”

(Two of Esu’s physical characteristics are his extraordinarily dark color and his tiny size.)

Legba’s sexuality is a sign of liminality, but also of the penetration of thresholds, the exchange between discursive universes.

The ironic reversal of a received racist image of the black as simianlike, the Signifying Monkey, he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language, is our trope for repetition and revision, indeed our trope of chiasmus, repeating and reversing simultaneously as he does in one deft discursive act….not engaged in the game of information-giving….dependent on the play of differences….turn[ing] upon the free play of language itself….Signifyin(g) epitomizes all of the rhetorical play in the black vernacular….[The Signifying Monkey] is the principle of self-consciousness in the black vernacular, the meta-figure itself.

-Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey (pp. 17; 27; 52-53)

My picture should be in the dictionary next to the definition of definition,
Because repetition is the father of learning.

– Lil Wayne, “Shoot Me Down”


When I started writing this blog I had an idea that to build up some content I would do a sort of “Power 20” of Tha Carter III and write a post every day for sixteen days about each of this album’s tracks. Talk about 16 bars! Even though I never got around to it, I still believe this album warrants that kind of attention. You might infer from my epigraphs above that I think Tha Carter III (2008) is a masterful and ebullient example of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “Signifyin(g)– that is, the rhetorical “play of differences” that characterizes so much of African American literary troping and ultimately discourse.

Lil Wayne’s 2008 album Signifies not just in its constant practice of “repetition and revision”; rather, its embrace of “the free play of language” positions Weezy as the master of a Signifyin(g) discourse in so many aspects. This album engages intertextuality, for example in the response to Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” that Wayne offers on “Comfortable”; in Wayne’s explicit discussion of the craft of rapping on tracks like “Dr. Carter” and “Let the Beat Build”; and in Wayne’s coded (and often sexually explicit) ruminations on the nature of language, writing, and the universe, on tracks like “A Milly” and “Pussy Monster.”

But this post is about the masterful “Mrs. Officer,” which intertextually invokes and then queers the tradition of liberatory rap, grounding Weezy’s brand of punning and linguistic play to spectacular effect.  

 “Mrs. Officer”‘s beat is infectious–the song opens with a bouncing, bouyant bass drum and a popping snare; then the flirty instrumentals open with Bobby Valentino’s voice  calling the song along: “Woo oo oo, yeah yeah yeah…” The song’s upbeat tone makes it sound like just another poppy dance track for the club. Valentino sings on: “When I’m in that thang, gonna make that body sang: Wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee” and Wayne pops in: “Like a cop car.”

With this first simile, comparing a woman’s coital moans (probably the eponymous Mrs. Officer’s) to the sound of a police siren, it’s clear this song is going to be insubordinate, disrespectful, and hilarious. What follows is a series of nested punch lines that build in their Signifyin(g) power, their invocation of rap’s politically resistant traditions, and in (to use Tricia Rose’s term) their “ideological insubordination” (101).

Wayne’s first lines, describing getting pulled over by the police, is immediately reminiscent of the great tradition of raps songs on racial profiling by traffic cops (songs like LL’s “Illegal Search,” Mos Def’s “Mr. Nigger,” and Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.”) But before the punning has even begun, Weezy is already playing on this narrative trope–we might even say queering it:

Doing a buck in the latest drop
I got stopped by a lady cop
She got me thinking I can date a cop
Cause her uniform pants are so tight
She read me my rights
She put me in the car, she cut off [her, all the] lights
She said I had the right to remain silent
Now I got her [hollerin, howlin], soundin like a siren
Talkin’ bout…
Wee Ooh Wee Ooh Wee….like a cop car.

Where LL Cool J, Mos Def, and Jay-Z’s songs all portray the same situation, where a police officer abuses his authority to detain the rapper, in Weezy’s scenario this abusive authority is performed by a sexy “lady cop.” Abusive police force is mocked and coopted in a few lines when embodied by Mrs. Officer: “She said I had the right to remain silent/Now I got her howlin, soundin like a siren.” The lyrical play here is dense: in Wayne’s queered fantasy space, Mrs. Officer does give him his Miranda rights, but “the right to remain silent” sounds here like an act of S&M. And given Weezy’s retained male privilege, he still has the power to get “her howlin, soundin like a siren” with his sexual prowess, even when he’s unable to speak. But this dangerous siren’s song, whose powers powers wooed Weezy out of his ride and into hers, sounds like, well, a siren: “Wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee, wee oo wee oo wee. Like a cop car.” While other rap tracks sample the sounds of police sirens, Wayne eschews the literal signifier of police surveillance and opts instead to Signify on it. Instead of a sample, Bobby Valentino croons the cries of a female police officer crying out, her moans loud and persistent as a police siren’s.

 In this queered space, the police officer’s power does not unequivocally trump the citizen’s; instead, Weezy’s masculine power mitigates the feminized power of the state. The fact that he laughs after almost every line is a pretty good signal that he is in on the joke. Wayne describes these revised power relations:

And I know she the law, and she know I’m the boss
And she know I’m high, a-bove the law
And she know I’m raw, she know I’m from the street
And all she want me to do is fuck the police

Oh, the punch line! She wants him to “fuck the police”! How far away we are, and still how close, to the terse days of  when Ice Cube yelled, “Fuck the police! …Young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown” (NWA, Fuck the Police). Weezy’s got it bad, all right, where in 1988 “Fuck tha Police” prompted outcry and even provoked an unprecedented denouncement from the then-head of the FBI, in 2008 Lil’ Wayne is “above the law” and being begged to “fuck the police.” Snap!

And after we got done
I said lady what’s ya number she said 911
Ha! Emergency only
Head Doctor perform surgery on me
Yeah… and now I’m healed
I make her wear nothing but handcuffs and heels
And I beat it like a cop
Rodney King baby yeah I beat it like a cop
Ha Haaa… beat it like a cop
Rodney King baby said beat it like a cop
But I ain’t tryna be violent
But I’ll do the time but her love is timeless
Mrs. Officer, I know you wish ya name was Mrs. Carter huh?

In subsequent lines, Wayne continues to riff on police brutality,broadening his indictment of those in power to include a whole range of emergency services.  In Wayne’s scenario, Mrs. Officer gives her phone number as 911, which is all right because she’s also the “head doctor.” Get it?  Of course, this plea for medical attention is a play on the real consequences of police brutality whose emblem Weezy hasn’t even yet named. In this fantasy, the handcuffs aren’t Weezy’s wrists but Mrs. Officer’s. Weezy is the one in power: “I make her wear nothing but handcuffs and heels. “

Lil Wayne, “Mrs. Officer” (2008)

It is at this moment, I believe, that this scenario is exposed for what it really is: a fantasy. With the traditional power structure over turned and Mrs. Officer in the cuffs, Wayne’s character “beat[s] it like a cop”–that is, masturbates. Yes, in this “one discursive act” — that is, “Beat it like a cop,” which wayne repeats four times–he functionally deconstructs his own song, repeating and revising this culminating pun. Is he saying “beat it like a cop” or “beat ‘er like a cop”? The difference in pronoun is crucial. If the latter, we can assume he is beating up Mrs. Officer–whether by literally attacking her, or enacting the kind of violent sex play that handcuffs might entail, or just roughly having sex with her. (The Ying Yang Twins come to mind.) However, Wayne says he “ain’t tryna be violent,” and I’ll take him at his word. In fact, I believe at this moment, the discursive, narrative and sexual climax of the song, Wayne’s repetition and revision functions to revise the meaning of the whole song and to explode/expose the scenario as what it is: a fantasy. Mrs. Officer may “wish [her] name was Mrs. Carter,” but in fact it’s Weezy here doing the wishing, imagining a scenario in which Rodney King–attacked by a small mob of policemen after they pulled him over, you recall, while driving home–gets not beat up but beat off. In its efforts at revision and critique, the invocation of Rodney King is the singular “deft discursive act” on which this song’s meaning hinges.

(My conclusions here are heavily influenced by Busta Rhymes’s guest lines on the later track “La, La,” which suggest to me that for really sophisticated lyricists, apparently misogynistic lyrics might actually be coded references to masturbation and fantasy:

They movin on a nigga as I walk through the valley, ready? (Ok!)
And zoom in with the cameras like I’m dickin’ down Halle Berry (uh-huh)
My money help me do things that you nigga’s can’t believe
Like purchase persons, places all them things that you can’t conceive (ah-huh)
Like interactin with women the caliber of Janet
I-I sit and master my vision and massacre the planet (Woah!)
I hope you nigga’s know just what it is
While I’m countin my paper nigga’s know I’m handlin my biz (OK!)

Sure, Busta claims he’s got women “the caliber of Janet.” But this whole verse is full of images of fantasy and mirage: “cameras,” “can’t believe,” “can’t conceive.” But it seems pretty clear to the other men on the track, responding to each of Busta’s coding lines what our speaker is doing when he “sit[s to] master my vision and massacre the planet.” His peers’ cries of “Woah!” indicate that they heard what he was alluding to with “master my vision” and “massacre the planet.” Just to make sure they got it, Busta asks them, then reiterates with, we might imagine, an obscene hand gesture. “I hope you niggas know what it is…I’m handlin’ my biz.” “Ok!” they yell. We get it! )

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MLA Style Guide (I made it, so enjoy it)

This guide focuses on formatting the body of your writing using MLA style, and covers issues like punctuation and formatting. Works Cited is covered briefly at the end.

1. Titles of longer works are italicized or underlined, while shorter works’ titles are put in quotation marks.

Ex.     “All Falls Down” is my favorite track on The College Dropout.

Ex.     That’s The Joint: A Hip-Hop Studies Reader includes traditional articles like Oliver Wang’s article “Rapping and Repping Asian: Race, Authenticity, and the Asian-American MC,” as well as interviews like Christina Veran’s “Native Tongues: A Roundtable on Hip-Hop’s Global Indigenous Movement.”

2. Punctuation goes inside quotation marks, except in the case of an exclamation or question mark.

Ex.     I really like the song “All Falls Down.”
Do you like “All Falls Down”?
I love “All Falls Down”!

3. However, if the exclamation or question mark is part of the quotation, it says inside the quotation marks.

Ex.    She asked me, “Do you like ‘All Falls Down’?”

4. On a related note, quoted material inside another quotation is denoted by single quotation marks instead of double. Italics stay italicized

Ex.     In her paper, Susie Michigan wrote, “West’s themes on The College Dropout are inconsistent; ‘All Falls Down’ is a more meaningful track than ‘Get Em High.’”

5. To cite a source, use a parentheses with a the author’s last name and the page number, placed after the quotation or direct paraphrase. If you have not stated the author’s name, use her last name in the parenthesis. The parenthetical goes after the quotation marks but before end punctuation. Use line numbers for plays, but not for song lyrics.

Ex. Rose writes that graffiti, breakdancing, and rap all evidence “flow, layering and ruptures in line” (38). Though her concepts are rooted in the work of Arthur Jafa, Rose extends his concepts by viewing them not just as stylistic constructions but socially significant (Rose 39).

6. To cite a quotation quoted in another’s work, mark it as such in the parenthetical with “qtd”.

Ex.  Rose quotes Queen Latifah’s assertive “Ladies First”: “The ladies will kick it, the rhyme it is wicked/Those who don’t know how to be pros get evicted” (Queen Latifah qtd in Rose 164).

7. Use corrective brackets sparingly, especially to clarify missing information (such as substituting a name for a pronoun). Preserve the integrity of a quoted line by setting up quotations so as to avoid brackets. It’s okay if quotes don’t have perfect grammar. They’re rap.

Ex. DON’T: In “We Don’t Care,” Kanye raps that he “as a shorty [he] looked up to the dope man, [who was the] only adult man [he] knew who wasn’t broke man” (West, “We Don’t Care”).

Instead, set your quotation up to avoid these brackets:

Ex. In “We Don’t Care,” Kanye describes admiring the local drug dealer as a child: “As a shorty I looked up to the dope man, only adult man I knew that wasn’t broke man” (West, “We Don’t Care).

8. Quotations of more than 4 lines should be excerpted from the text and indented ½ inch from the margin. Include them without quotations and place the citation outside the end punctuation. Continue the rest of the paragraph without indentation.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., writes of a 1983 New York Times article about a group of students from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who, put off by the tests by McGraw-Hill they took each year, wrote their own test and sent it off to the publisher to be completed. Gates writes that “The examination, a multiple-choice intelligence test, is entitled ‘The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills.'”‘ The students’ teacher allowed the students to write their own test after “one of [his] students looked up and asked what the reason for the test was, because all it did to him was make him feel academically inferior” (65-66). [sans bullet,obvi]

  • The students devised a test to measure vocabulary mastery in street language. They sent ten copies to McGraw-Hill, where eight employees took the test, only to score C’s and D’s. One of the test’s questions…is an example of the most familiar mode of Signifyin(g). The question reads, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” The proper response to this question is, “Your mama.”…”Your mama” jokes about in black discourse, all the way from the field and the street to Langston Hughes’s highly accomplished volume of poems, Ask Your Mama…The presence in the students’ test of this centuries-old black joke represents an inscription of the test’s Signifyin(g) nature, because it serves as an echo of the significance of the test’s title, “The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills.” (Gates 66)

As an example of Signifyin(g), the story of“The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills” resonates easily with high school students.

Works Cited

[Note: Works Cited in MLA style should be alphabetized and single spaced, with the all but the first line indented. Please see the Purdue Online Writing Lab for more details and information about constructing your MLA style Works Cited page.]

Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. The Signifying Monkey: a theory of African-American literary criticism. Oxford University Press (1989): New York.

Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown (1994): Wesleyan University Press.

Veran, Christina. “Native Tongues: A Roundtable on Hip-Hop’s Global Indigenous Movement.” That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Ed. Forman and Neal. 2nd ed. Routledge (2012): New York.

Wang, Oliver. “Rapping and Repping Asian: Race, Authenticity, and the Asian-American MC.” That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader. Ed. Forman and Neal. 2nd ed. Routledge (2012): New York.

West, Kanye. “All Falls Down.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. CD.

–. “We Don’t Care.” The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records, 2004. CD.

LOOK AROUND YOU: Toward a New (Exegetic) Hiphop Pedagogy

The BBC Comedy series Look Around You, initially aired in Britain in 2002, begins with a 20-minute pilot episode about Calcium. In the show, which is designed to mock earlier generations of British educational videos, “the white element,”  Calcium–which here in its powdered form highly suggests cocaine–is subjected to a series of inane experiments. The viewer is instructed to write results down “in your copybook.”

The second episode of the series, “Maths,” opens with a shot of a young black teenage boy looking anxiously around a streetcorner. Soon we see that he is serving as lookout for a white friend, spraypainting a wall. “Look around you,” narrator Nigel Lambert instructs. “Look around you. Look around you. Have you worked out what we’re looking for?” Lambert instructs, over a shot of the white teen spraying a white wall with a red C. “Correct,” he concludes. The boys flee, leaving behind a wall covered in a large, difficult equation involving infinity, square roots, and pi. “The answer is: Maths.” After announcing that the largest number is forty-five billion–“although mathmeticians suspect there may be even larger numbers”–the narrator then proceeds to explain that MATHS stands for “Mathmatic Anti Telharsic Harfatum Septomin.”

While I am no expert in British humor, I cannot help read this show as the white establishment’s confession (at least via Britain, the motherland) that its educational practices are stupid, arbitrary, and meant to leave you nothing but confused. (In one experiment on cocaine–I mean calcium–Lambert instructs the viewer to stir a solution with a glass stirring rod–or a pencil. I am reminded of the stringent lab conditions in my own high school chemistry classes.) In the wake of Kanye West’s insipid #FuckMath tweets and the riots in London being blamed on the rioters’ “perverted social ethos,” I cannot help but see deeper meaning in a show that satirizes education and begins an early episode–the first after the pilot –with a shot of a black teen looking anxiously for the police while his white friend writes graffiti, ironically, about math(s).

And if you don’t believe a single shot of a black man can give meaning to a whole film, you haven’t seen Night of the Living Dead.

When I teach the concept of Signifyin(g) to my freshman writing students, I use an excerpt from Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey which resonates easily with the experiences of my class. Gates writes of a 1983 New York Times article about a group of students from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, who, put off by the tests by McGraw-Hill they took each year, wrote their own test and sent it off to the publisher to be completed. Gates writes that “The examination, a multiple-choice intelligence test, is entitled ‘The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills.'”‘ The students’ teacher allowed the students to write their own test after “one of [his] students looked up and asked what the reason for the test was, because all it did to him was make him feel academically inferior” (65-66).

The students devised a test to measure vocabulary mastery in street language. They sent ten copies to McGraw-Hill, where eight employees took the test, only to score C’s and D’s. One of the test’s questions…is an example of the most familiar mode of Signifyin(g). The question reads, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” The proper response to this question is, “Your mama.”…”Your mama” jokes about in black discourse, all the way from the field and the street to Langston Hughes’s highly accomplished volume of poems, Ask Your Mama…The presence in the students’ test of this centuries-old black joke represents an inscription of the test’s Signifyin(g) nature, because it serves as an echo of the significance of the test’s title, “The In Your Face Test of No Certain Skills.” (Gates 66)

Until now, the term “hiphop pedagogy” has referred to a matrix of ideas about teaching that combine activism, critical pedagogy, using hiphop in classrooms (often to engage marginalized student populations) and an attention to the ways in which rappers already function as teachers and knowledge purveyors in their communities (e.g., Priya Parmar’s Knowledge Reigns Supreme: The Critical Pedagogy of KRS-ONE, 2009).

While using hiphop in the classroom is critical–indeed, I am doing it myself–we need to be paying attention to what rappers themselves have been saying in their art about why school failed them. This is what I mean by an exegetical approach–we need to look to the texts for the answers, which are already out there. Why did the best lyricists of our generation hate school? Why did the college graduates in Public Enemy find violence to be their most potent metaphor (Chang)? KRS-ONE explained of his own self-education, “I was held back twice in the 8th grade due to truancy…I dropped out of the ninth grade and psent the next two years studying in the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza…I leave home in pursuit of philosophy and emceeing. [By] 16 I had exhausted the library” (Parmar 58).

Though I teach extremely successful students, the questions Kanye West asks in his 2003 debut The College Dropout still resonate with them: Why am I in school? Why should I stay here when my teacher says I’m a “retard” (“We Don’t Care”)? Why do I need to go to college to get a job when people just hire their nieces and nephews? Why is the valedictorian of my high school working at the Cheescake Factory?

It took me a little while to build up to this place, but I hope that exploring rap music for insights, criticisms and suggestions on school, schooling, teaching, teachas and learning in rap will become a central pursuit of this blog–and I hope to hear from other folks who are out there lookin…(g).