Slick Rick 'The Art Of Storytelling,' By The Numbers

How much storytelling is on 'The Art of Storytelling?'

Ben Carter

When The Art of Storytelling was released 20 years ago today, Slick Rick re-entered hip-hop at a vibrant and challenging time. Hip-hop was achieving an equilibrium it had never before achieved—traditional values of lyricism, technical ability, and collaborative respect was wed to commercial success. Some of the best MC in history (Nas, Big Boi, Andre 3000, Lauryn Hill, DMX) were running the charts not through pop crossover, but through lyricism and flow. There were more No. 1 hip-hop albums from 1997-1999 (19) than there had been in the entirety of hip-hop prior (17), if the Ruler was to return, he’d need to compete.

Rick’s was a pioneer of hip-hop, propelling the art of narrative-driven rap into the mainstream, and hip-hop evolved along the roads he paved with his iconic 1988 debut album The Great Adventures of Slick Rick. Tracks from that record would go on to be sampled, interpolated, and covered 124 times by 1999, but it was his influence in 1988 that proved telling. At the time, simple retellings of past events or basic stories centered around a simple theme were commonplace. The Fresh Prince was adept at telling stark, effective stories from his youth (“Here We Go Again,” “As We Go”), Biz Markie was having fun on the mic with dry comedic endeavours like “Pickin’ Boogers,” and Big Daddy Kane was injecting pick-up lines into his romantic escapades (“The Day You’re Mine”). None managed to gather all these qualities and craft them into a coherent, engaging, at times thrilling story like Slick Rick did.

The 11 years between that classic debut album and 1999's The Art of Storytelling were tumultuous for Slick Rick. During the early-to-late '90s, he was incarcerated for five years; two for attempted murder, three for immigration issues. The Ruler’s Back (1991) was recorded hurriedly while Rick was out on bail, and Behind Bars (1994) was recorded as Rick was partaking in a work-release program. These records are not always cited as such, but they were pivotal and important additions to Rick's artistic palate, and proved to be valuable when considering the diversity of method and technique he displays on The Art of Storytelling. We break down the storytelling on Rick's iconic album with statistical data below:

Defining Storytelling

A storytelling bar is: One that is part of a linear, consistent chain of events; a narrative that has characters and a concrete structure.

What isn’t a storytelling bar: Words and bars not connected in a linear fashion; ones that don’t have a solid setting or structure, and don’t lead to a conclusion or resolution.

Defining categories: Relationships, Crime/Violence, Autobiographical, The Past, Family, Other Rappers, Character-based. Regardless of the narrative perspective, if Rick is talking about a relationship, a violent act, the past, family, or other rappers, those bars are assigned to that category. If Rick is speaking on his own general observation or experience, it’s autobiographical. If Rick speaks from the perspective of a fictitious character, it is character-based.

Category Breakdown for Each Slick Rick Album

Slick Rick's debut album relied heavily on Crime/Violence, Relationships, and Autobiographical stories. These are common themes in hip-hop to this day, and by focusing his intricate ability on wide, relatable issues, Rick ensured maximum engagement. “Children’s Story” is often cited as a classic track that inspired mainstream hip-hop storytelling. Rick's legend grew through taking relatable content and adding it to a thrilling, twisting narrative.

Slick Rick’s legal issues in the '90s crept into his lyrical approach, although it did not manifest in the way his audience may have expected. His lyrics scattered from the subject, relying more on character-based narratives (“Bond," “Moses," “Tonto”) and relationships (“Mistakes Of A Woman," “Cuz It’s Wron," “A Love That’s True”). A vulnerability had snuck into his art on his two record releases in the '90s, The Ruler's Back and Behind Bars. Rather than confront it with autobiographical content, Rick quickly re-directed into stories not focused on the self.

The Art of Storytelling

The graphic shows The Art of Storytelling is aptly named; Slick Rick gathered all of the methods of narrative expression he’d employed in his discography and put them on full display. It was his most technically diverse record, and it also featured more guests than his previous three albums combined (a total of 10), and was by far his highest charting release (No. 8 on the Billboard 200).

The Art of Storytelling debuted a new narrative route for Slick Rick, the Past. On his previous four solo LPs, he rarely, if ever, looked back upon his life or past events for present material. In total, 14.5 percent of storytelling content on The Art of Storytelling focused on the past, notably through the track “Memories”. “You can look back and see how certain things influenced you to make wrong decisions," Rick told Billboard. "But you learn from your mistakes. You learn from your prison time, your bad and good situations." “Memories” wasn’t specifically focused on the events that led to his prison sentence, but it revealed more of Rick’s humanity, a side of his persona shielded on his jail-time albums by character-based stories and outward focus on relationships.

On “Kill N***z” Rick sounds more venomous and menacing than any previous album, diving directly into one of his more explored categories (Crime/Violence) with new darkness and ferocity. While an undercurrent of violence does run through other tracks on the record, he rarely revisits the topic as a narrative. The same can be said of the autobiographical content. Rick slips back into that mode for effect on occasion: the first verse of “I Run This," sprinkled through out “2 Way Street," and in a bar or two on “We Turn It On," but mostly uses autobiographical content to set up stories (“2 Way Street”) or as quick asides from a technical lyrical onslaught (“I Run This”).

He even calls upon classic character mode on “Who Rotten ‘Em," the tale of a slave named Ricky who wins over the Pharaoh with a stirring display of lyricism, all told via a first-person narrative.

The Art of Storytelling also has the most tracks of any Slick Rick album that feature no distinguishable narrative-based lyrics. It’s possibly because this contains the most bars (740 bars, verses only, compared with 658 bars for The Great Adventures of Slick Rick) and the most tracks (19 vs. 12 for The Great Adventures and The Ruler’s Back) of any Slick Rick LP. The sheer amount of content and lyrics Rick delivers create a need to branch out from his previous formula. It’s also a testament to the dexterity Rick has as an artist—to stray that far from his comfort zone, to use new and varied lyrical techniques, alongside some of the greatest rappers of all time (Big Boi, Nas, Raekwon), and still drop an album many consider a classic, is rare and important to remember and celebrate.

The Guests Showcase Slick Rick’s Influence

It’s no coincidence that in the opening skit, Rev Run, Redman, and Ed Lover are quoting some of Slick Rick’s famous bars. The guests Rick employed to spit alongside him on this record are not selected at random—most have cited Slick Rick as a huge influence on their style, and, true to their word, devoted large portions of their lyrics to the storytelling style he helped pioneer.

Nas On “Me & Nas Bring It To Your Hardest”

“Long live your idols, may they never be your rivals / Slick Rick was like Jesus” - “Made Nas Proud” (2013)

Illmatic (1994): 34.4% narrative based

Nas was the hype man at Slick Rick’s 50th birthday, and has praised him numerous times in interviews and on wax. Nas’ debut album, Illmatic, is largely considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time and on it, Nas dove deep into the criminal aspects of his youth, and even refined Rick’s character-based narrative style on “One Love,” where he spoke directly to and about incarcerated friends.

Big Boi On “Street Talkin’”

Rick said: “I’m not sure who approached who, but they was making a song and they wanted me to do a verse on it… they were big wigs at the time. So we did a little switch, I said I’ll do a verse for you, and you do a little verse for me on my joint,“Street Talkin'”, and that’s how that went.. Each one teach one, each one help one.” (KDay Morning Show, 2019)

Aquemini (1998): 46.7% narrative based

“Da Art of Storytelling” by Outkast, parts 1 and 2 (off Aquemini) are classic songs, such that prequels have been written to the narrative, and the instrumental is instantly recognizable.

Raekwon On  “Frozen”

Raekwon said: “Being a storyteller, for me, is being a real MC, because not only do you freestyle and you tackle certain rhymes certain ways, but you become conceptual to the world and you paint pictures…I love telling stories because, you know what, even if they may not respect the song ans say they can dance to it, at least they say that there was something that was interesting about it—because some people don't dance, some people just want to listen. So you give them something that they can absorb and say, 'Wow, he got creative with that.' When I first heard ‘Children’s Story’ by Slick Rick, I didn’t have to dance to that record to feel good about it, but it was a story, and I felt that that was a creative move.” (Westword, 2013)

Immobilarity (1999): 40% narrative based

Rae and Ghostface Killah are still considered some of the best storytelling rappers of all time, and the inspiration Slick Rick provided a young Raekwon via “Children’s Story” in 1988 is forever solidified on “Frozen” from The Art of Storytelling.

Snoop Dogg On  “Unify”

"Jimmy Kimmel: 'Who are your top 3 greatest rappers of all time?'

Snoop Dogg: '[My top 3 favorite rappers are] Slick Rick, Ice Cube, and Snoop Dogg.'" (Jimmy Kimmel Live, 2017)

Doggystyle (1994): 39.1% narrative based

The distribution of these bars is important—63.2% come from “Gin & Juice” and “Murder Was The Case,” the former literally launched Snoop into the mainstream by hitting No. 8 on the Hot 100 and going Gold. The latter is a gritty, aggressive street tale that has been sampled 30 times by legends such as Jay-Z, 2Pac and Notorious B.I.G. That style Snoop grew up on gave us some of the greatest music in hip-hop history, and Snoop dropped by to pay his ultimate respects on The Art of Storytelling.

Redman On “Jail Skit”

Redman stated: “KRS-One, Slick Rick—them are my fathers… Those guys played a major role in who Redman became” (HipHopDX, 2010)

Doc’s Da Name 2000 (1998): 27% narrative based

How These Guests Show Just How Impressive The Art of Storytelling is

On The Art of Storytelling, Slick Rick dazzles, and immediately sets himself apart from his contemporaries. Not only did he return to the storytelling that made him famous and inspired more than one generation of essential MC, he decided to go toe-to-toe with some of the greatest lyricists and technicians in hip-hop, matching them bar-for-bar. He also takes a risk by shooting for the charts, grabbing Kid Capri on production for the first single, and DJ Clark Kent, Jazze Pha, Trackmasters, and Ty Fyffe to add further commercial pressure. That is how you set a legacy in stone.

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