‘All I Do Is Think About Words’: Wordle’s Hip-Hop Appeal
In case you haven’t noticed, we’re living in a Wordle world. Ever since the popular spelling game came through in October 2021 and crushed the buildings, everyone’s suddenly more obsessed with taking over blocks than The Wire kingpin Avon Barksdale. It’s a quick rise that makes particular sense for the generation raised on hip-hop.
“It’s like I’ve spent my whole life training for the Olympics of five-minute, once-a-day word games,” says the rapper, comedian, and Wordle wizard Open Mike Eagle. “All I do is think about words, and it’s been that way since 1996.”
The way he sees it, those years of experience, going back to his early work with the Los Angeles-based collective Project Blowed, have given him a distinct advantage. “I’ve gotten it in two [tries] twice,” Mike says. “One of the times I didn’t get any letters right in the first guess, then got the entire word correct in the second. It was weird and very pleasing to the eye.”
Another big fan of Wordle is Questlove, who’s gone so far as to modify his Twitter handle to include “5 letters only,” and who played the game on a recent episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Last month, the Roots drummer and Oscar-nominated director hinted at its potential for creative inspiration, tweeting, “My new system: put a new song on, and first word I hear starts it.”
There’s a reason for all this. The thrill of filling in those blank cubes is a lot like coming up with a hot verse, or a sure-to-go-viral caption; nothing is doper than dopamine. The anxious excitement you experience when you only have two letters left on a perplexing Wordle match echoes the impossible zeal of hearing Black Thought somehow cram the entire literary canon into a head-spinning 11-minute freestyle. The buzz you get from solving a brain teaser and the charge you get from a death-defying Playboi Carti show both signify a triumph over limitations. We may hate on struggle rappers, but there’s still beauty in a struggle.
The idea of limitation as freedom goes back to Miles Davis, who thought a note or melody had to first be contained within a concise, rigorously delineated structure before it could flourish as a more adventurous, expansive creation. (His critique of free-jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman, who he thought did too much coloring outside the musical lines, without enough artistic discipline, was that you had to know the rules before you broke them.) The same ethos got passed down from there to rap’s luminaries. From Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s pre-GPS solutions to a travel dilemma on 1979’s “Superrappin’” to Rakim’s assertion that he “fit it like pieces of puzzles — complicated,” on 1988’s “Microphone Fiend,” there’s a history of rappers finding inventiveness in incertitude.
It’s easy to assume that a polished wordsmith would have the advantage in Wordle over so-called mumble rappers: Just imagine Megan Thee Stallion conquering Wordle each day with the same awe-inspiring verbal agility she takes to her freestyle videos. Then again, the opposite could just as easily be true: Envision an ad-lib-loving TikTok sensation, nailing Wordle on the second try by typing in whatever word she thought of making a hook out of that morning.
One of the best things about both thought-provoking games and rhymes is the way they disprove the notion that we live in a dumbed-down, all-emojis culture — summed up by a dubious meme currently circulating with the caption “I still don’t understand Wordle, Bitcoin, TikTok, NFTs, and new rappers.” It’s a cheap laugh for self-described “washed” people who enjoy broadcasting their distaste for the Internet’s latest fixations, be they new games or rappers born after Lilo and Stitch became a thing. Rap is the top genre on the planet, and there are scores of MCs who continue to thrill, challenge, and amuse us; so long as we allow space to appreciate that, we all win.
Open Mike Eagle isn’t convinced the game will have a noticeable impact on music. “I bet there are Wordle rap songs on TikTok right now,” he muses. “I’ve had to stop myself from writing one, because if I was gonna do it, I should have done it a month ago.”
He notes that pure verbal skills aren’t always enough to save you, in Wordle or elsewhere. “The rap equivalent to a Wordle whiff is forgetting all your bars in a battle like Canibus did that one time,” he says. “Respect to Canibus, though.”
And missing the mark — whether that means flubbing a line in a battle or failing the six attempts on the day’s word — is always going to be slightly ego-damaging. “Nobody loves a X/6 unless it’s a BMW,” Mike adds. “I could have put that in my song.”
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