I Still Love H.E.R.: Common and Extended Metaphor
Why do we use metaphor?
Are we just decorating our prose, as though we’re peacocks flashing our linguistic feathers? Are we intending to dramatize it, to make it visceral, to invoke an emotional response? Or are we mapping experience, participating in our own game of synesthesia in order to elucidate the idiosyncrasies of our own, unique perceptions?
In other words, is metaphor an aspect of something writers might call “style”, or is it just something we do?
In reality, language cannot escape figuration; it is something humans do to language habitually, simply by perceiving. Frederick Nietzsche suggests that the “language of truth, language supposedly purified of figures and tropes, is simply language to which we have become so habituated that we no longer recognize it as figurative”. There are two opposing but equal implications of this: one is that figurative language is ubiquitous, and the other is that figurative language is unrecognizable. So when Common implies in “I Used to Love H.E.R.” that hip-hop is a woman, hip-hop is a woman and we have no choice but to believe him and admire him.
Several rappers have used women, or the names of women, as metaphors—Epmd’s “Jane” and Atmosphere’s obsession with a “Lucy Ford” are prominent examples. Common, known at the time as Common Sense, was not the first artist to invoke a certain woman to create extended metaphors, but his effort in doing so held, and continues to hold, exceptional literary value for hip-hop. This effort was not only incredibly poignant, but it fostered an ongoing dialogue, engendering an arena for hip-hop to think about itself. So many rappers bite this song, it’s ridiculous. In “I Used to Love H.E.R.”, “H.E.R.” stands for “Hip-Hop in its Essence and Realness”, but Common also claimed when the song was released that it was an acronym for “Hearing Every Rhyme”, a direct call to hip-hop heads, insisting that they listen carefully and critically.
That was 1994. It was a song ahead of its time, incredible in its clairvoyance, able to detect the decline of hip-hop long before it happened. The same problems the song alluded to exist still in today’s rap game.
I have argued that mainstream hip-hop suffers from a misogyny problem. My mother insists that hip-hop is too violent and too misogynistic for her to listen to—it’s hard to blame her though, considering the brand of hip-hop which tends to garner spins on the radio. Though it is impossible to apply “violent” and “misogynistic” to the multifarious umbrella genre of “hip-hop”, the unacquainted listener will experience mainstream misogyny before experiencing the more admirable qualities of much of the music—its enthusiastic, relentless wordplay, its attention to earlier musical forms, or even its capacity to unite and uplift.
Common uses the extended metaphor of the woman to allude to the trends of misogyny and violence, nascent in hip-hop in 1994 as more violent and misogynistic G-Funk and West Coast hip-hop came to prominence. Clearly, Common’s choice to compare hip-hop in this time to an increasingly degraded woman is on point. Hip-hop was on the verge of a Columbus-like crossover into the mainstream consciousness, and the music at the forefront performed the degradation of the woman to which Common so skillfully alludes.
Common personifies “H.E.R.” not only through pronoun use (I will refer to Common’s personification of hip-hop as “her”), but through an even stronger anthropomorphism (“human-izing something)–he affords “her” physicality and consciousness. Why does this work? Or does it? Common could even be recalling a literal person to represent the figurative person. This could be a childhood love, someone who hung out with rappers, or even a rapper–”she” or “it” was once “original, pure and untampered”. This would lend credibility to the idea that one’s figuration can be understood through one’s socialization, one’s political, cultural and social understanding of the world. He sets out his extended metaphor by portraying “her” in her youth, innocent, respected and unfettered: “Not about the money, no studs was mic checkin’ her/But I respected her, she hit me in the heart/A few New York n—as, had did her in the park/But she was there for me, and I was there for her”. Here we see hip-hop as it was in its stages of infancy in New York. A burgeoning local art form. A joyful celebration of genre-pushing innovation. Music created simply for the fun of creating music. Ciphers, break-dancers and spray paint, but no violence and no misogyny. Not yet.
In the second verse, the consequences of the problems alluded to in the first verse begin to play out. Common places “her” in clubs and parties, suggesting a new arena for consumption of the music. The turning point in this narrative, however, is “her” geographic shift from New York to Los Angeles: “But then she broke to the West coast, and that was cool/Cause around the same time, I went away to school/And I’m a man of expandin’ so why should I stand in her way?/She’d probably get her money in L.A.”. Already the contrast to the song’s first verse is manifestly visible; Common has suddenly implicated “her” in the pursuit of money. Indeed, the beginning of the 1990s saw the rise of Los Angeles and California at large as a fertile region for hip-hop production, but this necessarily meant that the genre was to be commercialized and diversified. As such, Los Angeles became known for its distinct brand—G-Funk.
Common’s final verse portrays the detrimental and destructive effects of this brand. He ascribes to “her” an “image and a gimmick”, insinuating that hip-hop’s rise to mainstream eminence was accompanied by an insistence on performing one’s credibility. This, in Los Angeles, meant street cred, often performed in the discussion of violent acts. Common raps:
“[She’s] talkin’ about poppin’ glocks, servin’ rocks and hittin’ switches/Now she’s a gangsta rollin’ with gangsta b—-es/Always smokin’ blunts and gettin’ drunk/Tellin’ me sad stories, now she only f—s with the funk”. The metaphor reaches its climax, though, when Common links violence to misogyny in such a way that “H.E.R.” enacts violence and misogyny on her own body: “I see n—az slammin’ her, and takin’ her to the sewer”.
In response to Common’s effort to take “H.E.R.” back, to nourish hip-hop back to health, L.A.-based hip-hop collective Westside Connection released a song called “Westside Slaughterhouse”, which attacked Common directly. Ice Cube (of N.W.A. and, later, “Friday After Next” fame) proclaimed the genre’s commodification of the female body: “Used to love her, mad ‘cause we f—ed her/P—y-whipped b—- with no common sense”. In an effort to defend the gangsta image of Los Angeles hip-hop, Ice Cube helped prefigure the disturbing trends which, regrettably, came to characterize mainstream hip-hop music. In delivering these lines, he rendered “her” disposable, taking geographic control of a metaphor and coloring it with brutal physicality. This violence against “her” persists.
Metaphors can be prophetic. They can be ugly. Most of all, they are limitless, extending infinitely into time to be recycled and refigured, over and over again.