Postscript: Phife Dawg, 1970-2016

March 23, 2016 10:33 PM

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“1988, senior year, Garvey High,” so the story goes. It’s an oldie but goodie. The lyric is from the 1991 song “Butter,” on which the rapper Phife Dawg fashions himself a ladies’ man with little concern for commitment before meeting a young woman who returns his ill treatment with her own indiscretions. The drums jangle like sleigh bells while Phife raps over a bright and hazy looping melody bent from the first few notes of “Young & Fine,” by the Weather Report. Phife’s unmistakable timbre sounds barely pubescent even at twenty-one—and it’s all the more believable when telling a story as juvenile as that found on the deep cut from their seminal album, “The Low End Theory.” “I can’t front, thought I was all that, but now it seems I’ve met my match,” he offers, his masking braggadocio inching toward violence. Soon, he’s charging large swaths of women with various sins while nursing the wounds left by one: “Your whole appearance is a lie and it could never be true,” he digs, “and if you really liked yourself, then you would try to be you.”

For a song that so dreamily projects smoothness, “Butter” is jagged and biting in content, and in some moments, abusive. There is a palpable friction between Q-Tip’s slick witticisms—“not no Parkay, not no Margarine”—and Phife’s pugnacious slant and blunt delivery. The song captures the contrasts th...

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