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I’ll teach you how to “stunt”

bling dollar

In 2003, 50 Cent and his fellow G-Unit rappers released a song called “Stunt 101”, in which they claim to “teach you how to stunt”. I’ve been listening to this song for years without a second thought, but now it occurs to me that this verb stunt is completely baffling–what on earth does it mean!? To find out, I turn to the lyrics and examine these lines from 50 Cent’s chorus:

I’ll teach you how to stunt:
My wrists stay *rocked-up,            (diamond-clad)
My TVs pop up
In the *Maybach Benz.                   (a top-shelf Mercedes)

I’ll teach you how to stunt:
N—a, you can’t see me,
My Bentley GT
Got smoke-gray *tints.                    (darkened windows)

I’ll teach you how to stunt:
My neck stay *blingin’.                    (glittering, sparkling)
My *rims stay gleamin’.                  (wheels)
I’m shinin’, man.

Each rhyme contains a short description of paradigmatic ‘stunting’ behaviour. When 50 Cent describes his wrists as ‘rocked-up’, the aspiring stunter need only follow his lead and don a diamond watch; when 50 raps about his Bentley, get thee to a dealership; and so on. The chorus is built on these exemplars: the rocks, the rides, the blingin’ neck, the gleamin’ rims; and they all seem to converge on the last line: I’m shinin’, man. To stunt is ‘to shine’. Or, less figuratively, it’s to show yourself off, to make a spectacle of your best features.

Somewhat better equipped, I widen my search to the rest of hip-hop music. After much trawling, collecting, and listening, stunt’s lexical history begins to fill out. Before long, I’m facing over a thousand quotations, a formidable amount of evidence for any new sense, let alone a piece of hip-hop slang. When I set to reading through and interpreting what I’ve found, I can’t help but contemplate – who used it first?

My flow’s been hot for so long

Stunt, for me, has always evoked 50 Cent music. I first clocked the term in his 2003 song “Patiently Waiting”, and although I’ve since heard more veteran MCs (Ca$h Money!) drop it into their rhymes, I had no clue just how far back into rap stunt would reach, just how old the term really is. Imagine my surprise, then, when I stumble upon an example in a song from 1988, nearly 15 years before 50 released his first album. Check out these lines from Kid ‘n Play’s “Brother Man Get Hip”:

Watch what you’re sayin’ when, it’s Kid ‘n Play again,
Pumpin’ and jumpin’, you know that I’m a go-getter.
Stop *frontin’ and stuntin’, boy, you know you just better     (showing off)
Remember the face, remember the voice,
Remember Kid ‘n Play when it comes to the choice…

Thematically, Kid ‘n Play’s song is rather different from “Stunt 101”, and after my first run-through, I’m left asking: where’s the loot? There’s not a peep about fancy cars or diamond jewellery. Granted, rap lyrics in the 80s told a far less commercial tale, but when I continue my search, I encounter recent evidence in a similar vein, i.e. without the bling. Maybe stunt relies more on swagger than swag.

System thumpin’, dance floor jumpin’

In 2013, stunt continues to show up with hip-hop’s new guard. You’ll hear it from artists like A$AP Rocky (“Catch me out in China stuntin’”), Kendrick Lamar (“Stuntin’ hard like a black circus”), and Macklemore (“I am stuntin’ and flossin’”). Even 50 Cent is still stuntin’ (“I stunt when I want”). In the rap game, stunt seems here to stay.

Outside hip-hop music, though, stunt’s not nearly so pervasive. I find examples here and there in related genres like urban fiction, books about hip-hop, and ‘hood scholarship, but overall the print evidence doesn’t exactly compel. In fact the only other resource of any substantial yield is Twitter. There stunt runs absolutely rampant. Maybe it’s the relaxed register, economy of letters, or some other serendipity, but plug “stuntin” into your search-box, and you’re sure to get an education!