Remember learning about Christopher Columbus? When I was young, the story I was always told was that everyone thought that he was sailing off of the edge of the world, and that Christopher Columbus alone knew that the Earth was round.
Later, of course, I learned that, not only did humanity realize that the Earth was a globe as far back as Ancient Greece, but we could also calculate its circumference with a reasonable degree of accuracy. By the time of Columbus, the question of the shape of the Earth had largely been settled.
At least, that’s what someone who doesn’t use the Internet would say. It seems that, along with “what is the meaning of life” and “if we came from monkeys why are there still monkeys,” the question, “what shape is the earth” is one of those timeless questions that we really can’t answer for sure.
The rapper B.o.B recently brought that very question up on Twitter, claiming that the Earth was flat, and that NASA, along with the general scientific “establishment,” had duped us all by faking photos of the earth, lying about geography and apparently something related to Masonry? I’m not entirely sure on the details of B.o.B’s philosophy.
Needless to say, people disagreed with this. Most notably, Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted a series of responses, taking B.o.B’s allegations of lies one by one and explaining that the Earth is, more or less, round. As one does, B.o.B promptly released a diss track, directed at popular scientist and edutainer Tyson.
If anything can be said for “Flatline,” it’s that it’s musically solid. B.o.B is a professional, and it shows. He matches his tone perfectly to the instrumental, and it has some solid wordplay. Near the end of the song, B.o.B uses a spoken word sample, which I’m always a sucker for, of Tyson talking about the shape of the Earth. Thanks to the backing track, the sample somehow makes the affable Tyson sound legitimately sinister.
That is, until you listen to the words. In the sample, Tyson is literally just saying facts, which doesn’t seem especially damning. The lyrics of the rest of the song, while pretty, don’t function especially well as either a diss track or a refutation of scientific thought.
The lyrics are generally unfocused. Even if I were on board with literally ignoring all professionals and academics from multiple fields, I might be taken aback by the implication that all world leaders are “mirror lizards.”
One couplet of the track, “Stalin was way worse than Hitler/That’s why the POTUS gotta wear a kippah,” seems out of place, until you realize that B.o.B, elsewhere in the song, allies himself with famous Holocaust denier David Irving. So there’s a lot going on in the track, and none of it really aligns, even when it works musically.
I was both relieved and disappointed that Tyson didn’t release a response. On one hand, he’s a scientist promoting an idea that’s universally accepted, and he shouldn’t have to deal with this. On the other hand, I really want to hear NDG spit fire. (Un?)fortunately, his nephew, an actual rapper confusingly named TYSON, released his own track defending Neil Tyson, entitled “Flat to Fact.”
“Flat to Fact” is a parody/homage to a Drake song, “Back to Back”—which was originally made as a diss track directed at Meek Mill—that uses the same instrumentals and makes references to the original track. Unfortunately, as with most parodies, I’d rather listen to the original instead.
TYSON’s track is much more focused than B.o.B’s. It’s clearly a diss track, speaking directly to B.o.B, where “Flatline” only had one or two jabs at the elder Tyson. In places, it’s lyrically superior, constantly referencing “Back to Back,” as well as Neil Tyson and B.o.B’s careers.
However, TYSON isn’t the best rapper. His Soundcloud makes it clear that he’s an adept producer, which makes it more confusing that he raps over a track that doesn’t work with his voice. While B.o.B consistently sounded at home in his music, letting the words flow with the backing track, TYSON sounds like he’s racing to the end of every line. His syllables sound over-elocuted, and he clearly has some problems with breath control.
I mentioned earlier that I love spoken word samples, but the ones used in “Flat to Fact”, which are just Neil Tyson reading his own tweets, seem hokey and forced. The track, overall, sounds like an English teacher rapping Shakespeare—endearing, and maybe an interesting exercise, but not something that I would actually want to listen to.
I’m a little confused as to what we’re supposed to think about this. Normally, beef between rappers takes the form of interpersonal conflict, but in this case, TYSON is probably factually correct, and B.o.B is wrong. On the other hand, Tyson’s diss song was really bad?
To the extent that there’s ever a “winner” in feuds, I guess B.o.B won, because, at least for mainstream audiences, he went from “that guy who did ‘Airplanes’” to “that guy who did ‘Airplanes’ and also has beef with famous scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson.” TYSON also came out on top, though, since people actually know he exists now. Maybe we all won, because we got a good song to listen to and a bad song to ignore?
Despite both tracks having some serious problems, I’m excited to see where this goes now that there’s precedent for spitting science, both literally and figuratively. Will thesis defenses start to include a freestyle section? Will Ph.D. and MC start to be used interchangeably? Will the hard sciences/soft sciences split finally coalesce into the rap battle that we’ve always wanted?
Whatever the future of sciencecore hip-hop, I think there’s one thing we can all agree on. The Earth is round, and it orbits the sun. Come on.