By Gabriel Myers Hansen

There are three kings on Fire Burn Dem (the remix), but the conversation was always going to be about two: FlowKing Stone and Sarkodie. For years we have constantly debated their quality and ‘deciphered’ their subtle shots at each other whenever the boys boys gathered. The arguments have always come in the same way: unending spats in pidgin and in passion, about the art of rap, a case study of FlowKing Stone and Sarkodie.

And so when the song was released Saturday, we knew exactly what we we were looking for: two of the most impressive punchline technicians of this generation finally got to trade bars on a track, and we would establish once and for all, whose words stung more. We were also going to settle other debates like whether or not all this while, one S had been over-glorified and the other, underrated. So I went on ghanamotion and downloaded it, expectant of a contest the music fraternity would not forget hurriedly, and…

Like I said, there are three of our best  S’s on this song, and that automatically makes it the most influential collaboration thus far this year.  The song is apt in the way it provides space for both  hip-hop and reggae- dancehall, and is marvelous in the way it is all woven… and what better trio than those on there?

But the truth is this:  we don’t necessarily care…at least not yet; we have to deal with the more pressing question first–who slayed it, between Sarkodie and FlowKing Stone, I mean.

Predy X, one of those who initiated this argument on our Whatsapp page (the others being Neroo and Large) is of the view that Stone allowing Sark to start the song was certainly suicide…those are not the exact words, but they are print-friendly. And he may have a point, because Sarkodie went for the kill from the very first word. Of course he admits that this project has been long in coming and offers acceptable explanation:

‘ Mi ni FlowKing apromisi apromisi, afei mu’abrɛ yɛn ni promises/ media fuɔ nu kraa feeling sɛ beef ne politics/ but enobe so, na yɛ pɛ beat nu quality’

And then, bearing in mind that there might be mild fracas between fans in their respective constituencies: Kumasi and Tema, he goes on to assure them (Kumasi fans) that they’re cherished in his thought and are subject of his prayers often.

You would think that he would continue in this direction in his (as usual) nauseating delivery in how many bars, and indeed, he does that for an ample chunk of his verse, hailing colleagues and legends from Kumasi alike.

But this is as much a contest too. Like it or not, there are political dimensions in there too. Sarkodie has to justify his place in the monarchy, and show that regardless of fame and success, he’s still a ready sportsman and will show up, go toe-to-toe with contemporary contenders and prove himself worthy. And so he calls himself king (King Sark, bow down to greatness), establishes that there’s a huge margin between himself and other rappers, and that he’s still the embodiment of rap, bracing all obstacles and showing up at the highest levels of the craft, with the most unlikely of implements; Twi…much to the shock of skeptics.

Often, the most appropriate way for you, a boxer, to fight a wrestler is to wrestle him. That’s bold and risky, but done expertly, it could thwart his plan. I’m not saying that’s what happens on Fire Burn Dem (the remix), mind you. But somewhere in the middle of his verse, he pours some eight bars or so in exactly the manner we would attribute to FlowKing Stone; that expert run-on jumble with singerly undertones.

The rap is copious, endless, thorough. That does not surprise us about Sarkodie. Indeed, it’s what he’s known to us for, and so anything less, and he’s less of a rapper to us…in a manner of speaking. But because it’s on a same song as FlowKing Stone, it’s particularly noteworthy…we would need it when we assess FlowKing’s verse.

On the original song, it was just FlowKing Stone, and he went in all directions. We loved it. It earned him nomination in the Best Rapper category at this year’s VGMAs, and his chances of winning are nearly as sure as hiding marijuana when we see cops.

FlowKing is very scientific in his approach to rap…a true academic. He adheres strictly to the rules of pun, metaphor, simile and other such figures of speech. This either makes him a lyricist in every sense of the word or too cumbersome to listen to. And that is why when he says ‘ no matter what the hater go dey do, I’m still on the rice (rise) like stew’, it’s a bit problematic. Sometimes on social media, he has felt the need to explain the lines in his songs and tell specifically what literary device he has employed on what occasion.

There are various ways of interpreting that move, but I do agree with the intention behind explaining his rap lines –that the hearer should get exactly what the rapper is saying.

But at the same time, that is also disrespectful to the listener, as unconsciously, it is belittling his ability to decipher the words in the song. One conclusion should be considered in all this though: his rap has to be listened to, not merely heard.

This makes me wonder which is more important; the method or the result, because in my opinion, Sarkodie is not much a technician as FlowKing Stone when it comes to the rules of poetry (i.e he’s a bit more raw and straightforward in his technique) but he gets the job done. FlowKing, with all this quality, remains second fiddle and is only now finding his place in the debate.

Again, the ‘still on the rise/rice like stew’,line might be the highest point of his monologue, also the most telling. It is brilliant in how pun is utilized, but is also baffling. While Sarkodie is insistent on his place as rap king, and even surreptitiously condescending in his mention of Kumasi’s greatest, FlowKing seems to be preoccupied with being underrated/ overlooked even as king, and laments walking in the valleys of the shadows. Sure, he mentions a line about African kings and another about raining (reigning) no matter the weather, but also mentions that he’s suffered and is demanding his shine.  What do you make of the following line somewhere in his verse:

‘forget the fame, we dey rep for the fans’ ?

It’s almost like though he calls himself king, he feels it might not be clear to everyone yet. That takes nothing away from his offering on the song though. He’s always such a joy to listen to, because he’s not just giving you infectious music, he’s also designed a series of puzzles for you, and you solve them one at a time, with every listen. That is important about music if you ask me…to look forward to something new with every listen.  His verse too is long excellent, which is what this contest might be about after all.

This collaboration is also an important business move for Stone, there’s no debate there. Sarkodie is the most commercially viable rapper in these parts now, and it’s only logical that he reached out for this collaboration at some point.

For the first time since Bandana’s theatrical explosion into Shatta Wale, he might just have been third place at something. He shows mettle in a final verse and is perfect in providing vocals for the hook, but in the end, we might just be listening to his contribution on the song out of respect. Maybe he just should have stuck to singing the hook.

This is the second time Stone is collaborating with Shatta Wale, who is himself no stranger to being overlooked, and Shatta’s approach might be rubbing off on him, for Flow too is becoming controversial of late.

Now to that one question: does this song squash our debate on who is a better rapper? I don’t think so, for there isn’t a ‘clear winner’, to our disappointment. If anything at all, it entrenches our already established sides of the Twi rap divide: Sark trumps FlowKing Stone / FlowKing goes against Sark on a project and prevails.

The song is instructive in one respect though: kings can exist side by side. They can collaborate instead of going at each other and they’ll still be great.

@myershansen on twitter.

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