May 20, 2018

On rap lyrics

Rap has this thing, where if it does it right it’s like a whale-hunting harpoon, with this grappling hook in it, shot into your brain, with this metal cable on it, and the cable wrenches back and tightens, the cable goes taut, and then this giant hand strums that cable.

That grappling hook has four claws. A good rhyme in rap isn’t just a good rhyme; it does four things at once in a way that your brain can’t believe it.

The four things are: The rhyme, the theme, the synecdoche and the—I’m going to make up a word here—the topical. Hearing those four things simultaneously is a really good feeling for your brain. Good rap is a really good feeling for your brain. Here then, for the first time ever (you won’t find “four things in rap” on Google; this is not the four pillars of hip-hop), here are those four things.

The rhyme is the first thing. Rhyme feels good. The rap rhyme should be what’s known as a perfect rhyme. A lot of rappers use imperfect rhyme, but when they’re doing it well, it is absolutely clear why they are sacrificing perfection, so clear that you can hear the perfection implicit to the rhyme. Sacrificing perfection so you can hear the implied perfection is what I would call flaunting.

The rhyme scheme is AA on each pair of lines. In poetry, a pair of lines is called a couplet. In theory we could say that rappers rhyme in couplets, but that sounds dumb. It sounds like MCs are wearing stockings and doublets.

That’s what they’re doing while I’m rhyming Shakespearean couplets.

MCs are shivering outside wearing diamond-patterned stockings and doublets.

[I just made that up]

Second is the theme. The rap lyric itself has a theme, same or different from the theme of the song. But more specific than the song; the theme of the lyric is to the theme of the song like a sentence is to a blog post. Both lines in the lyric follow the theme.

Don’t flaunt this rule. Unless you’re a genius I haven’t heard of yet. If you change themes when going from line one to line two, you ... sound crap. Here is a line that I once read on a ecologically-themed poster made by an unknown schoolmate of mine, who was probably in grade six. I don’t know the person that made the poster, but I found the quality of the rhyme on the poster so poor that I have kept it to myself for upwards of 30 years. I always felt that it was unfair to insult this anonymous person behind their back, given that the abominable poorness of the rhyme must have been painful enough to bear by its author.

I reveal it to you now.

The couplet complained about people not picking up garbage. It was not part of a rap, but a poem that accompanied a drawing on the poster. The drawing showed a gentleman’s shoulders and mohawked head sticking out the top of a garbage can.

The couplet went:

On the ground is all the junk,

Not in the garbage can with a punk.

[Grade six poster circa 1988]

The couplet fairly steadily uses a classic trochaic tetrameter. It has a clear, perfect rhyme, and it totals 15 words. Up until the 12th word it maintains a single theme, before veering off into completely alien territory on the last three. Obviously, the author was so concerned with the perfect rhyme that he or she entirely sacrificed the theme.

Good rap doesn’t do this. To maintain the theme while keeping perfect rhyme the poem should have used a word that rhymes with “junk” but that also belongs to the domain of junk. This is far from impossible. “Gunk, funk and bunk” come to mind, but even “trunk” and “punk” could stay in the domain with the kind of clever wordplay that is entirely absent from the example above.

Good rap hits perfect rhyme while maintaining a single solid, unified theme.

Third: the synecdoche. I did say “synecdoche” before, and synecdoche means “the part for the whole.” But what I really mean is “simile.” A simile is just one word or phrase that sounds like another. It’s just that synecdoche sounds way cooler to say than simile. And since a synecdoche is a kind of simile, I just used synecdoche as a synecdoche for simile.

Whenever you manage to do things like this with words, like using synecdoches as synecdoches for similes, if you are a rapper, you can go ahead and work that into your lyrics.

Sucker MCs, I use synecdoche as a synecdoche for simile.

You’re still sucking on similac from baby bottles.

[I just made that up]

Line one presents the theme directly. Line two repeats the theme with a simile. Or a synecdoche.

The point is, the second line says in a funny way what the first line says. In my example above, I have done that, because the theme is that the putative narrator has a high level of learning (knows what “synecdoche” means). Comparatively, the narrator’s competitors are of a low level of learning, in the same way that babies who drink from bottles are. The example maintains the theme of level of learning throughout the two lines of the couplet.

However, you may have noticed that although I maintained the theme (criterion 2) and used a simile (criterion 3), I sacrificed the rhyme (criterion 1). The reason that I did that is because I am not an awesome rapper. Rapping is hard.

This is one of the things I want to get across here: rapping is hard. We have only listed three of the four criteria that makes a rap lyric awesome, and already while trying to write rap lyrics I’m dropping over 33% of the requirements.

When I drop a requirement, your brain goes “Oh, that grappling hook didn’t stick into me that good.” It’s too bad, because I almost got something with simile—similac, but then I didn’t. The grappling hook slipped. If I had found a rhyme, your brain would have been getting into that state where it would be starting to bop its head and going “Ok, this is getting good. Gimmie more lyrics and let’s see if this is good.”

Your brain would really be doing that, and that’s what I’m trying to get to here. I’m trying to get to what rap does to your brain.

Fourth: I made up a word for this and I called it the topical.

We basically get to the moment where, every time in my life I have sat down to write these four things about what makes rap awesome, I don’t remember the fourth part.

Every time I hear a rap song, at least a good one where I go “Oh damn that’s a good line,” I go and analyze it in my head and I think of four awesome things that are all coming together in that one rhyme, and I always think oh man I need to write down the four things I just analyzed out of that rhyme before I forget them. And seriously it’s been like 20 years that I’ve been promising myself that I will do this.

And here I am now finally going and writing it down and I’m at the part where I forget the fourth thing. And ... my first time writing this post, I actually did forget the fourth thing. Sad face.

Initially I was going to give up and write this post as if my theory went that rap lyrics have three parts. I was really going to do that. Lame face. Because they don’t just do three things. They do four things. It would have been so lame to change my theory just because I couldn’t remember a piece of it.

But then I remembered it. Ha ha face!

Here’s a good verse that demonstrates the first three parts. I’m interested in lines three and four:

[Ladies] Now we’re gonna break this thing down in just a few seconds.

Now don’t let me break this thing down for nothing.

I want to see y’all on your baddest behavior.

Lend me some sugar. I am your neighbor.

[André 3000, Hey Ya! by OutKast]

We’re at three claws here.

One: strong rhyme on neighbor with behavior. Ok, the final rhyme is not perfect but it extends to two syllables. It’s a strong rhyme, not obvious.

Two: the theme is a request to the ladies to dance in a bad, bad, provocative way. Get provocative, ladies. Let your ladyparts get provocative. Make it sweet. Put some sugar in it. So far, from “I want” to “sugar” we’re spanning line one and two with one message.

Then three: BOOM I am your neighbor. Your brain doesn’t “get” this immediately. The synapses for “dancing provocatively” and “neighbor” are not next to each other. They are in different parts of the brain. The synapse for dancing provocatively and the one for sugar: ok, there’s a link. But neighbor? ... ohhh shit check it out: neighbors lend each other sugar! That’s a different type of sugar from the sugar I get from a lady dancing for me, but they’re both sugar! Different synapses but with the same name. Ok brain accepts the connection and promises to draw wires between them. Your brain likes drawing wires, trust me.

We’re at THIRD BASE, André.

Here’s some more examples.

Keith Murray, the holder of the boulder.

Lyrical analyst, mental roller coaster flow-er.

Money folder. Track blower. MC overthrower.

I flow with you two at a time, like Noah.

[Keith Murray, K.I.M by EPMD]

Look at the last two lines: Keith Murray with a triple. No seriously, “I flow two at a time, like Noah.” The theme is the oft-recurring and absolutely justified hip-hop theme of the quality of his flow. The rhyme is perfect, and repeats internally and externally like 80 times. And the simile is so good, while rhyming, that it’s ... a mind blower.

... La di da di, who likes to party?

Like Slick Rick the ruler I’m cooler than an ice brick.

Got soul like those Afro picks. With the black fist.

And leave the crowd drippin like John the Baptist.

[Black Thought, Mellow My Man by The Roots]

"Leave the crowd drippin like John the Baptist." Christ, that's good.

I play my enemies like a game of chess

Where I rest, no stress, if you don't smoke sess

Lest I must confess, my destiny's manifest

In some Goretex and sweats

I make treks like I'm homeless

Rap orgies with Porgy and Bess

Capture your bounty, like Elliot Ness, yes

Bless you if you represent the Fu

But I'll hex you with some witch's brew if you're doo-doo

Voodoo; I can do what you do, easy

Believe me, fronting n----s give me the heebie-jeebies

So while you're imitating Al Capone

I'll be Nina Simone, and defecating on your microphone

[Lauryn Hill, Ready or Not by The Fugees]

So what is the topical? If you have made it all the way to third base, with the perfect rhyme, the theme still making sense and the brain-twist synecdoche, if you also rap a thing that people are talking about right now at the moment your rap meets their heads, then you have hit a homerun.

You do not understand how amazing it feels when a rapper gets all three conditions above AND also uses a thing that you just heard of for the first time two days ago. So your brain really has to think: “Oh, what’s that thing again? Oh yeah, it’s that thing that just happened.” And also it has to do that sugar—sugar rewiring where it also has to go “Wait, why is that thing like this thing? Oh, right because it’s a different way of saying that thing.” I mean, your brain is going “Oh yeah” a lot, just in a microsecond, and the rapper is already rhyming other lines.

If you’re a rapper, and it’s October 1st, 2017—I just picked that date randomly, and unfortunately it’s the day a gunman snipered a bunch of concert-goers in Las Vegas—if you’re a rapper, and it’s a few days after, you could rhyme his name with something. Not everybody knew the gunman’s name a few days after he did it. To be good, you should not be obvious, so that when you hear the rap, it takes your brain longer to “get” it than it takes to get to the next line.

And... I'm implying this, but I should be clear: if you're releasing a track on Spotify, then when you rap, you actually have to count how long it takes to get your thing recording, mixed and published in your calculation of if your lyrics are topical, so that it's topical the moment it's out. You realize how amazing that is, right?

Note to self: the four facets above map to four of Northrop Frye’s principles from the Anatomy of Criticism, a theory that once clawed a grappling hook into my brain and refuses to let go. His theory outlines five levels that you can use to analyze a piece of literature, from “lowest” to highest: literal, descriptive, thematic, analogous and anagogic. Rhyme is a low-level literate device like punctuation and spelling. Theme is one level above: it’s what’s meant by the words; same as Frye’s theme. "Synecdoche" is like Frye’s analogy: there can be multiple meanings, where all the meanings are part of the fiction. And anagogy means linking the fiction to reality. The “topical” level of rap does that. So no wonder that rap sounds awesome: it compresses every fucking literary technique ever into two freestyled lines.

So now what we need is an example of those four things. How can I get you one?

I can’t.

Tried it for a bit but it’s been too long since I’ve listened to new rap and so whatever I found would miss the anagogic. You don’t want my twenty-yr-old examples!

But that’s ok, this is not a book. It’s the web! I have stated my proposition, outlined my hypothesis, and now I open it up for comments to find examples and counterexamples to the premise. Rap is the biggest repository of rhyme in history, and beyond the often minimal music of hip-hop, it headlines the most fundamental linguistic techniques out there, on the spot and without warning. So you can’t enjoy it in an elevator. You have to listen to it.

The “four things of rap” are not “hip-hop’s four elements” to be clear. Hip-hop is a culture of which music is one element. Rap is the main way to make the vocal part of hip-hop music. No one has ever analyzed the anatomy of a rap lyric in a fundamental way that sets it apart from all other rhyme styles, and from other poetry and text. That is why I’m doing this. To start that off. To set up a framework where you can listen to rap and go “Ok, that’s that thing and this is this thing.” And it feels awesome when you listen to it.

You have to listen to it! So go do that.

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