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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Rap Music Analysis #8 - Common, "I Used To Love H.E.R."

Rap music analysis time! This time we will be switching it up a little, with musical AND textual analysis. However, the two are not separate; we will see how they interact and reinforce each other.

Lately, I've been looking a lot at how a rapper structures his rhythms and syntactic groupings together to reinforce his or her message. Namely, this comes down to what words he or she accents. I'll set out some representative examples in Common's rap from "I Used To Love H.E.R.", rated on some lists as the greatest rap song of all time, to demonstrate what I'm trying to say. (You can here the song here.)

Rappers use a combination of accent (where the word/note falls in the metrical bar, what part of the word is accented, as well as whether the word creates an accent with another word through rhyme, alliteration, or some other way) to reinforce their message. For instance, the words that Common places on the downbeat of the 4/4 bar (meaning there are 4 quarter notes to a bar) are words that turn out to be important in his overall message, which is something along the lines of "I loved hip-hop back in the day, back when it was only about fun, and now that it's become commercialized, it's lost its ideological power." (you might be able to better explain this than me.) An easy way to do this is to place important words onthe down beats. For instance, in bar 9 of my transcription, he places the word "heart" on beat 4. This is an accent of the 4/4 bar; furthermore, he enhances this effect by making the word further accented by having it rhyme with the word "park" in the next bar (I differentiate between this kind of accent, which I call a "poetic accent", with the "metrical accent" I described earlier.) Furthermore, he places the note on "heart" at the end of the phrase, calling attention to it (the beginning and end of any musical structure or form are structurally important places.) (This phrase is the syntactic phrase of the grammar of his words; You'll see that "She hit me in the heart", all contained within the phrase marking, forms a complete grammatical idea.)

A similar situation can be found on the word "foul" in bar 37. You'll see that once again, foul is poetically accented by rhyming with style in the next bar (although foul and style might not rhyme when we say them, the way Common pronounces them they do rhyme.) Furthermore, it is on a downbeat in the bar, and comes at the end of a phrasing. There are tons of other examples on the level of these ones, such as "cool" in bar 33, or even "past" in bar 39.

 However, these are not even the most sophisticated use of this technique of bringing more emphasis and force to Common's message that he uses. The best example, which is really quite sophisticated, comes in bar 61, where Common delivers his most forceful and biting message of all (you might want to describe just what this message is in your own terms.) He lays it out: hip-hop just isn't doing it anymore, it has lost its way, it's whack. Look at the phrase containing "Stressin' how hardcore and real she is". Through a manipulation of accent as well as his intonation (here, meaning changes in the pitch of the voice,) we can see that Common is sarcastically mocking the new wave of rappers, which would have included the g-funk of the west coast (We know that Common is indirectly - directly for those in the know - referring to g-funk. He says in bar 40, "she got into r and b, hip-house, bass and jazz," all elements in the g-funk of Tupac and Dr. Dre, and it is made blatantly clear in bar 60 when he says "now she only fucks with the funk", as direct a reference you could make to Dr. Dre without saying his name. Furthermore, he uses the phrase "boys in the hood" in bar 42, a famous movie 1991 movie depicting gangsta life in South Central LA.) You might cite some other songs that are examples of all of the "popping glocks, servin rocks, and hittin switches" that Common mentions in bar 57.

I am just trying to give some context for the Common's comment "stressin' how hardcore and real she is." Now we can see how he delivers this message. He combines the elements of phrasing, accent, as well as intonation. He raises his voice's pitch on the word "real", and from this we can detect that he is mocking the use of the word "real" (a subject which Dave Chappelle has fittingly mocked in his own skits, something called "when keeping it real goes wrong.) Just like in the previous examples, we see that Common has metrically accented the word "real" (it's on beat 3), as well as poetically accented it by repeating the syllable "real" in the next bar twice (in "really" and "realest.) However, that is not what delivers the impact of the message. Common takes a rather long pause at the end of this message, the length of a dotted eighth note (3 sixteenth notes all together) that gives the listener time to think about what he says. He then delivers the ideological punchline in the next bar, having set up the listeners expectations for something next to come by ending the phrase with his voice higher in pitch (like people do when they ask a question.) He then delivers it: "she was really the realest before she got into showbiz." She was really the realest before all that commercial BS.

Common uses these pauses in interesting metrical places in other places in the piece as well. His quarter note length pause in bar 13 emphasizes his "cooling out." Just as he says verbally that he used to cool out with hip-hop (the girl in the song), he musically cools out by taking a rather long rest, one of the longest in the rap that doesn't occur across a barline (where one would normally expect a longer rest, in order to orient the grammatical units logically within the metrical divisor of the barline). His phrasing very particularly draws attention to this, as he takes that rest.

Common repeats this technique in bar 31, when he takes a dotted quarter note length rest (beat 2 into beat 3.) He says "Easily I approach". He thus slows down his cadence (the rate of his accents and rhythms) at this point to emphasize his easiness musically. He uses a similar pause in bar 52, a long pause within the bar (a quarter note plus a sixteenth note duration) that emphasizes the word "money", introducing it in ominous terms.

Now for some textual analysis. Common constantly uses words that could have double meanings when you consider that Common is talking about music really, not a girl. The most predictable of these terms is the use of the term "to do", in context of having sex with someone. For instance, in bar 10 he says "some new york niggas had did her in the park", on the surface meaning that some New Yorkers had had sex with her, but on the next level meaning the New Yorkers had made rap in the park. This is repeated in bar 63: "I did her, not just to say I did it". He means having sex on one level, but really making music on the next. A similar example is nearby: he says, in bar 63-64, "But I'm committed." Used in this context, the term committed has the context of relationship commitment. This works for a girl, but also for Common's commitment to music. Old school is another double entendre; old school typically describes hip-hop cultural elements from somewhere in the 80s. "Old-school music" is a phrase often heard in rap circles when describing hip-hop from decades past. However, in this context Common recontextualizes the word to describe a human being, which works as well. But when we get to the end of the piece, and Common reveals that he's actually talking about hip-hop, we can see in retrospect that his use of the term "old-school" really has 2 connotations.

Also, Common manipulates the length of his phrases to emphasize certain areas. For instance, in bars 11, 12, and 13, bars 29, 30, and 31, he shortens his phrases greatly. In other places most phrases are about a bar long; in those 2 groupings, they are more like half a bar. This variation keeps the ear interested in what he's saying.

That's it for now. Thanks for reading this rap music analysis!

Here's the sheet music: