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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rapper's Flow Encyclopedia - Talib Kweli

I’ve analyzed Jean Grae. I’ve analyzed Pharoahe Monch. I’ve analyzed Mos Def…twice. The next member of what I consider the rap Justice League that I’ll be analyzing is Talib Kweli.

Just like I did for MF DOOM here and 2pac here, I will be taking a look at what I consider Talib Kweli’s signature flow – the flow he uses that no one else does, that is very unique, and that he comes back to time and again. It can be found to greater and lesser extents throughout all of his work, but I’ve picked two of the most exemplary instances: his rap on “RE: DEFinition”, from the Blackstar group with Mos Def, and his verse on “Twice Inna Lifetime”, from the same album. Kweli is similar to Big Sean, who I analyzed here, in that they both have very identifiable signature flows. That specific phenomenon is found in a rather more general nature in other rappers, like Lil Wayne circa Tha Carter I.

In other articles, I noted general features of a rapper, like Jean Grae’s block rhyming skills here, but Kweli’s defining feature is the pace of his musical rhythms. In my 2pac article here I talked about the pacing of rhymes – how a rapper varies how complex and how long his or her rhymes are over a verse. What defines Kweli’s signature flow is, instead, the pacing of rhythms – how quick his syllables are delivered in musical time. We’ll see what his approach adds up to in terms of wordiness and such at the end of this article.

You can hear “RE: DEFinition” here:

Get the Rapgenius lyrics here.

Even if you’ve never taken a day of music lessons in your life, you can tell that there are certain points where Kweli starts talking faster and slower – for instance, around 0:43 in the video above. Before that he was talking slower, however.

As I explained in my 2nd article, the Busta Rhymes one here, from the “30 Days of Rap Analysis Extravaganza Bonanza” supporting the publishing of my book here, all rap music is organized into beats. Not the backing musical track that producers like Kanye West make, but the beat as a music theory term.

A beat always lasts the same amount of musical time, just like a second. However, it does not last the same amount of chronological time between different songs, because some songs are fast and some songs are slow. Musicians use beats to count so that they can make any fast or slow song still playable, because beats are easier to count. For instance, they don’t count “1.25 seconds, 2.50 seconds”, and on. Instead, they count “beat 1, beat 2, beat 3”, and so on. It is simply the rate at which beats come, measured per minute, that decides whether a song is slow or fast.

One of those beats can also be called a quarter note. To make faster rhythms, we split the quarter note in half, making 8th notes, and 8th notes in half, making 16th notes. The 16th note is the rhythmic level at which most rap music happens. So, to get there, we divide the quarter note by 4, because 1 16th note lasts ¼ of a quarter note. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t divide a beat into other numbers, like 5, as Kweli does.

Below is a demonstration of the quintuplet rhythm — division by 5 of the beat — that Kweli uses in his signature flow. In it, you’ll hear/see that low drum playing the beat that measures the music. In the music above it, you’ll hear/see a triangle playing first 2 quarter notes, then 2 eighth notes that are connected above the circular note heads with 1 line, and then hear the triangle play 4 16th notes that are connected over the circular note heads by 2 lines. Then, the drum will play 2 bars of rest, and then you’ll hear a bar of those 16th notes, which is where most rap music happens. It’s pretty easy to follow along, because they are slower than quintuplets, which are played next after 2 more bars of only the bass kick playing. You can hear that there are 5 notes to a beat, and that they come much more quickly. Finally, after 2 more bars of the bass kick, you can hear the triangle switch back between playing 4 16th notes to a beat first, then 5 16th notes to a beat, then 4 16th notes, then 5 16th notes, and so on, for 2 full measures. Listen for how the quintuplet 16th notes, those with the 5 under them, are faster than the regular 16th notes.

You can hear the quintuplet rhythms are much quicker and harder to count and pay attention to. This makes Kweli’s rhythms extremely complex.

These quicker rhythms are the major defining style of Kweli’s rhythms. It is also a very good demonstration of the concept of pacing in a rapper’s rhythms. Pacing refers to how a rapper will vary their rhymes or rhythms in terms of how complex they are and how quickly they drop them throughout an entire verse. A major downfall for most beginner rappers is that they don’t know how to pace their rap. For example, they have a constant amount of rhymes, say, 1 or 2 per bar, and they are always end rhymes. A good rapper will vary this – start out with a simple 2-syllable rhyme couplet, for instance, then move to a heavy amount of internal rhymes on a single vowel sound.
Kweli’s rap demonstrates a pacing of rhythms, not necessarily the rhymes. For instance, at the start of RE: DEFinition, he starts out with the simple quadruplets (the 4 16th notes to a beat), with 3-syllable end rhymes on the tragedy/passionately/cavity/gravity series:

This lays the opening for a verse very well. It’s not too fast, so we have room to both increase the complexity or come down from it. It’s comparable to a movie, so it makes sense: the action in a movie doesn’t all come at the beginning, does it? No, you save the action and the climax for later. Because, immediately after those lines, he moves into the quicker quintuplet rhythms described before:

The rhymed words are capitalized in all the notations.

We’re interested in the “battery” to “mad at me” part of the verse above. We see that he’s increased the speed of the rhythms, upping the tension, and throws in multi-syllable internal rhymes at a much quicker rate than before: battery/back of me/mad emcee/ flattery/actually/mad at me. That’s a rate of more than double how many rhymes he was dropping before.

And, after upping the tension to such an unbearable and unsustainable rate, what would we expect any good music-maker to do? That’s right, manipulate and play upon your expectations. So, next we get:

In the above, we don’t get a constant approach to rhyme like we had before. Sometimes the rhymes are internal, sometimes they are external, and they don’t always fall in the same place in the bar. Sometimes there is just 1 rhyme (the sentence with “to you”), sometimes there are more (judo/menudo/pseudo.) Those quick rhyme flips on very unique words, like judo/Menudo/pseudo, are very characteristic of Talib’s signature flow as well. He’s fond of taking hard to rhyme words and then repeating them quickly, especially across sentences, at the end of one and the start of the next. We get another good example of that next:

There, he rhymes “Xerox” with “hair locks”, a rhyme none of us have ever heard before (unlike something like “mother” with “brother), and then quickly rhymes hair locks with teardrops. He follows this up by flipping “lives” with “wives” across the sentence, and then quickly rhymes widows/pillows/willows. Notice here, again, how he’s increased the tension with quicker quintuplet rhythms. He is constantly changing up the pacing of his verse in order to keep things interesting.
The rest of his verse is less tension-filled than the preceding bars. He continues to use mostly quadruplet rhythms with end rhymes. He ends by having 1 sentence per bar in 4 straight bars with an end rhyme all on the same vowel sounds (partners/artist/starter/martyr):

The reader will probably remember that that is the exact way he started the verse as well. Then, he ends with 2 bars rhyming on enhancing/can’t run, which is the same vowel sound that Mos will rhyme on next when he raps, “Lyrically handsome / go collect the king’s ransom…”

That is one of the best techniques for two rappers to use together, the book of which was pretty much written by Run-D.M.C. I could go more into that, but that really deserves its own article.
We see a lot of the same principles at work in the next song, called “Twice Inna Lifetime.” He starts off with a slower pace again, rhyming 1 syllable internal rhymes on fonts (which is mis-labelled as “Fonz” in the sheet music)/conk/front/monch in one long sentence, another feature of Talib’s rap.

Then, in almost the same exact position as the first verse above, he moves into that quick, percussive spitting mode, where he separates all the syllables from each other as he pronounces them. In music notation, that’s called “staccato.”

Again, he has those quick, long, unique rhyme flips across sentences, on the rhyme group masturbation/ejaculation/vaccinations/fascination/assassination/sensations. All this while dropping those characteristic quintuplets. We see the basic principle of pacing at work again: first slow, then fast, then slow again.

The 2nd half of this verse is easily some of my favorite Kweli lines ever. That’s because of how quickly he varies the underlying pulse of the tempo of the rap. Let’s look at this part:

Next is coming some math, but at the end I break it all down. Just skim through it if you don’t quite follow.

You can see from the notation above that just like he’s been dividing the beat into 5, called quintuplets, and 4, called quadruplets, he here divides the beat into 3 (called triplets, on “both got sons”), and also 6 (on “me and” or “think I’m”), called sextuplets. If you listen to that section, listen for how quickly the time Talib takes to say these words changes. If you pay very close attention, you’ll notice that the rhythmic durations are close in duration, but not exactly the same. Although the beat of the song stays constant, Talib is changing the division of the beat. This technique is a very contemporary rhythmic trick that has entered classical music in full only very recently, in the 20th century with the work of Elliott Carter. What Talib is doing here is taking advantage of the mathematical relationships of tempo.

As I explained before, there are 4 beats to a bar, and the speed of a song is determined by BPM, which is “beats per minute.” If there is a high BPM, the song is faster; if there is a low BPM, the song is slower. The BPM of this song is about 94. In layman’s terms, music can theoretically be played at any speed, so there has to be some points at which rhythmic layers are equivalent to each other in chronological duration (measured in seconds), even though they might be 16th notes in one tempo and 8th notes in another. There has to be these relations because, while music can be played at any speed, a musical note can also theoretically be divided by any number – 2, 3, and 4 most commonly, but also 5 (like Talib), 6, 7, 11, and so on.

Below is the formula for finding these points at which two different tempos line up:

The above describes a shift from the speed of one song (“old tempo” on the left) to another (“new tempo”), using a note value from the first tempo (“pivot note value in old measure”) to a note value in the second (“pivot note values in new measure.”) We have values for 3 of those variables above: old tempo (94, as noted above), pivot notes in old measure (“4”, because of the 4 16th notes to a beat as usual), and the number of pivot note values in new measure (“5”, for all those quintuplets that Talib uses.) So, if we solve for “new tempo”, we eventually get new tempo = 117.5 BPM
This means that Talib’s quintuplets, fitting 5 16th notes to a beat, sound the same as 4 16th notes played to a beat at 117.5 BPM. This makes sense logically because those quintuplets in the song sound faster than the normal quadruplet 16th notes, so we’d expect them to be equal to a faster, higher BPM tempo.

But Talib also does this with the number 6 and the number 3. So, for 6, old tempo = 94 again, old pivot value = 4 again, but new pivot value = 6, so tempo speed = 141 BPM. Doing the same thing for 3, the new tempo = 70.5 BPM. This again makes sense because those triplets on “both got sons” sound slower than the notes around it.

What all this means is that Talib, over the space of 5 bars, has actually implied 4 different tempos: 70.5 BPM (the triplets), 94 BPM (the quadruplets), 117.5 BPM (the quintuplets), and 141 BPM (the sextuplets). THAT is my favorite aspect of Talib’s rap: it’s so complex, so angular and edgy, but ultimately satisfying and handled in the exact correct way. That is, Talib isn’t forcing complex rhythms on a word structure that can’t carry those rhythms.

If you tune out the beat of the song and listen to how the speed of the notes changes in ways that are divisible by numbers other than 2, you will hear what I do. Don’t break your neck to the bass kick and snare like usual; bounce to the changing rhythms of Talib’s words. Sometimes he’s fast, then he’s slow…then he’s slower, then he’s faster than ever before…

He does the same thing in the above: look for the 6s and 5s over the notes. You will also hear all this in the demonstration video at the end of this article. (Note that I repeated the syllable “an” of “androgynous”, because the rhythm was too complex and would’ve taken a while for me to figure out.) And pacing is apparent through out this whole section: between the fast rhythms above and the section above that, we get a series of beats with only the slower quadruplet, 4-16th-notes-to-a-beat rhythms.

Oh shit, how’d that slip in there? My bad…

Just for kicks, here are his stats. Note that he’s got the highest syllables per bar and the lowest sentences per bar. He’s also got the 2nd longest words, behind MF DOOM, in terms of syllables per word, and the lowest rhyme density, with 28% of his syllables being rhymed. So, he’s very wordy and has long sentences, backing up his reputation as being every technically complex.

As usual, here is the demonstration video of his rhythms:

And to Talib, if you’re out there: I’d love an interview. My email is Ask Jean or Pharoahe if it was any good!

Thanks for reading y’all.

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