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Thursday, May 16, 2013

Talib Kweli Sheet Music - Twice Inna Lifetime

Below is the sheet music transcription of Talib Kweli's rap verse on the song "Twice Inna Lifetime", performed in his group with Mos Def, called "Blackstar." First is shown a video demonstrating the rhythms, playing them through the computer. Skip ahead to 0:56 for this particular song.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Talib Kweli Sheet Music - RE: DEFinition

Below are the notated rap rhythms of Talib Kweli's words on the song "RE: DEFinition." The video is a demonstration of those rhythms - the bass kick counts the beat off while the triangle plays Talib's words.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Rapper's Flow Encyclopedia - Big Boi

In today’s analysis we are going to go into somewhat uncharted territory for my analysis. This time, we’ll be taking a look at the Dirty South – Big Boi aka Daddy Fat Saxxx aka Sir Lucious Left Foot aka Francis the Savannah Chitlin Pimp (and more.) But today, I’m gonna switch up styles on you: we’re gonna take a look more at the musical rhythms of Big Boi’s verses on “Aquemini”, rather than what could be called the verbal rhythms of his verse, the words and such. To that end, I am going to walk you through the whole process: from the basic rhythms that happen in rap music, to some variations on them, and then on to how a rapper can combine all these different techniques to come up with very distinct, subtle rhythms.
I know “subtle” is not the first word that comes to mind for you when you think of Big Boi, but some of his flows are so specific that it is really the only adjective that works. I’ll keep the long reading to a minimum as much as possible and show you rather than tell you with lots of videos and audio. At the end, we’ll finally see what contributes to Big Boi’s southern-feeling flow, and that kind of swing, jazz feel that the listener gets from him. And answer the question: just what IS he doing when he talks so damn fast?

The song is on youtube below:

The Rapgenius lyrics are here.

To get our answers, we’re going to need to go through some basic music theory. Now, there is a good amount of simple math in here, but if you just read through it the videos will demonstrate it for you much better.

Now, for rap music, the time signature is 4/4. A time signature is what organizes musical time. The number is not a fraction – 4 is not divided by 4. Instead, the top number signifies how many beats there are in a measure, and the bottom number signifies what rhythmic duration gets the beat. So from that 4/4, we know that there are 4 beats to a measure, and the quarter note gets the beat. A measure, also called a bar in rap music, is simply a length of musical time. It is similar to a minute in that way, but unlike a minute, a measure can last a differing amount of seconds depending on how fast a song is. And just like a minute is made up of seconds, a bar is made up of a smaller time duration: a quarter note. 4 of them, to be exact. Musicians use the beat defined by the time signature to keep track of musical time instead of seconds because, as you know from your own experience, sometimes music is slow and sometimes it is fast. A rapper or producer needs to be able to count to themselves where they are in the music so that they place their musical idea in the right place. This is what makes musical sounds musical – they are all organized in strict time relationships to each other. That’s why the jangling of your keys or running water doesn’t sound musical, but Dre’s beat on “How We Do” does – they are all separated from each other according to divisions of that same beat.

So, all of a song’s musical events – for instance, in the song we’ll be examining, “Aquemini,” the guitar, the synth, the sung chorus – can all be placed in musical time according to divisions of that beat. (Note that this use of the term “beat” is different from what is sometimes called the beat in rap music, which definition refers to the musical backing of a song’s track — everything besides a rapper’s words.) Music notation represents this concept very well, and that is why I’ve chosen to use it.

The video below plays the beat, which remember, is 4 quarter notes in a measure in rap music. Those black round circles on the line with the vertical line connected to them represent the musical duration of a quarter note, and are played by the high triangle. The squiggly things in between them are called quarter note rests – they last the same amount of time as a quarter note, but instead represent that no note is supposed to play on them. For every video, you will get a bar of rest from the triangle, represented by that square thing on the line, and a bar of the bass kick being played.
In the video below, the lower bass drum you hear is playing the quarter note of the 4/4 time signature. Thus, it plays on every quarter note in a bar. Then, we have the triangle playing all those quarter note beats, lining up exactly with the bass kick drum. Just ignore the blank music line in the middle for now. Check it out for yourself:

In the next video, we have that quarter note split in half, which is called, logically, an 8th note (¼ divided by 2 = 1/8.) The 8th note musical duration is represented by those same black circles with vertical lines like a quarter note, but this time they are connected across the top with a horizontal line, called a beam. Thus, in the video below, we have 2 8th notes followed by a quarter note, and then another 2 8th notes followed by a quarter note. Then, we have a whole bar of 8th notes. You can tell for yourself that each 8th note lasts half a quarter note. You can also tell that 8 8th notes take up the same amount of time as 4 quarter notes.

What would you expect we can do with 8th notes? That’s right, cut them in half too. And that gives us 16th notes (1/8 divided by 2 = 1/16.) And 16 16th notes last the same amount of time as 8 8th notes that last the same amount of time as 4 quarter notes. (Notice a pattern yet?) In the video below, 4 16th notes, represented by the double horizontal lines above the notes connecting each other, are played, followed by a quarter note, all happening twice. You can tell for yourself that 4 16th notes last the same amount of time as 1 quarter note, which, again, is being played by the bass kick drum. Then, after the full bar rest by the triangle, there is a full bar of 16th notes.

Now, we could divide 16th notes again into 32nd notes, but that makes the notes even faster and are very hard to rap. So, most rap happens at the level of the 16th note. We can combine all of these – quarter notes, 8th notes, and 16th notes – to make interesting rhythms, because doing the same rhythmic level all the time would be really boring. So, we might get something like the following:
However, we still need a little more spice. Why do the triangle notes always have to land at the same time as every bass kick drum hit? Well, they don’t. When notes skip that underlying beat playing the bass kick drum, which is present in all music even if no notes are hitting it, then we call that syncopation. That’s demonstrated below:

But that’s still a little too robotic. How about we turn to a master, Notorious B.I.G., in the following 4 bars. They are the first 4 of Biggie’s verse on “Hypnotize”:

There, you see he’s combined all the metric levels: he opens with syncopation off the bass kick drum with “pop”, 4 16th notes on the 2nd beat (“sicker than your”), 2 8th notes (“average”), 2 16th notes with an 8th note (“papa twist”), and so on. A combination of those levels of rhythm with syncopation is what gives a rapper’s rhythms spice.

However, who says we have to always divide the beat by half, into 2 8th notes?

Well — again, we don’t.

What if we divided it by 3? Then, you’d get what we call “triplet” 8th notes, while what we described above – quarter notes, 8th notes, and 16th notes – are called “duplet” 8th notes. And what makes Big Boi’s flow so unique is that it occurs at a metric level where the triplets and duplets are actually equivalent to each other, and can flow back and forth between each kind of division, by 2 or 3.
Played below is the quarter note beat, still played by the bass kick, divided into three by the triangle. After a bar of rest from the triangle, you’ll then have demonstrated how the 3 triplets and 4 16th notes last the same amount of time – the length of a beat, still played by the bass kick. Then, you’ll have a full bar of triplets.

And we can do with those triplets what we did with the 8th notes: cut them in half. This gives us what we call “sextuplets”, since 3 x 2 = 6. In the first half of the first bar of the triangle playing in the video below, I give you a full beat of 3 triplet 8th notes. In the second half of that bar, I divide the first triplet 8th note, which falls on the beat, by 2, making 2 triplet 16th notes. They are represented still by those 2 horizontal lines connecting above the notes, and that “3” above the bracket.
In the next bar, I divide the 2nd triplet 8th note into 2 triplet 16th notes as well, just like we did with the first triplet 8th note, so that there is just one full triplet 8th note left at the end.
In the 3rd bar, I divide that last triplet note by half so that all 3 triplet 8th notes are split in two, and we get 6 16th notes per beat. I place a quarter note between those full sextuplet beats.
Finally, I give you a full bar of those 6 16th notes. You can still hear that 6 sextuplets take up the same amount of time as the quarter note played by the bass kick drum.

However, we can also arrive at sextuplets from the rhythmic duration of the duplet 8th note. What if we had the musical duration of a duplet 8th note, equal to half of one quarter note, divided by 3 instead of 2 like before, just like we divided the quarter note beat into 3 8th notes instead of 2 8th notes?

That’s what I walk you through in the video below: I start out with a full bar of 2 duplet 8th notes played against a single quarter note in the bass kick.

In the 2nd bar, I divide one of the 8th notes divides into 3. Again, that duplet 8th note + 3 triplet 16th notes = 1 quarter note, as you can hear against the bass kick.

Next, just like above, I split both duplet 8th notes into 3, so that you get the same 6 sextuplets per beat that we had above. I play 6 sextuplets to a beat followed by a quarter note twice, and then fill a full bar with sextuplets.

Just think about it for yourself: 6 can be divided by 3, or 2, and you still arrive at a whole number.
The easiest way to see this is to apply it to the rap of Big Boi. In the video below are the first 2 bars of his rap. The bass kick is still playing the quarter note level. Listen to all of the rhythmic levels we have described so far occur in Big Boi’s rap:

In the above, we get the sextuplet level during the first beat “Now is the time to…”, and the 4 16th notes to a beat in the second bar (“get your work and…”).

But now let’s listen to the same 2 bars with the 8th note level represented as well, this time by the higher snare drum hit.

There, we can hear the 2 16th notes to an 8th note (on the words “like spike”, or “Lee said,”) and the 3 16th notes to an 8th note there (“get on the”.) Listen for yourself how each lasts the same amount of time as the 8th note snare, which is itself half of the quarter note beat played by the low bass kick drum.

But, as we established above with the syncopation and the example from Biggie’s “Hypnotize”, you don’t always need to fill the entire beat full of notes. That’s what he does here on the words “get on”, where he hits on only the first 2 16th notes of the triplet 16th note level, or on the words “is a”, where he hits on only the last 2 16th notes of the triplet 16th note level.

So, sometimes Big Boi makes the sextuplet play on the 4-16th-notes-to-a-beat level, which, remember, are called duplet 16th notes. He does this below, on the words “you on that dust” (3 triplet 16th notes, represented by that 3 over the words, plus the duplet 8th note of “dust”, equals 1 beat of the bass kick drum), or “familiar with that” (3 triplet 16th notes + 2 duplet 16th notes = 1 beat of the bass kick drum.)

But in the same 2 bars, he also plays on the triplet level of the sextuplet:
In the above, he does this on “smack man”, “green stuff”, “sack man”, and “pac man”, and “that man.” You can hear that those rhythms are close to, but not quite, the duplet 16th note rhythms. Because the rhythm on the words “smack man, the” is not this:

Or this:

But this:

Although this is impressive in itself, the flawless way in which Big Boi moves between these 2 levels of rap is what’s most impressive. Consider the next 4 bars:

Notice how he moves between the full sextuplet level, which is both duplet and triplet together (“ready to bust on”, “any nigga like”), to the triplet level (“that man”), back to sextuplet (“me and my nigga we”), to the duplet level (“roll to-“), to the 16th note triplet level (“-gether like”), back to the triplet level + sextuplet level (“bat man and”,) and so on.

This equivalency of rhythmic level between the triplet and duplet can be represented by the fact that sextuplets, the intersection of the triplet (“three”) and duplet (“2”) can be notated in a number of ways (3 x 2 = the “6” of sextuplet,) as I’ve done in the music you’ve seen. Notice that the rhythms in the video below in the first bar all sound the same, and that the rhythms in the second bar all sound the same.

Each separate notation simply represents a different rhythmic level, either the triplet, the duplet, or the triplet and duplet together, called the sextuplet. You can tell that they still all last the same amount of time. What notation you choose is simply which one most accurately reflects the rhythmic level of the music being played, or the rap.

Now, listen to his whole 1st verse and 2nd verse combined and try to hear all of these changes:

These rhythms are, for me, the defining style of Big Boi’s rap. He uses them in tons of songs, not just this one. And, conversely, his rhymes are rather unremarkable. Not that they aren’t good, it’s just that I literally do not have much to say about them. They are mostly single syllable rhymes, both inside and at the end of the sentence. His sentence structure is varied in that it doesn’t always end and start at the bar, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen before.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Rapper's Flow Encyclopedia - MF DOOM Analysis

As long as I’ve been avoiding it, it’s time to take my exceptional analytical skills to the unique, one-of-a-kind case of the masked man. I avoided it not only because of the daunting task it would be, as we’ll soon find out, but also because I wanted to make sure the analysis did justice to his entire body of work. Unquestionably, MF DOOM has one of the most unique flows of all time, doing certain things in such a way that no one else does, and now we’ve got proof as to why that is. I originally thought I would need at least 3 songs to have enough to say, but after transcribing his song, “Vomitspit”, from his album, MM…FOOD? (an anagram of his name), there is more than enough here to go on, to say the least. You can hear the song here. To try and decode some of DOOM’s crazy slang, here’s the Rapgenius page for the song.
Shall we?

The first aspect of DOOM’s rap that stands out is his insane rhyming skill. Now, a lot of rappers can drop multi-syllable internal and external rhymes, as we’ve seen, such as in my Mos Def analysis or my Jean Grae Analysis. But what sets DOOM apart is his special approach to rhyming and the extent to which he takes multi-syllable rhymes. In this whole rap, 44 bars long, there are no true, strict instances of the simplest type of rhyme: external, single-syllable rhymes (“External” means they come at the end of the sentence). Now, there are single-syllable rhymes, but they are usually mixed up as internal syllables in a complex rhyme chain. (A rhyme chain is the way a rapper moves from one rhyming group on the same syllable to another.)

For instance, in bars 1 and 2 (just look at the words beneath the music for now), he rhymes “beat” with “sleep”, but they are also rhymed with “jeep”, connected inside a rhyme group on the sound “-ear”, consisting of “hear”, “blare”, and “stare.” Those two groups are then chained along with the “-i” vowel sound rhyme, on “times” and “rhymes.” If we call the “-ee” group A, the second group on “-ear” B, and the rhyme on “-“ with C, then we get a rhyme chain of:


Where the slash separates the bars. Now, these are very different from your classic couplet form of the 90s, with its ABAB rhyme forms, or even some of today’s rappers. But this is really just a taste for why his approach to rhyme is so complex, and largely defines his style.

But that’s as simple as it gets as far as DOOM’s rhyming goes. Because most of the time his rhymes are external or internal (inside the sentence) multi-syllable rhymes. This is very well reflected in his amount of rhymes per bar. Throughout this whole rap of 44 bars, there are 496 syllables, and of those syllables, 215 are rhymed. That means that there are 43% of his syllables are rhymed, which is one of the highest rates you will find for any rapper. For instance, as quoted in this article here, Camron has a rate of .41 rhymes per syllable, Eminem has a rate of .38 rhymes per syllable, while DOOM has the highest rate out of any rapper. Now, this is not very surprising when you consider his approach to what I call the rhyme barrier.

The rhyme barrier is the natural limiting of word choice for a rapper when they decide to choose a word. At the start of a rap, the rapper can choose any words to say. But once he decides to rhyme those words, his word choice is then restricted to only words that rhyme. How well a rapper negotiates the rhyme barrier is, for me, a measure of how good a rapper is. Can they continue to stay on topic, while still dropping complex rhymes?

DOOM, however, flips this script. That’s because his approach to the rhyme barrier is rather idiosyncratic. It is my view that he consistently sacrifices a consistent dramatic narrative in order to drop complex rhymes. Now, I would consider this a shortcoming of a rapper normally, but for DOOM I see it as endemic of his style.

For instance, he raps, “A lot of stuff happens that the new won’t TELL YOUS / BLUES on L JUICE, SNOOZE all HELL LOOSE.” Now, I’m not exactly sure what the first line of that has to do with the second line. But it does allow DOOM to make 8 of 10 straight syllables rhyme. This is something he consistently does, and is a marker of his style.

There are more metrics we can use to define DOOM’s style. For instance, out of those 496 syllables, there are 283 words. This means that the amount of syllables per word, a measure of the complexity of the words that a rapper uses, is 1.75. This compares as being substantially more complex than other rates I’ve seen, such as in my Nas analysis. For example, Eminem’s rap in “Business” has 1.21 syllables per word, while Game’s in “How We Do” and Nas in the Busta Rhymes song “Don’t Get Carried Away” have rates of 1.19 and 1.48, respectively. Finally, in a freestyle of 44 bars with 496 syllables per bar, there are 11.27 syllables per bar. This also compares as being higher than the rates of other rappers out there. So, DOOM is, overall, a complex, wordy rapper, something which may be obvious to some of you out there, but now we have the right numbers to describe it.

However, back to his rhymes. As I said before, most of the time his rhymes are external multi-syllable rhymes that are couched within rather conventional rhyme chain and sentence phrasing schemes. Representative for this is the music from bars 3-6:

For this discussion, it’s important to know what a bar is: a bar is simply a musical duration of time, just like an hour is a measure of chronological time. A bunch of bars together make a verse or hook, and the verses and hooks together make a song. The bars are represented in the music above by the vertical lines that separate the musical notes, such as between the word “hologram” and “even” in the image above.

(As a disclaimer, this article will make use of notated sheet music, but I PROMISE even if you can’t read music, you will be able to understand it.) Furthermore, those curved lines under the noteheads, such as from “real” to “hologram”, represent basically sentences. These are also important for categorizing rappers, as we’ll see.

So, let’s have that music again:

(For now, just look at the words below the note-heads. We’ll get into reading those in part 2 of my DOOM analysis.) You can see that there are 4 multi-syllable end rhymes in total: “hologram” with “swallowed the ham” and “sand sandwich salad” with “man’s bland ballad.”
Another good representation of this is bars 13-16:

Here, “funky socks” is rhymed with “monkey pox” at the end of a sentence. This example, along with the last one, are also good examples of DOOM’s conventional sentence phrasing and rhyme chaining. Notice how, compared to our first example (“it’s the beat…”), the rhyme groups here are chained much more conventionally. In this and the last example, they are simply AB, where A represents the “any whos / any shoes” group, and B represents the “funky socks / monkey pox” grouping. Furthermore, observe how each sentence falls completely within the barlines (remember, those vertical lines such as between “whos” and “seeds”, which, again, is just a measurement of musical time.)

We can also describe this by measuring how many sentences there are per bar. There are 44 bars, and there are 54 sentences, so there are 1.23 sentences per bar. Now, this contrasts with someone like Busta Rhymes on “Holla”, the sheet music of which you can see here, and for which I will be having a full analysis in the coming days. In that song there are 36 sentences in the first 24 bars, for a rate of 1.5 sentences per bar. DOOM, meanwhile, does not make much use of syncopation. For instance, in a rap of 44 bars, there will be 176 beats, because there are 4 beats per bar. Of those 176 beats, 135 fall within a sentence, and only 18 of those 135 are skipped by DOOM – for instance, in bar 3, between “real rhymes” and “not your everyday hologram”, a beat is skipped by DOOM and doesn’t have a note/word placed on it.

This means he has .13 syncopated beats per every on-beat. That is a low figure. For instance, for Notorious B.I.G.’s first verse on “Hypnotize”, out of 72 beats over 18 bars, he lands on 60 of them, and skips the other 12. This means that he has .2 syncopated beats for every on-beat. (Busta and Notorious B.I.G. are 2 rappers who will get their own complete blog post coming up over my 30 day Kickstarter campaign, which you can donate to at this link here.) Furthermore, with 54 sentences and 496 syllables, there are 9.18 syllables per sentence. In Notorious’ rap, however, there are 30 sentences over 18 bars, for a rate of 1.66 sentences per bar (much higher than DOOM’s 1.23 sentences per bar), but also only 5.93 syllables per sentence, much lower than DOOM’s rate of 9.19 syllables per sentence. Also, there are 383 words, and 496 syllables / 383 words = 1.30 syllables per word.

So, for the most part, DOOM does not make the structure of his raps very complex, while it is the musical content of those raps that is complex.

But then again…

Time for a little Music Theory 101. Because this is easiest to show visually, I made the video down below to explain how to count beats and bars. Watch the first 6 minutes of it to understand. I say it’s for rappers, but it’s also very useful to the intelligent musical listener as well. You can also skip ahead for just a summary.

How To Count Beats & Bars

Basically, a beat is a musical unit of time whose length in seconds can change between songs, because sometimes songs are fast and songs are slow. It is the rate at which these beats come that changes. There are 4 beats per bar, and usually 16 bars make up a verse in rap music. This is important because we can also categorize and describe rappers by whether their rhymes always fall in the same place relative to the beat and bar, or in different places.
So let’s now use this to describe our first example from above, the opening bars of the song:

Even if you’ve never been taught how to read music, you can still understand the above image. Compare the rhymes of “hologram” with “swallowed the ham.” You can tell that they still fall in the same place in the bar: at the end, with the “-ogram” and “the ham” part of the rhymes being in the same exact position. Just look at how the noteheads over them look exactly the same. This means that they fall in the same place relative to the beat of the time signature. As explained before, the beat is the underlying pulse in all music that is what rappers count by.

You can see that the rhymes “any whos” and “any shoes” and “funky socks” with “money pox” are all in the same place in the bar, and relative to the beat. They come at the end of the bar, and each pairing’s noteheads above them look the same.

However, the most mind-bending aspect of DOOM’s rap is how he subverts this tendency, how he places his rhymes in almost the same place from bar to bar, but not quite. Because DOOM uses incredibly nuanced rhythms that blows the complexity of almost any other type of music – rap, electronic, classical, country, more – out of the water. As a demonstration of this, listen to the song with DOOM’s rhythms played by the triangle first with the underlying beat in the background played by the drums, and bob your head to it. Then, I repeat DOOM’s rhythms, but without a beat. Now, try and tell if you can see where the beat that was played by the drums is falling.

See The Video Here

A lot harder to tell where the underlying beat is now, isn’t it?

Let’s find out why. One of those beats counted by the bass kick can be divided in half to make an 8th note. That 8th note can be divided in half to make a 16th note. Now, this is usually the metric level that rap makes use of: 16th notes. They are rather simple and can be heard easily by a listener or rapper. However, that doesn’t mean that the beat can’t be split into other groupings – for instance, 5 16th notes (called quintuplets), instead of 4 16th notes (called “quadruplets”). That is what Andre 3K does in his first verse on “Aquemini”, as I explain in my article here. This also means that you can divide them into 7 – septuplets – or 9 –nontuplets? Notuplets? Whatever.

But those divisions of 5, 7, and 9 are a lot harder to hear. However, DOOM makes ample use of those divisions. As you can in the video, he divides the beat into 7 on the words “Break it rolling”, and “through ya hood”, such as in the music below (the numbers over the brackets indicate how they’re divided, if it’s not by 4):

He also divides 2 beats together into 9, such as on “While he’s in his oratory” and “glorious like a horror story:”

Now, just how fine is DOOM’s sense of rhythm? Let’s do some math. The beats per minute, a measurement of how fast a song is, is, for “Vomitspit”, 94. That means that each beat lasts .64 seconds. That means that each quadruplet sixteenth note lasts .64 / 4, = .16 seconds. But a quintuplet sixteenth note lasts .64/5 =, .13 seconds, and a septuplet sixteenth note lasts .64 / 7 = .09 seconds. He makes use of a 32nd septuplet notes, which would last .045 seconds, such as on the “hood” of “through ya hood.”

You can hear how long that would last in the video below:

See The Video Here

Two final points. Note how the structure of the song, a freestyle (a song with no chorus but just one long verse), supports DOOM’s display of his superior rapping skills. He doesn’t have to stop for a chorus, where rhythms are largely repeated and the amount of rhymes are reduced. Furthermore, he can make it just one long verse, more than twice as long as what is normal (16 bars), so he can just go, and go, and go.

A final idiosyncratic aspect to DOOM’s raps are the large pauses he takes between raps. Now, when an emcee raps, they are constrained by some of the realities of actual spoken speech. For instance, in a normal conversation with your friend, you wouldn’t take huge pauses in between your sentences when you’re giving your side of the conversation, unless you can’t think of something to say, or something like that. So rappers have to stick to this – no large pauses in between sentences. DOOM, however, does take large pauses in between sentences, and that gives his work part of his unique DOOM flow. For instance, you can see this in between, most notably, “Funk me” and “I’m like any whos”, but he also does it between “horror story” and “the mask is like Jason”, “monkey pox” and “instead, she want to…”, and so on.

So, as a short summary, DOOM uses incredibly complex rhythms and rhyming tendencies, couched in a wordy, sentence-heavy style. However, the structure of his sentences are rather conventional, in order to strongly support just how radically innovative his rhythms and rhymes are. You can see all of these in the video below, where I play the rhythms of his words as the green bar follows along to the music and the bass kick counts the beats.

See The Video Here

Thanks again for reading!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Rapper's Flow Encyclopedia - 2pac

Today I am going to examine a certain argument that is popular in any hobby or sport: who is the Greatest Of All Time? Usually, discussions of the GOAT revolve around little more than which Stan can argue more strongly for his favorite rapper, without actually examining what should be at the heart of the matter: each rapper’s respective raps. In this analysis I am going to look at the work of a rapper who is brought up in any discussion of the GOAT: 2pac. What’s more, I’m going to go right to the heart of the matter and examine a song of his that I have no problem calling, objectively, one of the greatest rap songs of all time, if not the greatest.

As usual, you can hear the song here:

And get the lyrics on Rapgenius here.
First, to explain why “Changes” is a song that should move the ground beneath our political, moral, and societal debates, would be self-defeating. To do so would belabor the searing bluntness of 2pac’s assault on the same old talking points and buzzwords surrounding the discussion of the war on drugs, which continues to this day, decades after the release of this song. The crack epidemic, institutionalized racism, the prison-industrial complex, and police brutality do not escape his target sights either. The fact that his lyrics, “It’s war on the streets, and a war in the Middle East / ‘Stead of war on poverty, they got a war on drugs so the police can bother me”, still apply as much today as they did about 20 years ago should make us all work to examine more deeply our automatic-response thoughts to such destructive forces. And no matter who you are, what class, what race, you can relate to him: “I wake up every morning and I ask myself / Is life worth living, should I blast myself?” is something I know I’ve asked myself to varying degrees, and something we all have at some point in our lives.

I point out 2pac’s clarity of image only in order to start the discussion of the GOAT. In general, a rapper plays many parts: poet, musician, comedian, storyteller, actor, and more. In order to account for these varied roles, I like to separate the discussion of the GOAT into 3 separate Top 10 lists. The 3 lists are, “Greatest Storytellers of All Time”, “Greatest Rap Comedians of All Time,” and the “Greatest Technically Accomplished Rappers.” How a particular rapper ranks respectively on each separate list can then be used to more accurately determine how they should rank in the general list of “Greatest Rappers Of All Time.” The first and 3rd lists are self-explanatory by their titles, but the title of “comedian” includes all the jokes a rapper makes: puns, double entendres, jokes, everything.
I do this because it is the rare rapper who can rank very highly on all 3. For instance, Kanye absolutely is in the top 3 for “Greatest Comedians”, and probably the top 10 for “Storytellers”, if for nothing else besides his work on “College Dropout” (the songs “Family Business”, “Jesus Walks”, “All Falls Down”, and more). But on “Technically Accomplished”, while still being better than most, he would not make the Top 10 list at all. Big Sean might show up on “Comedians”, just barely, but he doesn’t come close to the other 2 lists. Common, meanwhile, would make the “Storytellers” list (“I Used To Love H.E.R.”), and make top 15 for “Technically Accomplished,” but as far as “Comedians” goes, I don’t see him showing up very high. (“Good rappers is hard to find…like the remote.” Eesh.)
So how does 2pac fit into this? As we’ve already established, he is an amazing storyteller (the “storyteller” does not have to necessarily refer to a story like “this happened, then this happened, then this guy did that thing.”) I think we can establish pretty objectively that he is the greatest rap storyteller of all time. As his resume, I submit no less than “Changes”, “Unconditional Love”, “Dear Mama”, “Brenda’s Got A Baby”, and “Life Goes On,” and those are only the best of the best. Possibly all of those chart as the greatest Top 10 “Rap Story” songs of all time.

But his position on the “Comedians” list is a little harder to pin down. From everything I’ve heard, and 2pac is one rapper who I’ve heard pretty extensively, I can’t recall off the top of my head any pun, double entendre, or joke. And, since I’m sure there has to be some, if there are, they are not very memorable. But 2pac is a special case, because he simply seems completely uninterested in this aspect of the modern rapper’s toolbox. He does not try to make jokes…so should we even evaluate him on this level? If you insist on doing so, first let’s examine the 3rd list to see where he ranks: “Technically Accomplished” rappers.

Now, for my list, which evaluates the list from the perspective of the year 2013, he does not make the top 10. But if we are going to judge him based on the time period in which he raps, it’s another matter. What’s more, any flaws or lack of technical acrobatics in his rap are, contradictorily, transformed by his delivery — the way in which he says his words — into being hallmarks and even strengths of his style. He is not going to drop 4-syllable rhymes inside a sentence, like Pharoahe Monch (who I’ll release an analysis article of on the 21st), and he is not going to use extensive metrical transference, like Andre 3k as described here or Busta Rhymes here. And he won’t have complex noctuplet rhythms, like MF DOOM in his rap on “Vomitspit”, or drop 16 rhymes all in a row, like Jean Grae (who I’ll release an analysis of on the 18th.)

What I mean to say is that 2pac’s raps have a certain unfinished quality to them, but that is part of their strength. If you know anything of the man, you know that he just rapped, and rapped, and rapped. No one ever needed rap more than 2pac (Eminem, I think, comes in second.) You get the feeling if 2pac didn’t have rap, he wouldn’t have made it past childhood. Because, from listening to rappers, you can always tell who needs rap. Lil Wayne doesn’t need rap; he needed rap to get him rich, and you see that once he did his lyrics went to shit. That’s why I don’t believe the rumors of 2pac still being alive, people saying his albums are still being released and that’s how – no, he just lived in the studio. So it is somewhat unsurprising if we find his raps not as technically finished as some other rappers’ work.

For instance, multiple times he rhymes the same words, one after the other. For instance, he rhymes “brothers” with “other” 3 times in seven bars, in the first verse. The capitalized words are the rhymes:

(One instance is the “-other” in “another.”) He’s got a nasty habit of rhyming the same words over and over, like “brother” and “other”, or, in verse 2, the word “way.” He rhymes, “easy WAY, “G today,” but then goes back to “sleazy WAY”. That’s not even that bad, but when you’re comparing it to the greatest technically accomplished rappers of all time, it especially hurts that he goes back to the word for a third rhyme, when he then rhymes “I gotta get PAID / well HEY / well that’s the WAY it is.” It’s a problem because it’s repetitive. I’ve got no problem if the same syllable is combined with another rhymed syllable that changes, and in fact that seems to be a marker of 2pac’s style in this song. In verse 3, he rhymes, “Don’t let em JACK YOU UP / BACK YOU UP / CRACK YOU UP / pimp SMACK YOU UP”, where jack/back/crack/smack is combined with the “you up.” He does it again in verse 1 with the “Huey said / Huey’s dead” rhyme, or the rhyme “When we KILL EACH OTHER / it takes skill to be real trying to HEAL EACH OTHER.” But when that rhymed syllable goes back and forth between the same syllable that has the same exact definition, it hurts. He does it again in verse 3, with “But now I’m BACK with the FACTS giving it BACK to you.”

But this is what I was saying before: I could not imagine 2pac as a rapper with those kind of elements sanitized. I wouldn’t want to hear it. There is a certain raw, frenetic, uncontrolled energy to the structure of his raps as well as their delivery. I would love to see video of him in the booth. You can hear that 2pac had something to say, and he needed to get it out before he got killed early in life (something he believed would always happen), any conventions of the communication medium – rap — be damned.

Furthermore, he moves between different modes of rhyming without any sort of transition, and there doesn’t seem to be any overarching, guiding principle to how he’ll move from one rhyme to the next. That is, the pacing of his rhymes – how many he drops, and how intense they are in terms of length and placement – is all over the place, and either not very complex or too complex. For example, he starts off with a couplet and a single-syllable end rhyme:

“Wake up every morning and I ASK myself / is life worth living, should I BLAST myself”. Then, he moves to a triple syllable end rhyme group (“worse I’m black” / “purse to snatch”) with single-syllables nested inside that group (“hurts”) and before it (“blast”).

Then, he moves to a couplet, 2-syllable end rhyme on negro/hero, with the trigger/nigga rhyme inside it:

There doesn’t seem to be any plan to the pace of his rhymes. There is no acceleration or deceleration of phrases (shorter or longer sentences, or more or less of them), any discernable switch between a high number of rhymes and a low number of rhymes. There isn’t even any variation on the couplet structure, which would be somewhat laborious without 2pac’s delivery and strong message. This contributes to what I hear as the freestyle (off the top) flow of the song – he’s just going, like you’re with him and he’s coming up with it on the spot.
A better example comes at the start of the 2nd verse. He starts off with a heavy amount of syllables, from “changes” to “races”.

But the rhymes are rather run of the mill, and you can even see some of the “nursery rhyme” early history of rap coming out here. He starts off with a huge amount of rhymes: 12 out of 13 straight syllables rhyme at one point, from “racist” to “races”. But he’s chosen to do this at the start of a verse in the middle of the song, and it is easily the most rhyme-intensive section of the song. More rhymes increase the tension in a rap, and we’d expect to have the most tension at the end of a song, just like we always have the highest amount of tension at the end of a movie. Contrast this to the finished nature of Mos Def’s rhymes in part of his verse from RE: DEFinition, a full analysis of which you can read here. You can hear the song here:

You can see the section in question notated below:

In Mos’ verse, there is definitely a plan to the pacing of his rhymes (which are indicated by those less than signs, like on “minimum”). He’s got a 3 syllable, 1 or 2 word rhyme block, starting with the minimum/entering/millennium/etc. group and going through the whole 14 bars shown there, until “Ellington”. He varies how quickly they come in ways that set up your expectations, and then either confirm or disappoint them. His first bar has the block 3 times, the second bar has it once, the 3rd has it twice, the 4th has it twice, the 5th has it twice…but then the 6th bar has it 4 times! And because what’s notated there as the 6th bar is actually the end of the 14th bar because I’ve omitted the first 8 bars of his rap, and because his verse is the final verse on the song, he’s picked a logical place to heighten the musical tension: more than halfway through the verse, and near the end of the song. Then, at the very end of the verse, he reduces it to 3 blocks in bar 12 above, 2 blocks in bar 13, 1 block in bar 14, and finally 2 blocks in bar 15. He’s brought us down from the musical climax of the verse that came at that bar with the 3-syllable block 4 times.

This is a rather subtle point, but think about it for yourself: in a movie, where does everything happen? Where does everything get resolved? Towards the end, about ¾ through. Or where do you get the biggest chord in a symphonic piece of music? At the end!

But with 2pac, you don’t get much of that planning-out. And as I said before, this is not a knock on his style, because it works for him. Not many rappers could pull this off. That’s because after the “racist faces…” to “disgrace to races” lines, he drops the amount of rhymes off a ton. Meanwhile this whole time, throughout the whole rap in fact, the structure of his sentences and how long they are have been almost tediously consistent: they are almost all 1 bar long, and they almost all start and end at the start and end of the bar.

When you combine that uniformity of sentence structure with the predictable rhythme structure of being extremely couplet-heavy, you better understand what I’m trying to describe here – his unfinished, unpolished style.

What’s more, consider his mode of rhyme linking – how he moves from one rhyme group to the next. He just skips from one to the next, with no combination or intertwining of them, like Notorious B.I.G. does here. For instance, 2pac rhymes on chill/kill/skill/real/heal in verse 2, then moves right on to the rhyme group with heaven sent/president, then the group –ceal the fact / packed / filled with blacks, and so on. If the first group is labeled A, the second B, and the 3rd C, his form of rhyme linking would be ABC. This is very simple, especially when compared to Eminem’s first verse of “Lose Yourself”, as you can see at this link here, where his rhyme linking between different rhyme groups is ABCCCABCABBCABCDDDDABCAA. Pretty complex, right?

And perhaps 2pac could still place higher on the “Technically Accomplished” list if his rhymes were of a more complex nature. But they are mostly 1 syllable rhymes, both internal and external. We have this born out by our statistics of our past 3 articles:

You can examine it as much for yourself as you want, but the important points for Pac’s stats are:
  1. He has the shortest words used – from his lowest syllables per word.
  2. He has the lowest rhyme density – from the lowest % of syllables rhymed
  3. He has long, uniform sentences – from almost a 1 to 1 ratio of sentences to bars.
Those three statistics are roughly indicators of technical complexity. Thus, we see that Busta and MF DOOM are very technically complex, because DOOM has a higher syllable per word and a higher % of syllables rhymed, and Busta had 24 3-syllable rhymes in his rap on “Holla.” Therefore, we see that 2pac’s rhymes are generally on the simpler side.

But as I said before, I don’t think this reflects negatively on 2pac. This is because that style fits his aggressive message and delivery very well, and not just in this song. For instance, there is the epic “Hit ‘Em Up.” Besides, by no means is he a bad rapper. The weak points I’ve just described separate the extremely technically complex – Jean Grae, Pharoahe Monche, Mos Def, Eminem, Black Thought, Nas, Talib Kweli – from the run-of-the mill technically complex. I mean, 12 out of 13 straight syllables in 2pac’s rap here is pretty impressive. And he does use some metrical transference, even if it is of a very, very simple nature, and mixes in a few multi-syllable rhymes, like acting right/ black than white / crack tonight, which is a good rhymes series.

But there are 2 camps of differing thought on 2pac: 1 side says he’s only famous because he died young and that made him a martyr, and the other side hold him up to be the greatest of all time in every category ever, and there does not seem to be room for much middle-ground. Here, I think we have some proof to move the discussion forward.

My final assessment would be this: we don’t assess him on the comedian scale, because he doesn’t even strive for it mostly. Second, he is more technically complex than some people give him credit for, and for his period he is one of the more technically complex. But compared to today’s rappers, he isn’t. However, his storytelling is so strong and so powerful that he is number 1 on that specific list by far, far, far. So, I think 2pac rightly deserves his general reputation as one of the greatest of all time. Where you want to specifically put him on that list is up for debate.