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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.


  1. man, great analysis ! I've never realized how unfunny Tupac was. I've always just been listening to the aggressiveness.

    1. Yeah, it's weird. I always expected someone to come back and be like, "No, this, this, and this song are full of 2pac puns," but no one ever did. Thanks for the compliment!

    2. This is a flawed analysis because you have chosen to analyze a tupac song he never released.Pick songs from Me aganist the world, All eyez on me and Makaveli to make a valid point.Changes was recorded early 90s before All eyez on me etc and he never put it on any album or you rightly pointed out alot of his material was unfinished.

    3. You need to listen to "I get around","Whats yo phone number",All about u",2pac was not trying to be a clown but showed humour in many songs.

    4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Nice analysis! I always thought Tupac was more of an emotional rapper as in it hits you in your heart. Whereas biggie is very smooth and competent - you get dazzled by his skills. Rap these days are probably not straight off the dome to the paper to the mic boom boom boom like tupac did it, I would think there is a lot more editing. Not many rappers have an itch to get shit off their chest or they don't have a unique message. Tupac was a leader in hiphop and in black/youth culture. From tupac raps you can tell he cared about shit other than himself. He was bigger than rap.

    What about analysis of his voice? I think he has one of the best voice and it even comes off in his interviews..he doesn't hesitate much...not many 'hmms' and 'ahhs'. He is really good at expressing himself and his voice sounds very refined and sharp with a certain weight.

  3. I completely disagree about Tupac being the best storyteller in rap. I'm sure we have different criteria as to what makes one a good storyteller(I just found your site a few days ago, so I haven't read any article that goes into depth on storytelling yet). I can say that as far as telling a story, Lupe Fiasco is without a doubt in my mind the best. If you haven't look into his 'The Cool Saga', there are several songs all following the same narrative through several albums with many different layers of metaphor, personification, etc. I would be really interested in your take on it.

    As I said, I just found the site a few days ago and I've never seen anything like it. I've been pretty much obsessed with music theory for years and recently started playing instruments, that and I've always loved hip-hop/rap. I'm completely amazed by the site.

  4. This was awesome and this sight is awesome in looking at rappers on an intellectual level instead pure bias opinion and emotion. I have a question I'd like answered though. How is it that the new school rap has gotten better since the 90s. There's some talent ( mainly underground) but if you look at the big names, i don't even consider it hip hop( Kendrick's delivery is impressive though). Lupe fiasco was fairly big but he still meddled with the pop crowd too much, but overall the hip hop lyricism at its best is easily in the 90s when ra first then nas brung it to a new level. Anyways, I was just wondering what you meant by tupac not on par with lyricism today. Remember Q

    1. Hey man! If you hit me up at, I'd love to answer your questions. I'd do it here, but it's gonna involve links to images and web pages, and you can't do that in these damn comment boxes, haha :) Anyway, hope you hit me up! And thanks for your words man! Your first sentence is music to my ears, because honestly, that's originally why I started all this shit, haha.



  5. As makaveli on 7 day theory Me and my girlfriend, 2pac uses his girlfriend as a metaphor for his gun. Not quite sure where metaphors fits in your 3 lists but seems to have some similarities to the comedian section.

    1. I would put "metaphors" into the "storyteller" column, which might actually be better called the "poets" category, as you're pointing out to me. I do have an article all about 2Pac and why he is the greatest storyteller of all time, but also might not want to be as worshipped as he much as he is today — he did, after all, spend time in jail after being convicted of a first-degree sex assault charge. And yet Talib Kweli calls him a martyr on his song "RE: DEFinition"? That seems like a contradiction.

      Anyway, hit me up at mepc36@gmail — I love hearing from people like you, who seem to already know what I'm telling them, but just didn't know how (or where) to say it, maybe.

      Thanks EBarnum!



  6. Nice analysis, but is it always one song analysis, I think a lot of rappers have technically better songs than the ones you analyzed for instance 'Me against the world' vs 'Changes', maybe I'm wrong but Me against the world sounds way better than changes, another example is Biggie's 'Hypnotize' vs 'One more chance'(original version). Maybe you can do multiple analysis to get a more comprehensive view

    1. Hey man, first I wanted to say thanks a lot for writing back to me. (It lets me know people actually read these haha.)

      Second, I wanna thank you for not being a dick when you critiqued my writing (which I'm totally fine with), unlike this dude:

      >I think a lot of rappers have technically better songs than the ones you analyzed for instance 'Me against the world' vs 'Changes', maybe I'm wrong but Me against the world sounds way better than changes, another example is Biggie's 'Hypnotize' vs 'One more chance'(original version).

      You make a good point, but honestly, this is just a case where I do know lots of other songs by these rappers besides just the ones I mention; I just didn't mention in the articles that I have 2+ albums from them already memorized, word for word and line for line. Whenever you get an article from me, you should kind of just assume that I'm giving you specific points that have been distilled from that comprehensive view:

      >Maybe you can do multiple analysis to get a more comprehensive view

      That has little to do with rap music, and everything to do with good journalism and knowledge of how to make an argument. Besides, I do do comprehensive views on rappers sometimes; I've written 4 articles of 4000+ words on Earl so far, and he's not even my fav rapper! haha

      Look, I'm not saying I'm ever wrong; one time I wrote something about Eminem's "Rap God" that I think is now so horribly wrong that I unpublished it. But on this one, 2Pac and Biggie are simply 2 of my biggest strengths, so I'm standing by what I said, although I will add this caveat: "Changes" is, like you said, one of 2Pac's weaker songs. But his rhymes are still there to serve the story, and not the other way around.

      Thanks again man! Hit me up at mepc36@gmail, I'd love to talk to you more :)



      P.S. More thoughts on 2Pac, which might help explain why even though I don't think he's a superb rhymer, he's still Top 3 all time: