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Monday, August 31, 2015

Rap Music Analysis - The 23 Most Repetitive Rappers

**I want to thank everyone who helped this article spread. It went on a worldwide tour of my hometown HipHopDX (thanks to Danielle Harling), as well as XXLBETPigeons and Planes (thanks to Graham Corrigan), Complex (thanks to Justin Davis), and even a translation into French (thanks to French Montana.) If you like these articles, and want to see more, feel free to like the Composer's Corner facebook page.

This chart measures what rappers repeat the same words the most. This chart is actually an index, as is explained on Wikipedia here.

As the guy who generated this data for me emailed me, "Repetitiveness: This is an algorithm I hand rolled to use on this data. It's similar to vocabulary density, but uses ngrams instead of individual words. I think it gives a really meaningful metric. I got the idea when I saw this meme comparing Beyonce to Freddie Mercury."

I used Excel to create the visualization. The data analyst got the raw material from crawling popular lyrics websites.




Here is the data on how many words and how many songs the data was compiled for each artist, so you can decide how big the sample size should be:

P.S. - It's happened so much I had to make an FAQ for negative feedback, so before you offer non-constructive criticism, please read this.

P.S. - If you like this and want to encourage me to write more articles, think about buying a T-shirt here. Don't worry, I won't make any money off it - it's all for the love of the game. The rap game.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Blue Devils See Green: Duke, Not Kentucky, The Real One-And-Done Powerhouse

Coach K Might Be Beating Coach Cal At His Own Game

Does that “K” in Coach K stand for Kentucky?

That’s what it might seem like recently, after Duke's Mike Krzyzewski apparently transformed his recruiting philosophy since his 2010 NCAA championship team to be closer to that of Kentucky coach John Calipari. That 2010 Duke team, driven largely by senior starters Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek, and Lance Thomas, never had a full chance to defend or recapture its crown in the following years, after its ranks were depleted by those three’s graduations that summer.

Duke’s recent 2015 championship team won’t have that chance either, but for a completely different reason: instead of graduating, freshmen starters Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones, and Justise Winslow all got promoted.

Duke's underrated NBA appeal has received more of its proper due recently, as multiple articles counting Duke among the most productive in terms of big ball talent shows. But not enough focus has been placed on the very top recruits, the Jabari Parkers and the Kyrie Irvings, the 1% of the 1% of freshmen who are good enough to leave college after just one year. And maybe commentators are right: when Calipari had 4 freshmen selected in 2010, including #1 overall pick John Wall, he all at once doubled the number of freshmen that Krzyzewski had ever sent to the NBA in his decades-long career at Duke by that time. 

But a new narrative surrounding the one-and-done phenomenon has begun to emerge since 2011. It’s a story with strong, disruptive waves currently emanating out of Durham, NC, that have the potential to completely upend the received wisdom around men's basketball recruiting.

The phenomenon of the one-and-done has been here since 2006, when the NBA put into place its current 19-year old age requirement. Since then, Kentucky coach John Calipari has re-engineered his universities, whether Memphis or Kentucky, into well-oiled factories that succeed by promising Top 100 high school recruits NBA-money after just one year. In the 8 NBA drafts since 2008, for instance, Calipari has coached the #1 overall pick four times — each of them freshman. 

It would, however, be several years of agonizing wait before Coach Cal’s system achieved the ultimate prize in NCAA basketball. In 2012, Kentucky may have arguably had the first through-and-through, one-and-done championship team. College rookies had played starring roles on past championship teams, like Carmelo Anthony in 2003. But in contrast to Melo’s more experienced supporting cast, Kentucky was fully led by freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Marquis Teague. According to, this trio altogether averaged over 31 minutes of playing time per game, and made up 46.6% of their team’s average points per game.

Coach Cal, while never replicating his championship dreams in the years since those 3 left Lexington, seems to have only opened up his lead over other colleges with draft picks since then. It was just 2 months ago that he tied the single-year record for number of draft picks from one school…with himself, because 6 Kentucky players were also chosen over two rounds in 2012.

And if Kentucky leads the rest of the NCAA in one-and-done NBA stock, then their lead over the more veteran-laden Duke could only be greater, right?

Well, not necessarily.

Kentucky does have almost twice as many freshmen draft picks as Duke since 2011 — 11 to 6. But although Kentucky plays more freshmen, Duke now plays better freshmen. That’s because although Kentucky’s freshmen triplets altogether averaged 36.1 points per game, Duke’s own 2015 trio — Jones, Okafor, and Winslow — outpaced them by almost 5.6 points, at 41.7 combined points per game.

And while Coach Cal has had more picks since 2011, Coach K’s own rookie picks can expect to be drafted at a better position. Calipari's crop of 2011–2015 freshmen averaged a draft position of 9th, while Krzyzewski's own 6 rookies over those years were drafted at an average position of 8th. That might not seem like a big difference, but just try telling that to this year’s 9th pick, the Hornets' Frank Kaminsky. He can expect to make $600,000 less than this year’s 8th pick, the Pistons' Stanley Johnson, over the course of their respective 3-year rookie contracts. All of that great Carolina barbecue Kaminsky has coming his way still might not be enough to make up for that difference in salary. 

Even a head-to-head matchup of these two program’s recent flagship players tilts in Duke’s favor: Kyrie Irving, his year’s #1 pick like Anthony Davis, won the Rookie Of The Year Award, while Davis lost out to Damian Lillard.

The most frightening thing for all of the Wildcats out there (or Tar Heels) is that Duke seems poised to continue the reversal, and possible overturning, of this trend over the next few years. Per ESPN, Duke has the top-ranked incoming class for this year’s season. It includes four Top 100 recruits, as well as three 5-star recruits, among them the #1 overall small forward, Brandon Ingram, and Derryck Thornton, the #3 point guard. Kentucky’s class, although containing the top center and top point guard, has only two 5 star recruits, and three ESPN 100 commits.

Furthermore, only 1 recruit out of the Top 10 for 2016 has firmly committed to any school yet, and it just so happens that #1 overall small forward Jayson Tatum will be taking his Duke.

If top recruits are already adding up their millions when they get the call from Calipari, as many cynical observers believe, then maybe those recruits should start adding these numbers into their calculations too.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Kendrick Lamar - To Pimp A Butterfly Review - Rap Music Analysis

Let me set the tone for this piece right off the bat: To Pimp A Butterfly is the greatest rap album of all time.

Now, I know a lot of rap albums, and practically study them over and over through playing them not just all the way through in one take, but also on multiple mixes and playlists. For instance, one single song — “How We Do” — occupies 4 different playlists on my computer (a swag one, a Top 10 Dre Beats one, a workout one, and another playlist.) In fact, iTunes tells me that I’ve listened to Cam’ron’s song “Dip-Set Forever” 95 times, which is about 4 minutes long. That works out to 372.4 minutes, or about 6.2 hours. That’s almost a week’s total of listening to only that single song, and that play count doesn’t even take into account how many times I’ve listened to “Dip-Set Forever” elsewhere, like on my iPhone. I mention all of this for two reasons: 1.) To show that I can judge Kendrick’s TPAB against a lot of other rap albums, and 2.) To show what kind of listening treatment To Pimp A Butterfly got from me.

One of the contexts I want to judge TPAB against is the format of the rap album throughout the genre. Now, for me, the format of rap albums breaks down into two basic categories that really describe a spectrum. First, there are rap albums where every track has a completely different sound from the next one. On the other side are rap albums where every track leads in a very unified manner from one to the next. In the first category falls a lot of the mega-albums, like Lil Wayne’s The Carter III. “A Milli,” by Bangladesh, has an electronic, chopped and screwed sound. Meanwhile, Kanye’s beat “Let The Beat Build” has a soul sample that sets it completely apart from Bangladesh’s production. The fact that these albums sound so different from one track to the next is primarily a result of the fact that there are different producers for every track. 

But then there are albums that largely have only one sound world, and each track then works to explore and expand out that sound world. A great example of that album is Dr. Dre’s Chronic: 2001.It’s no surprise, then, that Dr. Dre produced every song on that album. His ability to guide the album in a single direction means that all the songs sound similar, without ever being repetitive. For example, many of the songs use the minor scale, which gives the album that dark feel, as between “Forgot About Dre” and“Let’s Get High." 

Kendrick’s TPAB, then, is an album that falls into the latter category. It has an incredibly unified sound, even though there are many different producers on it. For example, we have Pharrell, Flyin Lotus, and Boi-1da as credited producers. But it’s actually Sounwave who appears the most on tracks, a total of 7 times. But every track except 1 has more than 1 producer listed in the credits on Wikipedia. In fact, “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” has a grand total of 4 producers listed! But somehow, overall, Kendrick managed to pick beats that all sound related. Jay-Z probably has one of the best ears for a beat in the game — discovering Kanye, discovering 9th Wonder — but Kendrick is right behind him. The difference is Jay-Z follows the sound of his time, while Kendrick, like Kanye,is currently defining it. What I think is interesting about Kendrick’s own unique type of unification is that it doesn’t consist primarily of subgenres of rap, or the sounds of his songs; it actually consists of strictly musical aspects, like harmony. For instance, there are tons of jazzy chords on “For Free?”.

On this song, normal, triadic (3-note) chords are replaced and extended to have lots of notes (into chords that include 4 or even 5 notes.) These extended, spacy chords are reflected all over the album, as on“Institutionalized,” or the opening of “Hood Politics.” Jazz has been in rap for a while, as on Tribe Called Quest’s songs. But those were always samples. TPAB sometimes comes across as a live performance of a jazz quartet where the lead singer just happens to be rapping. But, of course, most of those aesthetic choices were made by session musicians, not Kendrick himself, who almost definitely doesn’t know any harmonic music theory. In this way, then, Kendrick shows the ability to guide his unofficial artistic collective as well as RZA did Wu-Tang, or Dr. Dre did Aftermath records. RZA coached all 9 members of his clan to huge success, making all of their beats and business decisions (such as what label each group member, like Raekwon, would sign with.) Dr. Dre, meanwhile, also obviously made beats for Snoop Dogg, N.W.A., and others, but he also launched Aftermath Records, which directly or indirectly discovered Eminem, 50 Cent, and Game. Kendrick, in picking unified beats and session musicians that worked great together, displays the same kind of foresight and genius. 

I’ve always thought it interesting that rap is almost inherently a collaborative process. No one blinks twice when a producer makes a beat and then gives it to a rapper, with almost no interaction or aesthetic discussion between the two. In fact, 50 Cent wrote the raps for “In Da Club” without ever having heard the beat. This would make almost no sense in other arts, or musical arts. For instance, classical composers write their own complete music, and then give it to musicians to play. Kendrick seems to be an excellent mediator of this relationship. In fact, I wanted to pitch an article to one of my freelance media outlets, WatchLoud or Pigeons and Planes, that would be a complete review of To Pimp A Butterfly without ever mentioning Kendrick Lamar once. That’s how essential part I think the session musicians and unheralded or unnamed contributors are to this project. 

As for Kendrick’s rap itself, this album continues a general theme in Kendrick’s music. Since Section.80, and down through good kid, m.A.A.d city on to To Pimp A Butterfly, Kendrick has slowly simplified his technical style. Since “Rigamortis” on Section.80, Kendrick hasn’t ever utilized a musical motive to the same complex, sophisticated extent, an idea that I covered for Pigeons and Planes here. But, somehow, this doesn’t really matter to me. That’s because his poetic message is so strong. There are some interesting musical aspects to it though. 

But he does do something melodically (strictly musically) that I’ve only heard once before, from Pharoahe Monch. I want to compare Kendrick’s own rap verses and the variations form in classical music. In classical music, variations is a form where a composer takes a small idea and creates a series of somewhat different sections of music that places that small idea in extremely different contexts. The idea is to show that the composer can come up with a great melodic idea that is flexible and inventive enough to appear in tons of different places, like an imitative canon, or a dance. Such an example is the “Variations On A Shaker Melody” form Aaron Copeland’s masterful 1944 piece “Appalachian Spring,” which you can hear here. 

If you listen closely, you can tell that sometimes the opening musical idea is played quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes in by one group of instruments, sometimes by another, and so on. In this way, the entire piece is unified, and Copeland displays his versatility and originality. 

I noticed on TPAB that Kendrick does something similar. On the opening song “Wesley’s Theory”, he raps these words: 

What you want? 
You a house or a car?
Forty acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?
Anythin', see, my name is Uncle Sam, I'm your dog
Motherfucker, you can live at the mall… 

This song “Wesley’s Theory” has a musical speed of 120 Beats Per Minute (BPM.) This speed is quite fast for a rap song. 

Later on in the album, on the song “Alright”, Kendrick actually raps an extremely, unmistakably similar verse: 

“What you want, you a house, you a car?
40 acres and a mule, a piano, a guitar?
Anything, see my name is Lucy, I'm your dog
Motherfucker, you can live at the mall…” 

But the speed of “Alright” is actually much slower than when that same exact verse is rapped on “Wesley’s Theory.” The speed of “Alright” is 56 BPM, much less than the 112 BPM of “Alright.” It’s also important to mention that the musical rhythms from one song to the next on those bars are also the same, allowing the astute listener to recognize them as the same melodic idea. In this way, then — by placing the same melodic idea in a new musical context — Kendrick is engaging with the variations form in a way that rappers often don’t. 

So, yes. That whole 1500 page article is actually only a small, small part of why I think To Pimp A Butterflyis the greatest rap album of all time.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Godïus R.ichard Oasis & Cartier Jones Interview

I don't often push music, so if I'm endorsing a message like this, then you know it's gotta be some slick shit.

That's exactly what we're about to get from Godïus R.ichard Oasis & Cartier Jones, who are about to come out with a full album, previewed in a video planned to drop any day now. If you're into rappers who are a little more out there than most, like OutKast or Chance The Rapper, you'll definitely dig what these guys are coming up with.

To get properly introduced to these 2 Chicago rappers, just check out the interview below.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Paul Edwards Interview, Part 2

This is part 2 of an ongoing series of interviews with "How To Rap" author Paul Edwards. You can see part 1 here.


1- What formal training or education do you have in anything that
might help you analyze or talk about rap in an in-depth manner? For
example, are you a rapper, do you have a degree in
music/African-American studies/literature/journalism, etc?

As far as my academic background, I have a masters degree in
Postmodernism, Literature, and Contemporary Culture and a BA in
English literature, both from Royal Holloway, University of London.
With both of those I wrote the final dissertations on hip-hop music
and I also worked hip-hop into many of the other essays as well. My
lecturers were really open to me studying hip-hop and gave me a lot of
support, I think it helped they were big music fans and were like,
“yeah, of course you can study The Chronic!”

Then musically, I play the Arabic drum, the doumbek—I grew up in the
Middle East and so I heard a lot of that kind of music, some of it is
very percussion heavy. So learning the rhythms for that really
influenced my interest in the rhythmic aspects of rapping. I also
always loved making beats, usually using step sequencer types of
programs, where the percussion notes are laid out visually in a grid,
so that fed into how I looked at rapping as well.

Also most of the best education came from interviewing so many rappers
directly, because you get to hear so much first hand information from
the actual people who developed the art form. You get to know which
rappers everyone learned from and what they listened to pick up the

2- Kool G Rap and Gift Of Gab both wrote forewords for these 2 books.
How did those collaborations come together?

I had already interviewed them so I was already in contact with them
and their management, so when it came time to get forewords I reached
out to them again—it was really about finding a good fit. I felt like
Kool G Rap was perfect for the first book, as he's a very technically
adept MC and a true pioneer and Gift of Gab fit the second book, as he
has such an incredible range of flows and deliveries.

3- Consider a hypothetical but logical extension of the project found
in these 2 books. If there was a complete school, with classes and
curriculum and everything, where people learned “how to rap”, what do
you think it would look like? Is it even possible?

Going towards that, there are already rapping courses that the How to
Rap books are on, in different universities—I've seen the books pop up
on a number of reading lists. For example there is one at University
of California, Berkeley called "Tupac, The Evolution of Hip Hop, and
How to Rap" where they write a "two verse rap song" by the end of it
and “Words, Beats, & Life” also have MCing classes using How to Rap – ...and

University of North Carolina have their “Next Level” program where
they travel around teaching rapping and DJing and dance, I'm not sure
if they use books for doing that.

As far as a complete school specifically set up to teach just rapping,
I'm not sure if that's entirely feasible, but then again there is
Scratch DJ Academy for DJs, so it's a possibility. As far as the
actual classes, I would assume it would be split up in terms of
content, flow, and delivery, with different specialists teaching those
parts and at some stage there would be drills and exercises, the same
as learning anything. Like first you learn the theory behind
everything, then you move onto the practical stuff where you write a
lot of metaphors or story raps, or on the flow side you learn how to
do triplets and practice them over and over until you get to a certain
level, and then you're taught a new area to master.

4- Based on your knowledge of where rap — strictly rap, not its beats
or anything — has come from, can you make any guesses or informed
conjectures about where it might go?

I would hope eventually we would get some kind of “prog-hop” type of
thing, like how rock went through a prog-rock phase, with lots of
different time signatures, weird structures, intricate back-and-forth
vocals, maybe really off-the-wall stylistic raps that are the
equivalent of experimental guitar solos, maybe with distortion and
wild effects on the vocals and that kind of thing. I think that would
bring us some really interesting music. It would probably come to a
natural end as well once it had exhausted itself, just like prog-rock
did, but it would be great phase to go through just to see what
hip-hop would sound like in that framework.

Those things have been done briefly in little bursts here and there by
groups like Latyrx doing two verses at the same time that interacted
in certain places and great back-and-forth sections, Blackalicious
with tracks like “Chemical Calisthenics” with rapping that followed
all the changes in the beat, the Beastie Boys had “B-Boy
Bouillabaisse” with an unusual structure and they used distortion on
their voices on other tracks, and Freestyle Fellowship had tracks with
melodic jazz scatting type of things going on. But I'd like to see
that sort of thing become a full sub-genre with lots of artists all
pushing the boundaries like crazy for a while.

Then maybe that would be followed by the equivalent of punk, where it
would all get stripped back down to just huge drums and raw distorted
sounds, a bit like early Run-DMC tracks. That would be an interesting
movement to see as well.

Now that's where I hope it will go at some point, but being more
realistic I think it's likely to stay as it is. And that's staying
reliant on successful hit formulas, where the rapping is simpler so
that the vast majority of people can understand it, with keyboardy
club beats that you can dance to, and either R&B choruses or simple
chanted catchy choruses taking up most of the song. That's the hit
formula that brings in the money and so I think few people are willing
to divert from that formula at the moment.

5- If there was one thing about rap as a genre that you could change,
what would it be?

I would bring back sampling in a big way. Breaks and samples are where
the music came from and in the late 80s and early 90s the boundaries
were really pushed with sampling as an art form, and it resulted in
hip-hop's “golden age” with all types of different styles and sounds
and influences. Unfortunately that ended when more and more lawsuits
started popping up around sampling and it became more popular for
people to just sample really obvious hit records instead of creating
innovative sound collages.

And I think those beats with a lot of sampling brought the best out of
the MCs as well because the beats were more organic and had a more
textured, layered sound, so it inspired the MCs to make
timeless-sounding records. It also meant that people brought in
samples from jazz, blues, rock, classical, dance, country, pretty muc

everything you can think of, and that made hip-hop from the golden age
a lot more varied and colorful.

6- Rap, as an art form, is treated with less respect by the media and
society at large than other musics. For instance, no rap artist is
ranked higher than 44th on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the “100
Greatest Artists Of All Time”:

Furthermore, rap lyrics have been admitted as evidence in criminal trials:

while violent rock lyrics are not.

Also, President Obama was criticized by some in the media:

when he invited Chicago rapper Common to the White House in 2011. The
administration was attacked by critics for supporting Common, a
supposedly “controversial” and “vile” rapper, even though Common’s
real message at the small concert was specifically against violence,
as he performed such lyrics as, “Destiny’s children — survivors,
soldiers — in front of buildings, their eyes look older / It’s hard to
see blessings in a violent culture.” There was little similar protest
against past White House guests like musician James Brown in 2001,
who, unlike Common, has been convicted of multiple crimes that
involved drugs, weapons, and domestic violence.

Finally, a 2013 article by Juan William:

decries the supposed differences between African-American music made
at the time of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have A Dream Speech”
in Washington, D.C., and the music supposedly made by African
Americans today. As he writes, “The emotional uplift of the monumental
march is a universe of time away from today’s degrading rap music —
filled with the n-word, bitches, and ‘hoes’ [sic] — that confuses and
depresses race relations in America now.” While focusing on one 2013
song from a rapper he criticizes by name, Jay-Z, Williams ignores
other empowering songs by the same artist.

Why do you think there is this difference in how rap is treated, when
compared to other types of music?

That's an interesting question, but for me personally, I try to give
as little time and thought as possible to anything to do with how
outsiders see hip-hop. And by “outsiders” I mean anyone who doesn't
already “get” and appreciate hip-hop or isn't willing to try to
appreciate it. It's tempting for me to write loads of words trying to
rebuff every criticism every person has of hip-hop and to try to
understand why people might treat it differently to other types of
music, and I did briefly deal with some of the common criticisms of
hip-hop in “The Concise Guide to Hip-Hop Music,” because that book
called for a little of that.

But I honestly find that time is much better spent simply studying and
preserving hip-hop and not getting drawn into the agendas of
critics—critics who usually aren't willing to take the time to
understand hip-hop even if you present them with perfect arguments. I
do my work and research for people who already love hip-hop and
respect it and people who genuinely want to know more about it. I find
it's much more rewarding giving people information they appreciate,
rather than trying to change the minds of people who already made up
their minds about hip-hop a long time ago.

I think a bigger problem than outsiders criticizing hip-hop is the
problem of actual hip-hop fans not knowing that much about hip-hop.
There are millions of hip-hop fans out there and ideally they should
all know who Melle Mel is and why he is important and who Kool Moe Dee
is and the sort of rapping techniques he pioneered. They should also
know how different types of beats are made and the difference between
a SP-1200 and an MPC 60. I think this should be basic, entry-level
stuff that all hip-hop fans know, but sadly it's not at the moment.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Rap Music Analysis Interview - Paul Edwards

Paul Edwards is a rap journalist who wrote 2 books, called "How To Rap: The Art and Science Of The Hip-Hop Emcee" and "How To Rap 2: Advanced Techniques And Delivery." Rather than Mr. Edwards himself telling you "how to rap," he's simply organized some interviews he's done in the past with great rappers like dead prez under different headings. He has chapters on writing better stories, dealing with writer's block, and stuff like that.

For a long time, I've wanted to interview Mr. Edwards, since so many of our interests seem to dovetail nicely. The other day, I got that chance. Here is just the first round of questions I've been holding onto for the longest time, and finally got to ask. Enjoy!




The Composers Corner: Why did you start out notating rapper’s words the way you did, with
the flow diagram? Did rappers do this on their own? Did you find it
out from the work of others? Did you come up with it on your own?

Paul Edwards: It was based on what the rappers did – the idea was to mimic their
systems as closely as possible. Part of that was so that it's “true”
to how it's done by the actual artists, but also because their systems
usually focus on the most important things in rapping, the things you
really need to be able to show clearly.

So for example, most wrote out their lyrics with one line equal to one
bar – that kind of layout makes it easier to plan out where your
rhymes are falling within each bar, whether they're on the 1 beat or
the 3 beat or the off-beat of the 4 beat, etc. And rhyme placement
makes a massive difference in how the rap will sound, so it's
important to be able to “see” it on paper. Another example is showing
where a rest falls on one of the beats in bar – in a lot of battle
rapping styles, it's crucial to include a rest on a beat after a
punchline as it gives the line so much more emphasis.

So that went hand-in-hand – notating it how the rappers notated raps
themselves and focusing on the things that were important in rapping
(as opposed to focusing on things that are important in poetry or
other music genres, for example). If it was a system that didn't show
those things or focused on things that weren't important in rapping,
then it would make things a lot more difficult for the reader.

I think it was also a key thing to avoid showing things that were not
needed as well, things that might “get in the way” of seeing the flow
clearly. You needed to be able to “read” the flow in real time and rap
along with it, just as the rappers did. So it had to be detailed
enough to replicate the flow accurately, but not so specific that it
was impossible to follow while you're recording.

Also I have to give a shout out to academic author Adam Krims (RIP)
who was a pioneer in this area – he had a system with crosses and beat
numbers along the top of a chart. I'm not sure if he got that idea
direct from rappers as well, but it's a logical way to do it and
shares some similarities with the way I do it.

The Composer's Corner: Many people do great things, whether in sports, music, politics,
whatever, but they can’t explain why they’re good at it, or what
they’re trying to do, maybe. Your book, whether inadvertently or not,
really acts as a compendium of how rappers think of themselves as
rappers as well. What rapper struck you as being particularly
self-aware and conscious as an artist, who truly understood everything
that they were doing? That is, which rapper could explain not only
that what they were doing was great, but also why it was great?

Paul Edwards: Well, it's tempting to answer that question by pointing to the rappers
who were able to explain the complexity of the “obvious” stuff in a
clear way. So for example, I think the people who are known as being
really “lyrical” had a lot more awareness of things like wordplay and
metaphors, and also putting rhyme schemes together and creating
rhythms, and they could talk at length about those kinds of things. So
Pharoahe Monch, Kool G Rap, Big Daddy Kane, Crooked I, Tech N9ne,
Royce Da 5'9” – those kinds of rappers where you can tell they sit
down and get really deep with the content and get really technical
with the flow. They knew a lot more about literary devices and rhymes
and rhythms – you don't even have to ask in some cases, someone like G
Rap will bring up multisyllabic rhymes himself and start making some
up as examples.

But then I think that's the easy way to answer that question, because
things like clever content and complex rhyme schemes are what a lot of
hip-hop fans think of as being “lyrical” and “good,” but I think
that's partly just because they're easier to talk about and identify,
so it's easier to judge a rapper on those things. Content is the
easiest thing to talk about, so it gets the most attention, and then
after that are rhyme schemes, as they're relatively easy to talk about
once you move past talking about content. The things that are much
harder to describe are things like vocal delivery and expressing
personality and overall “feel” through the delivery.

So with rappers who are really good with vocal delivery and expressing
their personality through their voice, I think they're just as aware
of what they're doing as the guys I previously mentioned, but it's
harder to talk about vocal delivery in technical detail, so the
conversation and explanations around it isn't as “precise.”

People like Shock G, B-Real, Del the Funky Homosapien, Devin the Dude,
and the guys from The Pharcyde all had a lot to say about vocal
delivery and knew how important that was to their style, but there
isn't that much widely used or known terminology to really get into
everything they're doing with their voices. They all knew that
bringing their fun personalities to the table and loosening up and
expressing all that character through their voices was what made them
great, but it comes out more as “I have a lot of fun when I'm
recording,” rather than more precise like “I try to make every word in
the bar rhyme and use the same compound rhyme scheme for the whole

Then for some it's really more of a feeling, like “it feels good to
approach the track like this,” so those types of rappers tended to be
vaguer and they talked about bringing a certain “feel” to the track –
not really thinking about it too much, just letting it happen. And
that's exactly what fans of those types of rappers like about them
usually, they're not ultra-rhymey or doing crazy fast rhythms or
anything like that, they sink casually into the music and play around
on the beat in a free kind of way. In those cases, some rappers
actually said to me, “don't make me think about it too much, because
then I might not be able to do it again in the future!” It's like the
analysis can be detrimental for some artists, especially if they have
a simpler style and it's more of a feel thing.

So I think pretty much all the rappers were aware of what made them
great and could express it, it's just that some of the things that
make someone great are harder to put into precise language than other

The Composer's Corner: What have you been up to since How To Rap 2? Will there by a third?
Why or why not?

Paul Edwards: Right after “How To Rap 2” I got a deal to do “The Concise Guide to
Hip-Hop Music” with St. Martin's Press. That book just came out, it
was released in February this year, and so writing that and preparing
for its release was what I did between “How To Rap 2” and now.

That's a book I thought was really important to do, as often people
know some hip-hop knowledge here and there, but they don't have an
overall framework of how things developed and how they fit together –
they don't have a fundamental template to work from basically. I
wanted to give people that in a clear, brief way, like what things
hip-hop fans listen for and how listening to hip-hop is different from
listening to other music genres. I also look at how rapping and
beatmaking developed and things like “hip-hop instruments” (different
types of samplers, etc.) as well as debunking some popular myths along
the way. It's written a bit differently from How To Rap, because with
the How To Rap books those are 100% my own interviews, while with this
new one I used a mix of my own interviews and quoting existing

I'm not sure at the moment if there will be a How To Rap 3, though
it's possible. There's plenty of stuff left to cover and more info
from the same set of interviews that hasn't been used yet, but I also
have some other book ideas that I would like to do first, before
thinking about a potential How To Rap 3.

If I do another one, it'll probably go in depth in areas that really
aren't covered that much, things I think are really interesting and
are things that would push hip-hop forward. Areas where there is still
a lot of room for innovation that haven't been fully explored yet.

The Composer's Corner: It’s occurred to me that listeners know how they themselves
understand and relate to rap music, and they obviously know that
rappers understand and relate to rap music in some way, but most
listeners, not being very close to the rappers themselves, haven’t
ever really thought of just how and in what ways rappers relate to
their art form. That’s why the ability of Jay-Z or Lil Wayne or
Notorious BIG to write rhymes without paper, or for Kendrick to rap
“Rigamortus” on just the 3rd take, is so popular and incomprehensible.
In all of your interviews, what have you learned about how rappers
think of rap?

Paul Edwards: I think it's different from rapper to rapper – there are definitely
some who like to keep a kind of secrecy around it or try to
mythologize it, because it makes them seem more impressive. If it's
seen as some kind of magic power or where you write songs in 30
seconds and things like that, it makes it all seem more mysterious to
people who don't know how it's done.

But the rappers who really open up about how they do it, they talk
about it in a very matter-of-fact way, as one rapper described it to
me: “a bunch of grown men and women just sitting around writing some
raps.” They usually see themselves simply as writers and vocalists.

The unusual thing with rapping is that most rappers have learned
independently from each other, not really knowing how other rappers do
it. In contrast, something like playing the guitar doesn't have that
kind of disconnect from other guitarists – you know when you begin
playing how most other people have done it, either through learning
chords from a book or getting lessons with a guitar teacher most of
the time. No one really tries to figure out the guitar and all the
chord combinations from scratch, or just from listening to records
with guitarists on them.

So what was funny was often at the end of the interviews, the rappers
would ask me what other rappers did, especially when they heard who I
had interviewed already. They were interested to know how other
rappers were doing it and if they were doing something different or
similar to the “rest of the crowd” or if there were any weird methods
they hadn't heard of before.

The Composer's Corner: As someone who has interviewed tons of rappers, what advice would
you give to a music journalist who wants to get better at interviewing

Paul Edwards: I think it really depends what you're interviewing them for – doing it
for a book is probably a lot different than doing it for a magazine or
website, especially if it's a book where you're using bits and pieces
rather than printing the entire interview in the order it happened.
With my books, I had very specific information I wanted to find out,
so I put together questions that would hopefully draw out the kind of
info I needed.

As I was doing the interviews and hearing the answers I was thinking
things like, “ok, that sentence he just said will fit over there to
help explain that technique, but maybe try to get a bit more info on
this other specific thing, as I know I need more quotes for this
section”... it's like you're partially piecing together the book as
you're interviewing. And with a book, you're normally doing it all on
one subject, so you don't really want to go off on any big tangents,
as interesting as they might seem at the time.

While for a website or magazine or a radio interview, it can really go
anywhere and it usually needs to be interesting just as a conversation
all the way through, because people are going to read or listen to the
whole thing in the order it happened. So for me personally, it helped
to ask specific questions that drew out answers that would fit in
certain sections of the books and I had to really stay on topic as
much as possible. But that kind of advice probably won't help someone
doing a “regular” interview, because it's so different.

Though the one big piece of advice that probably applies across the
board is to make sure your recording set up is good if it's a phone
interview or in person, as you don't want to lose all the answers! I
had two tape recorders set up to my phone back when I did my
interviews, where one of them was a backup.

The Composer's Corner: Was there one rapper you really wanted to ask these questions but
never got a chance to? Who would it be?

Paul Edwards: Oh man, there were lots, particularly MCs who are no longer alive.
Those are the ones where in hindsight there was only a narrow window
for journalists and historians to interview them and preserve their
methodologies, so it's a shame from a historical perspective that that
info hasn't been documented in some cases. For example, interviewing
Big Pun would have been great, he was really the next MC to really go
all out with that compound rhyme style after Kool G Rap did it, and of
course Big L as well, it would have been great to ask him about
writing “Ebonics” as that's such a clever concept. Guru from Gang
Starr and Pimp C from UGK are rappers I actually tried to get hold of
at the time, but unfortunately those interviews never happened.

The Composer's Corner: What do you think of Kendrick Lamar as an MC?

Paul Edwards: I think he's a great MC, especially from a technical point of view –
his flow, content, it's all there, so it's great there is someone at
the forefront who has that ability and is taking some risks,
musically. He's not actually someone I listen to for my own enjoyment,
just because I don't really like his voice (or the different ones he
uses on different tracks), but that's a very subjective thing, whether
you like someone's voice or not.

Also the beats really have to be in a style I like for me to enjoy the
music, even if the rapper is incredible. I'm a big fan of raw, sampled
beats with a lot of texture and grit, so like Sir Jinx in the early
90s, DJ Muggs on the first couple of Cypress Hill albums, Dr Dre on
the second NWA album, Large Pro, DJ Premier, DITC, those types of
beats, and guys who pushed sampling forward like DJ Shadow and Cut
Chemist, where they were chopping up samples and putting them in
different time signatures and things like that.

So probably with the right production he would be someone I'd listen
to a lot more, just because my taste in beats is quite different from
the ones he tends to use.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Rap Music Analysis #14 - Kendrick Lamar, "Good Kid, m.a.a.d. City"

Jean Grae endorsement! Find links to my blog on her twitter and in her bio:

If you’ve been alive recently you know that Kendrick Lamar just released his much-anticipated “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City album.” Overall I really, really liked the album, the album of the year I think. However, this is not yet another GKMC review. Instead, I want to take a look only at Kendrick’s rap, not the beats of his songs. When I say rap, I mean the words and rhythms that Kendrick speaks, and how they interact together.
            It’s my belief that, when discussing rap (which here refers to something completely different from hip-hop), we can move the discussion beyond the “Drake sucks, Eminem rules” kind. We can look at rappers and, by describing their musical and rhythmic tendencies, group them into different categories. Ultimately, who is good and who is bad will be left up to the listener, but I know what I prefer, and will offer my value judgments based on what I believe to be the core, fundamental principles underlying all good rap.
            To that end, just what are these different tendencies that we can describe? First, what differentiates rap from so many other vocal and poetic genres: their rhymes. It’s obvious that some rappers rhyme more (Eminem) and some rappers rhyme less (Drake.) By counting the number of rhymes that a rapper uses per bar, which is a musical duration of time just like a second, or an hour, we can differentiate between various rappers. Furthermore, we can describe just how these rappers use these rhymes. For instance, do they use more than one syllable? (“To waking up my throat SCRATCHY / that’s how I spit it, NASTY”, Nas, from the song “Don’t Get Carried Away”, where the capitalized words rhyme together, and each is more than one syllable long.) Just one syllable long? (“And when I leave I always come right back HERE / The young spitter that everybody in rap FEAR”, Drake, Successful) Are the rhyme sounds always repeated in the same order? (“Way past the MINIMUM, entering miLLENIUM” – Mos Def, RE: DEFinition, where the vowel sounds of –“ih”, “uh”, and “uh” are in the same order) Are they mixed up? (“His palms are sweaty / knees week, arms are heavy / there’s vomit on his sweater already” – Eminem, Lose Yourself, where the “ah” and “ee” vowel sounds occur in different orders, as indicated by the bold and italics.)? Do they occur in the same place in the musical bar, which is again, a duration of time?
            To understand this, we need to know what a bar is. Contrary to what you’ve heard, reading music rhythm is not difficult. It works like this: every piece of music has a time signature. It is expressed as one number over the other, but it is not a fraction. The top number if how many beats there are to a bar, and the bottom number is what note duration (again, a measurement of musical time) gets the beat. For instance, in a time signature of 6/8, there are 6 8th notes to a bar, and the 8th note gets the beat. In 3/2, there are 3 half notes to a bar, and the half-note gets the beat. Almost all rap is in 4/4. This means that there are 4 quarter notes to a bar, and the quarter note gets the bar. Thus, the bar, when represented on paper in notation, looks like this:

       A beat is another way we organize music. When we say a note gets the beat, it means it is emphasized when it’s played. If you look at the picture, you’ll see those 4 quarter note rests, the squiggly things. You’ll also notice that some beats are marked strong, and some are marked weak. This is another way we organize music. Within this 4/4 bar is where rappers place their words/notes. Every rapper’s words can be represented in this bar with the correct note values. And, in a 4/4 song, every musical bar is identical to the next one in terms of this structure. Thus, we can compare whether a rapper keeps his rhymes in the same place, or in different places.
            Watch this video as I listen to Kendrick’s “m.a.a.d. City” song to see how I count the beat.

            You’ll notice that all of my table taps are equally spaced out. When I tap slightly to the left, that means it is beat 1 and the beginning of the bar. I am counting the beat. They are informed by where the bass kick (low drum sound) and snare sound (high cracking drum sound) are. We can listen for where a rapper’s rhymes sound in relation to these to see whether a rapper places his rhymes in the same place in the bar, or in different places.
            In 2pac’s “Changes”, he raps, “I wake up every morning and I ASK myself / Is life worth living, should I BLAST myself” You’ll notice that, if you tap like how I was before, the rhyme “ask” with “blast” both land on beat 4, where the high drum sound is. This means that 2pac has kept the rhyme in the same place in the bar.
            Not all rappers do this. In Lauryn Hill’s rap on the Fugees’ song “Ready Or Not”, she places them in different places. (Lauryn’s amazing rap is often overlooked because she was such a good singer, and people think of her as a singer first.) For instance, if you count the beat evenly. She raps, “Bless YOU, if YOU represent the FU / but I hex YOU with some witches BREW if YOU DOO DOO” The first “you” is on beat 2, “fu” is on beat 4, and “brew” is on beat 3. This is another way to classify rappers.
            Another way is whether their rhymes fall at the end of lines, which is basically a sentence, or inside the line. When Young Buck raps, “I CAME in the GAME knowing niggas go’n hate me”, the rhymes come before the end of the sentence, and so are called internal rhymes. Again, not all rappers do this. Lil Wayne, on “Walk In”, raps, “Don’t mean to SPOOK YOU / this is New Orleans, so my queens do VOO DOO”, the rhymes are at the end of the sentences. These are called end rhymes. There are even more ways to classify rhymes, such as mosaic rhymes (when multiple syllables are rhymed but are made up of more than one word), but this is enough for now.
            One final, excellent way to classify rappers is by the nature of where they place their sentences in the bar. The sentences can either line up completely with the bar, cross the bar line, or, as is usually the case, some mix between them. For instance, in “Hypnotize”, Notorious raps, “Girls walk to us, want to do us / screw us/ who us / yeah, Poppa and Puff”, the slashes separate the different sentences. You’ll notice that they are all pretty short, and fall inside the 4/4 bar if you look at the music, where sentences are indicated by the curved lines called slurs. Or, they can line up with the bar. When Kanye raps, “Somebody tell these niggas who Kanye West is”, you’ll notice that it falls across those 4 beats of the bar, with the strong beats 1 and 3 on the bass kicks and the weak beats on beats 2 and 4.
            Now, using these different systems – the nature of their rhymes (how many syllables, inside or at the end of sentences, in the same order or mixed up, in different places or the same in the bar) and the rhythmic placement of their sentences, we can classify different rappers. As a quick summary of different rappers’ flows, you can say this:

1.     Eminem, while skilled with one-syllable or multisyllabic rhymes in different places in the bar, largely favors complex multisyllabic rhymes in the same order but in different places in the bar. However, his command of all different techniques of rap is formidable, and doesn’t really have any weaknesses. He is in a class alone, possibly with one other rapper: Nas.
2.     Kanye West usually has one-syllable end rhymes in sentences that usually fit completely by the bar. He relies on puns rather than complex musical raps in order to make his rhymes interesting
3.     Nas is similar to Eminem, but favors less rhymes, although this is done consciously; his rhyme skills are likewise in a class of their own. His rap flows more, although this is not a judgment call at all. Like Eminem, he uses sentences of varying length and structuring in order to vary his rhymes.
4.     2pac’s flow is hard-hitting. He will fit many rhymes in lines usually organized by the bar without any consideration for how quickly they come; he goes 100% all the time. He couples this with amazing storytelling abilities in order to be correctly considered one of the greatest of all time.
5.     Lil Wayne, at his best, usually fits multisyllable rhymes at the end of lines that equally fall within the bar or not. However, he has a bad tendency of repeating certain words that make his flow stop because he doesn’t rhyme. His flow is also very syncopated, meaning he places a lot of notes between the beats of the 4/4 bar.

Thus, you can use this system to classify any kind of rapper. I could go on forever like this, but these quick summaries are enough. Besides, I have more in-depth analysis of these rappers, including a nas post and an Eminem post. But I originally started this article as a way to describe Kendrick’s flow on “Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City.”, so let’s get there.
            I will be making summarizing remarks about Kendrick’s flow in general on the album, but examining more in-depth the 2 songs that seem designed to showcase Kendrick’s sick rap skills. These are “Backseat Freestyle” and “M.A.A.D. City”.
            First, “Backseat Freestyle.” Kendrick starts with a 4-bar hook instead of a verse. He fits sentences organized completely by the bar, starting at the bar’s start and ending at the bars end, and fits short yet multisyllabic rhymes at the end of them. This is pretty standard for a hook; it makes it easy to remember and rap along to. Take a look at the sheet music to see this:

In the first verse, though, Kendrick gets to why the hype was so crazy for him and this album. He starts off by pacing his rhymes: he doesn’t drop them all at once, because to come on so strong means any effect of a climax that should come at the end of the song (as all good musical pieces do) would be very weakened. So he starts off slow, rhyming “amazing” with “matrix.” However, he immediately jumps in: “My MIND is living on cloud NINE and this NINE is never on VACATION”, where vacation rhymes with “matrix” in the preceding line. So, using the organizing principles described above, we can say the following: Kendrick here uses mostly few-syllables internal and external rhymes in different rhythmic positions in relatively long sentences that are largely organized by the bar line. This is a very good general remark to make about Kendrick’s flow in general, but of course it is much more detailed than that.
            Next, Kendrick gets to another hallmark of his style. Often, he fits a number of syllables other than 4 to a beat. Just as the bar is divided into 4 beats, each beat can be divided into 4 16th notes (called quadruplets), which is what happens in 4/4 music. However, that is not to say you can’t divide it in other ways, such as by fitting 5 sixteenth notes (“quintuplets”) or 6 sixteenth notes (“sextuplets”). This means that more notes are being fitted in the same amount of musical space, the beat, so they sound faster. As you can see from the sheet music here:
On the “And I pray”, he fits 3 sixteenth notes (“triplets”) where usually only 2 goes, such as for the words “lobby”, which are on 2 sixteenth notes. He does this again later on in the bar when he repeats “and I pray.” This is what that bracketed 3 means above the notes. Throughout the rest of the bar, Kendrick continues all of these tendencies we just described, such as accenting interesting words in the sentence (like “up”, or the “-ping” of “popping”), and using internal and end multisyllable rhymes. The same can be said for the 2nd verse, but here the sentences largely follow the bar line. The third verse is the most interesting, though, so we will skip there.
            Here, Kendrick changes the end of the hook to make it transition flawlessly into the 3rd verse. We call this “elision” in music, where the end of one phrase is joined to the start of the next one. Notice here how Kendrick ups the musical tension by increasing the speed of his rhythms: you can see the triplets with the three above them, as well as 32nd notes (the word “mother” in the phrase “motherfucking Hit Boy beat” – the more lines, called beams, there are above a notehead means the shorter the note value is. The 16th notes have 2 beams, such as on the word “options”; the 32nd notes have 3 above them, which you can see here)
Here in the 3rd verse Kdot also increases the rate at which sentences come. We’ve been calling them “sentences”, but that isn’t really correct, because fragments (sentences with a noun but no verb) are also structural units unto themselves. For instance, when he says “Bee-otch” again and again, we hear those as separate from each other. You can see here:

That there are six fragments in a 2 bar space. This increase in their pace raises the musical tension, a very good idea to do at the end of a song. He again elides the phrase by changing the rhyme “go play” during the 2nd “Bee-otches” to rhyme with “OJ” instead of repeating “go play again.” This makes the whole verse very tightly knit and connected.             And, like any good music-maker – producer, composer, whoever – he brings the tension down at the end of the song to resolve it. He shortens his multisyllabic rhymes to single-syllable ones, and increases the length of his sentences while making them fall within the bar.
            However, the song “M.A.A.D. City” is really where Kendrick puts it down, and the song that contains the best verse on the album.
            Again, he starts with a symmetrical 4 bar hook with short rhymes at the end of sentences that follow the bar line, which is kind of what a hook is supposed to be. He follows this same basic flow scheme for the start of his 1st verse: low tension with sentences following the bar lines with short end rhymes. He starts to increase the rhymes and their complexity around bar 13

Where he has multisyllabic internal rhymes to increase the tension – “WARRIORS and CONANS / hope euPHORIA can SLOW DANCE with soCIETY the DRIVER’S SEAT”, where the capitalized words or syllables all rhyme.  He keeps the sentence length and organization largely the same, however; this shows a rapper in full control of all facets in his flow. And, like any good music-maker, he will of course vary this later while playing on the expectations he has set up in the listener. Starting with “That was back when I was NINE / Joey packed the NINE / Pakistan on every porch is FINE”, you’ll notice that the length of his sentences are greatly decreased, while the rate at which they come is greatly increased. His internal rhymes, meanwhile, have continued. This reaches a critical level in the phrases, “Picking up the FUCKING PUMP / PICKING off you SUCkers, / SUCK a DICK or DIE or SUCKer PUNCH…” “Dick” and “die” are capitalized there not because they rhyme, but because they are alliterated, which I believe also stands out naturally in the listener’s ear. A similar thing happens with, “Ain’t no PEACE TREATY just PIEces, BGs up to PREAPPROVE”. Kendrick then continues to set up thematically his 3rd and final verse, which we’ll get to soon enough.
            In verse 2, after the beat flips, what do we find but our old friends the sixteenth note triplet from “Backseat Freestyle”, on the word “Cause I was.” If you aren’t understanding the sheet music, just listen for how Kendrick’s words speed up on those words. That’s basically what the music notation is describing. The same thing happens on the words “My mama’s pad.” Kendrick continues to have comparatively long sentences with single-syllable rhymes both inside and at the end of sentences in different places inside the bar – again, a very good way to summarize his flow, not that he’s one-dimensional, as we’ve seen.
            A great moment also comes at “I was straight TWEAKING / the next WEEKEND / we broke EVEN”, where Kendrick changes where an entire rhythmic phrase falls inside the bar. I won’t go too in-depth into it, because it’s kind of complex musically and more of a subject for another article, but it’s like this: look at the notes on “straight tweaking”, “next weekend”, and “broke even.” You’ll notice that, for each syllable in those 3 phrases of 3 syllables each, the first syllable gets an eighth note (one beam), followed by 2 syllables, both on 16th notes (2 beams.) We can say that a rhythmic phrase is repeated in the form of an eighth note followed by 2 16th notes for each respective phrase. What makes this so amazing is that Kendrick moves where the rhythmic phrase starts and ends over those 3 phrases. The first version of this rhythmic phrase falls right on the beat; “next weekend” starts on the 2nd sixteenth note of the beat, and “broke even” starts on the 3rd sixteenth note of the beat. This is called “metrical transference.” In any event, just compare those syllables graphically and you’ll see that, even though they sound the same, they aren’t in the same place on the paper.
            Finally, “Kendrick AKA Compton’s Human sacrifice” is probably the best line on the album. You’re a young kid, and you are your city’s HUMAN SACRIFICE? Damn dude. That’s some heavy shit.
            But the third verse is why we’re here.
            As I said before, just because a 4/4 bar divides its beats into 4 16th notes normally doesn’t mean you have to. Before, with those triplets, Kendrick split them into 3. Here, however, he does something very complex. Now, dividing 6 by 4 is relatively easy: 1.5. That means that every triplet sixteenth note we saw before is 2/3 of a quadruplet (divided into 4) sixteenth note. To count this, a performer would count 3 while counting 2, which is just like it sounds: it isn’t that hard, relative to what we’re about to find. If you look at the music

You’ll notice that the number “5” is above the notes. This means that Kendrick is fitting 5 sixteenth notes where in 4/4 there are usually only 4 sixteenth notes. This means that he divides 5 by 4, which is 1.25. Now, what are you going to do to perform this? Count by 1.25? “1.25, 2.5, 3.75, 5!” Not happening. That means it’s hard to perform this. However, Kendrick does it incredibly well, while fitting in some sextuplet sixteenth notes for good measure. The rhythm, thus, is here just crazy: just try to rap along! It’s impossible. These are very complex rhythms, WHILE telling a compelling poetic story, WHILE rapping skillfully (internal single-syllable rhymes in different rhythmic positions in sentences of all types of length and organization.) That means a rapper is at the top of his game. Let’s look more in depth.
            If you listen to this verse, you’ll notice that the length between his different phrases vary greatly, and are pauses we wouldn’t have in speaking in real life: “If I told you I killed a nigga at 16…would you believe me?...or see me to be…innocent Kendrick…you seen in the streets…with a basketball”, where the periods represent rather noticeable pauses. How did he even come up with these rhythms?  In all my listening and transcriptions, I’ve only ever seen Andre 3000 (on the song “Aquemini”) and Eminem (on “What’s the Difference”) approach the complexity of these rhythms, and those two are likewise amazing rappers.
            Listen to this verse then and listen for those pauses. Listen to how the speed and lengths of the pauses and how fast he says the words are first quick, then slow, then a little slower, then quicker then ever. He’s continually manipulating these rhythms. Then, in terms of rhymes and sentences, he uses mostly single-syllable internal rhymes in different places in the bar with longer sentences organized by the bar. Like I said, this is the best verse on the album, and firmly establishes Kendrick as a force to be reckoned with.
            How could we more generally categorize Kendrick though? Are there any similar rappers? For my money, and not just for his similar LA connections, I’d compare Kendrick to 2pac. Both have musical skills, contrary to anyone who says 2pac is famous only because he died young. If I had to make a call, I’d say Kdot is better musically. However, they both just have a knack for storytelling. 2pac’s got “Changes”, “Brenda’s Got A Baby”, “Dear Mama”, “Life Goes On,” “Unconditional Love”, and more where he just puts his heart completely in his music. Not only is he skilled musically, but he feels what he’s saying, which can’t be said for all artists. It’s the same way with Kendrick. His song “Section 80”, “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst”, “The Art Of Peer Pressure”, and others all deal with topics that other rappers just aren’t brave or courageous enough to deal with. To say you’re uncomfortable with killing in rap that’s paradoxically also gangsta is largely taboo. Just like 2pac, he broaches subjects in stories that put you in the first person that break new ground for the emotional narratives available to popular (not pop) rap music.

If you liked this analysis, check out my other ones! If you click to the top left of the navigation drop-down menu bar at the top of this page, you can find them under the "Rap Analysis" Transcriptions. The Jean Grae one describes what I call the “rhyme barrier”, while the one on Eminem's Business introduces rap phrases. For how I listen to rap music, check out my Eminem Drop The Bomb On Em. If rap production is more your thing, check out one of my two Dr. Dre analyses. For a deeper introduction to the basic concepts introduced here, such as multisyllabic rhymes and how to measure them, check out my Nas analysis.

You can find the full sheet music for the 2 songs below. Thanks for reading! And if you liked it, PLEASE tell your friends about it, post it somewhere, facebook rap forums, or something, and let me know! I'm trying to make this into some kind of job for me, write a book or something, so thanks.


Rap Music Analysis - Kool G Rap

**This is from a request I got on my weekly newsletter to analyze a certain song, "Ill Street Blues" by Kool G Rap, and so it's addressed to that person. Join the newsletter and you TOO (2) could get analysis articles whenever, wherever, on whoever!**

Hey man,

I checked out and really liked "Ill Street Blues," which you can hear here. I frankly was not expecting that, haha. Not because I have anything specifically against Kool G Rap, but because the rap that I listen to from that earlier period is very, very select. The earliest rappers I'm likely to turn on just for pleasure are Wu-Tang, 2pac, Notorious B.I.G., and Run-D.M.C. But beyond that, mostly everyone I've checked out was because I was writing a post on them and kind of had to, haha, like Rapper's Delight, by the Sugarhill Gang. I mean, that's a great, important song, but just not one I'm personally going to put on for pleasure.

I don't really like rappers who go that far back because, frankly, I think rappers have gotten better as time has gone on. Rakim might be held up as a great rapper for his innovations, but I truly believe that his innovations have been assimilated and improved on by other people. He might extend and shorten his lines in unexpected ways poetically and musically, but he was never able to put them into structures that fit as well together as those of Notorious B.I.G., like on "Hypnotize." Kool G Rap might have long, complex, multisyllabic rhymes, but I wasn't sure if he ever combined production genius with a completely novel, complex rhyme scheme like Eminem did on "Lose Yourself."

However, I really enjoyed this Kool G Rap song, which, like I said, was unexpected. On this song, though, I wasn't looking for his rhymes, which is generally the last thing I pick up on a song, but the rhythms of his words. What I enjoyed so much about his musical rhythms on this song was the one, small, but very unique/characteristic idea he kept repeating. It was honestly music to my ears — pun intended — when he started repeating the idea that he first mentions around 0:11, on the words "front of my." The important aspects of this idea are that it's 3-notes long, and faster than his other rhythms, and are triplets (which is a technical, musical term, so I won't go into it.) This 3-note and fast rhythm, which I'll call rhythm 1 just for simplicity's sake, stands out from his other rhythms, which are generally slower.

Now, let me walk you through how I heard this song. I heard this rhythm 1 idea once, and it stuck out because it was so unique from the other rhythms he was rapping. When he repeated it around 0:14, on "raggedy," I knew that something was going on. However, it was up to Kool G Rap to get the most out of this idea. At 0:15, he does rhythm 1 again, on "kickin a." Again, everything I'm quoting has 3 notes/syllables (they're the same thing,) and they're all fast rhythms.

Having mentioned rhythm 1 three times already, I was dying, dying, dying for him to mention it throughout the rest of the song. But from 0:17 to 0:34, he doesn't at all. That might not sound like a long time, but in music that's 7 bars, which is a long time in terms of musical time. At this point, I was incredibly disappointed, and thought I'd be able to dismiss KGR as just another good-but-not-great rapper. However, when he brought rhythm 1 back at around 0:35, on "thinking a-", my heart leapt for joy. He even does it again, right after, on "gotta get". I now knew this was a rapper to be reckoned with.

That's because this is clearly a musician who understands how to unify an extended musical structure, a 4-minute long song, in unique ways. His simple repetition of a unique rhythm is a great way to keep the thread of dramatic tension throughout this entire song taught. After 0:36, I'm not paying at all to the words Kool G Rap is saying, but instead listening for that unique rhythm. Every time it comes back, it's a relieving satisfaction of my musical expectations. For instance, he does it again at 0:45 and 0:55. I'll let you track down the rest of the times it occurs, because it's honestly so much fun to do so.

Thanks for passing him along!



Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Rap Music Analysis #3 - Is Nas The Best Technical Rapper Ever...By Far?

 Let’s take a look at another rap music analysis. This time we’ll be looking at Nas’ 2nd (and only verse) on one of his most recent collaborations with Dr. Dre, “Don’t Get Carried Away”  (although I believe the track is on a Busta Rhymes CD.) It contains two of my all-time favorite moments in rap music. To do this, we will use the same techniques that we did in the Game and Eminem analyses to investigate some of the same areas: for instance, where the accents in fall in the bar, and what exactly should be counted as an accent. However, the answers we get this time won’t be as clean and tidy as the ones we got in Eminem and Game. In a way, it’s fortuitous that the Game and Eminem analyses were the first ones that I did. I don’t think I could even begin to have understood Nas’ music without knowing what the Game and Eminem analysis teach me

**A quick note: towards the end of this, things get pretty complicated. But I promise, if you stick with it and work through it all (I explain it in pretty painstaking detail), it will be very, very worth it. And I've included the full sheet music of the verse at the bottom of this post, just scroll down to it if you ever need to clarify something for yourself that I make reference to.

Nas begins the verse with the first of the two favorite moments in rap music of mine that are in this song. Right off the bat, Nas utilizes a certain type of accent that we saw in the Eminem analysis: assonance. That is, the repetition of a vowel sound will cause a certain note/word to stick out in the listener’s ear. Here, it is starts with the middle syllable “nig“ on the first beat and is then reflected in the same place on beat 2 (that is, right on the beat): “is”. Next, Nas begins his first extended poetic grouping: harder / smarter / martyr. A solid, fairly complex rhyme to execute (sidebar: how hard or unique it is of a rhyme that a rapper uses should also be considered when assessing how good they are. For instance, Em did accent a single syllable more than once a beat in the last verse we took a look at, in “Business”, but let’s be honest: he was very smart in his choice of the syllable he did accent so much. That syllable is “ee”. There are TONS of words that have an “ee” sound. Just sayin’.). But the rhyme has nothing to do with one of my favorite rap moments of all time.

But first, let’s do a quick summary of our discussion of accent so far. (I strongly encourage you, if you haven’t read the Game or Eminem articles yet, to go back and read them now. I do my best to catch you up on it as we go along, but I explain these things more in-depth in the other articles.) So far, we’ve identified different levels of accent. (Accent can of course first be defined as emphasis on a musical note.) First, there is the “metrical” level of accent. This metrical level of accent is the accent that the music’s time signature gives to the bar. In most rap, which is in 4/4 (meaning that there are 4 quarter notes to a bar), that means that the accents of the bar, on beats 1, 2, 3, and 4, respectively, will be the following: 1 (very strong) – 2 (weak) – 3 (also strong, just less so) – 4 (weak). The musical space in between these beats then varies in their amount of syncopation. (This fact we saw was important in the Game analysis, when we saw that his variation of the accent between his first 8 bars, when it was right on the the beat, and his second 8 bars, when it was the 2nd sixteenth note, was especially felt by the listener because they contrast so greatly in how accented they feel in the musical 4/4 bar- that is, the 2nd sixteenth note is very syncopated, while the on-the-beat note has a very strong accent.)

The next level of accent is what I have termed the “poetic” level of accent. This is formerly what I’ve referred to as the accent of the rhyme (or the rhyming accent, etc.) I’ve changed to the term “poetic” because it is more all-inclusive for our purposes here of determining what notes are accented and which aren’t. We’ve seen that rhymed words have accents (for instance, from Eminem early on last time, “FREE-LY.” The capitalized syllables are accented because they rhyme.) However, also from Eminem, we see that there is another way of accenting words: that of assonance, or the repetition of a vowel sound (again early on from Eminem last time: the “see” and the “-cee” of “emcee” are accented because of assonance.)

However, it is time now that we consider a third level of accent that Nas brings to our attention: that is the level of what I call “verbal” stress. That is the accent of how people say certain words. For instance, the word “harder” has its accent on the first syllable: "harder" . (You can check for yourself the rest of the accents of these words at if you so desire. Also, I've reflected the verbal accent of words in the notation below by capitalizing the letters in the syllable that is accented whenever the verbal accent is displaced from the metrical accent.) Now, almost all of the time a rapper will always abide first by the verbal accent of the word when placing the notes in their respective places in the musical bar (from Game, 2nd bar: “chrome hy-DRAU-lics”: the capitalized syllable is on the beat and thus, it’s verbal accent matches up with the bar's metrical accent.) And when the rapper doesn’t abide by the true verbal accent of the word, he simply changes the verbal accent of the word to fit with the metrical accent: early on, from Game again, 3rd beat: “IM - pa- la”, when normally the accent of the word impala is on the second syllable: im - PA - la.

But what if a rapper were to purposefully displace the real verbal accent of the word (im – PA – la) so that it WASN’T right on the beat? Hm… this is exactly what Nas does. He lines up the verbal accent and the metrical accent exactly the first time around (e – NIG – ma: the “nig” occurs on the beat), and does the same on the next multi-syllabic word (one syllable words obviously are only one or the other, weak or strong, so we don’t consider them here): “HAR – der”: the “HAR” occurs on the beat. But with the notes of “smarter”, he doesn’t line up the verbal accent of the word (SMAR – ter) with the metrical accent of the musical bar, which occurs on the syllable “-ter” of “smarter”. Game and Eminem never did this. Nas does it again in the next beat, when he says “MAR – tyr.” To align the verbal accent of the word with the metrical accent of the bar he would have had to have said “mar – TYR.” Now, pronounce that to yourself. It sounds very, very different from how the word should be said, and seems very awkward once it is pointed out. But Nas does this twice, and when you listen for it, it throws the cumulative level of all the accents WAY out of whack. A huge level of contrast is created by a strong verbal accent (SMAR – ter, MAR – tyr) being displaced from a strong metrical accent (remember, that 4th sixteenth note of a bar feels very syncopated metrically), and is so unexpected but also awesome-sounding that we finally have arrived at one of my favorite moments of rap music. Just listen for it a couple times over and over again. Again, we never saw this kind of thing from Eminem and Game, who would have changed the verbal accent of the word to align with the metrical verbal accent: smar – TER, mar – TYR, which would have been very awkward. (And during all of this, at the poetic level of accent – rhymes, assonance, and other types that we will identify – all of the words are rhyming: harder, smarter, martyr.) Nas continues to do this throughout these first 3, through-composed bars: the verbal accent of the word “interest” (“INTR-rist”) does not line up with the metrical accent of the musical bar (which matches up with the –rist of int’rist.) Also, the verbal accent of “catchy” (CA-tchy) does not line up with the metrical accent. (Although, just as an example, Nas does change the verbal accent of one of the words in these bars to match the metrical accent: for “godfather”, he says “god - FA –ther”, although this sounds much less awkward, due to the fact that he divides this compound word along it’s component elements: “god” and “father.”)

Now, let’s turn to another way of analysis of a rapper’s flow that we used in our last two analyses, the area of phrasing. Take a look at Nas’ first 3 bars, and tell me if you can find any phrases, that is, small rhymthic groupings that are repeated over and over to give a verse structure, like that of


or Game’s:

Take a look.


Exactly. And here, we get to a great reason for why I consider Nas one of the greatest rappers of all time, and possibly the greatest technical rapper ever. Nas is considered so complex because he greatly undermines with his rapping what I’ve heard termed in pop music the “tyranny of four.” Think about it. How many beats are there in a bar? 4. How is a beat divided? By 2 (and 2 x 2 = 4) – quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, etc. How many bars are structures of a pop music almost always (99% of the time probably)? 16 or 8 (or divisions of 4 within these, such as 8, 12, 20, 24, 28, etc.) It gets very tiring when you notice it after a while. This is why many classical listeners cannot stand to listen to pop music: everything is repeated over and over in multiples of 4, but classical composers are always changing up the structure of the bar and phrases. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if a rapper didn’t abide by these rules?

And that’s what Nas does. He doesn’t abide by the tyranny of 4 like Eminem and Game do. For instance, how many beats does Game’s phrase last? 2 (which is half of the 4 beats in a musical bar). How long is Em’s phrase (4, the whole bar, repeated 8 times, 8 = 4 x 2). But Nas doesn’t always use phrases. Sometimes, he creates the rhythm of the poetic accents of his verse all the way through, one at a time, which is why I’ve termed it “through-composed.” Look at his first 3 bars: there is no discernible phrase that is repeated over and over, like you could see in Game’s and Em’s verse. This constantly keeps the listener guessing as to what note/accent is coming where next (and is very complicated comparatively indeed.) There is no repeating of a musical idea lasting a multiple of 4 beats in a phrase repeated another multiple-of-4 number of times. And because of this, you never know where the poetic accent is coming next. You can describe it more accurately like this: when considering the accents of Game and Eminem, although you don’t know when or where the poetic accent (again, the notes with rhymes, or assonance, are accented) is coming next, you know generally where to expect it because of the nature of phrases: they are repeated over and over. So although Eminem varies the accent in his phrase, every time (except two of them) does he place the rhyme any place other than in the metrical places in the notes of the prototype phrase we identified above. (Game has similar statistics in his own placement of rhymes outside the confines of his phrase.) But with Nas, you don’t know where the accent is coming next and you have no idea where to expect it. This is very different and very refreshing once you recognize it.

And once Nas does use phrases, he places them at a structural point in the verse that is not a multiple of 4 or the number two, which likewise breaks up the monotony of that "tyranny of 4". For instance, Nas begins to use a phrase (the notes from "pardon Dre..." to "catchy") at bar 4, which does not submit to the “tyranny of 4” rule (which, if it were to submit to it, would have the phrase placed at bar 5, which divides the 16 bars structurally by 4.) So although he starts using phrases, which could become repetitive, he does it in a way that makes it flow seamlessly. And, although he uses this phrasing for 4 bars, he sets the phrases up in a very interesting way: A b b,  A b b, with the A's being the same phrase and the b's being the same phrase, and the A's being 1 bar long and the b's being only half a bar long. And like Eminem, he varies the placement of the poetic accent in the bar in corresponding phrases. Take a look at the As. In the first A, the poetic accent (the "drafty" that rhymes with "scratchy") occurs on the 2nd 2 sixteenth notes of beat 3, while in the 2nd A phrase, the poetic accents (the rhyme of "north" with "drawf") occur in different places: on the 4th sixteenth note of the 2nd beat and the 4th sixteenth note of the 3rd beat. And examine how Nas lines up his corresponding poetic groupings (a poetic “grouping” would be a group of words that make accents off the same syllable, for instance, from Eminem, first full bar, “BREATHES so FREE – LY,” which is a combination of assonance rhyme; breathes - freely is the poetic grouping.) Here, in the first A b b iteration, there is a full poetic grouping on drafty, scratchy, nasty. But in the second A b b phrase grouping, all of the poetic groupings are different : (north/dwarf in A, and lago/narco in the 2 b phrases following it. And there’s no way Nas did that by accident… damn. )

Let’s look at another element of Nas’ undermining of the tyranny of 4 in his treatment of the first beat of the bar. Now, all of Game’s and Eminem’s adherence to the number 4 when creating structure in their verses puts a ton of emphasis on beat one. A new idea always begins on beat 1 when the phrase is repeated. This greatly separates each bar from the next. But Nas doesn’t treat beat 1 as a definite, fact-of-law arrival point. He runs over beat 1s when he extends his phrase from the previous bar. Observe: end of bar 4, “to wakin UP my throat scratchy”- he doesn’t start a new idea on beat 1. This is endemic of a general different treatment of strong metrical accents by Nas throughout this whole verse. Eminem and Game create the forward motion of their verse through rhythmic syncopation: they thrive on avoiding the strong downbeat, and then hitting it later on. Observe even how Eminem’s 1 bar phrase in “Business” is constructed: half a bar of strong syncopation matched only by a half bar of strong, on-beat, motor-like rhythm. And, of course, there is the contrast between Game’s 2nd sixteenth note hit and his on the beat hit. Nas’ rhythm, however, is different. He doesn’t mind landing on the downbeat consistently: bar 10 – 13, he hits 14 consecutive on-the-beat notes. Eminem or Game would never do this (they’d do this at most 3 or 4 times in a row.) It’s almost as if Nas is just talking and consistently going (although Nas also does at points like Game and Eminem contrast syncopation and on-the-beat accent, see bar 4: “open windows that’s drafty to wakin’”, all of which avoids being on the beat and propels the music forward strongly).

After the full A b b, A b b phrase grouping is done, Nas goes back to the through-composed writing style. Here, I’d like to address another point of Nas’ rhyme: how long the words he uses are. For instance, from bars 8 – 11, he uses the words pyramid, architect, lyricist, poetical, terrorist, and everest. It’s not a consideration of how highbrow the words are or anything, but only a consideration of how many syllables they have: all of them have 3 (except poetical, which has 4). Compare the following statistics:

This is a statistical breakdown of the number of words in each of the rapper's respective verses with 1 syllable, with 2 syllables, etc. If you follow the data you can see that Nas' words have on average more than a full quarter of a syllable. What's more is that Nas is the only rapper among the group who uses a 4 or 5 syllable word, while Eminem fails to use a 3 syllable word at all. Now, to be fair, each rapper here has his own different goals. Eminem wants to show off his aggressive rhyming ability, so he's just trying to squeeze as rhymes as possible into as small a space as possible. Nas and Game aren't trying to do this.

Also, consider how Nas structures his poetic groupings. In bars 10 and 11, he fits one poetic grouping inside another poetic grouping – “tyrant” matches up with “climbed it” on each bars beat 4, but while that occurs, Nas fits the poetic accent grouping of “terrorist, everest” inside it. (This is reflected in the notation by a secondary accent marking, the tiny hat). Bars 10 through 12 are united in the repetition of a bar long phrase, unified by the poetic groupings on 2 eighth notes taking up beat 4 (I feel like there is not enough information here to make a prototype phrase.) Again, this phrasing starts at a structural point in the verse that is not a strict multiple of 4 (bar 10), and lasts only 3 bars long (the initial A phrase repeated twice.) And now we get to my second favorite moment in rap music that is in this song, another undermining of the tyranny of 4 by Nas.

With this, Nas takes the idea of phrasing to a whole other level. If you look at bar 12, you will see a rhythmic idea repeated (i.e., a phrase):

is an example of the phrase. It is one sixteenth note, followed by a dotted eighth note, and the hitting of another note at the end of that. We will see, however, that we cannot definitively define the length of that last note because of what Nas does with the phrase next. He displaces the phrase metrically in the bar, moving it a sixteenth note after where it appears on beat 1:

where (as reflected by the beaming of the notes - the “beams” of a notes are those things that connect them across the top), the first sixteenth note of beat 2 is actually tied to the end of the word “spray” (it's a little hard to see in the picture, you can only the see the "y" and the end of the tie, all the way on the left) and that Nas has moved the phrase to begin on the 2nd sixteenth note of the beat. So although they do not look the same because they are notated differently (as a result of the beaming of the notes to reflect the basic beat of the bar), they are actually still notes of the same duration: a sixteenth note, followed by a note with the duration of a dotted eighth note, followed by another note (check it for yourself). Notice that this displacement of the phrase by a single sixteenth note radically transforms the rhythmic function of each note in the phrase. The first time around, “my mind spray”, that first single sixteenth note (on “my”) falls right on beat 1, so it sounds very strong, while “mind” is very syncopated (and “spray” falls right back on the beat after that.) But by displacing the phrase a sixteenth note, that first sixteenth note of the phrase (again, on “my” the second time) assumes the role of a pick-up note (a pick-up note is a note that falls before another note and serves to emphasis the note it comes before. “Just to get to” is an example of a full beat of pick-up notes in the Eminem analysis we just saw; they’re the very first words he says.) The “my” sounds like a pick-up note to the “nine”, because although “mind” (by virtue of its falling on an eighth note in between the beats of the bar) is still technically syncopated, it is much less syncopated then the sixteenth note that the “my” that comes before falls on; as a result, you have the pick-up feel from “my” to “nine.” But this is only the set-up for what is my 2nd all-time favorite moment in rap in this song.

The thing is, he does this twice.

Due to music’s unique temporal nature (that is, the fact that what we hear in the present is able to re-interpret what we’ve already heard before while at the same time anticipating what is to come), when we hear this displacement of the phrase again in bar 14, “freaks styles...andre”, it re-characterizes how we heard it the first time around (in bar 13, “my mind spray, my nine spray”). If he had simply placed the “-dre” of “andre” in bar 14 back on the beat, on beat 4 (as I actually had notated it the first time I tried it,) the unique and unusual placement of the notes in bar 13 on “nine” and “spray” could have been explained away very easily by saying that they were setting up a syncopation that was very soon later on resolved with a strong downbeat from the rapper, as we’ve seen Game and Eminem do over and over. But because he does it twice, he actual changes a fundamental way of how we hear the rap. I would really notate these two bars like so:

Now, this may look like nothing you’ve ever seen before. But don’t immediately think “I don’t know what the hell’s going on here!” Let’s just do the math. Each 2/8, 3/8, 6/16 time signature grouping (there are 2) really just adds up to one bar of 4/4 (2 8th notes = 4 sixteenth notes, 3 8th notes = 6 sixteenth notes, add those 10 to the 6 sixteenth notes of the 6/16 bar and you get… 16 sixteenth notes, exactly equal to one bar of 4/4.) Those different time signatures just more accurately reflect how the beat of the music is being felt. Let’s do a quick review of time signatures. The number on the bottom is the beat of the bar, and the top number says how many beats there are in a bar. So, in order, above, there are 2 8th notes, and then 3 8th notes, and now we get to 6/16, and why I’ve notated it as 6/16 and not 3/8. See how in the way I’ve notated it above the beat of each musical bar is reflected very clearly by the beaming of the notes? It’s very easy to see in the above that there are 2 8th notes in the first bar, and then 3 8th notes in the 2nd bar. That’s what good music notation will do. It will make it easier for the performer to perform. That is why I couldn’t notate the 6/16 bar in 3/8: I would have had to break up the beat when notating it in 3/8, like so:

This notation is awkward because half of our main rhythmic information (the note of “spray”, as the “it” is really just a pick-up note to the next bar) doesn’t land on the beat, and a full beat is awkwardly tied over. But in 6/16, it does. Interesting to note that as a result of this, Nas has broken us out of our strict duple meter time signatures in 4/4 and 2/8 (duple means that there are 2 or some multiple thereof number of beats in a bar), into triple meter time signatures (which means that there three beats or a multiple thereof number of beats to a bar) with the 3/8. And by moving from the simple time signatures of 2/8 and 3/8 (“simple” here is a technical term, meaning that the beat – the eighth note of the 2/8 bar above, for example – is subdivided into two equal parts, as when going from an eighth note, to a sixteenth note, to a thirty-second note, etc.) to the compound time signature of 6/16 (meaning that the beat is subdivided into 3 parts, not 2 parts like simple time,) he is really venturing into some amazingly complex rhythmic areas in rap.

After this amazing moment, he continues with his through-composed style of writing, with no clear phrase structure repeated over and over. It might be noted that here, just as how he began the verse, he ends it by displacing the verbal accent of the words ( PU –shin, PI – lin’) from the metrical accent of the bar. A note should also be mentioned here as to some of the reasons for why I’ve chosen to accent certain notes in the verse that aren’t yet accurately reflected in my notation of the verse. The critical information I’ve left out of my transcription is how Nas actually says the words; for instance, he doesn’t pronounce “godfather” with a perfect accent, he says “gawd-fawther”, because that’s just the way he speaks. This allows two words like “martyr” and “godfather” to be accented together, because although they shouldn’t really rhyme together when perfectly said, Nas’ way of speaking allows them to. So whenever you see notes below accented that don't seem to rhyme, go back and listen to how Nas actually says the words; it will probably make sense then.

Finally, we should add that Nas doesn’t end the verse anticlimactically or anything either. He makes the very last eighth note of the 4/4 bar (the note on “stop”) accented (in assonance in a poetic grouping with the words “hot” and “drops” that come before). With that last eighth note being in the syncopated metrical position that it is, when Nas does this, he allows his own verse to lead very strongly musically into the chorus, by having beat 1 of the chorus complete his musical idea with its strong downbeat. This is what a good rapper will do. He will tie two different structural parts of the song together.

And let's remember that Nas has had very little formal musical training (if any at all.) And the fact that he's able to do this makes him an unqualified musical genius, no matter the arena of music (popular, classical, etc.) I've taken multiple years of music theory analysis classes and I'm still grasping to get at some of the things he's doing. (I mean, simple, compound, duple, and triple time signatures? I'm literally speechless...) I think Nas has more than earned his money. And also let's remember that all of this occurs in no more than 16 bars, or about 40 seconds.

Pretty amazing isn’t it? Now, unfortunately I think I copied over my complete notation of this verse, so I’m left with only the normal 4/4 notation of the 2/8, 3/8, 6/16 time signature bar grouping we went over. But remember, it should be notated the other way. I’ve tried to explain everything in as painstaking detail as I can. If you’re still a little lost, I suggest wiki’ing time signatures. It will explain everything you need to know.

Thanks for checking it out! Like I said, I erased my newest versions of some of the sheet music (which is especially annoying because I was very afraid this would happen and did my best to avoid it,) so some verses (like Eminem's "What's The Difference" which is possibly even more mind-blowing than this one and will be well worth the wait) won't come out for longer than I expected.

Hope you enjoyed this rap music analysis!

P.S. - I teach people how to rap, so if you want to learn, hit me up. Just consider this post my resume.