Sign Up For Email

Subscribe to our mailing list

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.

video


            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!

Peace,

Martin

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 dictionary.com 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

Eminem’s:

or Game’s:

Take a look.

Nothing?

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.




































 

Monday, April 13, 2015

Rap Music Analysis #2 - Eminem

The time has come for another rap music analysis. (If you missed the last analysis, when I analyzed Game's first verse from his song "How We Do", you can see it here.) This time, we’ll be looking at Eminem’s “Business”, produced by (who else?) Dr. Dre. But I'd really first like to start by trying to emphasize the fact that even if you can't read music, I still think you can get something out of it (like understanding how rap works better) by reading the following. But if you would like to see the complete verse notated, I've supplied it at the very end of this post.

Unlike the last analysis, we won’t be looking at a full verse (16 bars) of Eminem's; instead, what interests me is the 8 bars before the last 4 bars in his 3rd verse. (Listen from the clip at 2:47 until about 3:09, from "Just to get to see..." until "Can't leave rap alone, the game needs me".) I am concerned with only these 8 bars and none before or after them because in these 8 bars Eminem bases all of his accents on the syllable “ee.” We will get to that later though. Although we will still be looking for the accents created by rhyming (and as shall soon be explained, assonant groups,) as we did in our analysis of the Game verse, we are less concerned with Eminem’s phrasing (which Game varied greatly) and more with his formidable rhyming capabilities.

However, for the sake of comparison we will begin with Eminem’s phrasing. It is fairly straightforward. Eminem, unlike Game, just repeats the same 1 bar phrase every time in each of the 8 bars. Game, meanwhile, played with phrasing acceleration and deceleration greatly: recall that he varied his phrases in blocks of 8, beginning with 3 2 bar groups of ½ bar, ½ bar, 1 bar, and then ending the final 2 bars with phrases of ½ bar, ½ bar, ½ bar, ½ bar. Eminem is less concerned with this, as we shall see. The basic rhythmic idea he uses and repeats, however, is much longer, being a bar long, and more complex. It is as follows:

He will vary from this sometimes (“Jesus, how could shit be so easy?”, where the 2nd beat is different from that posted above), but it is the main prototype for each of the 8 bars (as an example, see bar 2: “see an Emcee who breathes so freely”.) As was said before, this differs from Game’s approach, who varied his phrasing greatly. But here, Eminem propels the music more with a very catchy, complex, and longer rhythmic idea that is repeated over and over, rather than short ideas. He keeps it from lapsing into boredom by his incredible demonstration of his rhyming ability in these 8 bars. There are 80 notes in these 8 bars. Of those 80 notes, 37 of them are on a word with an “ee” sound, which I have indicated with accent marks. (We will get to it in a second why I have marked every “ee” sound as accented and not just the rhymes.) That means that almost every other syllable has an “ee” sound. And in a total of 8 bars, that means there are over 4.5 “ee” sounds per bar (37/8). And, in a bar of 4 beats, that means that there is more than one “ee” sound every beat. That is pretty incredible. And remember this whole time that it is all on the same syllable.

If you do a distribution graph of where the “ee” sounds fall in the bar by every 16th note, some further information can be gleaned. The most important thing is to see that every one of the 4th beats of the 8 bars has 2 eighth notes and is a multi-syllabic rhyme (pretty amazing in itself.) A multi-syllabic rhyme is a rhyme that is made up of more than one syllable. But what makes these multi-syllabic rhymes (of 2 syllables) so interesting is that they also rhyme within themselves. For instance, not only does “freely” rhyme with “breezy” (bars 2 and 3, respectively,) but they also rhyme with each other: “free-“ and “-ly”, and “bree-“ and “-zy” (and “Le-“ and “-vy”, and so on.) These are the only two rhymes and accents that are repeated in every single bar. As for the rest of the distribution of accents, you can see that Eminem also propels the music with the varying of the metrical placement of the accent, placing it on every note in the 1 bar prototype shown above (except for the final sixteenth note of the first bar, and the 2nd eighth note of bar 3). In their propulsion of the music through the variation of the accent in the meter between on the beat accents and syncopated accents, Eminem and the Game are quite similar.

Now, as for why I have marked all “ee” syllables as accents in the notation and not just the rhymes (for instance, marking “breathes” in bar 2, even though it doesn’t rhyme with any other word there), it is because Eminem is using something known as “assonance.” From Wikipedia: “Assonance is the refrain of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within phrases or sentences.” Assonance creates the same accent as rhymes do in the verse. This use of assonance is one of the most interesting things done in this song. It expands the normal tools or techniques of what a rapper can use to create and vary accents in his raps. This also opens up the use of other techniques (perhaps already used, but ones that should be used more often,) like alliteration or consonance (the refrain of consonant sounds to make internal rhyming.)

So we've seen that Eminem and Game differ in their approach to phrasing (in this instance at least, and if I had to guess from hearing a lot of their other works, in other instances as well). They also differ in their approach to rhyming. Eminem is very, very concerned with his complex rhyming. It is one of the features of his rap that he is most proud of. Here, Eminem tries to fit as many rhymes (here including "assonance" under the more general term of "rhyme") as are possible into his verse. He also puts rhymes in places other than the end of a phrase (this can be seen even as early as bar 2, which is really the first bar after a pick-up beat: "SEE an em-CEE who BREATHES so FREELY," after which the 1 bar phrase ends.) By comparison, Game always ends his phrase with an accented "uh" sound, and never makes a rhyme within the phrase. By doing this, he delineates phrase beginnings and endings with his accents, something Eminem does not do. Game's approach allows the listener to follow very closely when the phrases start and stop. The fact that Eminem does not do this and puts rhymes inside his phrases make the structure of the verse sound much less uniform and free. This also contributes as a reason for why although he repeats the same 1 bar phrase 8 times, it never sounds old or tiresome to the listener (the other major reason is that the 1 bar idea is interesting enough to be repeated so many times without losing its power.) Their differences aside though, Eminem and Game are quite similar in their variation of the metrical placement of the accent created by their words (whether through rhyming, assonance, or some other way.)

But be sure to see the next analysis when we'll be taking a look at a verse from Nas, who is extremely different (indeed, there are very few who can like him) from Eminem and Game in his entire approach to phrasing and accent.

Anyone still think there aren't rappers who have talent?

Hope you enjoyed this rap music analysis! Go check out my other ones!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Rap Music Analysis #10 - Dr. Dre's Orchestration, 2000-2009

       Time for another rap music analysis. Attached below is a song-by-song analysis of 52 songs produced by Dr. Dre between 2000 and 2009. To my knowledge, these are all of the songs he produced in these years; that, according at least to Dre’s discography on wikipedia.org (although a more complete one can be found elsewhere I think.) This time period for a Dre production analysis may strike those in the know as somewhat peculiar. To start with, it is after the release of his seminal album 2001 (which was actually released in 1999 – fun fact.) Then, it is before anything recently that he has supposedly done, such as “Kush”, “I Need A Doctor”, or Kendrick Lamar’s “The Recipe” (listed production credentials be damned.) Furthermore, it leaves out Straight Outta Compton (1987 I think), as well as his Chronic (1992) and Snoop Dogg’s album “Doggystyle” (1994.) So what were these works released on?
       To start, it covers the beginning of Em’s work in the new millennium, starting with 4 songs from his “Marshall Mathers LP.” It also covers 50 Cent’s come up on Em’s Shady label (with 5 songs found on that album), as well as Busta Rhyme’s short time on Dre’s Aftermath album, along with Raekwon (2 songs) and Eve (4 songs). It covers some work with the 50 Cent’s G-Unit then (2 songs), as well as Game’s come up on that label before he left for another label. It includes one song by Mary J. Blige, and 50 Cent has the most songs in this period. Unfortunately, this period also covers some of Dre’s darker days quality-wise: 50 Cent’s “Curtis” and “Before I Self Destruct album”, and Eminem’s initial come back on “Relapse: Refill.” This period thus interestingly covers both much of his oeuvre that is often criminally overlooked in favor of more popular and critically acclaimed album’s (Doggystyle, Chronic, Straight Outta Compton, 2001), as well as some of his “worst” (worst, for Dre, is relative here, as anything considered half-bad for Dre would be great for other producers) works. This will allow us to understand and trace the paths he took after the game-changing “2001” album, as well as how he developed the ideas he had on that album afterwards. Additionally, it will let us see where Dr. Dre may have lost his way a bit towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium, and what we can expect from “Detox” (Man, I hope that album actually gets released.) Now for the orchestration analysis.
       For our purposes here, “orchestration” will basically mean the instrument Dre has chosen to play the musical ideas in his song. Attached below are my notes on all 52 songs, between 2000 and 2009.













All the way on the left is listed the song, the artist, the album the song came from, any guest appearances on the song, as well as the year it was released (it goes in chronological order starting from 2000.) Then, I marked under a couple different categories the musical instrumentation that the song contained: there are categories for keyboard (which includes piano, harpsichord, and organ), strings (cellos, violins,) bass guitar (clean, distorted, etc.), drums (snares, bass kicks, the nature of cymbals or hi-hats, and all other percussion instruments), miscellaneous (instruments that don’t fall under any of the other category), Audio Sound FX (recorded sounds of real-world sounds played during the song, guitar (clean, distorted, wah, etc.), singers (female, male, vocalize, words,) and orchestral hit (which is a big staccato noise by what sounds like a full orchestra,) and general notes all the way on the right. I took notes of varying detail within each cell.
      Now would be a good time to mention my Kickstarter campaign, where you can donate so I can publish a book to keep bringing you rap analysis like this one. My work is always to increase the appreciation of music for the average listener, and this book will help me do that.

       As mentioned before, this time period covers an extremely interesting cross section of Dre’s work. You have the all-time classics (“The Real Slim Shady,” “In Da Club”, “How We Do”), the absolute bombs – and not the good kind (“Bagpipes from Baghdad,” “Fire”), and the criminally overlooked (“Oh!”, “Get You Some”, “Don’t Get Carried Away” – but this will be addressed in-depth in my “10 Greatest Dr. Dre Songs of All Time Production-Wise” post.) You can go through all of the songs individually, but I will draw some general conclusions.
       The most glaring difference between Dre’s output over his entire career, not just this period, and every other popular producer, is that Dre’s output is noticeably free of any soul samples. In direct contradistinction to artistic trends championed by RZA in his work with Wu-Tang and Kanye’s work years later starting with “The College Dropout”, the two most popular producers of the two preceding decades apart from Dre himself, Dre does not sample old soul hits. Soul sampling is found all over in the game today. Instead, we see that he opts to combine “real” instruments (in contrast to synthesized sounds such as synth keyboards) with manipulation of the stereo world (allowing these real world sounds to do things they couldn’t have done in a completely audio acoustic environment, such as phasing back and forth between left and right earphones.) For instance, his favorite instrument seems to be a clean, real-life piano, white and black keys and all. Some kind of keyboard can be found in 75% of his songs (rough estimation of mine without counting.) The nature of this keyboard can differ; sometimes, it plays the accompaniment, giving the song the harmonic underpinning while other riffs and ideas play themselves out above or below (The Wash, 2001). At other times, in a monophonic line it itself plays the riff (Round Here, 2006.) Additionally, not only does he often use the piano, he uses other keyboard type instruments, such as different types of organs (Electric organ – Heat, 2003, or Church organ, Don’t Get Carried Away, 2006.) In what might be the greatest orchestration decision of all time ever made in rap (yes, it’s that good) he sets a harpsichord in Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady.” The amount of “Fuck You” this communicates to the listener cannot be accurately measured…not that there is an accurate way of measuring “fuck you.” But the harpsichord choice, the most stereotypical, cliché’d instrument in pop music as representing old, generic pop classical music of some type makes the perfect instrumental counterpoint to Eminem’s message of fuck the world in that song. One can also observe that Dre is not content to play the keyboard simply legato; he also uses it staccato at times, for instance in X, from 2000. He furthermore differs the kind of textures he evokes from the piano. That is, the piano is not always playing block chords. Sometimes it is used in a much more diffuse texture (Cocaina, 2006.) From this, we know that Dre thinks a lot about the color of his orchestration. This can be seen from his use of pedals and octave doublings. Oftentimes, he will have an instrument sustain a single note for a long time (a pedal), or play the same musical idea as another instrument at the same level or in a different octave (doubling.) He does this often with the bass note; for instance, a lot of times when a carillon bell is utilized (the strong minor third upper harmonic of a tuned bell perfectly dovetailing with the minor key sound world Dre wishes to create), such as in Don’t Get Carried Away, 2006, or Hustlers, 2006, it is often doubling a bass note. Furthermore, his use of the piano is often very scaled back, and used in only a superficial manner (without any negative connotation), such as in doubling another musical idea. This reduces the piano to being used only for its timbre, or “sound quality.” Timbre is what allows a person to tell a piano sound apart from a cello sound, even though they are both playing the same note, for example, middle C. Instrumental color is, for our purposes here, synonymous with timbre.
       Dre’s treatment of the piano is a sign in general of his treatment of orchestration. No instrument, and no articulation (way of playing an instrument), is off limits for Dre when he steps in the studio to choose instruments. He does what good composers do and makes the instrument do what he wants, not do what the instruments want. He finds ways to utilize instruments in his songs that you’d find nowhere else in natural ways. The following is a short list of rare instruments (in rap music) you’ll find in Dre’s work:

1. Sitar (Ass Like That, 2004, and elsewhere)

2. Carillon Bell (Multiple Times)

3. Flute (Bad Intentions)

4. Kazoos (Mosh, 2004)

5. Gu-gin (finger plucked Chinese instrument – Get You Some, 2006 Death To My Enemies, 2009)

6. Harp (Back Down, 2003, and one other time)

7. Harpsichord (Real Slim Shady, 2000)

8. Some Middle Eastern instrument with a drone (Bagpipes from Baghdad, 2009)

9. Bongos (Catalina, 2009)

10. Acoustic Guitar (Round Here, 2006.)

11. Guiro (Satisfaction, 2002)

12. Theremin (Catalina, 2009)

        This calls attention to another distinguishing characteristic of Dre’s post “2001” album sound. He does not use synths as main organizing instruments in his songs, such as by having them play the accompaniment or bass lines (Fire, 2007, for 50 Cent, is definitely an outlier is this regard), but instead uses designed, specific synth sounds more for a textural effect. This can be observed all over; one especially good example is “Hello,” from 2000, written by Ice Cube, feat. Ren, and Dre (for who Eminem ghost-wrote his verse…of course.) Perhaps that is why “Kush”, supposedly the first single from “Detox” (since dropped from the album) sounded so un-Dre-ish to so many people, myself included, and thus was widely disregarded. Additionally, he favors using real, acoustic snare sounds (Best of Things 2000, Truck Volume & Holla, 2001), over any completely synthesized clap sounds, but this started to change towards the end of this 2000-2009 period. His signature bass kick sound is a rather character-less bass “thud”, so lacking of any high frequency sounds that the listener feels rather than hears that it is there (About Me, 2009). Along the same line in drums, Dre favors less complex drum sections (drum sections = bass kick, snares, cymbals, hi-hats, and any other percussion effects.) The emphasis is therefore placed on the melodic instruments (whether they play the melody or not), while the drum sections provides the beat but largely tries to stay out of the melodic instruments’ way.
       Audio Sound FX also play a large part in Dre’s production choices. Many of his songs, as can be seen, feature them prominently, especially those with Eminem (Real Slim Shady, 2000.) In fact, he twice uses audio sound FX to supply essential musical information: in Legend of the Fall Offs, 2006, and Heat, 2003, a digging shovel and gun cock sound, respectively, take the place of the snare drum. All over this oevure though, however, Audio Sound FX are featured.
       It is important now though to distinguish the different ways in which Dre utilizes his orchestration choices once he has made them. A central technique that gives Dre beats their longevity, the fact that you can listen to them over and over again, is his technique of what I call musical layering. That is, he differentiates structural sections of a song (1st verse from 2nd verse, verse from chorus, outro from intro, etc.,) from each other by assigning unique musical ideas to each one. The epitomic example of this can be found in my analysis of his song "Oh!". For instance, there, an acoustic guitar arpeggio plays in the background during the 2nd verse, and a solo violin idea plays in the background during the 3rd verse. Then, a contrabass idea appears during the choruses but never during the verses. This makes each section of the song stand out from the others, by making them unique in some way. However, “Oh!” is not an outlier in this regard.
       Dre does this everywhere. For instance, in “That’s What it Is”, 2001, Dre doubles the bassline with strings to differentiate sections from each other. He does the same during 2002’s “Satisfaction,” as well as “Poppin’ Them Thangs”, in 2003. This is a major hallmark of Dre’s style. The reader is encouraged to look up different examples on their own on youtube.
       Along with doubling and layering, another hallmark of Dre’s style is his use of the pedal. As explained before, a pedal is when one instrument sustains a note a very long time. Dre’s second favorite instrument, behind the piano, is the string section; it is unimportant which instrument is playing, as they are often very hard to distinguish from each other anyway when they are sampled. Pedals of this type can be found all over: Bitch Please II, 2000, G’d Up, In Da Club, 2003, High All The Time, 2003, to name only a few. These are likewise used to differentiate sections of the song from each other, or re-iterations of the same type of section (verse, chorus) from each other. Dre favors strings so much to the point that they oftentimes completely comprise the musical background for a song; “Who Knew?”, 2000, and Psycho, 2009, are shining examples of this, as Dre uses the three most prominent different articulations for stringed instruments (pizzicato, legato, staccato) all in one song.
       Finally, his use of structurally dividing musical ideas is endemic of his style. That is, he will have certain musical ideas play at structurally important places in the song (middle point of verses or choruses, the transition from the end of a chorus to the start of a verse, etc.) to lead from one section of a song to another. These, again, are a hallmark of his style, and so can be found all over, but a good example can be seen in 2000’s “Lay Low”.
       Now, before considering the tail end of this period in greater detail, let’s examine some outliers.
       “Break Ya Neck”, 2001, not listed, is so different from every other Dre song (due to the prominent featuring of elaborate synth ideas), that I at first questioned whether it was actually ghost produced for Dre (not unheard of in the rap industry today.) However, his other work on Busta’s album “Genesis” is somewhat similar (Truck Volume, Holla), so I overlook it. This speaks to another fact of Dre: he seems to have tried to style himself to fit each new artist he worked with, or at least went through definite, consistent periods of artistic vision. We see that his work with Eve in 2002 is marked by the use of orchestral hits that won’t return until the end of this period. We see that his work with Busta is marked by the prominent use of elaborate synth ideas. Raekwon seems to have received his most elaborate musical treatment on his “Only Built 4 Cuban Linx II” album, starting with the descending piano scale on “About Me.” Then, we see that the carillon shows up at a distinct time in 2006, and remains somewhat constant until 2009. In any event, it may be an interesting idea to look more into, or it may only be what we would expect from a mature artist in his prime.
       Another outlier is 2001’s “Bad Intentions.” Although the release date is for 2001 from a movie’s soundtrack, I’m inclined to think that this work dates from much earlier, maybe even mid-90s. The funky flute along with the prominent use of synth and synthesized shaker is simply too similar to his work on “Doggystyle” for me. 2001’s “Your Wife” is similar for me in this regard, although it sounds more similar to “2001” then “Doggystyle.”
       We can thus see the direction that Dre took the ideas he initially came up with on “2001.” The move towards real instruments from the prominent synths and 808 drum sounds of “Chronic” and “Doggystyle” on “2001”, which there manifested itself as clean guitars (Still D.R.E.), clean bass lines (Forgot About Dre), and the occasional, heavily processed string part (bass line for Still D.R.E.), continued in a natural evolution to real orchestral instruments, such as real, authentic-sounding strings, pianos, and even harps, sitars, and so on, in this 2000 to 2009 period.
       Unfortunately, the next few outliers are not to be seen in a positive light. First, we have 2007’s “Fire”, which so badly tries to imitate 50’s 2003 “In Da Club” and in doing so fails terribly its almost awkward to listen to. From the octave doubling, to the syncopated rhythms of the prominent synth, to the return of the shaker in the percussion, it tries to be “In Da Club” but fails. I can dismiss this with a clean conscience, however, because it was 50 when I’m not sure 50 cared anymore, and it clearly was a club track. If 50 put it down on this track, I’d see it differently.
       The outliers came more and more quickly though. “Bagpipes from Baghdad” is certainly unprecedented, even with Dre’s outlandish orchestration choices from before. I reference, of course, the wind Middle Eastern instrument of some type. Again, Eminem completely drops the ball on the rhymes. Even this track wouldn’t be that bad, if Eminem didn’t throw into deep relief just how little musical sense this song makes. To be fair, this is Eminem post-addiction when he was still trying to figure out what the fuck he could talk about. He still could rap musically; he just couldn’t rap poetically. A great example of this is “Drop The Bomb On Em,” from “Relapse.” His flow there is sick; but his words make no fucking sense. At one point, he even ruins a major storyline of the greatest TV show of all time, “The Wire”, by dropping a major spoiler, that asshole. (Don’t look up the lyrics if you plan on watching the show…which you should.) To be fair, he’s since figured this out. All you need to see this is look up his track with Royce da 5’9, in their group “Bad Meets Evil”, with Bruno Mars, called “Lighters”. As a sampling:

“I love it when I tell em shove it
Cause it wasn't that long ago when Marshall sat, flustered, lack lustered
Cause he couldn't cut mustard, muster up nothing
Brain fuzzy, cause he's buzzin', woke up from that buzz
Now you wonder why he does it, how he does it
Wasn't cause he had buzzards circlin' around his head
Waiting for him to drop dead, was it?”

Damn.

But yeah, here, he drops the ball.

        Things continue to get more and more concerning though. “Death To My Enemies” is in the same category as “Bagpipes from Baghdad”, but this time, the production just isn’t there.
       “I Get It In”, however, on deep reflection, might be the most worrisome. The song is largely devoid of the rich variety of musical material that mark the greatest Dre songs (Get You Some, Oh!.) Instead, things are mostly held together by drum sounds, and again, the rapping simply isn’t there. Through this last rash of songs, though, is that there is a complete lack of the musical depth that Dre added to his songs through his techniques of pedals, doubling, structural dividers, interesting orchestration choices, and, most worrying, musical layering. It is like Dre somehow forgot about everything he had learned (and taught us) over a career that is now entering it’s 4th decade. Either that, or he was looking for a way forward, and us mere mortals simply cannot see it.
       And so here we are. “Detox” has not been released, and it is fair to guess whether it ever will be at this point. And yes, this is even after taking into account that Dre takes a while with his albums, or as Game puts it so eloquently, “I’m the second dopest Compton nigga you’ll ever hear / the first one only put out albums every 7 years.” I still enjoy listening to 2004’s “Curtains Down” (Eminem) and 2005’s “Higher” (The Game,) when Dre assures us that Detox is “coming.” So what happened?
       Well, let’s take a look at the supposed singles for Detox. First, there was “Kush”, then “I Need A Doctor,” and now we have Kendrick Lamar’s “The Recipe” (not a single, but still a recent work.) I swear, on everyone of these songs, Dre was initially listed as the producer, but then after they did not do well popularly, he was switched with someone else. “Kush” is now supposedly produced by DJ Khalil, and mixed by Dre. “I Need a Doctor” says it is produced by Alex da Kid, and mixed by Dre. “The Recipe” is now produced by Scoop Deville, and mixed by Dre.
       First off, what the fuck am I gonna be paying money for if Dre isn’t producer? Is he known as the world’s greatest mixer? I don’t think so. There’s a couple things going on here. First, there is my initial conspiracy theory, that Dre changes the credits to keep face. Second, and more likely, that Dre is ghost producing these songs for people. He comes up with the song, gives it to a producer like Alex Da Kid, and releases it under their name to see how it does. Either way, it doesn’t reflect well on Dre’s current state of mind artistically.
       It’s safe to say that he’s lost confidence in himself as an artist. The thing is he doesn’t have perspective anymore on just how good he is. We’ve heard it throughout the years: Dre is a perfectionist. The unique pressures and stresses of working with Dre are evident all over his industry relationships, from the number of prominent acts who never released any substantial material on his Aftermath label (Bishop Lamont to start), to the occasional spats that bubble up (such as when 50 threatened to pre-empt their own single’s release by putting the single out by himself.) He just doesn’t realize how good he is, and he just doesn’t realize that, at a certain point, whatever he puts out maybe might not be his 5th classic album, but will be good enough…although I guess that’s what makes Dr. dre Dr. Dre, and what makes us just us.
       Honestly, I think he’s got enough material for several albums (several sources corroborate this.) And he was set to release something, but then Kanye’s “My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy” happened. The level that that album raised the bar to is simply incomprehensible. The scope of its musical quality is breathtaking. The sweeping, innovative structural forms (see my analysis here, halfway down the page), the introspective look into subjects that rap has rarely touched before (“Blame Game”), sweeping, 9 minute opuses like “Runaway,” the deft use of skilled instrumentalists (guitar solo in Devil In A New Dress), the perfect matching of differing style of music (Bon Hiver’s work on the album…) it’s huge. Dre lost his confidence in himself when he saw that.
       So what should he do? First off, stop worrying about the fucking headphones. This man is already paid many times over, in all senses of the word. I think he’s distracted himself from what got him in the position to sell headphones with that business enterprise. Second, go back and take a look at his own work. It’s fire man. There’s no doubting it. I can listen to these works over, and over again. Just like every great artistic evolution, he has to build on what he used before. I don’t know why he abandoned his techniques like doubling, pedaling, structural dividers, and musical layering. But it’s what got him there in the first place.

Please Dre. Please release Detox.

You’re biggest fan (is there any doubt about anymore?),

Martin Connor

P.S. - Hope you enjoyed this rap music analysis!