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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, based on nothing besides who you like more and fanboy-dom. We can look at rappers and, by describing their musical and rhythmic tendencies, group them into different categories, and then say who manipulates rhythms most masterfully. That is exactly what will happen in this article.
The rappers will be Kanye West, Mos Def, Andre 3K, and Eminem. 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.
I’ve chosen these four rappers chiefly because, in integral parts of their styles, they are vastly different from how they approach the music. The three categories we can use to describe a rapper’s flow that concern us here are as follows (quoted from my How To Listen To Kendrick Lamar Analysis):
The nature of their rhymes – how many they drop per bar, how many syllables they are, where they fall in the line, whether they’re repeated in the same order or different, and so on.
The nature of their sentences — how long/short they are, where they fall in the music, how many of them there are, and so on.
Whether they repeat certain rhythms, or keep making new rhythms as they go long.
When I say the word “flow”, it means the rhythmic structure that arises in a rap from the interaction between the rapper’s words and the strictly musical rhythms of those words. That is, the rapper’s words will always inform how we understand the rhythms of any rapper’s raps.
A very good place to start this discussion is with Kanye West’s rap on “Jesus Walks.”, which you can hear here:
(Although Rhymefest is co-credited as a writer, this song falls so squarely into Kanye’s style that I’ll act as if he wrote it all.) This is because Kanye West is, comparatively, a technically simple rapper when compared to the likes of Eminem, Mos Def, Nas, and Andre 3k. This is because, according to our 4 categories, he:
1.Drops about 1 or 2 rhymes per bar, that are 1 or 2 syllables long and fall at the end of the line
For this discussion, it’s important to know what a bar is: a bar is simply a musical duration of time, just like an hour is a measure of chronological time. A bunch of bars together make a verse or hook, and the verses and hooks together make a song. The bars are represented in the music below by those vertical lines that separate the musical notes, such as between the word “know” and “what”:
(As a disclaimer, this article will make use of notated sheet music, but I PROMISE even if you can’t read music, you will be able to understand it.) Furthermore, those curved lines under the noteheads, such as from “you” to is”, represent basically sentences. These are also important for categorizing our rappers.
So for Kanye’s rhymes, they are generally on the simpler side. They come at the end of sentences, like what follows:
You can see that the rhymes, indicated by the capitalized words or syllables (the “-tectives” of “detectives”, “method” and the “-rest us” of “arrest us”) all come at the end of those slurred lines. Meanwhile, they are usually 1 or 2 syllables long, and there are only 1 or 2 per bar:
There, the rhymes (“west is”, “death is”, etc.), are all 2 syllables long, and there are 2 of them per bar.
Finally, the order of rhymed syllables is always the same order and in the same place in the bar. For instance:
Where the rhymed vowel sounds of “a” (like in “cases) and the “ih” sound (like in the “-ses” syllable of “cases”) always come in the same order. Furthermore, they fall in the same place in the bar. This is reflected graphically in the notation above by the fact that all of the capitalized rhymes are in the same place in terms of length from the start of the bar, which you can see for yourself. And as we will see, these type of rhymes – end rhymes, 1 or 2 syllables long, always in the same order, are not always the case for rappers, and definitely not the case for most of the rappers who will follow.
2.Has relatively long sentences that abide by the bar line.
This is also well represented by the graph: just watch where those curved lines end.
They, for the most part, come to a stop right before the bar line. There are, indeed, notes after them, like “where” into “restless (niggas)”, and “and” into “next these…”, but they are known as pick-up notes, meaning they function rhythmically to lead to the next beat because they start off the beat. There are exceptions, such as where “young and restless” starts and ends, but if you go over the rest of the verse, the pattern holds:
Here, the slurred lines represent grammatical fragments (only nouns or verbs unconnected to each other), which sometimes happens as well. I’ve grouped them according to how the listener should head them, when considering the rhythmic spaces between each one.
3.Is a through-composed rapper, meaning he doesn’t repeat certain characteristically unique rhythms.
Let’s look at the following music:
As promised, even if you can’t read music, you can see that no characteristic idea is repeated. That characteristic idea is called a “rhythmic phrase.” Yes, there are 4 notes beamed together (beams are those lines across the top of the notehead) on the very first beat that are repeated 2 bars later (on “ain’t goin’ no” compared to “mama used to”), but that rhythm is so common at all music that the listener won’t take special notice if it’s repeated. This is known as a “through-composed” verse. This is hard to conceive of in a negative instance, and it will be placed into much clearer relief when we examine Andre 3k, who DOES repeat characteristic ideas.
So, in summary:
Kanye West’s raps consists of shorter multisyllabic or single syllable rhymes coming at the end of sentences that aren’t dropped overly often, and are always in the same order. Furthermore, his sentence structure largely follows the bar line, and his rhymes are through-composed, making no use of rhythmic phrases.
(Please note that I still think Kanye is a really good rapper – probably Top 10 all time, just not in technical ability. For instance, anyone who can drop gems like, “She said ‘Oh my gawd, is that a black card?’ / I turned around and replied, ‘Why yes, but I prefer the term African American express”, definitely deserves credit. In fact, College Dropout is full of great puns like that. But technically, he is not complex.)
Next, we will look at Mos Def. What can we say about his style of rap?
As it turns out, Mos Def is similar to Kanye West in some ways, but very different in others. The biggest difference is in his approach to rhyming:
1.Mos Def’s rhymes are complex multisyllables, usually on the order of three or four syllables, that are both internal and end rhymes that come in different places in the bar while generally being in the same order.
We can see this from the following music, from Mos’ rap from Black Star’s “RE:DEFinition”:
He starts off with end rhymes: “son i’m way past the MINIMUM / entering millennium / raps will hold a gat to your back like paleSTI-NI-ANS”, and so on, where the start and end of sentences are represented by slashes. However, he quickly varies this: “official b-boy GENTLEMAN long term never the INTERIM.” He then continues this with even more internal rhymes that fall inside the bar:
“born inside the WINTER WIND, day after deCEMBER TEN / these SIMPLETONS they MENTIONED IN the SYNONYM for FEMININE.” Additionally, we can see that his rhymes are always 3 syllables long. In fact, in another difference from Kanye, he’s continued the same rhyming block for 14 bars, throughout this whole partial-verse (although it’s 14 bars long, it only forms part of a longer verse from the song.) However, similar to Kanye, the rhymed vowel sounds always come in the same order: “ih”, “er”, “ih”. (It’s also important here to note that rappers also make words rhyme that wouldn’t otherwise by changing exactly how they are pronounced, which is what Mos does here, such as between the “winter wind” and “mentioned in” rhyme blocks.) Especially accomplished is Mos’ dropping of a 5-syllable rhyme block, between “unit trembling” and “moving elephant.”
And while Mos’ rhymes fall in the same place to the beat, they are in different places in the bar. Observe:
Where you can see that the capitalized rhymes are in different places relative to the start of the bar, which, again, is indicated by those vertical lines all the way at the right, such as next to “them.” This, again, differs from Kanye West.
One final way they are different in terms of rhymes is in the rate of rhymes dropped per bar. As we saw for Kanye, his rate of rhymes per bar was, at most, roughly 2 per bar. But Mos drops many more. That one rhyme block is dropped 31 times, and if it’s 3 syllables long, that means there are 93 rhymes over 14 bars. 93 rhymes divided by 14 bars means there are 6.6 rhymes per bar, which blocks 2 rhymes per bar (Kanye’s rate) out of the water.
2.The nature of Mos’ sentence phrasing is similar to Kanye’s, in that it largely abides by the bar line.
Practically the whole verse is an example of this, but the highlights are:
Where you can see that the curved lines all start and end where those vertical slashes representing bar lines are. This pattern is continued before and after, but serves out purposes here. Mos’ sentences are also on the longer side.
(This would also be a good time to mention that exceptions can be found to pretty much everything I say in this article, not just across the artist’s different songs but also within the song. However, I aim only to make general remarks in order to highlight the ways these rapper’s are different. In my mind I have chosen the unique flow that predominantly appears in their works, and they can be found in songs other than the ones mentioned here.)
3.Mos repeats shorter rhythmic ideas, but none so characteristic that they could be called a “rhythmic phrase.”
If you look at the whole transcription of Mos’ verse, attached to the end of this, you’ll see that his rhythm from beat to beat, as represented by the lines joining the noteheads above them (one line joins a beat together), they mostly always fall on the beat. This means Mos’ rap is not very syncopated. For instance, he usually fills each beat up with 4 16th notes, hitting every division of the beat, as is done in almost these 2 whole bars:
This is likewise through-composed, because no characteristic rhythm is repeated. However, his 1 rhyme block is repeated, which is something Kanye didn’t do. Again, though, it isn’t unique enough to be called a rhythmic phrase. So why don’t we get to an example of just what the heck such a phrase would look like?
Enter Andre 3k. Because there is a reason why even Nas says, “I freak styles like three thousand Andre.”.
Let’s look at his first verse from Outkast’s song, “Aquemini”, which you can hear here:
1.Andre’s rhymes are usually 1 or 2 syllables long, like Kanye’s. However, like Mos, they can be internal or end rhymes. Also, they come in the same order, but not in different places inside the bar or even relative to the beat.
His one/two syllable rhymes are easy to observe:
Where the shorter-syllable rhymes are also end rhymes. But Andre can do internal rhymes as well:
Where “bought” and “walk” are internal rhymes. In addition, they come in the same order, just like both Mos and Kanye:
Where the rhymed vowel sounds are always in the same order, but fall in different places relative to their distance from the start of the bar – “hobby” and “wobbly”, for instance.
His phrasing and repetition of unique rhythmic ideas are really what concern us here, though. Because…
2.Andre’s grammatical phrasings fall in very different places inside the bar, NOT following the structure of the start and end of barlines.
This can be seen throughout the whole verse, but the best example is below:
Look for yourself how those slurs start and end almost anywhere relative to the bar line. They can be found at the start (“Live from”), at the end (“home of the brave, with dirty dollars”, inside them (“beauty parlors”), long (“know what you’re selling, what you bought”), short (“let’s walk to the bridge”), and even more. This is vastly different from what we saw from Kanye and Mos. And Andre’s unique phrasing allows him to take advantage of the mythical “rhythmic phrase.”
3.Andre uses a characteristic rhythmic phrase, a unique idea that gets repeated in a rap. Furthermore, he places it in different places relative to the beat.
The most amazing part of this whole verse is one that most people don’t pick up on because they don’t know how to listen to rap music. This applies mostly to the people who dismiss rap music because it’s “vulgar”, or “not really music”, or just “a bunch of gangstas who can’t do anything else.” What we can use to prove all those people wrong happens between “with dirty dollars” to “street scholars”.
We want to look at the notes that occur on “dirty dollars”, “beauty parlors”, “baby ballers”, “ball impalas”, and “street scholars.” You can notice that they all last four 16th notes long, and are all grouped together by slurred lines. Also, the final two syllables of each four note group rhymes together: “dollars” with “parlors” with “-palas” with “scholars.” This should all group them together in the schooled rap music listener’s mind, and makes them a characteristic idea. Additionally, the division of the beat is into five parts, not four, as with most 4/4 music, which describes all of the verses of Kanye and Mos. Because it is so different, it SHOULD stick out in our ears. Listen for yourself: I’ve accented the rhymes because they stand out in our ear, and represented Andre’s rhythms without the words so you can really focus on them. It starts at, “with dirty dollars”
Notice how each four note group (“street scholars” is three notes long, but the duration of musical time is still four 16th notes) goes together.
But that’s not all.
Because Andre has also switched up where that four note group falls in the bar. Listen again for yourself, by telling where each group starts in relation in terms of length of time to the underlying beat played by the lower bass kick sound. Sometimes the 3rd note of the group falls on the beat (the “dol-“ of “dollars”), and sometimes none of them are played at the same time as the bass kick (“beauty parlors”). This is a technique known as “metrical transference” because Andre has changed where the rhythmic phrase falls in the meter of the bar. This is extremely difficult to pull off, especially at the same time as rapping quintuplets, which I’ve only ever seen Eminem and Busta Rhymes use as integral rhythmic divisions of a flow.
Anyone still think rappers aren’t musicians?
Our final example comes from Eminem and his song, “Lose Yourself”, which you can hear here:
Although this example is not necessarily characteristic of Eminem’s signature flow, it is demonstrative of his mastery of any and all aspects of rhyming, as well as a good counterpoint to what has come before.
1.Eminem here, demonstrates why he is, for my taste, best rhymer in all of rap. He uses internal rhymes, external rhymes, block rhymes, free rhymes (rhymes in any order), rhymes that fall in different places in the bar and against the beat, rhymes that fall in the same place, multisyllable rhymes, single syllable rhymes, and any combination of those ideas.
“Palms” rhymes with “Arms” – single syllable internal rhymes in different places in the bar and the beat. “Sweaty” rhymes with “Heavy” – multisyllable end rhymes that fall in different places.
“-ality”, “gravity”, “rabbit he choked”, “mad but he won’t”, “that easy nope”, “he won’t have it he knows”, are all 3-or-greater syllabic end rhymes that occur in the same place in the beat.
“Bombs” and “On” are single syllable rhymes in the same place relative to the beat.
“Wrote Down”, “Whole Crowd”, “Grows so Loud” is a rhyme block because they are of the same musical duration and rhymes on the same syllable, simply moved around in relation to the beat, which is the same metrical transference we saw in Andre.
Do you get the picture?
But what really interests me is how, in the first half of this verse, Eminem moves from one rhyme group to the next.
Kanye moved from rhymes on the same vowel sound, called a “rhyme group” to the next, with no transition. He simply made a rhyme on one sound, then moved on. For instance, he rhymes “They be asking us questions, harass and arREST us / Saying, ‘We eat pieces of shit like you for BREAKFAST’ / Huh, y’all eat pieces of shit? What’s the BASIS / We ain’t going nowhere but got suites and CASES”, where arrest and breakfast form their own rhyme group, and basis and cases form their own rhyme group. And because they follow one right after the other, we can say that Kanye’s form of rhyme linking can be represented by ABCD, where each letter represents their own rhyme group. Andre did something similar.
Mos, however, made rhymes on only one rhyme group. This would mean that he could be represented by the form AAAA, because all of the rhymes are the same.
Eminem, however, in this song is different. He interlinks his rhyme groups, a poetic technique known as “synchysis” in classical poetry like Vergil. This can be represented in the form ABAB. Poetry (…or rap) involving multiple synchyses would be represented as something like ABACCAB, or AABACBADC. Hm, I wonder what Eminem does…
In the above music, there are rhymes on an “-ah” sound (on the words/syllables palms, arms, vom, mom, calm, bombs, on), a “-eh” sound (swea-, hea-, swea-, -rea-, -ghe-, rea-,), and an “-ee” sound (knees, weak, -vy, -dy, -tti, -dy, keeps). Let’s call the first vowel sound group A, the second group B, and the third group C. The order of those syllables is, in the text: “Palms-swea-ty-knees-weak-arms-hea-vy-vom-swea-rea-dy-ghe-tti-calm-rea-dy-bombs-on.” Which would be represented by:
And that isn’t even counting the rhyme on “nervous” with “surface”, so really it’s:
which is an incredibly complex rhyme scheme, and differs greatly from the approach to order of rhymes from Kanye, Andre, AND Mos.
However, he’s also similar to them in other ways.
2.Eminem’s grammatical phrase groupings are similar to Andre’s and different from Kanye’s and Mos’, because they can also start and end anywhere.
Notice again how those curved lines representing sentences run right across, over, through, and down those bar lines. Similar to Andre, different from Kanye and Mos.
3.Eminem makes use of rhythmic phrases, again similar to Andre, but he places them in the same place relative to the beat.
Here, the rhythmic phrase is generally the following:
Which you can hear for yourself here:
Such as on, “there goes, gravity, oh!”, or “there goes, rabbit he choked”. Again, we know it’s a phrase from the rhymes on the same vowel sounds and the grouping informed by the grammatical syntax of Eminem’s words.
However, unlike Andre, he always places them in the same place relative to the beat. The third note of that archetypal phrase will always land on the beat.
That was a lot. But hopefully this gives you a greater appreciation for what it is rappers are doing, and teachers you a little bit about what kind of things to listen for when bumping your tracks.
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