Rapper's Flow Encyclopedia - 2pac

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GIMME ALL YOUR MONEY RIGHT EFFIN’ NOW

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

As usual, you can hear the song here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ay9BWM8lwOA

And get the lyrics on Rapgenius here.

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

I point out 2pac’s clarity of image only in order to start the discussion of the GOAT. In general, a rapper plays many parts: poet, musician, comedian, storyteller, actor, and more. In order to account for these varied roles, I like to separate the discussion of the GOAT into 3 separate Top 10 lists. The 3 lists are, “Greatest Storytellers of All Time”, “Greatest Rap Comedians of All Time,” and the “Greatest Technically Accomplished Rappers.” How a particular rapper ranks respectively on each separate list can then be used to more accurately determine how they should rank in the general list of “Greatest Rappers Of All Time.” The first and 3rd lists are self-explanatory by their titles, but the title of “comedian” includes all the jokes a rapper makes: puns, double entendres, jokes, everything.

I do this because it is the rare rapper who can rank very highly on all 3. For instance, Kanye absolutely is in the top 3 for “Greatest Comedians”, and probably the top 10 for “Storytellers”, if for nothing else besides his work on “College Dropout” (the songs “Family Business”, “Jesus Walks”, “All Falls Down”, and more). But on “Technically Accomplished”, while still being better than most, he would not make the Top 10 list at all. Big Sean might show up on “Comedians”, just barely, but he doesn’t come close to the other 2 lists. Common, meanwhile, would make the “Storytellers” list (“I Used To Love H.E.R.”), and make top 15 for “Technically Accomplished,” but as far as “Comedians” goes, I don’t see him showing up very high. (“Good rappers is hard to find…like the remote.” Eesh.)

So how does 2pac fit into this? As we’ve already established, he is an amazing storyteller (the “storyteller” does not have to necessarily refer to a story like “this happened, then this happened, then this guy did that thing.”) I think we can establish pretty objectively that he is the greatest rap storyteller of all time. As his resume, I submit no less than “Changes”, “Unconditional Love”, “Dear Mama”, “Brenda’s Got A Baby”, and “Life Goes On,” and those are only the best of the best. Possibly all of those chart as the greatest Top 10 “Rap Story” songs of all time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better example comes at the start of the 2nd verse. He starts off with a heavy amount of syllables, from “changes” to “races”.

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

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=fr6SrRQnZv4

You can see the section in question notated below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can examine it as much for yourself as you want, but the important points for Pac’s stats are:

  1. He has the shortest words used – from his lowest syllables per word.
  2. He has the lowest rhyme density – from the lowest % of syllables rhymed
  3. He has long, uniform sentences – from almost a 1 to 1 ratio of sentences to bars.

Those three statistics are roughly indicators of technical complexity. Thus, we see that Busta and MF DOOM are very technically complex, because DOOM has a higher syllable per word and a higher % of syllables rhymed, and Busta had 24 3-syllable rhymes in his rap on “Holla.” Therefore, we see that 2pac’s rhymes are generally on the simpler side.

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

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

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

If you enjoyed this, please consider donating to my kickstarter campaign, funding the publishing of my book, here. Because I gotta eat somehow, these analyses will only be available for a limited amount of time for free and online. Then, I will put them in the book and make my website subscription-based, while still leaving some articles up there for free, like the Kendrick Lamar one. Please help me turn my dream into a reality. Thanks!

-Martin

If you enjoyed this article, like the Composer’s Corner facebook page here or check out Martin’s blog, “Composer’s Corner”, found at http://www.rapanalysis.com, for more analysis on Nas, Eminem, Notorious B.I.G., Jean Grae, Common, Pharoahe Monch, and more. The Composer’s Corner blog deepens a listener’s appreciation for rap by showing exactly how it is one should listen to rap, and what to listen for in it. The blog features rap analysis, rap sheet music and notations, and more. Martin is a 2012 graduate of Duke University with a degree in music theory, and works as a freelance blog writer, composer, and producer. You can follow Martin on Twitter @composerscorner, or email him with questions or comments at martinedwardconnor@gmail.com.