Rapper's Flow Encyclopedia - Jean Grae

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In article 5 of my “30 Day Rap Analysis Extravaganza Bonanza” we will be taking a look at a rapper that, quite simply, everyone should know about. The fact that this woman – yes, woman — has to struggle to eat (figuratively) blows my mind when you consider some of the trash out there (Drake, current Lil Wayne…yeah, I went there.) She has a really interesting history, personally (daughter of jazz legends) and professionally (she once made a Craigslist post offering 16 bars for $800 to anyone who could pay), and I encourage you to look her up if her rap grabs and amazes you like it will.

Without any further delay, introducing: Miss Jean Grae. Let’s just get right to the music to give you some proof of what I’ve been saying.

The first of 3 transcriptions we’ll look at here comes from the song “Imagine”, from her mixtape “Cookies or Death”, at about 0:58.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=1i9U1Ue7PZM#t=55s

Get the Rapgenius lyrics here.

We’ll use techniques and tools that we’ve used over the past few days, like in my Notorious B.I.G. analysis or my MF DOOM analysis, to describe Jean’s rap flow here. The section in question from the song is notated below, where the greater-than signs underneath the black, circular noteheads on the line indicate rhymes:

If you count from the music above, you’ll see that in this rap of about 6 bars there are 63 notes/syllables. However, the amazing thing here is that a full 49 of those notes are rhymed. That means about 78% of the notes are rhymed, which over the 23 beats of music included here, works out to 8.4 rhymes per bar. (Devotees of this series will recall that a beat is simply a musical duration of time, like a second, and that 4 beats make up a bar, just like 60 seconds make up a minute.) Now, this is amazing. Consider that there are only 16 sixteenth notes per bar; this means that on average over half of them are rhymed. Compare that rate of 78% to what we’ve seen over my past 4 articles, on MF DOOM, Busta Rhymes, Notorious B.I.G., and 2pac (his article here):

There, the percent of syllables rhymed is 38% (Notorious B.I.G.), 30% (Busta), 45% (MF DOOM), and 25% (2pac). Well, Jean has way more rhymes than any of those, although it should be kept in mind that we are only examining specific sections of 3 different songs of hers, and not a complete song like I did for the others. I really would like to impress on the reader just how impressive that percentage of syllables rhymed is. I have a pretty extensive rap listening background, and I can say that no one else who I’ve heard tops this high concentration of rhymes in such a short amount of time, and very, very few even come close.

The one exception to that might be MF DOOM, but Jean negotiates the rhyme barrier much, much better than DOOM does. That is, she manages to drop an insane amount of rhymes while still staying on topic and rhyming about the same thing, and not veering off into different subjects or using excessive amounts of slang in order to keep rhyming. In contrast, for DOOM’s line, “Blues on L Juice”, from the “Vomitspit” analysis linked to above, there were 3 separate interpretations in the comments section. It could mean:

  1. Cops on “Looney Juice,” news not exposing the realities of police brutality. Snooze and all hell will break loose in your home.

  2. Crips on weed/beer, news not exposing the realities of gang culture. Snooze and all hell will break loose on your block.

  3. Depression after a high, news not exposing the realities of mental illness. Snooze and all hell will break loose in your head.

When really, the only thing I think that proves is that DOOM is really oblique in his narrative style.

But let’s take a look at the nature of Jean’s rhymes. Here, in “Imagine”, they are based on a large, rather strict order of vowel sounds that recur over and over, which I call block rhymes. Look at one of the first words Jean says: “homeostasis” (side bar: seriously, who even attempts to make a rhyme on the word homeostasis? How many rappers could even define homeostasis?). Jean rhymes off this word repeatedly: starting with “homeostasis”, we then have “chromeo bass riffs”, “homie don’t play this”, “no we won’t play this”, and so on. Because these 5 syllables always occur together, and because they are always rhymes on the same vowel sounds in the same order (oh – ee – oh – ay – ih, ex: ho — me — o — sta — sis), I have termed them “block rhymes”.

This is in contrast to another way of rhyming, like Eminem’s on “Lose Yourself” in the article examined here, where multiple vowel sounds do occur but they happen in different orders. For instance, Jean’s mode of rhyme linking, defined as how a rapper moves from one group of words all rhymed on the same sound to the next rhyme group, would be ABCDE/ABCDE/ABCDE/ABCDE, repeated 9 times altogether. There, A stands for the first vowel sound (oh), B for the second (-ee), C for the 3rd (oh), and so on. But Eminem’s, for instance, is:

ABCCCABCABBCABCDDDDABCAA

where, again, each letter stands for a different vowel sound. Note that the letters are in different orders across the whole rhyme series.

But Jean, by rhyming off a ridiculous word like homeostasis, shows that she does more than just throw in a ridiculous amount of rhymes while not making any verbal sense.

This idea of the rhyme barrier can be understood in practice, as well. When one chooses a word to rhyme off of, one immediately and by necessity restricts the number of different things one can say after that. For instance, if you say, “I’m the best rapper ever”, you’ve already limited yourself to next using words that rhyme only with “ever,” or “best”, or “I’m”, and so on.

Or so you’d think.

Because this limitation doesn’t seem to exist for Jean. She seems to always locate the exact words with the maximum amount of rhymes to say what she’s trying to say. There are an infinite amount of ways to express the same idea as “I define my place as homeostasis” – such as, “I chill out where things are even” — but she comes up with the one way to say it that fits in the most amount of rhymes. The interaction between what ideas she wants to express and the exact words she uses to express them is flawless. It should be very, very clear that this is not true for all rappers, as we’ll see.

I hate to pick on him, because usually I really like what Busta Rhymes does, such as in this article here, but let’s consider one of his rhymes that displays the limitation just previously discussed. On the song “Get You Some”, from the album “The Big Bang”, Busta begins the 2nd verse like so:

“A lot of niggas shit sounds dated /

I’m like Shaq, the franchise player just got traded /

To the number one team in the league, I ain’t on

J records, I’m on Dre records, Aftermath bitch!”

If you look at this whole rhyme, what I said before starts to make sense. It’s pretty easy to see that the main purpose of the rhyme is to express how Busta feels about leaving one record label for another. Busta is saying he’s just like Shaq, who left the Orlando Magic for the very good LA Lakers, just like Busta left Jay Records for the industry leading Aftermath Records in 2004. The first line Busta started writing these 4 lines with was “I’m like Shaq, the franchise player just got traded.” We know this because the first line of the rap is only tangentially related to the topic at hand that Busta is discussing in the second half of the lines from above. He says, “A lot of niggas shit sounds dated.” What the hell does that have to do with Busta leaving J records for Aftermath? Well, nothing. We can see that all of the verbal material is not tightly related. It comes in bits and pieces. He started with the line “I’m like Shaq, the franchise player just got traded,” then looked around for any word that rhymes with the word “traded.” He found “dated” and so came up with the 4 lines given above.

Again, I regret mentioning Busta in a negative context. I’ve even given him praise for moving rap forward as an art form in this article here, on what the rap of the future might sound like.

Busta’s lines might not be the most glaring example of a bad negotiation of the rhyme barrier, but it does illustrate what we were talking about before from the opposite point of view. Busta immediately limited his options when he started with the line “I’m like Shaq, the franchise player just got traded,” and then worked from there. This exact thing just doesn’t seem to happen for JG. All of her lines in these examples are closely related, and they all lead clearly in their ideas from one to the next.

Finally, we should mention that Jean manages an astounding 14 rhymed syllables in a row, from “phony oasisis” to “chrome to yo faces.” Not too shabby. Furthermore, that 5-syllable block rhyme is the 2nd longest rhyming block I’ve ever seen, after examining no less than Eminem, Nas, Common, Pharoahe Monche, Big Sean, Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes, Notorious B.I.G., 2pac, Game, Kanye West, Mos Def, Pitbull – just kidding – AND Andre 3k. But who has the longest rhyming block I’ve ever seen, no less than 8 syllables? Oh shit!

That’s Jean Grae too!

Seriously, this is the level she’s playing at. So why are people still, as Jean raps on one of her songs, “bound to be clowned for including me in your rap list / of the top motherfuckers who ass kick / not that the statement’s not accurate / it’s just that motherfuckers need to face the facts a bit!” Agreed Jean, agreed.

The next example comes from Jean’s mixtape as well, from the song “Casebasket”. We want the raps that occur at about 0:53. Hear the song here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=7o87UBg3-68#t=53s

Get the Rapgenius lyrics here.

And see the notation below:

In this section, there are 71 notes, with 54 rhymes. That means 75% of the notes are rhymed — again, another amazing percentage. That means that, over 4 bars, there are 12 rhymes per bar. Here, she manages to start the verse off with 20 (yes, 20) straight rhymes, starting with the syllable “mis-“ from the word “misconstrued”, and ending on the word “fools.” Jean also rhymes in a rhyme block again. This time, its “misconstrued, miss my aim you lose” with “kiss the shoes, diss my name, hiss boos!”, where every syllable is rhymed with the syllable that is in the same position in the other block. For instance, “mis-” with “kiss”, “-con-” with “the”, and so on. However, this time the rhyme block is 8 syllables long, instead of 5. THAT is the longest rhyming block I’ve ever seen, and I extremely doubt that there is another longer one out there.

She also displays her ability to nest rhymes inside other ones. That is, the rhyme penning/venting occurs inside the rhyme between “tune” and “booze.” Furthermore, the same principles at work in the example from “Imagine” are at play here. There is the ridiculous amount of rhymes in a very short amount of time, while all of the verbal material is tightly related.

However, I have saved the best for last. Study these 4 bars from the song “Uh Oh”, featuring Talib Kweli (although it is really off Talib’s album “Gutter Rainbows.”) It occurs at about 0:53.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=7KyW7_E9WIs#t=54s

Rapgenius lyrics here.

And notation here:

There are 58 notes in those 4 bars. And there are 48 rhymes. That works out to a rate of 83% of syllables being rhymed. And, occurring over 16 beats, there are 13.28 rhymes per bar. 13.28. More than ¾ of the bar. I’ve also erred on the side of too few rhymes rather than too many rhymes, just so that the effect of what exactly Jean is doing comes across as strongly as possible. For instance, one could argue for a rhyme on the syllable “con-” from the word “convertible”, because of it’s repetition in “confirm” and because of alliteration with the word “cardio”, but I decided against it to guard against inflated rhyme stats. (Because like with most things, there is an amount of interpretation that goes into choosing what notes are rhymed and which aren’t.)

Compare this rate to others: look at rappers who are considered all-time greats going back to the early 80s era, the so-called Golden Age of rap. On average, their raps all had rhymes only at the end of lines; that would mean a rate of 1 rhyme per 1 bar. Jeanie raps at a rate that’s more than 13 times that. The Golden Age rappers are still important, of course, because they built the foundation on which rappers like Jean Grae could later build their more complex flows.

It should also be noted that the examples examined above aren’t isolated instances, either. I chose only what I thought were the best ones, although they can be found all over her work. For instance, on “You Don’t Want It”, from her album “This Week”, she raps, “I’m THE ORATOR with THE SMORGASBORD FOR you in YOUR CORRIDOR / with YOUR fuTURE CORONER’S REPORT.” I’ll let you figure that one out.

It really is amazing — and kind of disheartening — that an emcee who is this good isn’t universally recognized. Just from what I’ve seen, Jean has to be in the top 3 of the greatest rappers of all time, and rather easily. But please, please, please support her. You can find her mixtape online, and she’s coming out with the album “Cake Or Death” soon. Go buy it! And check out her album “This Week.” You can also go to her bandcamp here, where you can buy her album “Dust Ruffle”.

Finally, I’d like to thank Jean for “putting me on”, a phrase I hate to use and wouldn’t care if it was struck from hip-hop vocab (along with “I got bars.”) Before I was big and famous and rich as shit like I am now she re-tweeted my work — which you can see below — after I took a snowball-in-hell chance and sent it to her, which really made me think that I had something here. She also gave me, a nobody, a 2-hour interview, just because she loves music so much.

Thanks.

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.