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The question of influence is always a tricky one to discuss in rap music. This is true for a lot of reasons. One of them is that there is no established educational path a person takes to become a rapper: there are no rapper schools, or private rap lessons that you can take with accomplished rappers. Every classically trained musician will study the music of J.S. Bach, a 17th century German composer who literally wrote the book (or music, I guess) on classical music. But modern rap is a much younger art form when compared to classical music, and doesn’t necessarily have the benefit of hindsight from centuries later to see who was important and who isn’t.
Another reason that makes influence in rap tricky is the fact that the overall rap genre is divided into subgenres based primarily on the musical accompaniment to the rappers, and not necessarily on the rappers style’s themselves. There are the categories of alternative rap, trap, G-funk, and so on, but they’re divided mostly based on how their beats sound. G-funk beats are smooth, trap beats go hard, and whatever else you want to say, while rappers move around through each genre easily. But there is no specific genre like a “Complex Rhythms” one that I’d put MF DOOM or Talib Kweli in, or a “Complex Rhymers” genre that I’d put Jean Grae and Eminem in. And in which of those groups would I place someone like Earl Sweatshirt?
This two-part article is in celebration of his long-awaited second album, Doris, which comes out on August 20. In this first part, we’re gonna go back and see where Earl started from on his aptly named song “Earl,” from his 2010 album Earl. I’ll describe the characteristics of Earl’s rap, and then see what other rapper’s style Earl’s rap is similar to. To see how Earl may have influenced the music that came out after him, we’ll end with a look at Chicago rapper R.ichard Oasis' flow on his 2013 song, “My Degree,” and his new song “Taxi” that was produced by Ski Beatz, the same guy who did heavy work on Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt album.
Part 2 of this article is a discussion of how Earl’s intricately crafted rhythms actually transform the music we hear, and you can read it on my main website here.
You can hear “Earl” on YouTube here:
And get the RapGenius lyrics to “Earl” here.
Let’s start by comparing Earl’s rap stats to the other rappers I’ve analyzed before. I’ve written articles on Busta Rhymes, Notorious B.I.G., MF DOOM, 2pac, Talib Kweli, and Rock, and you can find them all at http://www.RapAnalysis.com. Check out the chart below, and try to guess what rapper most primarily influenced Earl based on how similar their stats are, before I reveal a possible answer later on:
The stats from Earl that jump out at you immediately are his very low number of sentences per bar (.087), and his very high rate of syllables per sentence (15.70), which are indicated by their respective red coloring (pointing out the lowest recorded value of a specific stat) and blue coloring (pointing out the highest recorded value for a specific stat.) The “bar” in “sentences per bar” refers to the musical unit of time that repeats over and over in music. Since a bar is always the same length of time, that means that we can use it to compare rappers across their different songs, just like an hour is used to measure miles per hour for different objects in motion because an hour always lasts the same amount of time.
Earl’s .087 is the lowest sentences per bar we’ve ever seen, and 15.70 is the highest number of syllables per sentence we’ve seen. Not only are Earl’s SPB (sentences per bar) and syllables per sentence (SPS) at the extreme ends of the ranges we see, but they are extremely at the extreme end of the ranges. His .087 SPB is 22% lower than the 2nd lowest value for that stat, Talib Kweli’s 1.11 SPB, and his 15.70 SPS is 23% above the next highest value for that stat, MF DOOM’s 12.76 SPS.
Now, how does Earl not only approach these extremes, but does so to such a great extent over these other rappers?
The answer is because of the unique way in which Earl splits up the beat. As I’ve explained before, a beat is simply a musical duration of time that always lasts the same amount of time within the same song. In that way, it’s similar to a second: they both always last the same amount of time, and both repeat over and over. These are the two important characteristics to a beat in rap music that you need to remember:
- They always last the same amount of time.
- They repeat over and over.
A beat in rap music is usually divided into 4 parts, which are called 16th notes. Four of those beats make up a bar, and because each of those beats has 4 16th notes, there are 16 16th notes to a bar (makes sense, doesn’t it?) The 4 beats in a bar are referred to, in order, as beat 1, beat 2, beat 3, and beat 4. Most rappers, like Notorious B.I.G., have 4 16th notes to a beat. You can hear what that sounds like in the video below. The 4 16th notes in the same beat are always connected across the top of the black circular note heads by those horizontal bars, which are called beams, and are only connected to each other within the same beat. If there are two horizontal beams over the notes, like on the lyrics “sicker than your” in the video below, it means that those notes are 16th notes. Where one bar starts and the next one ends is denoted by the vertical lines along the music, such as between “twist” and “cabbage.” You only need to watch a few seconds of each video here to get the gist of it. The rapper’s rhythms are played by the triangle, and those repeating, identical beats are played by the low bass kick drum. And in any music I quote exactly or show in a picture or video, the rhymed words are always capitalized:
However, rappers don’t always have to divide the beat into 4 parts. Some rappers, like Big Boi below, divide them into 3 parts or 6 parts. Those divisions are indicated by the 3s and 6s above the notes, such as on the words “now is the time to,” or on “get on the” in the video below. Since 4 is the normal division of a beat, no number 4 is indicated over that kind of note head, such as in Notorious B.I.G.’s video, or in Big Boi’s video below on his lyrics “get your work and.”
Rappers can also divide beats into 5 or 7 parts, as MF DOOM does below:
But Earl doesn’t divide a single beat into 3, 4, 6, or 7 parts, as Notorious, Big Boi, or MF DOOM does. He divides TWO beats into 9 16th notes, instead of two beats into 8 16th notes. Let’s see how Earl’s noctuplets (a word that comes from the Latin word for “nine”) make the music feel differently from those normal 8 16th notes per 2 beats.
In the video below, the underlying beat is played by the lower bass kick drum, while the triangle is playing the rhythms shown on the horizontal music line. First a bar of normal quarter notes are played, than a bar of normal 8th notes, than a bar of normal 16th notes. In the 2 bars after that, where I play a bar full of 2 noctuplet 16th note rhythms, feel how those notes come quicker than those 16-16th-notes-to-a-bar rhythms without the “9” above them come. I play those a bar full of those normal 16th notes again after the bar that has all of the noctuplet 16th notes.
Earl uses a lot of different rhythms in this rap, as we’ll see soon. But they always feel like they’re flowing because they are always explainable inside of that noctuplet division. And, because Earl divides the bar into 18 16th notes rather than the 16 16th notes of most rap, he has more rhythmic places in order to put notes/syllables. That’s what makes his syllables per sentence, 15.70, so high. And, while he has made his rhythms very, very complex, he has actually kept his sentence structure and length really simple in comparison to his rhythms and rhymes. His sentences almost always start and end according to where bars start and end. For instance, check out these 6 bars, his rap from “sent to earth” to “addict’s arm.” Sentences in the music below are marked off from each other by those long curving lines underneath the music, such as from “twisted sicker” to “plastered on.“ Look how the sentences always start and end according to where the bars start and end, which is represented by those vertical lines on the right, such as between "and” and “knock.” Each sentence, such as the one from “sent to earth” to “laugh it off,” are exactly 2 bars.
Earl mixes the simple with the complex so that the listener doesn’t have too much disparate information thrown at them all at once that would overload the ear. He has less than 1 sentence per bar, as we see from his 0.87 SPB and the music above. He even has one sentence that lasts 4 bars in the above music, the lines “earl puts the ass in assassin / and puts the pieces of decomposing bodies in plastic / Then puts ‘em in a pan and mixes it up with scat then / gobbles it like fat black bitches and catfish.”
None of this even mentions Earl’s amazing rhyme skills. It’s similar to what we’ve seen before from the likes of Eminem, Jean Grae, or Mos Def, with their high rhyme density, use of complex rhyme blocks, and loads of consecutive rhymes. But those other rappers didn’t pull off such amazing rhymes in the context of the complex noctuplet rhythms we’ve seen from Earl. Earl even has the second highest percentage of his syllables rhymed in the initial chart I showed, his 41% being slightly behind MF DOOM’s 45%. However, I prefer Earl’s negotiation of the rhyme barrier to be more satisfying than MF DOOM’s, because Earl stays more on topic and actually talks about things that are more easily followed from one idea to the next.
A hallmark of Earl’s rhyming style is the fact that most of his rhymes are not exact rhymes. An exact rhyme is rhyming something like “cat” with “bat.” So an exact rhyme from Earl would be something like “i’m off six different liquors with a BIG WIG plastered on,” instead of “i’m off six different liquors with a PRINCE WIG plastered on.” He makes rhymes that just use the same vowel sound (the “-ih” sound in the prince/wig example), but they aren’t exact rhymes. Some people call this repetition of vowel sounds assonance, but I just consider them a different form of rhymes than exact rhymes.
Compared to other rappers, Earl also makes more use of consonance, which is the repetition of consonant sounds in a word. For instance, he rhymes “Stop Screaming bitCH you Shouldn’t…”, where the S sound is repeatedly used, or “and PUTS the PIECES of decomPosing bodies in Plastic,” where the P sound is repeated. He also does the same at “i Puke a Piece and Put it on a hook.” There are other examples in the song as well.
There are a few really impressive parts of his verse on “Earl” that puts the LA artist in the best of company in the rapping world. The rhyme group of astronaut/crashing while/jacking off/asher roth/apple sauce/ass with saws/laugh it off/fact I’m off/plastered on/that alarmed/attic armed/addict’s arm, is a 3-syllable block rhyme that he uses over a full 8 bars, in the opening part of his first verse. They are what I call a rhyme group because they are rhymes on the same vowel sound in the same order and always last a similar amount of syllables, in an “ah-X-aw” vowel sound pattern. (There, the X represents a vowel sound that changes from one block to the next.) Earl does something similar towards the end of his first verse on the song, on the rhyme group of suck it up/nuts to bust/butts to fuck/ups to shut/upper cut/butter cup/fuck with us/motherfucked/couple bucks/up her butt/guts for lunch/ruptured cunt/something’s up/nothing much/other stuff/-nough of us, which is also a 3-syllable block rhyme, but carried out over an even longer 10 bars this time.
Earl’s densest series of rhymes comes inside that second rhyme group, on the lines “SUCK it UP BUT hurry i got NUTS TO BUST and BUTTS TO FUCK / and UPS TO SHUT and SLUTS to FUCKing UPPERCUT,” where there are 18 rhymed syllables in 27 total syllables.
So, all of the signature characteristics of Earl’s rap we’ve jsut identified are:
- Complex rhythms
- Extended block rhymes
- A high rhyme density
- A loose negotiation of the rhyme barrier
- Long, simple sentences
You can see all of those characteristics in action in the below video demonstration of Earl’s first 32 bars from the song “Earl.” It’s a video that plays his rhythms on the high triangle sound while the low bass kick drum plays the repetitive, identical beats on which rap music is built.
So, who is Earl similar to?
The above characteristics of rap could all be applied to MF DOOM, with who, interestingly enough, Earl has an unreleased, unnamed collaboration track that surfaced recently at Flying Lotus concerts. You can see the video here. Earl has been compared to MF DOOM before, but I couldn’t find any quotes from Earl speaking directly about MF DOOM.
But how has Earl and his 2010 song “Earl” affected the music that came out after him?
Similar to the theme of my Rock from Heltah Skeltah analysis article here, it’s time to find out about some new music. This artist is someone who I’ve been working with for a month or two now, and while he came to me already knowing everything pretty much, he’s also picked up on a thing or two since then. I bring him up only because of how similar he is to Earl, as you’ll soon see.
In a desert of abstract rap music, there is R.ichard Oasis — don’t forget the period.
The song from him we’ll be taking a look at is the freestyle “My Degree,” produced by Audio Games and released in April 2013. You can hear it on YouTube here:
You can get the full RapGenius lyrics here.
We’re gonna take a look at the first 9 bars from “My Degree.” Here are the stats from that part of Oasis' song, alongside the other rappers from before:
Now, just 9 bars of a complete song is kind of a small sample to look at, but what we say here still holds true for the rest of Oasis' track as well.
The thing that really jumps out at you from the above chart is that Oasis’ Syllables Per Bar value, 14.11, is closest to that of a stylistic influence on Earl, MF DOOM, who has a SPB of 14.15. Just like Earl, Oasis has a high SPB because of how he divides his beats into the same exact noctuplets that Earl uses. Both songs are even at the same tempo speed: 78 BPM. Earl and Oasis are the only two artists I know of who use noctuplets to such an extent.
You can see how Rich’s rhythms both look and sound similar to Earl’s rhythms on “Earl” in the video below, which plays the first 9 bars of Rich’s song “My Degree:”
From the above video, we can also see that R.ichard Oasis’ sentences per bar and syllables per sentence are closest in value to…yep, Earl Sweatshirt. We can see that in action in the music below, which are the opening 3 bars of Rich’s rap. The sentence “I found my…” to “his scrapbook” lasts 2 full bars.
In bars 4-7 of Rich’s rap, we see that Rich’s sentences are just as long or even longer than Earl’s. The sentence starting “in fact a…” and ending with “…give in the office” lasts a full 4 bars.
And just like Earl, Oasis also starts and ends his sentences according to where bars start and end; the above sentence does just that.
Finally, just like Earl and MF DOOM, Rich Oasis’ negotiation of the rhyme barrier is rather loose as well. To me, it falls somewhere between Earl’s approach to staying on topic and MF DOOM’s own approach to staying on topic. Oasis moves logically from one subject to the next, but the connections are rather tangential. It perfectly fits the title of the album that “My Degree” appears on, which is Figments Of A Drunken Mastermind’s Imagination. All of the images Rich evokes — being back in school, pranks, maybe a description of going to school or work — seem like jagged images that are simply snapshots of a whole bunch of different events.
However, Oasis is different from MF DOOM and Earl in important ways. Primarily, this difference comes from how many fewer rhymes he uses. His percentage of rhymed sylllables that you see in the chart from before is identical to Busta Rhymes’ own percentage on his song “Holla,” and Rich’s rate is close as well to that of Talib Kweli. Rich has a percentage of 30% of his syllables being rhymed, Busta has 30%, and Talib has 28%. However, Earl has a rate of 41%, and MF DOOM has 45%. The last two rappers make use of complex block rhymes, but Rich sticks mostly to single or double-syllable rhymes, such as on the rhyme groups options/office/office or me/leave/-deed/need:
So, it seems that R.ichard Oasis is a combination of a 1990s rhyming technique, as I explain in my Notorious B.I.G. article here, and Earl’s or MF DOOM’s approach to the rhyme barrier, sentence structure, and complex rhythms.
So now we can see a little better how influence works itself out in art. It’s not a simple “Earl + MF DOOM + Talib Kweli = R.ichard Oasis” type formula. The boundaries between all of the characteristics of their rap are much more fluid than what that equation represents. Because while Oasis likely heard all of those rappers before he made “My Degree,” he also added his own flavors to the song. And who can say where one artist starts, and where another’s own contributions begin? If MF DOOM influenced Earl, then someone influenced MF DOOM, and someone influenced that rapper, and so on and so forth back through all of history. Where does it end? Is there even such a thing as true artistic originality? I won’t even try to take on that question right now.
If you want to check out more R.ichard Oasis stuff, head over to the YouTubes and check out his new new song “Taxi,” which was produced by Ski Beatz, who was also made beats on Reasonable Doubt.
You can also like the Oasis facebook page here.
Now armed with this newfound appreciation of how Earl’s rap works, go appreciate Earl’s Doris album even more, dammit!
Or check out part 2 of this analysis here.
-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 one should listen to rap, and what to listen for in it. The blog features rap analysis, rap sheet music and notations, free rap lessons and more. Martin is a 2012 graduate of Duke University with a degree in music theory, and works as a freelance blog writer, composer, producer, and manager for up and coming artists like R.ichard Oasis. You can follow Martin on Twitter @composerscorner, or email him with questions or comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.