Academic journal article Music Theory Online

On the Metrical Techniques of Flow in Rap Music

Academic journal article Music Theory Online

On the Metrical Techniques of Flow in Rap Music

Article excerpt

[1] This article explores the concept of flow in rap, a term which I use to encompass all of the ways in which a rapper uses rhythm and articulation in his/her lyrical delivery. Flow is perhaps best introduced using two examples of strikingly different types. The first, presented as Example 1a, is the opening verse of "Basketball," from the 1984 album Ego Trip by Curtis Walker, who rapped under the name Kurtis Blow.(2)

[2] The second example, presented as 1b, is the third verse from the song "Wu-Gambinos" from the album Only Built 4 Cuban Linx by Raekwon the Chef (1995). Raekwon is a member of the rap collective known as the Wu-Tang Clan, and as is typical, other members of the Wu-Tang Clan rap on most of the songs from this album. This verse is performed by Robert Diggs, founder of the Wu-Tang Clan, who raps under the name "The RZA" (pronounced Rizz-a).

Example 1a. Kurtis Blow, "Basketball" (1984), 0:25-0:43

(click to enlarge and hear the accompanying audio)

Example 1b. Wu-Tang Clan, "Wu-Gambinos" (1995),

third verse (the RZA) 2:56-3:35(3)

(click to enlarge and hear the accompanying audio)

[3] The differences in style between these two verses are fairly obvious. "Basketball" relies on rhymed couplets falling in predictable rhythmic locations. Its text has a square, regular rhythm, even where it is syncopated, and Walker never subdivides the beat into values shorter than a sixteenth. The verse from "Wu-Gambinos," on the other hand, is delivered in an increasingly manic, irregular rhythm, with many thirty-second notes and irregular beat subdivisions, and with rhyming and accented syllables in unpredictable locations. In order to explore these differences in more detail, Examples 1c and 1d present the lyric charts for both verses again, with some of the syllables highlighted for emphasis. Rhymed syllables have been color-coded. The colors were chosen arbitrarily, but all rhymed syllables have matching colors. Accented syllables are written in boldface capital letters.

Example 1c. Lyric chart for "Basketball,"

showing accented and rhyming syllables

(click to enlarge and hear the accompanying audio)

Example 1d. Lyric chart for "Wu-Gambinos," third verse,

showing accented and rhyming syllables

(click to enlarge and hear the accompanying audio)

[4] These lyric charts highlight the differences in the two styles. In their treatment of accented syllables, the two verses begin similarly, reinforcing the meter by placing accents on the beats. But while Walker's verse continues this pattern, Diggs' verse soon eliminates accents almost completely, in favor of a more stream-of-consciousness delivery that greatly weakens the sense of metrical organization in the lyrics. The lyric charts do bring to light one surprising similarity between the two rappers' deliveries: the placement of pairs of rhymed syllables on or near successive fourth beats. For Walker, as with many early-1980s rappers, this is a style trademark, since no other rhymed syllables occur in the verse. In Diggs' verse, on the other hand, these potential rhymed couplets become lost in the sea of rhymed syllables in other metric locations, to the point that the rhymed syllables on the fourth beat seem almost to be happenstance. This is due to several features of his delivery. First, the fact that the rhymes are usually multisyllabic means that rhymes occurring on or near the fourth beat are likely to contain some syllables either before or after them. Second, the rhymed syllables themselves may only be part of a word or phrase (like "bicentennial" in line 13), with the unaccented part of the word or phrase falling on the beat and thereby de-emphasizing it. Third, and most important, is the RZA's constant use of enjambment,(4) or a syntactic connection that overrides a metrical boundary. The effect created by enjambment is that even where rhymed syllables fall on the fourth beat, they are perceived as being in the middle of a larger unit that continues into the next line. …

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