Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Rap Music Analysis - Black Hippy

-Steven Bruno is a 22 year old author from Toronto Canada who writes short scary stories, you can find his work on his blog Blood In My Pen.”

Black Hippy Analysis: Kendrick Lamar & Ab-Soul


Intro:
This article was written to compare and contrast each member of the rap group Black Hippy and highlight the differences and similarities in their lyrical ability and content. I’ve chosen to split this article into two parts: the first centering on Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul and the second comparing Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock. The reason I’ve chosen to do this is simple: Kendrick has a lot more in common with Ab-Soul (in terms of their technical ability, what they rap about, their use of metaphors, etc) than he does with either Schoolboy or Jay Rock. Schoolboy Q on the other hand has a style that is more similar to Jay Rock than it is to Kendrick or Ab-Soul. This article aims to point out the more subtle differences between two similar rappers instead of the more obvious differences between two rappers who are not that much alike.

This brings me to another detail that I should mention. Before you begin reading, you must realize that each member of Black Hippy imitates eachother’s style to a certain extent across the whole of their music. They have spent countless hours in and out of the studio together, so it is expected that they have inspired eachother’s flows to a small degree. What this article tries to focus on is how the rappers tend to rap, or what techniques make up their own unique signature style. Okay, now let’s start with a (very) brief history of Black Hippy and the rappers we will be looking at in this article: Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul.

Black Hippy was formed in 2009 and consists of rappers Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Schoolboy Q and Jay Rock, who are all signed to the label Top Dawg Entertainment. The group was purposefully formed after each artist had established themselves individually, which was revealed by Kendrick in this interview. “We had a plan with this shit. We said we was gonna get each individual artist off first, let the world identify them with these artists, and at the end, bring them together was a collective.” Each artist has publicly stated that they doubt a Black Hippy album will come to fruition, and Ab-Soul has jokingly called it “Detox 2” (the joke being that it will never come out).

Kendrick Lamar Duckworth is a 27-year-old (born June 17, 1987) rapper from Compton, California. He released his mixtape “Youngest Head Nigga in Charge (Hub City Threat: Minor of the Year)” under his rap name K-Dot in 2003 while he was just 16 years old. This led to him securing a contract with Top Dawg Entertainment. He changed his name to Kendrick Lamar soon after he dropped his 2009 mixtape “C4”.  His most widely known records are “Section.80” (2011) and “good kid, m.A.A.d city” (2012).

Herbert Anthony Stevens IV is a 27-year-old (born February 23, 1987) rapper from Los Angeles, California. Shortly after his birth, he moved to Germany with his family until he was 5 years old, when he moved back to a suburban area of California. At ten years old he was diagnosed with Steven-Johnson syndrome, which is a rare condition that is responsible for his dark lips and light sensitive eyes (hence his nickname “black lip bastard” and the fact that he is always wearing sunglasses). He recorded his first song in 2002 but didn’t sign to TDE until 2007. He released his first mixtape “Longterm” (one of four) in 2009 and then his second one, “Longterm 2: Lifestyles of the Broke and Almost Famous” in 2010. His first studio album “Longterm Mentality” was released in 2011, followed by “Control System” and “These Days…” in 2012 and 2014, respectively.


FLOW:
Let’s start off by taking a look at Kendrick’s flow. I think it’s safe to say that Kendrick is a very complex and unique rapper. He’s able to weave bars and rhyming patterns together so effortlessly that you often cannot detect where exactly he transitioned from one pattern into to another without taking a closer look at his lyrics. There are a few general techniques that he utilizes when writing lyrics, and I think an examination of the first verse of the song “Rigamortus” will help serve as an introduction into identifying these techniques.

            [and this is RIGAMORTUS and it's GORGEOUS when you DIE]
      [ali RECORDED, and i'm MORPHEUS, the MATRIX OF MY MIND]
      [i'm out the ORBIT, you an ORPHAN and a hairdresser COMBINED]
      [i'm on the TOILET when I RHYME, if you the SHIT THEN I DECLINE]
      [i CLIMAX where you BEGIN and then i END on CLOUD NINE]
      [and that's IMPORTANT when you MORPH INto a ANGEL IN THE SKY]
     
If you haven’t heard the verse before, I highly suggest listening to it before continuing with this article, which will emphasize how smoothly he blends together each rhyming pattern. Although this song is not a prime example of the speed he usually rhymes at, it does showcase a few important pieces that contribute to his signature style.

First let’s break down and categorize some of these rhyming patterns. Although I capitalized every rhyming word, is it still difficult to see on the surface exactly where each pattern intersects and combines to form a new pattern. If we start with the first line,

[and this is RIGAMORTUS and it's GORGEOUS when you DIE]

you can already see two patterns begin to emerge. We can classify Pattern A as words containing both the long –o sound and the short –u sound and Pattern B as words containing the long –I sound.



Pattern A
Pattern B
(long –o, short –u)
(long –i)
rigamortus
die
gorgeous








The structure of the bar is pretty simple here. He uses two internal rhymes containing two rhyming syllables and one end rhyme containing one rhyming syllable. Let’s look at the next line:

[ali RECORDED, and i'm MORPHEUS, the MATRIX OF MY MIND]

Here he adds two words to Pattern A ([RECORDED] and [MORPHEUS]) but pay attention to the rest of the bar. [MIND] is a close family rhyme of [DIE], so it fits perfectly into Pattern B. But [MATRIX IN MY MIND] as a whole rhymes with [ANGEL IN THE SKY], which he spits four bars later, and integrates the one syllable rhyme from Pattern B (the long –i) into a new three syllable pattern (long –a, short –e, long –I, if we ignore the syllables in [IN], [MY] and [THE]), which we’ll call Pattern C. A lot of popular rappers do this, but what makes Kendrick’s approach so unique is the consistency of which he utilizes this technique. In the next few lines he sandwiches the same type of combination pattern in between Pattern C. Let’s quickly categorize the rhymes in the next line first before addressing this:

[i'm out the ORBIT, you an ORPHAN and a hairdresser COMBINED]


[ORBIT] and [ORPHAN] both loosely fit into Pattern A because he stresses the long –o syllable in each, and [COMBINED] can fit into Pattern B because [-BINED] stresses the long –i sound. [hairdresser] does not rhyme with [ANGEL IN THE] at all, so it cannot be put into pattern C.

He follows the same structure basic structure as the first bar, using two words from Pattern A in an internal rhyme and one word from Pattern B as an end rhyme. Again, this is nothing too out of the ordinary for a skilled rapper. So:


Pattern A
Pattern B
Pattern C
(long –o, short –u)
(long –i)
(long –a, short –e, long –i)
rigamortus
die
matrix in my mind
gorgeous
mind
angel in the sky
recorded
combined

morpheus
sky

orbit


orphan


But the real genius lays in the next few bars.

[i'm on the TOILET when i RHYME, if you the SHIT THEN I DECLINE]
[i CLIMAX where you BEGIN and then i END ON CLOUD NINE]

Here he changes the structure of the bar a bit, while adding a third multisyllable rhyming pattern that utilizes words from Pattern B. Instead of internally rhyming two words from Pattern A, only one word belongs to the pattern this time ([TOILET]) and the second word belongs to Pattern B ([RHYME]). His entirely new pattern (Pattern D) is created when he rhymes [SHIT THEN I DECLINE] with [END ON CLOUD NINE] (the short –o vowel is [CLOUD] is stressed almost like a short –e sound, which rhymes with the short –e vowel from [DECLINE]). This new pattern is created in between Pattern C ([MATRIX IN MY MIND] and [ANGEL IN THE SKY]).

But that’s not all he does. He transitions to the next bar by stressing the long –I vowel in [climax] at the beginning of the bar, which is stressed in [DECLINE] at the end of the previous bar. [Climax] does not belong to any pattern, but carries the same vowel sound and two of the same consonants in the same order (“cl-”). This is part of a larger technique that Kendrick uses to transition between bars that I will talk about more in depth later. The bar also contains two internal rhymes [BEGIN] and [END], which belong in an entirely new pattern themselves but also fit into Pattern D. Then he finally returns to the structure that he used in the second bar with:

[and that's IMPORTANT when you MORPH INto a ANGEL IN THE SKY]

by utilizing two words from pattern A and then ending it with pattern C.

So now the his rhymes could be categorized as:

``Pattern A
Pattern B
Pattern C
Pattern D
Pattern E
(long –o, short –u)
(long –i)
(long –a, short –e, long –i)
(short –i, short –e, long –i)
(short –i)
rigamortus
die
matrix in my mind
shit then i decline
shit
gorgeous
mind
angel in the sky
end on cloud nine
begin
recorded
combined


end
morpheus
rhyme



orbit
decline



orphan
nine



toilet
sky



important




morph in-





Or if looked at differently:

A
A
B

A
A
C

A
A
B

A
B
E
B
E
E
B

A
A
C


He manages to create 5 different rhyming schemes in 6 bars and continues to create and intermingle new ones during the rest of the verse, all while staying inside the 4/4 time signature. He consistently hits anywhere from 14-17 syllables per bar, going as high as 21 syllables per bar in the second verse. This may be 10 syllables fewer than the fast part of Eminem’s Rap God but it’s still a respectable number to hit, especially considering how smoothly he integrates his different patterns together and how efficiently he creates new ones.  

So how does Ab-Soul’s style compare to Kendrick’s? Let’s take a look at the first verse of one of his most well known songs “Pineal Gland”:

*Side Note: As I said in the introduction to this article, each member of Black Hippy has their own unique style, but you can also hear them copy and emulate eachother’s techniques during their songs. I did not choose to look at “Pineal Gland” as a comparison to “Rigamortus”, I chose it to serve as an overall look into Ab-Soul’s unique flow and how he raps in general. Try to read this verse in Kendrick’s voice or any verse from “Rigamortus” in Ab-Soul’s voice; you simply cannot do it. This is because these two songs perfectly encapsulate each rapper’s distinct style, whereas the first two verses of “Say Wassup” are a lot more interchangeable, for example.*

[it was all a dream, i swear it NEVER HAPPENED]
[i WROTE LIKE EDGAR ALLAN, i was PO' LIKE EDGAR ALLAN]
[let me hit the WEED, you know i really NEED THAT]
[MISSING SCREWS, BENDING RULES like KNEECAPS]
[i don't even know what's real, i'm just BEING REAL]
Pattern A
Pattern B
Pattern C
Pattern D
Pattern E
Pattern F
(short e, short –a, short –a, short –e)
(long –o, long –i)
(long –e)
(long –e, short –a)
(short –i, short –i, long –u)
(long –e, long –e, short –e)
never happened
wrote like
weed
need that
missing screws
being real
edgar allen
po’ like
need
kneecaps
bending rules
being still
edgar allen





[making moves, you just another human being BEING STILL]

Instead of going through each individual line, I am just going to group together the rhyming patterns and then expand on a few things that make this song a perfect example of Ab-Soul’s signature flow.
A



B
A
B
A
C
D


E
E
D

F



F












Right off the bat you can see that this verse is not as structured as Kendrick’s. Ab-Soul is capable of organizing verses like Kendrick does (and vice versa), but normally his verses are structured in a style similar to this. You can see that he tends to switch rhyming patterns a lot more and the transitions between them are more prominent and a lot easier to spot. In “Rigamortus”, Kendrick references words from Pattern A in the first and sixth bar, while Ab-Soul ends Pattern A in this verse after the second bar and doesn’t go back to it. Kendrick tends to stretch his schemes a lot more than Ab-Soul does, as well.

Let’s look at how he utilizes internal rhymes in this song. Pattern E contains a set of internal rhymes ([MISSING SCREWS] and [BENDING RULES]) that do not intermingle with any other patterns in the song (although [MISSING SCREWS] comes at the beginning of the bar, I count it as an internal rhyme because it only rhymes with [BENDING RULES], which comes in the middle of the bar). This is how he commonly utilizes internal rhymes. Kendrick on the other hand often mixes his internal rhymes into other patterns, as seen countless times in “Rigamortus”.

Although this is how they most commonly use internal rhymes, examples of them doing the opposite can be found too.

 [the bass bit the BAIT, I'm STRAIGHT, you a GAY COUPLE]

From “Black Lip Bastard (Remix)”, Ab-Soul rhymes two words internally ([BAIT] and [STRAIGHT]) but mixes one into the end rhyme ([STRAIGHT] is a family rhyme of [GAY], which is part of the pattern [GAY COUPLE])

[in RETROSPECT i REMEMBER DECEMBER being the HOTTEST]
[squad CARS, neighborhood WARS and stolen MAZDAS]

From “Ronald Regan Era”, Kendrick uses an internal rhyme ([REMEMBER] and [DECEMBER]), which is not part of any other pattern.

There are a couple of other things that Ab-Soul does in this verse, but I will come back to them in the appropriate section.

I now want to talk about each rapper’s unique usage of homonyms in their songs. First let’s go over a few definitions in case you were sick that day in grade three.

A homonym is a word that looks or sounds the same, but has a different meaning. There are three important subsets of homonyms that we should keep in mind when analyzing Kendrick and Ab-Soul’s flow:

1.    Homophones are words that sound the same but have different spellings or meanings (i.e. “ate” and “eight”).

2.    Homographs are words that are spelt the same and have the same or different sounds, but have different meanings (i.e. “content” meaning happy and “content” meaning material).

3.    Heteronyms are a subset of homographs, which are spelt the same but sound different and have different meanings (i.e. “dove” referring to the bird and “dove” referring to the act of diving).


Now let’s take a look at these bars from the song “Hol’ Up” to see one of Kendrick’s utilizations of homonyms:

[BACK in this BITCH in the BACK of that BITCH, with my BACK against THE WALL]
[and your BITCH on the edge of my DICK, JUMP-OFF]

These lines contain examples of Kendrick’s use of (specifically) homographs because both [BACK] and [BITCH] are spelt the same but are used to refer to different things throughout the verse. [BACK in this BITCH] is a pretty common saying, meaning that he is “back at it” or “back doing his thing”. When he says [in the BACK of that BITCH], he’s referring to the back of the airplane, where he is currently writing this song [i wrote this record while thirty thousand feet in the AIR]. [With my BACK against THE WALL/and your BITCH on the edge of my DICK, JUMP-OFF] uses the word [BACK] to refer to the back on his actually body, and the [BITCH] he is referring to is an actual woman, most likely the stewardess that he mentioned at the beginning of the song [stewardess complimenting me on my nappy HAIR].

He makes use of each subset of homonyms in his music, but I’ve found that he is mostly a fan of using homographs like the previous lines. In the second verse of “Fuck Your Ethnicity” he uses them almost in the same fashion with the word [KNOCK]:

[it's TREASON and i'm TYLENOL, i KNOCK out when you KNOCK IT OFF]
[KNOCK on the doors of opportunity, i'm too INVOLVED]

Or from the first verse with the word “mind”:

[had a brain, then i LOST IT, I'm out of my MIND]
[so don't you MIND how much the COST IS, penny for my thoughts]

But in “Hiiipower” he uses homophones:

[and she always told me PRAY for THE WEAK, UHH]
[them demons got me, I ain't PRAYED in SOME WEEKS, UHH]

[WEAK] and [WEEKS] are words that sound the same but have a different spelling and meaning (i.e. homophones).

Kendrick utilizes all these different types of homonyms to fill up space in the middle of his bars while giving the illusion that he is rhyming different words together (which he technically is, since they are not considered the same word). But he also uses homonyms to transition between rhyming patterns. Here is an example from “Blow My High” of him using (specifically) homophones to do this:

[the galaxy ain't got ROOM FOR Y'ALL]
[ain't nothing gonna happen SOON FOR Y'ALL]
[while I'M HERE and every day I HEAR]
[your bullshit, SELF-PITY]
[reason why you never DEALT WITH ME]

The homophones in question here are [HEAR] and [HERE], which are used to transition between the rhyming schemes of [ROOM FOR Y’ALL/SOON FOR YA’LL] & [SELF-PITY/DEALT WITH ME]. You can catch these types of transitions in all his music but especially his older tracks.

Ab-Soul uses homonyms too, but not to the extent and amount that Kendrick does. Most of the lyrics I’ve found only show Ab-Soul utilizing two meanings of a word, like his use of homophones in “Black Lip Bastard (Remix)”:

[swung two AXES and knocked the earth off AXIS]

where [AXIS] and [AXES] are the homophone in question. Homonyms are not a part of his signature style like they are with Kendrick, but are something that he uses sparingly. The area that Ab-Soul really shines with (and is arguably a building block of rap music) is his ability to create some of the most unique and near perfect mosaic rhymes I have ever heard.

You have all heard mosaic rhymes before, even if you are not familiar with the definition. Simply put, a mosaic rhyme is a multisyllable rhyme where one word is rhymed with two or more words. For example, “jealous” and “tell us” would be a mosaic rhyme, as the syllables of one word (“jealous”) are being rhymed with the syllables of two words (“tell us”). Ab-Soul uses these types of rhymes so often and so well that I believe it is one of the only areas where he fully outshines Kendrick. To illustrate this, let’s first take a look at one of Kendrick’s general mosaic rhymes, this one from the song “Fuck Your Ethnicity”:

[i'm just a MESSENGER, yeah, i know life's a bitch, get the BEST OF HER]

The words we’re looking at here are [MESSENGER] and [BEST OF HER]. If you look at the vowel sounds, they line up almost perfectly. [MES-] and [BEST] both stress the short –e vowel while [-GER] and [HER] both stress the short –u vowel. [-EN] and [OF] stress short –e and short –o respectively, but they sound close enough to be acceptable, especially considering that they come in the middle of the mosaic rhyme and not at the beginning or end. This is an example of a standard mosaic rhyme in rap music.

Ab-Soul takes it not one but two steps further. First, the vowel sounds in his mosaic rhymes more often than not line up perfectly, which is something that not all rappers do. But instead of only the vowels lining up, Ab-Soul will also make sure that the consonants line up as well. Take a look at these three examples, all from the second verse of “Illuminate”:

[POPPING COMPTON OR TIMBUKTU]
[i might even sell my new shit FOR TEN BUCKS TOO]

[This is a shift in PARADIGM, i remember when i couldn't SPARE A DIME]
[Now i step in with a PAIR OF DIMES, on P's, y'all KNOW ME]

[i PAID DUES, even got that shit TATTOOED, hiiipower on another PLATEAU]
[i know you know we need a few PLAQUES TOO]

In the first example, the mosaic rhyme is made up of the words [TIMBUKTU] and [TEN BUCKS TOO]. As you can see, each vowel lines up perfectly:

[1.TIM2.BUK3.TU] and
[1.TEN 2.BUCKS 3.TOO]

1. Short –e
2. Short –u
3. Long –u

But if you look closer, the consonant sounds also match up perfectly, with the only real exception being the [S] in [BUCKS].

[TIM/TEN] = the only difference is the [N/M], which are consonants that sounds extremely similar anyways

[BUK/BUCKS] = the [K] replaces the [CK] to create the same sound, the addition of the [S] is the only exception

[TU/TOO] = both [U] and [OO] stress the long –u vowel, [T] remains the same.

He does the exact same thing in the second example with [PARADIGM] and [PAIR OF DIMES], where [S] is the only out of place sounding consonant again. I remember when I was introduced to Ab-Soul and first heard this song; this was the only line that stuck with me after the first listen. His mosaic rhymes are so memorable that it is absolutely mandatory to consider them a part of his signature style.

The third example is a bit rougher yet is still a quality mosaic rhyme, and it showcases a technique that Ab-Soul uses quite often. The [–TEAU] in [PLATEAU] is normally pronounced by stressing the long –o syllable (like you would pronounce the word “toe”), but Ab-Soul enunciates it with a long –u sound so it matches the vowel sound of [TOO] in [PLAQUES TOO]. Again the vowel sounds line up perfectly and the consonants line up almost perfectly too (the exception being the [K] sound’s absence in [PLATEAU].

He’ll also use the same principles when rhyming either multisyllable words or multiple words together. The vowel and consonant sounds in each word tends to match up so perfectly that it almost sounds like he is using homonyms or rhyming the same word. Here’s an example that illustrates this from the song “Black Lip Bastard”:

[i TOLD niggas, caught wrecked, then i TOWED niggas]

[TOLD] and [TOWED] are not homonyms but he makes them sound as if they are by stressing the long –o syllable and short –e syllable in both words and by pronouncing the [L] in [TOLD] as a [W]. It’s quite easy to find examples of him utilizing this technique, in fact he does the same thing with the word [DRAWERS] in the very next line by stressing a long –o syllable to make it rhyme with [TOLD], [FOLD] and [CLOTHES]:

[FOLD niggas like CLOTHES and DRAWERS, nigga]

Now let’s look at a technique that Kendrick has adopted into his flow, one that probably contributes to his signature style more than anything else, and that is how he manipulates root words. He will often rhyme a root words (or a very, very similar sounding word) with said root word + suffix/prefix. If we go back to the previously quoted lyric from “HiiPower”:

[and she always told me PRAY for THE WEAK, UHH]
[them demons got me, i ain't PRAYED in SOME WEEKS, UHH]

you can see that [PRAYED] is rhymed with its root word [PRAY]. He does this all the time, but usually tends to place the two words either beside each other or very close together in the bar. Here is an example from the song “Hol’ Up”:

[they checking my PASSPORT, i'm too ACCUSTOMED with CUSTOMS]

and one from “Ronald Regan Era”:

[strong enough to stand in front of a travellin' freight TRAIN, are you TRAINED?]

But he will also do the exact opposite of this by keeping the suffix or prefix the same and changing the root word instead. Here’s an example from “A.D.H.D.” where he places the words close together in the bar:

[and they probably RELATIVES RELEVANT for a REBEL'S DREAM, yep]

The prefix [RE-] is being repeated here while the root words change. But let’s take a closer look at this line to see how well he makes this sentence flow. The three words that we’re looking at here are [RELATIVES], [RELEVANT] and [REBEL’S]. Obviously the prefix [RE-] is being repeated, but he also repeats the letter [L] in the first two words, as well as two short –e vowels at the beginning of all three words. Doing this greatly adds to his flow, and he doesn’t restrict this technique to only words placed beside eachother. In fact he more commonly spaces the words out across multiple bars, as seen in this example from the song “Textbook Stuff”:

[the gang-banging and VIOLENCE, is the sweetest SONG]
[and i ROAM with the heart of a VIOLIN]
[don't VIOLATE my PATIENCE i'm WAITING, to kill a man]

[VIOLENCE], [VIOLIN] and [VIOLATE] all follow the same principle but are spaced out among the bars. This is probably one of my favorite things that Kendrick does. It gives the illusion that he is rhyming more words than he actually is, even though most of them are included in one rhyming pattern or another.

Ab-Soul sometimes utilizes the same technique, but not with enough consistency to justify including it as part of his signature style. Here is one of the better examples I found, from the song “Black Lip Bastard (Remix)”:

[PERPETRATING, bitches popping percocet and PERCOLATING]

This line is very similar to something Kendrick would spit; the similarities are uncanny. Each word has the same prefix [PER-], and both [percocet] and [PERCOLATING] take it a step further by lining up the letters [-CO-], as well as [PERPETRATING] and [PERCOLATING] being a part of the same rhyming pattern, similar to [VIOLENCE] and [VIOLINS] from the previous example. It is quite obvious that Ab-Soul can pull off the same technique but he has chose not to make it a central part of his flow.

The few times that Ab-Soul does use this technique, he really goes all out and uses it to stress the meaning of the lyrics that he is spitting instead of using it to dress the lyrics up (not to say that this is how Kendrick uses it). My favorite example of this is from the song “Terrorist Threats”:

[peep the CONCEPT]
[you've got PROGRESS, you've got CONGRESS]
[we PROTEST in hopes they CONFESS]
[just proceed on your CONQUEST]

That’s seven words with the same prefixes (PRO- and CON-) lined up perfectly within two bars. He takes it a step further than Kendrick here and uses two opposite prefixes to stress that what the government [CONGRESS] does is the opposite of what should be done to advance our society [PROGRESS]. It is unfortunate that Ab-Soul does not play with prefixes and suffixes more often, as he is quite good at it.


CONTENT:

As previously stated, the reason that I grouped Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul together in this article is because they rap about very similar topics in their music, although they do have a few major differences of opinion as well. The evidence supporting this is most strongly shown in the song “Ab-Soul’s Outro”, which is included as track fifteen on Kendrick’s album “Section.80”. I linked the song, but its general mood can be summed up by the variations of the same lines that Ab-Soul keeps repeating:

[what's your life about, ENLIGHTEN ME]
[is you gonna live on your KNEES, or DIE ON YOUR FEET]
[take out that student loan, and pay off your COLLEGE DEGREE]
[and do exactly what you SEE on TV]

[what's your life about, ENLIGHTEN ME]
[is you gonna live on your KNEES, or DIE ON YOUR FEET]
[is you gonna PLEAD the fifth, or SOUND the HORN]
[the TIME is NOW my CHILD, come ON]

The main theme of this song is going against the system and questioning what society dictates as the right and “proper” thing to do, which I think are major themes in both Kendrick’s and Ab-Soul’s music (although they rap about a variety of different things, a lot of it could be boiled down to this). They are both very socially aware rappers (although Kendrick seems to disagree) and are very frustrated with the way society is structured and the way people are taught to act. You can hear this frustration in Ab-Soul’s voice when Kendrick tells him to repeat the previously quoted bars, as if the audience he is speaking to just doesn’t understand him and the concepts he is trying to get across.

Kendrick’s “No Makeup” and Ab-Soul’s “Double Standards” are two songs that I think perfectly showcase each rapper’s individual desires to change the world and how the people in it think. “No Makeup” introduces the character of Keisha; a prostitute that Kendrick sympathizes with who is featured multiple times across his albums. The general message of this song is that women don’t need makeup to be sexy, and he uses the theme as an analogy for how people cover up and hide from the world (like makeup is used to hide your flaws) instead of facing reality (or being comfortable with how you really look). It points out a societal problem that is rarely addressed in rap music now adays, and it’s hard to deny that Kendrick is trying to change people’s perceptions when he says (at the end of the song) [and you ain't gotta get drunk to have fun, you ain't gotta get drunk to have fun]. In “Double Standards”, Ab-Soul delves into the double standard surrounding men and women when it comes to sex. He addresses the fact that in today’s society, men are commonly congratulated when they have slept with a lot of women but women are scolded and called sluts. He sums it up neatly in the last verse with the line:

[my auntie told me always treat my lady RIGHT]
[my uncle told me only love 'em for a NIGHT]
[you can see the IMMEDIATE DISCONNECTION]
[between a man and a woman, the REASON FOR REGRESSION]

But as much as they tend to be similar, they also tend to have very different views about a couple of subjects. Kendrick tends to speak about societal problems involving the hood and issues that are faced on the street; a good percentage of “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is about these kinds of topics, including songs like “The Art of Peer Pressure”, “m.A.A.d City”, and “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst”. Ab-Soul is concerned with the state of the streets as well, but his major topics pertaining to societal problems tend to be on the subject of control (specifically governmental control). This is most strongly evidenced by the fact that he named his second studio album “Control System”. The song “Terrorist Threats” is the best example of him attempting to tackle this issue; in it he mentions not wanting to be “chattel” (a slave), Aleister Crowley, the city of Babylon and “Selassie’ eye”. The difference in subject matter between the two rappers can most likely be contributed to the environment they grew up in. Ab-Soul was born in Los Angeles, California, but relocated with his family to Germany and spent the first four years of his life there. (Read the whole story of his childhood here). When they moved back to the United States, his family settled in the suburban part of Carson, California, so he was not raised around constant violence of drug usage, and his family was not poor. He says, “I was broke but not broke in a sense of poor. I come from Carson, CA. It's the suburbs. So, I was safe.” Kendrick on the other hand grew up in Compton, California, which is well known for its abundance of gang violence, sex and drugs. This is what he was exposed to growing up in Compton, which is evidenced by the fact that the album “good kid, m.A.A.d city” is essentially a retelling of his childhood. It’s quite obvious how their respective childhoods have influenced their views on societal issues and what they choose to talk about in their music.

The main subject that they stand starkly in contrast with is their views on drugs. Ab-Soul is a user of drugs and a firm believer that drugs can be taken to enhance consciousness and spiritual connectedness. His song “Pineal Gland” talks about one of the most potent (and, in the United States, one of the most illegal) psychedelic drugs known to man: DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine). With lines like [enjoy your mind trip but don't trip on your MIND, no man is safe from the war going on OUTSIDE] he is stressing the point of safe drug usage, asking his audience to enjoy their psychedelic trips but not use them to escape reality or forget about their troubles. His viewpoint on drugs has clearly affected the content of his album, as the “war on drugs” and “government control” are two subjects that go hand in hand. He is also an avid weed smoker, which can be evidenced by a brief listen to any of his albums.

Kendrick on the other hand doesn’t do any drugs, but he also doesn’t avidly detest them. The song in which he speaks most bluntly about this subject is appropriately called “H.O.C.” (which stands for High Off Contact). In it he has lines like [i go in studio sessions and feel like a NERD, cause i'm the only nigga there not smoking no HERB. You telling me the kush make you think on LEVEL FOUR? i'm on five, you saying that I can LEVEL MORE?]. He’s simply telling the world that he doesn’t smoke weed but can spit better than anyone who does. People will often urge him to smoke weed, saying that he’s “crazy with it now but if you smoke this blunt you’ll be thinking like a motherfuckin’ alien on steroids” or something to that effect, but Kendrick is adamant about the fact that he doesn’t need weed to rap on a higher level, he can do it despite being sober. And although he doesn’t personally smoke, he doesn’t speak against it much either, and he actually has a few songs that advocate it somewhat (The song “The Recipe” featuring Dr. Dre comes to mind). When it is mentioned, he often treats it as a metaphor or symbol for some greater concept, like in “Kush and Corinthians”, where the image of kush and a bible are meant to paint a vivid picture and symbolize his quest for finding answers and questioning life. He is also not silent on the matter of drug abuse either, with songs like “A.D.H.D.” and “Swimming Pools” (remember, alcohol is a drug, guys) being on the forefront of these issues.


Wordplay

I originally wasn’t going to write this section; after a month of having both Kendrick Lamar and Ab-Soul on repeat in my car, I still found it difficult to decide who has the best wordplay, as “wordplay” encapsulates so many different things. I can talk about something as subtle as how Kendrick pronounces [fuck that] (like “fuck thought”) in “A.D.H.D.” to contribute to the underlying meaning of the song, or I can talk about his more obvious lines: [hotboxing like George Foreman grilling the MASSES of the WORKING WORLD]. Ab-Soul and Kendrick pack their music with so many different forms of artistry that it’s hard to analyze all of them, so to keep it simple we’ll look at one verse in one song by each of them that I think summarizes their general individual approaches to wordplay.

The first song we’re going to look at is “HiiiPower” by Kendrick Lamar:

[back to put you backstabbers back on your spinal BONE]
[you SLIPPED YOUR DISC when i SLID YOU MY DISC]
[you wanted to DISS but jumped on my DICK]

We have already talked enough about Kendrick’s use of homonyms to refrain from mentioning it again in detail in this segment; it’s quite clear what he’s doing with the words [back] and [DISC]. Also, as a side mention, it’s interesting to note how well these bars flow, with the b/b/s/b/s/b sounds being stressed in the first line and then it switching to s/d/s/d/d/d.

So what exactly is he saying in the first line? Well, the definition of a backstabber is someone who metaphorically “stabbed you in the back” or did you wrong in some way. Your [spinal BONE] is a reference to your spine, and [SLIPPED YOUR DISC] is referring to the intervertebral discs that make up your spine. So on the surface you can group each of these words together in the same category (having to do with the back). But the head is also attached to the spine, so when he says [back to put you backstabbers back on your spinal BONE], he is saying that he has come to put your head back on straight. He reveals that you [SLIPPED YOUR DISC when i SLID YOU MY DISC], referencing to the fact that your spinal disc slipped out of place (your head came undone) when he handed you his CD, and you had the urge to jump on his dick instead of diss him. This wordplay is not spelt out for you, but you also don’t have to delve too deep into it to figure it out.

[I got my finger on the mothafuckin' PISTOL]
[aiming it at a pig, Charlotte's web is going to MISS YOU]

This line is very surface level and an easy to understand play on words with “pig”. It doesn’t need to be explained.

[my issue isn't TELEVISED, and you ain't gotta TELL THE WISE]
[how to stay on beat, because our life's an INSTRUMENTAL]

This line is a bit more difficult to understand. First, notice the wordplay with [beat] and [instrumental] and the fact that they are synonyms. [THE WISE] refer to his fellow members in the HiiiPower revolution; you do not need to have their issues [TELEVISED] because they will always be aware of the issues [STAY ON BEAT] because they live with them and see them everyday [life’s an INSTRUMENTAL].

[this is physical and MENTAL, i won't SUGAR COAT IT]
[you'd die from diabetes if these other NIGGAS WROTE IT]

Another easy line to analyze. Diabetes is a disease directly related to the amount of sugar in your blood. When Kendrick says he won’t [SUGAR COAT IT], he’s telling the audience that we don’t have to worry about him “dressing up” issues to make them look better because he will always be blunt with us. Other rappers will dress up and sugar coat the issues so much that they will not only give you diabetes, you will also die from the disease (It’s very possible to live with diabetes).

[i don't want PLASTIC NATION, dread that like a HAITIAN]

Calling something “plastic” is another way of saying it’s fake, so Kendrick is simply stating that he doesn’t want a fake nation (one where people worship material goods, listen to everything the government says, etc). The simile used here is very easy to understand too: Haitians often have their hair styled in dreads.

Now I know Kendrick has a lot of other high quality metaphors and intricate wordplay examples, but I think this song is an accurate sample of his general usage of wordplay. If you are interested in analyzing a song with more intricate wordplay, I suggest listening to his “C4” mixtape or “The Art of Peer Pressure”Now let’s look at the second verse of “Illuminate”. I chose this song because we have already gone over some examples of wordplay from it,

[POPPING COMPTON OR TIMBUKTU]
[i might even sell my new shit FOR TEN BUCKS TOO]

[This is a shift in PARADIGM, i remember when i couldn't SPARE A DIME]
[Now i step in with a PAIR OF DIMES, on P's, y'all KNOW ME]

but he packs a few more genius bars in this verse. Here’s one that I would have never fully gotten if not for the amazing analyst skills of the people over at RapGenius:

[COLD SHIT, i'm HOT THOUGH, like COAL GET, ab-SOUL]

On the surface, this line doesn’t seem too hard to analyze. Rappers use the adjective “cold” to mean “amazing”, “great”, “sick” or any variation of the sort. They call themselves “hot” to mean the same thing. Pay attention to the duality of the line; he’s calling himself “cold” and “hot”, two opposite adjectives that he uses to describe the same thing about himself. This is a nice example of wordplay, but it is not what makes this line so attractive. He tells us that he is hot like [COAL GET], because once you light fire to coal, it gets hot. But the way he enunciates [COAL GET] sounds like “Colgate”, a brand of toothpaste that provides both a hot and cold sensation in your mouth. This gives a whole new meaning to the bar, and is a prime example of the sort of wordplay that Ab-Soul tends to use in his music.

[and as WE PROCEED to follow THESE DREAMS, i ain't losing no SLEEP]
[NO, NO on them NODOZ, just KNOW "NO" if it's NO DOUGH]

Once you know that NoDoz is a caffeine pill, the line is quite easy to understand. He’s following his dreams and he’s not losing any sleep in the meantime. Therefore he says “no” to any caffeine pills, and tells you to understand that if there’s no money involved, his answer will also be a “no”.

This is a beautiful example of him combining multiple techniques into a short space. [NO] is used four times in a slightly different context but is also matched with its homophone [KNOW]. Not too mention that [NODOZ] and [NODOUGH] is a near perfect mosaic rhyme, where only one consonant sound (the “Z” in [NODOZ] and the “GH” in [NO DOUGH]) is different.

[SO high but i'm SOULO]

Although this line looks very easy to analyze, there are actually four different meanings behind it. I’ll let RapGenius explain because they already did an amazing job of it.

[TOO ILL WHEN I JOT THESE WORDS, TRUE EEL WHEN I SHOCK THE WORLD]

This line is pretty easy to understand as well. [TOO ILL] = [TRUE EEL], and what does a [TRUE EEL] do? It shocks things. I mentioned this bar mainly because Kendrick has a very similar line on the song “Phone Home” off his mixtape “C4”, and it’s cool to note the comparison:

[i'm sick and electrifying, that's double ILL]

WILL BE CONTINUED WITH PART II: SCHOOLBOY Q & JAY ROCK, PART III: BLACK HIPPY