Rapper’s Flow Encyclopedia – Earl Sweatshirt, Part 2

This is part 2 of a 2-part article on Earl Sweatshirt in celebration of his long-awaited second album, Doris, which comes out August 20. If you haven’t read part 1, that’s okay – you’ll still be able to understand part 2, but you’ll probably eventually want to see it at RapGenius here. If you have already read part 1, you can skip the first section of this part where I repeat some things from part 1. Head down to where the line of underlined asterisks **** is.

Even though his second album is out today, we’re gonna go back and see where Earl started from, which is his aptly named song “Earl,” from his 2010 album Earl.

Let’s start by comparing Earl’s rap stats to the other rappers I’ve analyzed before. Check them out, 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 in fact extremely at the extreme end of the ranges. Earl’s .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 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:

1.    They always last the same amount of time.
2.    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 of them over a note, like on the words “sicker than your,” 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:

See The Notorious B.I.G. Rhythm Demo Here

However, rappers don’t have to always divide the beat into 4 parts. Some rappers, like Big Boi below, divide them into 3 parts or 6 parts. These 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 those kinds of note heads in music, such as in Notorious B.I.G.’s video, or in Big Boi’s video below on his lyrics “get your work and.”

See The Big Boi Rhythm Demo Here

Rappers can also divide them into 5 or 7 parts, as MF DOOM does below:

See the MF DOOM Rhythm Demo Here


Earl Sweatshirt 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 what that means.

The tempo of the song “Earl” is 78 BPM. BPM stands for “beats per minute,” and denotes how fast or slow a piece of music is. The beat in “beats per minute” is the same beat that we described before as being the building block of musical time that repeats over and over and always lasts the same amount of time. If “Earl” has a tempo of 78 BPM, that means each beat lasts about .77 seconds, because 60 seconds/78 beats-per-minute = .77 seconds. So, two beats last 1.54 seconds (.77 x 2 = 1.54). Earl sweatshirt divides that 1.54 second duration of 2 beats by 9, which means each 16th note in Earl’s noctuplets (a word that comes from the Latin word for nine) lasts about .17 seconds, because 1.54/9= .17.

The fact that Earl divides those 2 beats into noctuplets, when combined with what words he does or doesn’t accent in his rap, means he almost never, ever lands right on a strong beat in the bar.

He never, ever lands on a strong beat.

If you have ever heard anything about music, you should know that the above sentence, in some ways, blows up any preconceived notion of what rhythm is. That’s because all rhythm is defined by what’s on the beat, and what’s not on the beat. Any rhythm that lands on the beat is just called “on the downbeat,” or “on the beat,” and rhythms that are off the beat are called “syncopation.” But Earl isn’t doing either of those. As we said before, his noctuplet 16th notes each last .17 seconds. Because a 32nd note is half of a 16th note, Earl’s 32nd notes last .085 seconds (.17/2 = .085). The length of the synth sound in the video below is .085 seconds.

Pretty small, isn’t it? It has to be, for it to move the beat.

We know Earl moves the beat, rather than landing right on it or off it, because although Earl’s rhythms happen all over the place musically, they never feel off. His rhythms can always be explained in the context of those noctuplet rhythms. Contrast this to what happens in the video below, where I’ve taken an instrumental song and put a different song’s rap over it. The rap below FEELS off; that’s because the rap and the beat are at two different tempos. (The rap is Ludacris’ verse from his song with Usher, “Yeah!,” and the beat is “Five” from Ratatat’s album 9 Beats.)

But Earl is also rapping in a different tempo over a rap that’s at another tempo, and yet it still feels like Earl is rapping with the beat. How is this possible?

As I explained before, there are 4 beats to a bar, and the speed of a song is determined by BPM, which is “beats per minute.” If there is a high BPM, the song is faster; if there is a low BPM, the song is slower. The BPM of “Earl” is about 78, as I’ve already said. Time for a thought experiment: music can theoretically be played at any speed, right? And the beat can theoretically divided by any number, right? Since both of those statements are true, there have to be some points at which rhythmic layers are equivalent to each other in chronological duration (measured in seconds), even though they might be 16th notes in one tempo and 8th notes in another

Below is the formula for finding those points at which two different tempos line up:

The above describes a shift from the speed of one song (“old tempo” on the left) to another (“new tempo”), using a note value from the first tempo (“pivot note value in old measure”) to a note value in the second (“pivot note values in new measure.”) We have values for 3 of those variables above: old tempo (78 for “Earl”, as we said above), pivot notes in old measure (“8”, for the normal 8 16th notes to 2 beats), and the number of pivot note values in new measure (“9”, for Earl’s 9 noctuplet 16th notes for 2 beats.) When we work it out, that means we get that “new tempo” = 88 BPM. This means that Earl’s noctuplet rhythms are equal to quadruplet (“4 to a beat”) 16th note rhythms at 88 BPM. That makes sense because Earl is dividing the same musical space into more pieces, 9, than normal, so those same notes will sound faster.

And yet, the song DOESN’T feel like it’s at 88 BPM; it stays firmly rooted in 78 BPM. This is different from Talib Kweli in my analysis on that Brooklyn rapper here, where he divides the beat into 5 and it DOES feel like it’s in another tempo because he lands on most downbeats, such as on the syllables “sweet,” “bet,” and “get,” and the “-y” of “cavity” in the video below. That’s a full bar of landing on downbeats. Check out a demonstration of it:

See The Talib Kweli Rhythm Demo Here

And that’s exactly what Earl DOESN’T do: land on the downbeats. He is always milliseconds off.

Below is a demonstration of rhythms that are on the beat. The underlying beat is played by the lower bass kick drum, while the triangle is playing the rhythms shown on the music. Every black circular note head with that greater than sign below it denotes a note that is landing on the beat. Rhythms without the greater than sign are off the beat. First a bar of quarter notes are played, than a bar of 8th notes, than a bar of quadruplet 16th notes. For those 3 rhythmic categories, there are 4 downbeats in the bar: on beat 1, beat 2, beat 3, and beat 4, because there are 4 beats to a bar in rap music. But in the next 2 bars, where I play 2 full noctuplet of those 16th notes that Earl divides 2 beats by, there are only 2 downbeats in the full bar, since 9 isn’t divided by 2 without fractions. Compare to how that bar sounds compared to the normal quadruplet 16th notes that are repeated immediately after that bar. The on-the-beat notes in the video below also sound different, harder, from those that are off the beat.

Below is another demonstration. Now, I’ve removed the only on-the-beat note in the noctuplet that we had before. Instead, I’ve started the beat off with a 32nd note rest (a rest – an absence of music – is represented by those squiggly lines.) That 32nd note rest lasts only .085 seconds. That’s a very small amount of time. So when Earl places rhythms there like he does, it doesn’t feel like a syncopated rhythm — that small difference, when combined with the fact that he places an accent on the syllable in question (he pronounces it CRA-shing, not cra-SHING), makes it feel as if the beat has arrived early. Take a listen to how similar but different the below video sounds to the noctuplets in the previous video:

Now let’s see Earl do this in the rap itself. For instance, consider the opening part of the song played in the video below. Watch only the first 12 seconds or so:

You can see that none of his syllables fall on the 1st or 3rd beat, because each of those 9s over the note heads represent 2 beats. Beats 1 and 2, for instance, is from “and” to the start of “cra,” and beats 3 and 4 last from “-shing” to the word “to.” On the beat, all of the notes are either rests, like in between the word “hot” and “and,” or they are tied notes, such as on the “cra-“ of “crashing,” or “roth,” where that small line that connects two consecutive notes means that you just add the rhythmic values together and only play it once, such as on the “cra-“ of “crashing” and the next note, or “roth” and the next note.

So, Earl isn’t landing on the beat…but he doesn’t sound off either, like the video demonstration with a mismatched beat and rap did. He moves the beat and, although his division of the beat is very, very irregular, he never varies from it, and so the rap actually does feel like it flows.

He does this again very shortly after that example, in bars 4-5 of the transcription, which is also played in the video above:

In the above, the word “and” after “saws” is so, so, so close to being on the beat…but it’s not, by .085 seconds. Here’s what it would feel like if “and” was actually on that beat, and everything after was moved a 32nd note later.

It sounds very, very similar, but it’s not the same. The landing on the “and” is simply too heavy and direct.

Now, Earl uses a lot of different rhythmic durations in this rap. In the opening bars alone, we see a quarter note a dotted 32nd (on “I’m”), a 16th not (on “a”,) a dotted 16th ,on “as-“ of “astronaut,) an 8th note (on “while”)…you get the idea. But they always feel like they’re flowing because they are always explainable inside of that noctuplet division. Earl’s dexterous sense of this finely detailed rhythm is most impressive from the opening as well, where he metrically transfers the rhyme group on astronaut/crashing while/jacking off. To metrically transfer something means that Earl has taken the same series of rhythmic durations, called a rhythmic profile, and moved them around relative to that repeating beat that we discussed before. Each of those 3-syllable rhymes, astronaut/crashing while/jacking off, has a rhythmic profile of a dotted 16th, followed by a 16th note, and then ending with an 8th note. They also have a rhyme profile of an opening “ah” rhyme sound and an ending “aw” rhyme sound. If you compare all of the rhythmic durations, they are the same. But they don’t always happen in the same place within the noctuplet. “Astronaut” happens in the middle of the noctuplet, as you can see by it’s distance from the lefthand side of the bar line, but “crashing” starts right before the end of the first noctuplet of the bar before “jacking off” starts in the same place as “astronaut.” To be able to feel that small difference in rhythms is amazing. Check it out:

Now we see how Earl literally transform rhythm in his music. This is a technique similar to what happens in jazz music, and is way beyond what anyone thinks of as rapper’s being capable of.

If you want to hear more about Earl’s rhymes and rhythms, check out part 1 of the article at RapGenius here.

Martin Connor is a music teacher & writer from Philadelphia, PA, with a music degree of high distinction from Duke University who is currently studying for a master’s degree at Brandeis University in Boston, MA, while focusing his research on the vocal melodies of the rap genre. He has contributed freelance articles to HipHopDX, Complex, and Pigeons and Planes, and had multiple articles from his website, www.RapAnalysis.com go viral on BET, The Source, XXL, and MTV. He teaches rap lessons online through the music school LessonFace, and has a book, The Artistry Of Rap Music, forthcoming from the McFarland Publishing House, scheduled for release in late 2017, as a follow-up to his 2014 contribution to their anthology "Eminem & Rap, Poetry, Race." He welcomes all comments, compliments, insults, and restaurant suggestions at [email protected].

1 Comment

  1. I think you're taking the wrong approach to this. To understand how the rhythms work, you have to look more into the concept of swing, which is based more on addition than division. Jazz musicians will make micro-rhythmic adjustments to their note value and placement while approximating a very straight rhythm. However, this technique is better analyzed aurally rather through notation due to its additive character. The clearer way to notate it would be to give an approximation of the rhythm and then notate "rushed/dragged" in these areas. Remember that this is African-American music and has its roots in traditional African music which uses non-tempered pitch and rhythm.

    Try comparing Earl's syncopation to that of Miles Davis or John Coltrane. In Syeeda's Song Flute, Coltrane uses rushed clusters of notes in his solo. Listening in slow motion, you can hear that his notes approximate tuplet rhythms, but are not exactly in time. Miles's solo in So What shows the opposite kind of rhythmic dynamic, especially contrasted with Trane's solo in the same recording. Dragging the rhythm in a melodic instrument is an effective technique to relax the music. Analyzing how a musician's performance technique expresses ideas in the music will help you understand what the intent is behind these techniques. Miles, for example, is literally playing on a tune called "So What," and his dragged rhythm shows that. To really get inside the music, separate yourself from the tuplets and analyze the music in a context of relativity.

    -A second-year jazz student at Shenandoah University.

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