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

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 mepc36@gmail.com.

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