If you enjoyed my posts about specific and particular verses in rap, breaking down and analyzing common areas with the same techniques, you will likewise enjoy this post, another rap music analysis. However, this post will not center on any one verse. Rather, I will be speaking about rap in general, while drawing attention to certain cases that make my point as it suits my needs. We will largely do this by addressing some of the (musical) criticisms surrounding rap, and even suggesting some areas wherein rap can expand its bag of tricks to generate interesting material and hold the listener’s interest in new and different ways.
As we’ve done in past analyses, it will end up being useful for our purposes (especially in comparison to other musics) to try and describe the rapping voice as an instrument. We will start with the neat and clean that can be defined and then move on from there. First, the rapping voice is, 1.) monophonic. That is, it can only produce one “voice” (for now, it will suffice to think of a “voice” as a note) at a time. Contrarily, a piano is polyphonic because it can produce many notes at one time. Another instance of a monophonic instrument is a trumpet (disregarding extended practice techniques.) Second, we should try to describe its pitch content. Pitch content is all of the pitches that an instrument can produce, such as is constrained by an instrument’s range (the highest and lowest notes that an instrument can produce.) First, consider how the human voice (and thus, the rapping voice) definitely doesn’t have pitch in the same sense that Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” has pitch, but also that it isn’t exactly pitchless. The rapper changes his level of pitch; he just does not abide by an equal-tempered tuning scale system. And here we can show that one of the biggest criticisms of rap can actually be considered one of its biggest advantages over music where vocalists do sing in discrete, equal-tempered tuning system intervals.
Many decry rap because it has (supposedly) completely dispensed with the great tradition and art of melody creation. (First, we will leave rapper/singers out of this discussion, like Nate Dogg and T-Pain, because although they do exist, they are certainly a small minority of all the rap that is made, and we must account for the majority.) Although this is a faulty assertion in itself, we shall meet it head on first, and then show why it is flawed. Let’s begin with the fact that melody is a combination of two things: pitch and rhythm. The fact that rap has rhythm is plainly evident. However, it is true that rap does not have pitch in the same way that the Katy Perry song above has pitch, when she matches her pitches to discrete, ET tuned intervals to give us a melody. For a long time, I struggled with this criticism of rap. I was unsure how to answer it. I tried to combat it on the critic’s terms: to show that rap has melody, even though it does not adhere to the intervals or pitches of our equal-tempered (ET) scale. (Sidebar: to explain the idea of the equal-tempered scale would be quite an in-depth discussion, certainly not one small enough for here. It will have to suffice for me to say that the prior statement means that rappers don’t follow the same pitches as on a piano when they rap, and leave The Wikipedia Article for Equal Temperament here. Wikipedia can explain it better than I ever could. But to pick up where we left off:) However, this was a mistake. Because although rap does not adhere to ET pitches and intervals, by liberating itself from the quasi-tyranny of such a system it actually frees itself to take advantage of the most emotionally, directly expressive instrument there is: the human voice. To prove this assertion (that the human voice is the most expressive instrument there is), do this following exercise on your own. Take a sentence that could be emotionally charged: a simple one, like “I said stop” (we shall leave punctuation of it for now, in order to free the reader from any implied interpretation that it might supply.) Now, say this phrase to yourself in as many different ways possible. Vary the rhythm, what words you accent, but most importantly, the pitch. Now, depending on how you vary those parameters, you can make the same sentence with the same verbal/semantic meaning on paper (“I said stop”) imply a thousand different things: anger, sadness, surprise, confusion, happiness, determination, arrogance, terrified, tiredness, and hundreds of shades of emotion in between. Such is the expressive power of the human voice. As an example of how rap takes advantage of this, let’s take a look at Dr. Dre’s 24-bar verse from “Shit Hits The Fan.” This song is a response to shots taken at Dre by none other than…Ja Rule (I know, right?) First, we should make one thing clear that any rap/hip-hop fan worth their weight should know, but all too often so many don’t: Dre doesn’t write his own raps (anymore.) Sometime between leaving Death Row and finding Aftermath, Dre realized he just wasn’t good at writing his own raps (but that does NOT mean, interestingly enough, that he isn’t a good rapper, as we shall see) and started letting others write for him. If I had to guess who wrote this one, I’d say Eminem (who writes most of Dre’s raps) because the song appears on an album by an artist (Obie Trice) from Eminem’s label (Shady), which was co-signed by Dre’s Aftermath. Also, you can see the perfect interpretation of how Dre feels (something Eminem is very good at: interpreting Dre’s feelings. Just listen to ”Hello”, from Ice Cube’s album “War & Peace – Volume 2, The Peace Disc”, on which song the 3 still-living members of NWA – Ren, Ice Cube, and Dre – hook back up again for another song. Em definitely ghostwrote Dre’s verse, as he’s credited as a writer on the song, and isn’t it easy to imagine Eminem aggressively delivering Dre’s verse? Get it here: Dr. Dre’s verse, by Eminem, from Ice Cube’s “Hello”.) I chose “Shit Hits the Fan” to take a look at because here, Dre’s reputation is at stake, and there’s no way he’s going to back down from the shots taken at him by Ja Rule. He needs to prove to everyone just how ridiculous it is for Ja Rule to be taking shots at him, a 20 year vet (as he says in the song) who has shaped the rap game from the original gangsta rap of NWA, to the g-funk area while introducing Snoop Dogg, then a successful comeback with Aftermath, which was ultimately responsible for finding Eminem (on Aftermath), who found Shady (which ultimately found 50 Cent and Game.) Everything is on the line here for Dre, and if he can’t deliver now, then he never can. Listen to the verse, and then let’s look at just how Dre utilizes the expressive power of his verse to completely take Ja Rule apart, piece by piece. (Dr. Dre on Obie Trice’s “Shit Hits The Fan”– note that Dre is also the producer.)
There. Did you hear it? Did you hear how ridiculous Dre thinks it is, did you hear how in his mind there is absolutely no question that it’s ridiculous (and that you should know it’s ridiculous too)? The hunger you hear in his voice as he describes the dream of every rapper who gets in the game, to one day become legit and stop selling drugs, and have his own label to run the game with, as it slowly dawns on you that Dre is describing none other than himself. Listen to his pronunciation of “whole life” (slightly drawn out to emphasize how long your whole life is and how hard these rappers work). Listen to the finality and fatalism in his voice when he pronounces, “Some niggas came up…some just didn’t.” (In the following quotes, pay special attention to the italicized words, as they are particularly expressive.) Dre has been around long enough to see tons of rappers with high hopes just not make it. And the way he pronounces it backs up his view: it’s fatalist, some rappers just will not succeed, and that’s the way it is, and the way it always will be. Listen to the tones of wisdom and experience as he speaks on all the different types of rappers in the game, and when he says “If you do get in this industry”, from the way he says it, you know he’s speaking as an OG at the top of the industry who is one of the very few who has the power to decide who will get a chance to succeed and who won’t. But all of this is just an appetizer to what follows, when he starts to specifically address a specific detractor (Ja Rule). This all precedes one of my favorite lines in all of rap: “Niggas get behind mics and ain’t even MCs.” This implies that there is more to an MC than being able to rhyme words together with a very fast rhythm over a beat. Part of it is born into you, and part of it is from experience. But as you hear the dismissive disappointment in his voice (and just imagine him shaking his head as he says that line), you really start to hear the expressive capabilities of his voice. But Dre is at his best here when he is plain angry. Now, line by line: “Niggas get on MTV just to dis me” – there is some world-weariness in Dre’s voice here, as you remember that Dre has dealt with critics from day one, completely unfoundedly (remember that this is the man who brought you NWA, then The Chronic, then Snoop Dogg, then…well, just check the previous paragraph, I lay it all out.) But continuing: “This shit don’t even piss me off, I’m laughing all the way to the bank”: you can clearly hear here how Dre is more annoyed (as if with a bothersome fly) than anything that people keep taking shots at him, and how he has to take the time to respond to them, even though he knows no response should really be necessary because his body of work speaks for itself. Dre is fully confident in himself, and he shouldn’t have to prove that to anyone. “ You niggas ain’t even got a car, you’re so far, under my radar, I don’t even know who the FUCK you are”: listen to the snarl in his voice as he pronounces that last line. Dre doesn’t know you. Dre doesn’t give a fuck about you. He doesn’t even bother to learn your group’s name, or listen to your songs to use them against you. The tone in his voice here says he’s Dre, and who the fuck are you? The snarl continues: “to tell you to suck my dick while I’m pissing, I don’t even listen to your shit to know who the FUCK I’m dissin’.” Dre is really more surprised than anything that you would even dare to criticize him. Although they would be notated with the same rhythmic value in a transcription, Dre emphasizes the word “fuck” (and thusly his lack of caring) in the last two lines by changing the pitch (going higher) and saying it slightly louder. His insults are reinforced by the structure of the verse (24 bars long), and what makes this one of the best diss verses in all of rap is that he doesn’t even mention Ja Rule’s name until the end of the 16th bar; he just talks about the type of rapper Ja Rule is, because he knows you know who he’s talking about at this point. Skipping ahead a little: “Tryin’ to add fuel to the fire, this little nigga Ja Rule”: you know from the way he says it that he does not use the word nigga here as a term of endearment. He uses it to dismiss Ja Rule out of hand, as someone who’s not even on his level. You can literally hear the surprise in Dre’s voice when he replies, “Nigga please!” to Ja Rule’s assertion that he would slap Dre. Then Dre says it plain, laying out only the facts, with no interpretation: “And pussy you’re not Pac, I knew him; Pac was a real nigga, you’re just a fucking insult to him.” Continuing: “You’re talking to a pioneer who engineered this shit for 19 years.” At the italicized words, Dre emphasizes them by drawing them out, making you realize just how long 19 years is to be not just in the rap game, but at the very top of it (consider how long most rappers’ time in the limelight lasts – not very long.) Again, the expressive power of the human voice is on full display here in rap. Dre ends by dressing Ja Rule completely down: “I ain’t even gotta say it, the fans know: you tryna be tough nigga, you look like an asshole.” Dre knows exactly why Ja Rule said what he did about Dre: he just wanted some publicity, to stir things up a little and get his name in headlines. The most damaging thing about this verse isn’t necessarily the words (although they are amazingly insulting), but how Dre delivers them. So although he didn’t write the words, he can still be considered a good rapper, because he nailed the rhythm, and gave it that expressive power that no one else could. This actually turns rap’s lack of adherence to ET intervals into an advantage, as it fully unleashes the expressive power of the human voice. I was able to make the following recording of Dre’s verse a cappella (which means only his words are heard) combined with the sound of a bass that copies exactly Dre’s pitch and volume. Listen to the electric bass sound in the middle, and hear how it matches exactly with Dre’s pitch and volume slightly to the left and right in your speakers or headphones. Concentrate on only the bass, and you will hear only the pitch and volume vary. Get the recording here:
However, we can now address why that criticism in the first place is misguided. Melody is composed of two things, as we said before: rhythm and pitch. There is no question that rap has rhythm. Secondly, rap has pitch, just not in the same manner that the Katy Perry song does. Furthermore, rap is actually more melodic than you might believe, even while not adhering to ET intervals. A perfect example is Snoop Dogg’s “singing/rapping” in The Intro to Dre’s “Next Episode”. However, if you haven’t noticed, I’m a Dre fiend. Note that all of these examples and analyses –“How We Do”, “Business”, “What’s The Difference”, “Hello”, “Shit Hits The Fan”, “Don’t Get Carried Away”, have all been Dre joints. One of the future posts posts will be an analysis of Dre’s production techniques. Stay tuned.). Furthermore, if we consider the reality that rap has much more complex rhythm than most pop melodies (songs that are readily accepted by critics decrying rap for lack of melody), we can consider the situation as if rap simply emphasizes the rhythm over the pitch while still creating rhythm. This results in rhythms that are much more complex than most pop song’s melodic rhythms, which are very bare and standard by comparison (you need only observe Eminem’s quintuplets and sextuplets in “What’s The Difference” to get the idea, an analysis which I promise to post soon.) Furthermore, we can consider the voice itself as a phenomenon of sound. It is one of the wonders of nature that we, as humans, have an unlimited capacity for remembering and matching voices to the person from which they come. As soon as a baby leaves the womb, they are in fact able to recognize the voice of their mother. I have often reflected that many popular/greatest-of-all-time rappers seem to have very distinct, unique, instantly recognizable voices (considering only their timbre, which is hard to define but can be described like this: timbre is what allows your ear to tell the difference between a piano playing middle C and a violin playing middle C, even though they are both playing the same note): 50 Cent, Eminem, Weezy, Jay-Z, Q-Tip, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Tupac, Biggie, etc. Each of their voices says something about them. 50 Cent’s is full of swag; Mos Def is simply hip-hop; Jay-Z is New York; and so on. The fact that no two human voices are exactly the same means that the rapping voice is constantly being renewed as more and more rappers pick up the mic.
Continuing our discussion of the rapping voice as an instrument, we should try to group it into a family of instruments. This would be added to our classification of rap as, 1.) A monophonic instrument, with 2.) An infinite pitch content within the possible range of the human voice that is generated organically, with 3.) A unique timbre for every instance of the rapping voice. As a point of departure, we can consider the rapping voice, while having pitch, to be percussive but not necessarily percussion. This comes as a result of all the different syllables (more technically, phonemes) that each language has. (a phoneme is the small set of units, usually about 20 to 60 in number, and different for each language, considered to be the basic distinctive units of speech sound by which morphemes, words, and sentences are represented.) Each different phoneme generates a different percussive effect, generated by our vocal system of percussion. That is, when a rapper says a syllable that begins with “b”, this can be considered a different percussive effect from a rapper saying a syllable that begins with “m.” Although the rapper only sometimes purposely chooses the phonemes that he will use (such as in consonance or assonance,) even when he allows the verbal meaning of his words to dictate the phonemes used, a nearly unlimited of percussive effects are constantly generated (even if it isn’t done purposefully by the rapper) when one considers that other parameters can be varied as well: volume, pitch, etc.
Thus, we have the following information on the rapping voice. It is:
1. Monophonic (produces only one note at a time.)
2. Has an infinite, organically generated pitch content within a limited range, not bound by ET intervals
3. Has an unlimited, instantly recognizable capacity for timbre (as a group), but a single timbre for each particular instance of this instrument (for example, Eminem can only ever sound like Eminem.)
4. Is percussive, with an almost infinite amount of ways of being “struck”.
5. Is extremely expressive.
With this information, we can now compare the rapping voice to other similar instances of music, and see what can be learned. What first comes to mind is a monophonic percussive instrument, such as a single triangle (indeed, I often use a triangle as the MIDI voice when reproducing the transcribed rap voices on my computer.) However, we can see that the rapping voice can do certain things that the triangle cannot do. Although there are many, many ways to strike a triangle (as can be gleaned from any demonstration by a professional triangle), it does not approach the number of different ways that the rapping voice can be intoned. Furthermore, the rapping voice has truly direct expressive power, that any human with ears (and sometimes without ears) can pick up on easily. Additionally, its pitch can be manipulated in ways that the triangle cannot. However, we might do better to compare the rapping voice to a drum, as rarely (if ever) does a triangle take center stage in an ensemble. I would challenge drummers to try and conjure a rhythm that is as interesting as Eminem’s, which is a product of the rhythm of the notes, yes, but more importantly, the accents implied by the poetic accent (we will pick this subject back up later, in the next post). We can even leave out the huge challenge of coupling the rhythm with verbal meaning.
If you liked this article, you might enjoy these other ones, which are among my most popular:
1.) An analysis of Nas’ flow on the 2006 Busta Rhymes song “Don’t Get Carried Away,” which you can read here.
2.) My album review & analysis of the 2012 Kendrick Lamar album “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” which you can read here.
3.) A database of who the 23 most repetitive rappers in the industry are, available here.
4.) A study of every instrument Dr. Dre used on his songs between the years 2000 and 2009, online here.
5.) A breakdown of Eminem’s song “Business,” which you can check out here.