What we know as Western music today, from its earliest existence, has been marked by its extensive development of the treatment and handling of many voices singing at once, whether those of a human or instrument. This practice of polyphony gives rise to the very Western conception of the tonic key, what could be called for the musical lay person a type of musical “home” for a certain piece of music. For instance, in most pop music the song begins in the tonic key, moves away from it, and then ends in the tonic key again by the end of the piece. Interestingly enough, much of the development of Western classical music since the beginning of its modern period has not been marked by new discoveries into previously uncharted areas of this system, but rather a continual refinement of how this system itself is handled.
The handling of all of these different musical voices played at once is the musical science/art of “counterpoint.” Counterpoint describes the rules for how the composer is to handle musical dissonance, which can be considered deviations from the underlying chordal structure of a piece of music at a certain time. For instance, if a C major chord (C-E-G) is played on a piano, but a violin at the same time plays a D note, which is not part of the underlying C major triadic harmony, the rules of counterpoint will prescribe how that D is to be dealt with. It could be handled as a suspension, meaning that it would have to resolve down by step to a C, which is part of the underlying harmonic structure and thus resolves the dissonance. Or it could be a passing note, moving in the violin from the note C, to D, to E, which has the D dissonance handled correctly because it is surrounded by 2 notes that are part of the underlying structure.
These guidelines were crystallized by J.S. Bach in the early 18th century, with works of his such as the 2 books of the “Well Tempered-Clavier” and “The Art of Fugue.” Counterpoint had never before reached such complexity, and no work before or after would ever uncover so well the innate, natural structure of the handling of dissonance in music. That is an important part of the matter here: the rules Bach uncovered work not because they acted only in an internally consistent system, but because they describe how music actually works.
Thus, with the writing of his compositions there remained nothing new to be discovered (20th century dodecaphonic composers notwithstanding.) He described every possible kind of dissonance, and then handled it correctly. And so the only thing that would develop as far as counterpoint was concerned for the next 300 years or so would be how the counterpoint system itself that Bach had codified was handled. Basically, the rules which governed the handling of dissonance were gradually loosened over time. Bach prescribed the strictest handling of these procedures, and slowly, as our ears became used to more and more dissonance, more and more dissonance could be used. This can be gleaned for one’s self from the following survey of pieces across centuries:
Even the non-formally music educated can detect that with each work, from one to the next, the amount of dissonance increases. This increase in musical dissonance can be described quantitatively in terms of the musical intervals that are considered “okay” to leave unresolved. (A musical interval is the distance between 2 notes, such as from a C note to a D note, which is known as a second, or a C to a B, which is a 7th.)
This can be organized as follows, where above is the musical interval that has become consonant and below is the period in which this happens:
What has changed, therefore, is not the system used to write music, but the handling of the rules described by that system. Bach set out very strict rules for how dissonant 9ths were to be handled: that 9th had to descend down to the 8th, in order to abide by the harmonic structure. By the time we get to Debussy, however, he simply skips from one 9th chord to the next, with no contrapuntal dissonance handling, such as passing notes, in between them. The same goes for the other dissonances. This development is seen by some to correspond to the ascending overtone series:
One can see that the intervals that are described by the overtone series are, in order, an octave, a 5th, a 4th, 3rds and 6ths, 7ths, 9ths, 11ths, and 12ths, which corresponds exactly to the order of the intervals in the graph describing how the handling of that interval’s dissonance changed overtime.
This innate, natural, inherent development on a system that has not changed but simply treated differently is the metaphor I’d like to draw when discussing the handling of accent in rap music. It is my belief that a similar change in the handling of accent, based on English’s natural rhythms of speaking (analogue to the harmonic overtone series), can explain rap’s most recent developments.
In rap, there are 3 different areas of accent that are important. There is metric accent, verbal accent, and poetic accent. How can we define each?
Metric accent is the emphases given to a piece of music in its structural units. Almost all rap is in a 4/4 meter. This means that the quarter note gets the beat and so is accented(bottom number of the fraction-looking number), and that there are 4 beats per measure (top number.) A measure is also called a bar. A measure thus has 4 beats: beat 1, beat 2, beat 3, and beat 4. The beats of the measure receive their accent as follows: beats 1 and 3 are strong beats, and beats 2 and 4 are the weak beats. These are reflected in rap by the fact that bass kicks generally fall on beats 1 and 3, and the snare usually falls on beats 2 and 4. When a rapper raps, these are the musical realities that he interacts with.
Verbal accent is something we are all quite familiar with: it is how, and what part of, the words we say are emphasized. For instance, when I say, “emphasis”, I pronounce it as, “EM-pha-sis”, where the first beat is heavily accented. Or in the word “solemnity,” I pronounce it, “so-LEM-ni-ty”, where the 2nd syllable is accented. It is important that we constrict our discussion here to English rap, because the patterns of accent in other languages are generally more restrictive. In French, for instance, the final syllable of a phrase is generally the one that gets accented. This is another level of accent that the rapper interacts with.
Finally, there are poetic accents. These are accents that are created through the use of poetic techniques by the rapper, most generally rhymes, assonance, and consonance. These words naturally stand out in the ear of their listener by virtue of their echoes in other words: for instance, when Eminem rhymes “DRUG SICKNESS got me doing some BUG TWITCHES”, the capitalized words stand out as rhymes because they echo each others vowel sounds. This is also supported by a host of other phenomena, but is too much to go into right now.
Thus, the rapper has 3 levels of accent. And the natural, universal system that rappers must interact with is the realities of the cadence of English American speech patterns.
The most important elements of this system and how they relate to rap is, first, that accent can vary not just from sentence to sentence, but from word to word. That is, different parts of the sentence are emphasized depending on the speaker. Furthermore, there is a certain natural rhythm to spoken language. Although the rhythms vary greatly, one general comment we can make is that there are not long pauses in sentences, at least when communication is constant and working well.
If we were to pick songs roughly analogous to the 3 we listened to before in our survey of classical music, where would they fall in terms of time period?
First, we have to think of where the modern era of rap begins. That is because, as many rappers say, rapping has been going on forever – some say Allah was rapping to Muhammad when he passed on His word. Our first song will then be Afrika Bambaataa’s 1982 hit “Planet Rock,” where we will begin our examination of how these different levels of accent are handled. Our 2nd song will look at Busta’s verse from the Tribe Called Quest’s “Scenario”, released in 1992, continuing to examine the treatment of metric, verbal, and poetic accent. Finally, our 3rd song, as an instance of contemporary developments of rap, will be Nas’ verse on 2006’s “Don’t Get Carried Away”. Throughout all 3 we will consider how these 3 levels of accent are handled, as well as how they relate to the natural rhythms of American English speakers. I will then finish with some comparison to some raps that have just come out, like those of Kendrick Lamar. Finally, there will be some summarizing remarks, as well as speculation as to where these 3 songs might fit in the history of rap as paralleled to the history of classical music, and some speculation as to where rap will go next.
Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” (which you can hear at this link here) sets the format against which the rest of our case studies will be examined. As an early example of rap, it follows rather closely the so-called rules prescribed by the system of each of these accents. That is, the rhythms that occur are governed largely by the beat and the bar, and there is not much syncopation. Verbal accent always lines up with poetic accent, and poetic accent is handled very carefully – there is not an abundance of rhyme, and they generally fall at the end of lines.
For instance, let’s consider the first 8 bars where the rap really begins. The rhymes fall largely at the end of bars: “Up out your seats, make your body SWAY / socialize, get down let your soul lead the WAY,” where the capitalized words rhyme and the slash indicates the start and end of poetic lines. And even when rhymes don’t fall at the end of the bar, they occur at the end of the poetic line: “Just start to chase your DREAMS / Up out your SEATS…”, where “seats” does not come at the end of a bar but the start of it. Furthermore, the rappers here abide largely by the dictates of metric accent: there is not much syncopation, and almost every metric beat has a note on it. “it’s (time) to (chase) your (dreams) / up out your (seats) / (make) your (bo)dy (sway)” where the words inside parentheses are all accents falling on the beat, and the musical beat that the word “up” lines up with is the only one that isn’t accented. Furthermore, the rappers abide by the verbal accent of the word, and the sentence, as you would say them in normal conversation: they say, “BO-dy”, not “bo-DY”, which is done to a greater degree in later rap. Furthermore, they rap, “it’s (time) to (chase) your (dreams),” which is how one would say it in normal conversation.
The same general remarks can be made about the rest of the rap. Consider: “(so)cialize ( ) / get (down), let (your) soul (lead) the(way)”, where, again, the syllables or words inside parentheses fall on the beat. There is slightly more syncopation as indicated by the skipped beat at the empty parentheses, but the rhyme (on the word “way”, with the previous word “sway”) again comes at the end of the phrase, as well as the end of the bar. The verbal accent of the sentence is, however, twisted slightly, as they say, “let (your) soul”, not “(let) your(soul)”, where the parenthesized words line up with the metrical accent. So while there is some variation here, the rappers follow largely the innate rules of verbal, metric, and poetic accent. They follow the stress patterns of conversational speech, follow the metric patterns of the music, and keep poetic accents, in terms of their placement, number, and nature, formally simple.
This trend grows slightly more complicated in our next example. In Busta’s verse on the Tribe Called Quest song “Scenario” from 1992 (which you can hear here) he starts out rapping in a manner strikingly similar to that which we saw on Bambaataa’s record. He places words on many of the metric beats, keeps rhymes to the end of lines and the end of bars, and guides the pronunciation of his words largely by normal verbal stress. “I heard you (rushed) and rushed ( ) and a(ttacked) / (then) they re(buked) then (you) had to (smack).” This is notated as follows:
By the time Q-Tip has finished introducing Busta to the listener, however, the future member of Dre’s Aftermath record label immediately gets into why this verse is regarded as one of the greatest of all time by the rap cognoscenti.
Watch where the capitalized rhymes fall: “watch as I comBINE all the juice from the MIND / HEEL up / REEL up / bring it back come, reWIND.”
Here, the poetic accents happen at a much greater rate than what we saw before. Before, they came at about a rate of .5 per bar; here, and for the rest of the verse, it is more like 2 accents (again, rhymes, assonances, or consonances) per bar. Furthermore, these poetic accents occur inside the poetic line, as indicated by the slashes in the typographical transcription and the slurs in the musical notation. That is, they do not come at the end of the bar. Although there are many notes placed on the metrical beat, they are offset by the syncopation that occurs on the 16th note immediately after the striking of the beat. “watch as I com(bine), all the juice from the (mind) HEEL Up, WHEEL (UP), bring it back come re(wind).” The parenthesized syllables are where the metric and verbal accent line up; that means that on the words like “juice”, up”, and “back”, a note falls on the beat but it is not accented. The rapper thus is here is liberating his verbal accent from the dictates of metric accent. Additionally, Busta does not rely on exact rhymes, as Bambaataa did; he is content to simply repeat vowel sounds, such as with the rhyme, “no BRAGGING / try to read my mind, just iMAGINE”, where the capitalized words rhyme.
Furthermore, in what is probably one of the most important developments in rap up until now and moving forward, as we shall see in Kendrick Lamar’s “good kid, m.A.A.d. city”, Busta separates verbal accent from perfect alignment with the metrical accent, while preserving the word’s natural pronunciation. He rhymes, “(heel) up, wheel (up)”. The word “wheel”, although it doesn’t fall on the metrical accent of the beat, receives the verbal accent. In previous times, one gets the feeling that rappers like that from Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation clique would have adjusted the verbal accent of the line to match up with the metrical accent. Thus, where the parentheses represent the metrical beat but the capitalized syllables represented the verbal accent, they would have said, “(HEEL) up, wheel (UP)”, not, as Busta rhymes, “(HEEL) up, WHEEL (up)”, with the same typographical symbol key as before. Indeed, this adjustment is exactly what Busta does later in the verse:
Busta changes the normal verbal accent pattern of the word “buttcheek” from “BUTTcheek” to “buttCHEEK” so that the syllable “cheek” lines up with the metrical accent of the word. He does the same for the word “Horatio” and “Observe:”
It seems that this transition has not been completed in the collective conscious of rapperdom.
In our other areas of accent, however, Busta continues to evolve from what came before.
Here, the difference between Busta’s flow and that from the Bambaataa track are clear: there is much more syncopation, many more notes happening completely off the beat. What’s more is that Busta feels completely comfortable altering the nature of his poetic line. Before, the line generally consisted of a full sentence, with both a verb and a noun, that abided by the start and end of a bar line. Here, Busta has no problem making his poetic line only fragments (“Oh my gosh / oh my gosh”) and fitting more than one of them inside a bar, giving him much more freedom in his flows since he does not have to abide as greatly by the rules of natural speech. (The argument for why this is would need another long article, and so won’t be fully addressed here.)
So, Bambaataa largely lined up his verbal accents with the metric accents of the music. Furthermore, he abided largely by the dictates of the metric accent when placing his notes in the bar, meaning there is not much syncopation. Furthermore, his poetic accents were rather simple, coming at the end of poetic lines that followed the musical barline.
Busta, meanwhile, liberated verbal accent from metric accent by preserving natural verbal accent in some places in defiance of the prevailing metrical accent. In other places, he adjusts the verbal accent in order to align it with the metrical accent. His poetic accents, furthermore, come inside the line, at a rate of about 1.5 per bar. Also, they are of a more obtuse nature, not always being completely clearly connected, such as through exact rhymes, to what came before.
In a 3rd case study, then, we’d expect to find a continuation of all these trends. That is, verbal accent would be divorced from the metrical accent to a much greater degree, going so far as not only to be an aberration in the flow but to give the flow its defining, asymmetric rhythm. Furthermore, poetic accents could come anywhere in the poetic line, at a much greater rate, and could be of greatly different, even obtuse, natures. Finally, we’d expect to find poetic lines of greatly different natures as well – some short, some long, some fragments, some sentences, some abiding by the bar line, some not, and so on.
And that is exactly what we find in Nas’ verse on the Busta Rhymes song, “Don’t Get Carried Away”, from 2006. You can hear it here, and see the full notation at the end of this article.
Nas, in short, blows all of our previous conceptions away. Most prominently, and what informs the rhythm of the whole verse from its first bar to the last, is that the verbal accents of the words, while preserved intact in their normal pronunciation, are completely divorced from the metrical accent over and over, happening no less than 12 times. They are indicated in the complete sheet music below by the capitalized words in the lyrics, first happening on the “smar-“ of the word “smarter.”
It happens again on the 2nd syllable of “interest,” and so on. This is a great example of a rap that would not make much musical sense without a backing beat behind it. You can hear it for yourself at this video below:
That is because, as Adam Bradley asserts in his book “Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop”, the backing beat is repetitive not because rapmakers don’t know how to make it anymore musically interesting, but because it must be so in order that the rapper can be more venturesome musically. If you listen to the computer rendering of just Nas’ rhythms below, you are not entirely sure as to where the beats are coming. That’s because of Nas’ frequent divorcing of the verbal accent from the metric accent of the beat. Again, this is a freer handling of accent: now, verbal accents do not have to at all line up with the metric accent of the music. The power dynamic of the 2, so to speak, can even go in the opposite direction, as we shall see.
Poetically, there is not a greater rate of accents, at least not much more than Busta’s amount and certainly not as many as Eminem has at times (and even Nas himself for that matter.) However, they are much more obtuse in relation to one another. They are not necessarily exact rhymes but merely vowel and consonant sound echoes, such as between “short” and “dwarf” in bar 7. Sometimes they rely only on the repetition of certain accented sounds, such as the “n” of “enigma” and the “is none” that follows, or the “par” from “departure” carried across the barline into the “pardon Dre…” line.
What is most genius about this verse, however, is how Nas eventually makes all 3 levels of accent – poetic, metric, and verbal – manipulate each other simultaneously to give rise to a new, never-heard-before rhythmic structure. This is seen most clearly in bars 14-19, where the time signature changes from 4/4 to a group of 2/8, 3/8, and 6/16 time signatures repeated twice. One will notice that Nas has changed the metric accent of the rap, previously 4/4, to be changed into these new complex and compound time signatures. Observe them in isolation:
Nas changed the time signature by manipulating the verbal and poetic accent of his rap. You can see that, for all of the time signatures, a poetic accent, which we previously established creates a natural emphasis in the listener’s ear, falls on its strong beat. The “my” in the 2/8 bar rhymes with the “mind” immediately after, as well as the “nine” that falls on the strong beat of the first 6/16 measure. Furthermore, the “spray” from the first 3/8 time signature rhymes with the “dre” that comes in the 2nd 6/16 bar. The “freak” from the 2nd 2/8 time signature rhymes with the “three” from the 3/8 bar immediately following it, while the “-i-“ vowel sound of the strong-beat “like” is reflected in the “-i-“ vowel sounds that came before: “my”, “mind”, “my”, and “nine.” Finally, the “an-“ from “Andre” rhymes with “mind” and “nine” (listen closely to how Nas adjusts their “true” pronunciation to make them rhyme.) Furthermore, observe the phrasal grouping of his poetic lines: in the first 2/8+3/8+6/16 time signature grouping, they are organizing by the bar line, starting and ending there. In the 2nd grouping, which also equals its own 4/4 bar (2 8th notes + 3 8th notes + 6 16th notes = 16 16th notes = 4 quarter notes and 1 bar of 4/4), the poetic line (again, as indicated by the slur below the music) starts and ends exactly where the time signature grouping does. Furthermore, Nas’ verbal accents largely line up with the strong beats as well. This occurs on the words “spray”, “nine”, and so on. Thus, not only has Nas not had his verbal and poetic accent abide by the law of the metric accent in the music, but he has combined them in order to manipulate and change the metric accent itself!
We can see these trends manifest themselves today in someone like Kendrick Lamar as well, especially in his song “good kid, m.A.A.d. city”, from the album of the same name (you can hear the song here.) That’s because although in rap’s 4/4 time signature the beat is usually divided into 4 16th notes, they can also be divided into even 5 – quintuplets or 6 – sextuplets. That’s exactly what Kendrick does in this song: he switches his rhythms flawless between quintuplets and sextuplets, as you can see below.
He then places poetic accents anywhere inside of these new beat divisions, a complexity of positioning that has rarely been matched before. Furthermore, he varies the nature of his poetic lines as well.
So, in short, rappers today now handle verbal, poetic, and metric accent much more freely than they have in the past. It would then be logical to predict that this trend will continue, until, paradoxically rapping becomes even more similar to spoken language.
Thanks for reading!
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.