I recently received a request from a reader to analyze the musical group headed up by lyricist Daveed Diggs, of “Hamilton” fame. When I heard clipping.’s song “Story 2,” I knew that there was only one thing I could talk about on the song: its awesome changes in meter that take place in the beat behind the rapper (whose flow I’ll get to, of course, in just a short second!) I myself am a classically trained musician, so that kinda shit just gets me going, especially when I frequently lament the lack of more musical/melodic elements in rap (complex chords, more formal orchestration, etc.) At 0:00, the song is in a feel of 12/8. This means that there are 4 beats to a measure, just like most other rap songs, such as this other clipping. song here, called “Summertime:”
(Sorry if you know all this stuff that’s about to come, but it’s just easier to get it out there; a more in-depth explanation can be found in my video called “All The Music Theory An Aspiring Rapper Needs To Know,” which is on YouTube here.) A measure is to musical time as a minute is to chronological time, which is what I call the system of time that’s measured by watches and clocks. Chronological time always lasts the same amount of time, so that people can coordinate events together. But musical time, since it can be both slow and fast (which you know yourself from your own experience,) has to be able to last differing amounts of time between songs. This is the function measures perform.
And just like minutes can be broken down into seconds, measures can be broken down into beats. It’s the manner in which these beats come, then, that differs over time on “Story 2,” which I love.
So, 12/8 has 4 beats to a measure; nothing special. But 12/8 divides each of those beats into 3 smaller divisions of musical time, which are called 8th notes. But 4/4 divides each of those 4 beats into only 2 smaller divisions of musical time. Most rap music is in 4/4, like that other clipping. song I linked to. 12/8 is much, much rarer, so I can appreciate the creativity. Another example of a different 12/8 song is Kanye West’s “Spaceship.”
However, around 0:10, they change it up so that instead of 3 8th notes per beat, you now get 4 8th notes per beat. But you don’t notice much, because each 8th note still lasts the same amount of time; the only thing that is different is how they’re GROUPED together; i.e., where the musical accent (same thing as emphasis) falls.
But around 0:18, they started having 5 8th notes per beat. Trace the delightfully, logical progression: from 3 8th notes per beat at 0:00, to 4 8th notes per beat at 0:10, to now 5 8th notes per beat, around 0:20. This is a really complex metrical trick that is very popular even in the most complicated 20th century classical music; it’s called metrical modulation, and was first named in the work of Elliott Carter.
At 0:30, they add 6 8th notes per beat; at 0:42, they move to 7 8th notes per beat.
It’s important to know all of that to understand the sophistication with which the rapper on top has crafted his flow. Like I said before, there are other songs in complex meters, but they are few and far between. And when they ARE done, the rapper sometimes leaves something to be desired. For instance, check out El-P’s “Dear Sirs,” here:
That song has 5 beats to a bar.
Now, that’s great, but El-P doesn’t take advantage of what that 5/4 time signature could afford him; namely, an opportunity to craft his phrases in interesting ways. If you listen, he is always starting and stopping in completely new places that have nothing to do with where the bars behind him start and stop. You don’t need to be ruled in a dictatorial fashion by those musical parameters, but you SHOULD at least acknowledge them, so that later you can play off them.
Clipping.’s rapper, though, DOES acknowledge these lines. He doesn’t just float way over the beat, not interacting with the underlying pulse, like El-P does. Instead, he flows completely in time with the song, even if that time is constantly changing. In order to balance out the complexity of the meter, as I’ve just described it, he’s simplified his syllable-to-syllable rhythms to simple 8th notes. This is a really good idea, because if he tried rhythms that were too complex, the listener probably would get lost in the music. Imagine André 3000 trying to spit the same type of rhythms he uses on OutKast’s “Return Of The G,” on clipping.’s “Story 2” song:
It just wouldn’t work. That’s why clipping.’s balance of complex and simple is so satisfying.
So, clipping. keep their syllable-to-syllable rhythms really simple, but their larger scale rhythms — where the rapper’s sentences start and stop — are actually really complex. That’s because they expand along with the expanding meter behind him. When there are 4 8th notes to a beat at 0:00, he keeps his sentences to lengths (or multiples of the length) of 4 8th notes; when it expands to 5 8th notes per beat at 0:10, he expands his sentences to lengths of 5 8th notes; when it moves to 6, he moves to 6, and so on. This is amazing, amazing, amazing. It shows a true musician who is fully in control of all the tools in the composer’s compositional toolbox, and that he is incredibly self-aware of the music he’s making, and how to move logically from one section of music to the next.
If you need a better explanation of what beats are, check out my post on Kendrick Lamar’s album “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” which you can read by clicking here. If you’re a BIG Kendrick fan, then you also probably want to read my review of his “To Pimp A Butterfly” album, which you can read here. If you want more in-depth explanations of cool musical tricks rappers pull off besides expanding meters, such as polyrhythms, then make sure you check out my Nas rap analysis article, which you can read here.