Every once in a while, I get a request from a reader that I absolutely love, because it’s a request for me to analyze a song that is criminally under-appreciated. Amy’s recent ask for me to take a look at Eve’s “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” (on YouTube here) is one such case. It’s not because it’s one of Dre’s best beats (although it is,) or because it’s got a killer hook (although it does.) It’s because of the mesmerizing contrast between the simplicity of Eve’s rhythms on the one hand, and the head-banging groove she still somehow manages to jam the track full of. Her rhythms on paper would be pretty easy to write down, but—because of how she delivers them—they end up being nearly hypnotizing. This has led to Eve being underrated more generally, because the one thing that she’s really good at (riding the beat) is one of the things that musicians and audiences understand the least.
I recently made a rap song where I took dozens and dozens of bars from 100 different songs by 50 different artists, and freestyled through all of them by means of categories that grouped their flows together based on rhythmic similarities. Some rhythms were syncopated, some were on-beat, some were really complicated, etc. Obviously Kendrick was in there, as was André 3000, Notorious B.I.G., Lauryn Hill, Talib Kweli, Nas, and Lil Wayne…no surprises so far. But at the end of the list, who did I find but—Eve! I expected those other rappers with technical reputations to show up, but not her. What did her inclusion among such a legendary group teach me about her rap?
It showed me that Eve’s rap taps into some really fundamental facts about rap that many people gloss over, or ignore completely, when discussing the rhythmic elements of rap. The undeniable reality is that most of rap’s rhythms will always sound extremely similar to each other (in theory, at least). This is because there just aren’t that many different rhythms that rappers can pull off while still meeting all of rap’s innate requirements. These requirements include the fact that the song’s tempo must be quick/slow enough to talk over, and that the rapper must take breaths every so often. Even within a single beat with four 16th notes, there are only 12 possibilities for separate rhythms. When we expand this to a full bar and its own 4 beats, we are still left with only 240 possibilities. This might sound like a lot—and, certainly, there are more than 240 rhythms in rap’s history—but this quick-and-dirty estimation is still very small when compared to the number of different possible rhythms in instrumental musics like jazz. Trumpets, basses, drums, and saxophones obviously aren’t constricted by rap’s strict requirements around both communication and breathing.
So if there aren’t really that many possible rhythms in rap, then how come we never get bored of it?
The answer is found in the amazingly diverse world of rappers’ vocal timbres, as well as rappers’ varying amount of rhythmic swing. And, unsurprisingly, Eve brings both of those things in abundance on “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.”
First, let’s identify her lines where the rhythms are fairly standard, and which I was able to find in tons of other songs. These include what I call the 8th note rhythm (which has 2 evenly spaced syllables on every beat), the waltz rhythm (which has a 16th note right before, right on, and right after the beat), and the offbeat rhythm (which is two 16th notes followed by an 8th note.)
First, Eve’s 8th note rhythm on “Let Me Blow Ya Mind:”
“WHICH one, PICK one,
THIS one, CLASsic”
I found this in tons of other songs, including Puff Daddy’s verse on “Welcome To Atlanta,” Lil Wayne’s verse on “I’ma Dope Boy,” Big Sean’s song “A$$,” Game’s song “Westside Story,” Lil Wayne’s song “Who Wanna,” and a second Game song, “How We Do.”
Now, Eve’s waltz rhythm:
“a LOT more, than YOU, to GET rid, of ME”
I also found this rhythm on Nas’ “N.Y. State of Mind,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Vibes and Stuff”, “and Kanye West’s ‘”Niggas In Paris.”
Lastly, here’s Eve’s offbeat rhythm:
EVie gon’ be
I found this rhythm in a Mos Def freestyle, on Big Sean’s verse on “Mercy,” Pharoahe Monch’s “Body Baby,” and André 3000’s verse on “Aquemini.”
So, for three of Eve’s bars from “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” I found 10 other rappers who had 13 of their own songs that used the exact. same. rhythms.
The reason this doesn’t sound like rhyme-biting, or plagiarism, is because each of these rappers delivered these same rhythms in their own unique way. They made these rhythms unique—not by changing where the syllables fall and where they don’t—but by changing a.) how far behind the beat they are, and b.) how their voices rise and fall as they say them.
For example, let’s look at Eve’s waltz rhythm again:
“a LOT more, than YOU, to GET rid, of ME”
She pronounces these lyrics in a sharp and staccato manner; she doesn’t linger on each syllable, but instead cuts it off sharply…takes a brief pause…and then moves quickly onto the next one. She also says them in a way that is both dismissive and disbelieving, a feeling that she reinforces by mockingly raising her voice to a higher pitch about halfway through. When she pronounces this part, she is also pretty far behind where the drums are falling.
But now take a look at how A Tribe Called Quest raps this same waltz rhythm on “Vibes & Stuff:”
“FROM fat, to SKINny
from FREEda, to WINNy”
Here, Q-Tip’s rhythms are a lot more laidback than Eve’s. He drawls from one syllable to the next in a smoother, more legato way, connecting them all closely together. He doesn’t pronounce each word sharply, but instead maintains an evenhanded voice that remains in a conversational tone. This is how two rappers can have the same exact rhythms, but have completely different sounds and feels to them.
As a second example, take Eve’s offbeat flow:
EVie gon’ be
Here, Eve positively explodes off the beat on the syllables “ea-“, “ev-“, and “last,” as she says them more loudly, and says them right on top of the beat. This is her hard-hitting Philly flow coming through full force.
In a freestyle on YouTube though, Mos Def finesses these same exact rhythms into something much smoother and mellower:
TEN i be
WHEN i be”
Mos’ pronunciation of the words are much less edgy, and much more rounded. He’s feeling the full weight of the entire rhythmic phrase, and not just focusing on this 3-note rhythm’s first syllable.
We’ve now gotten to the heart of the matter. Eve’s style is so catchy because she takes rhythms that we’ve been hearing all our lives, and then restyles them into something completely new and super sticky with her swing and with her delivery. I’ve tried to use this big comparison in order to draw close attention to those defining features of her style. Such features aren’t complicated rhythms, like Talib Kweli’s signature style, or a super unique voice, like Aesop Rock. Instead, her legendary status rests on her ability to take really simple rhythms, and make them stick in your ear like glue…and pulling off a trick like that just goes to show that Eve really has blown our minds with this song.