Playing a late round of a Kings Friday night, I turned over nine and said a sentence that ended in the word “past”. The rhyme went around the circle – “…vast”, “…pass”, “…blast” – until it eventually got to the southern Virginian on my right, one Phillip Timberlake. In his twang, he ended his sentence with the word “task.” That particular rhyme gave me pause enough to drink. Of course, it being my turn, I still rhymed on time, but I also took a long drink – you know, to think more deeply about what had been said.
Swerving down the 66 interstate out of Arlington the next morning, surveying the Potomac River and the brightening rose pillars of downtown D.C. – far more sober than I had been the night before – I flipped on my radio to 93.9 WKYS, and listened to some Hip Hop. “Poetic Justice” by Kendrick Lamar came on I remember, as did “All Gold Everything” by Trinidad James – a few other tracks.
Like Phil had done the night before, that morning each rapper coming through airwaves stretched and bent odd words and phrases to make them rhyme with the line before. The only difference being that these guys were far more conspicuous about it. Trinidad forced “know aboutchea” to go with “popular”; “summer” to work with “public”; and a handful of other odd pairs that didn’t really work well with the music.
Always keeping an eye-out for all rhymes in all contexts, I probably wouldn’t have noticed Phil’s rhyme as anything peculiar in most situations. By Hip Hop standards, pairing “task” with “last” could hardly be considered a stretch. The reason I did notice the liberty Phil took is because it brought back for me the memory of the very first time I played kings. On some kitchen table in some dank basement somewhere on the Northwest side of Chicago, I downed the rest of my Malibu and coke in protest after having been deemed to have failed to rhyme. “Fat” did not rhyme with “black”, my so-called friends concluded.
Now a member of this new circle five years later, I found it remarkable that nobody in the group seemed to bear any such stylistic reservations when it comes to what rhymes. By the time the fourth nine had been flipped, Phil’s rhyme wasn’t even the tenth biggest stretch practiced by the crew.
I’ve noticed this same development in so many places, recently. There’s no longer a question of context in my mind – for my money the concept of rhyme is fundamentally different today than it was even a half decade ago. What might have accounted for this change? In a word, Hip Hop.
A die-hard, I’m admittedly bias: but I do believe in the influence of rap music. I believe the change in attitude I’ve observed in my peers represents a tangible cultural shift in our generation, and that this shift directly parallels a similar change that occurred years back in Hip Hop music – the re-invention of what rhymes, by industry leaders such as Lil’ Wayne.
In the whole of Hip Hop’s history, “bop” has always rhymed with “block”; quite simply, because the slight consonance difference in these types of words takes very little if anything away from their innate musicality. The same might well be true in all forms of song writing – however, Hip Hop recently has taken – and has strove to have taken – greater and greater liberties into stretching the concept and function of what rhymes.
Those in Academic circles often take unfortunate and misguided pains to characterize such a stretch as Phil’s rhyme (“last”/ “task”) as a slant, or off rhyme. These distinctions are not only ineffective in the appreciation of verse; they are often counterproductive. Here is how the American Heritage Dictionary defines an off rhyme:
Off rhyme: A partial or imperfect rhyme, often using assonance or consonance only, as in dry and died or grown and moon. Also called half rhyme, near rhyme, oblique rhyme, slant rhyme.
This is far too broad a stroke to be useful. Rhymes that have perfect assonance and consonance are a tiny minority in most forms of versification, and especially are so in music. Under this definition, “last” and “task” constitute an off rhyme; yet so do the words fat and tab. Both of these pairs possess assonance (a common vowel sound) and not consonance (a shared consonant ending). Calling both off rhymes neglects the fact that one of these pairs sounds good together, the other one, horrendous.
It was in the meditation of this drive – which saw me miss my exit near Reston and roll into the mountains of West Virginia – that I began to appreciate the opportunity that is this project. What rhymes is a good and fruitful question. First of all, because there are real phonetic reasons why fat and tab don’t work, and why bop and block do – and there is not yet a Wikipedia where people can come find out why. More, though, when so few rhymes are perfect, and the best rarely are, the study of what works and why in rhyming will yield incredible value in any serious endeavor to understand the lyrical art form. Given the perpetual evolution of Hip Hop lyricism, the study and the development of a Theory of Rhyme is sure to result in rules that will be broken in short order. Those will be the most fun.
Going forward, my essential questions will be these:
- What rhymes, in what contexts, and what is the power of what rhymes in what context?
- How do variations on the concept and methodology of rhyme affect our aesthetic appreciation of the quality of verse?
- What makes rap good? Why?
The Four Eras of Hip Hop
Last year I was lucky enough to write a long paper about rap music AND have it graded BY a professor. In the essay, I attempted to forge an original historiography of Hip Hop by examining the evolution of certain lyrical styles. I separated the history of the craft into four eras by identifying and exploring what I found to be the three major innovations in the genre since 1979: 1.) the use of internal rhyme (AAB/CCB) and layered or “stacked” rhyme (ABC/ABC); 2.) the obfuscation of the traditional bar through the rapid proliferation of internal and stacked rhymes used in conjunction, (e.g. A-BA-C/DC,-C,CE-B, see Nas below); and the most modern innovation, the re-evaluation of which similarly sounding words and phrases may be successfully employed as rhymes.
In regard to these three benchmark lyrical shifts, I will hence forth in this project refer to the following roughly defined, Four Eras of Hip Hop: First (?-84); Second (84-92); Third (92-06); and Fourth (06-present). Below are graphic examples of each of these three innovations, all of which rapidly came to define the lyricism of their time.
1st Major Innovation: Early, Internal and Stacked rhymes: “Tricky”
– = unstressed, element of rhymed word or phrase.
[Run, Circ. 1986]
When I wake up people take up mostly all of my time.
I’m not singin’, phone keep ringin’ cause I make up a rhyme.
I’m not braggin’, people naggin’ cause they think I’m a star,
Always tearin’ what I’m wearin’; I think they’re goin’ too far
2nd Major Innovation: The Evolution of the Internal and Stacked rhymes: “Memory Lane”
[Nas, Cir. 1994]
My man put the battery in my back, a diff’rence from Energizer [A-BA-C]
Sentence, begin to dent it – with formality – [CC,-C,CD,-B]
My duration’s infinite, moneywise or physiology. [CD,-B]
Poetry, that’s a part of me, retardedly bop: [-B,E-B.E-B,F]
I drop the ancient manifested hip-hop, straight off the block [FFF]
3rd Major Innovation: A Modern Conception of What Rhymes: “Dough Is What I Got”
[Lil’ Wayne, Cir. 2006]
And when it comes down to this recording [A-]
I must be LeBron James if he’s Jordan [BA-]
No, I want rings (“rangs”) for my performance [BA-]
I’m more Kobe Bryant of an artist [C-]
Same coach, same game, been startin’ [C-]
…Same triangle offense [C-]
Most historiographers of Hip Hop are structured in respect to the subject of the time periods, i.e. early rappers were dance halls crowd movies (early 80’s), until they were enraged political protestors (late 80’s), until they were Mafioso kingpins (90’s), until they were whatever the hell they are now. I find no value in such characterizations. The purpose of this project will be to consider the art. A rapper, like an artist, ought to be judged on the aesthetic and formal qualities of his art, rather than on our perception of his morality, integrity, coolness or street credibility.
These are rough timetables that are in reference only to what Nas refers to in the second verse of “Memory Lane” as the “van-guard” of Hip Hop music. Throughout the genre’s history there have been plenty of rappers that have been doing nothing especially and little cool. Their work is discounted here.
Nas’ first verse on the DJ Premier-laced track, “Memory Lane” is the perfect testament to the dawn of the Third Era of Hip Hop – for my money the era that achieved the highest aesthetic quality both absolutely and most frequently. His verse literally defines both his era as a whole and his own personal lyrical project. As he explains above, Nas dents sentences with formality. And in that manipulation, his “duration is infinite”; his flow feels at once immediate and limitless, concrete and unrelenting, eschewing regular stops and instead falling on top the beat in alternating waves of gentility and violence.
Like Nas’ verse is taken from his legendary album, Illmatic, the Lil Wayne verse excerpted above is taken from his own landmark achievement, “Da Drought 3.” It, too, is an instructive example of the arrival of an era, the early outset of which the artist would come to dominate.
Earlier in the verse, Wayne references the perceived lyrical superiority of the 3rd era of Hip Hop – rapping “Only down south rapper – could have been in “the Firm/ or the Commission, or Wu-Tang”. In reverse order, the Wu-Tang Clan is a group of premier rappers from Staten Island, NY; The Firm was Nas’s partnership with AZ and others; and The Commission is what Hip Hop greats Biggie and Jay-z called themselves from time to time.
The section excerpted above illustrates Wayne’s desire – and more importantly his ability – to overtake Jay-Z as the dominant force in the industry. The previous year, Jay had rapped on the same beat, “I am the Mike Jordan of recording”. Here the borrowed Jordan/Recordin’ rhyme is by far Wayne’s tamest, i.e. most traditional. Immediately after this sports analogy, Wayne, who at times refers to himself as “the Martian” (a nickname which originated in this verse), boldly ventures off into a strange and exciting new dimension of lyricism.
His first stretch pairs the name “Jordan” with the three syllable word, “performance”. He achieves musicality between the words by adjusting his pronunciation of the syllable “form” to something closer to “fahm”. Next comes an exhilarating thirty second stretch, during which Wayne combines more traditional internal and stacked rhymes with a string of end-rhymes all of which illuminates his extraordinary range and one-of-a-kind imagination:
…more Kobe Bryant of an Artist / …Startin’ / …Offense / …Dargent /…Chargin’/ …Retarded / …Martian / …Tarzan / …Poison (“pause-in”) / …Marcus /…August / …Call it / …Vonage / …Audience / …Guardian / …Guarding-him /…Accordion /…Bossy /…Faucet /…Largent /…Martin
It was after hearing this verse that my best friend, Obi told me straight up what Wayne had been telling us for years: “Dude, Lil Wayne is the best rapper in the world right now.” He was. And his superiority was shown not least by the fact that no one had their finger on the pulse of the tectonic shifts taking place in the art form quite like one Dwayne Carter.
Almost seven years later, today’s Hip Hop is a whole new battlefield. Wayne hasn’t put out a stand out verse like that in God knows how long, and his output is largely irrelevant (much like Nas had become by the early 2000’s). Nonetheless his style of employing bar after bar of out-of-the-box rhymes remains predominant in the game.
Now We ‘Ere
Certain phonetic rules which I have started to piece together over the past few nights can help to explain why certain attempts at rhymes work and why certain ones don’t: e.g. the <k> sound in “task” and <t> sound in “last” share the same voice and manner of articulation; whereas the <t> sound in “fat” and <b> sound in “tab” share the same manner of articulation, but have opposite voice. For now, though, I don’t want to get into phonetics so much. Instead, I’d like to get into a case study which I hope will illuminate the diverse lyrical forms that this new era of lyrical innovation has inspired. Because in Hip Hop, as in all evolution, it is not the universal environmental conditions but rather the individual mutations that fascinate.
The most ready example I have to explore the novel styles of the Fourth and current era of Hip Hop is a song that came out earlier this month, “Started from the Bottom” by Drake. In its sparse structure, the song is a perfect example of the nuanced almost hidden artfulness, characteristic of the best contemporary rap.
Before we get into the review of this song, let me present you with an example of what this project will conscientiously strive not to be:
Rolling Stones’ review of “Started from the Bottom” [Stars: 2.5/5] by Jody Rosen
Drake’s new single arrived on the Internet with Cliff’s Notes: an open letter from the man himself. “I feel sometimes that people don’t have enough information about my beginnings,” he wrote. “Started From the Bottom” doesn’t exactly fill in the blanks – we learn Drake used to argue with his mom and sometimes borrowed his uncle’s car… The real statement is the revamped sound: Drake raps in a higher register over a spare, staccato beat built around a nattering 808 and piano loop. But the result is a duller Drizzy – his rhymes lack his usual wit and flair. The dude seems defensive – unnecessarily, and to the detriment of his music.
Too often the musical criticism of Hip Hop falls dangerously close to the most inane celebrity chatter. Drake seems defensive, Jody says. Where does that get us? If he does seem defensive– and plenty rappers do – how does this defensive posture you perceive hurt his music in this song? Did Tupac’s excessive paranoia distract from his message in the song, “Trapped”. Did Lupe fail to get us to tap our feet when he sounded so pathetic on that song “…And He Gets the Girl”. Subjective judgments of personality and character do not by themselves speak to the quality of the music. Go further.
Hip Hop artists are not profits. They are rarely geniuses, and only slightly more frequently cool than your average person. I think they are often good people, but no more often than the average person. What makes them special is not their character but their talent, their craft. The very best emcees since the inception of Hip Hop some thirty years ago have as good a sense of the musicality of English as anyone born since Elizabethan times. Let’s strive to access that talent: access their ability to make good music, rather than perfect logic or noble truth, out of their rhythmic words and phrases.
With that in mind, I think “Started from the Bottom” is noteworthy success – allow me to explain why.
On first listen, the lyrics in the song may come off as casual or easy – possibly the last descriptor you would use to describe the previous generation (3rd era) of avant-garde rap. The perceived causality here, however, is purely an illusion of rigorous attention to detail. Unlike the touted diverse structures of Nas’ lyrics in “Memory Lane”, Drake in this song explores a strict and regular bar structure, which he maintains without variation throughout the hook and the two verses.
The structure of bar is as follows: [Bar = 2 lines]
- Quarter Bar [*snare*] Eighth Bar [pause] [*snare*]
- Quarter Bar [*snare*] Quarter Bar [*snare*]
A complicating aspect of this bar structure is that in six of the eight bars comprising the two verses, the second line ends rhythmically one word before the sentence does. That extra word – in most cases the word “nigga” – spills over from the first half of the bar into the second. Drake, a man (as I am) firmly on the border of those allowed to use the word “nigga” in most American circles – says it fourteen times here in a little more than two minutes.
In the excessive use of this one word, we observe the track’s overriding theme. Yes, Jody Rosen, Drake is combative to those who assume they know him. His thesis is that while people may perceive his background to be a certain way – if they consider him anything less than a real person from a real place who really accomplished his childhood dreams through his own tireless efforts – then they are wrong. In other words: It may not mean nothing to y’aaaall, but understand… yada, yada, yada….
Interestingly because the extra word is semantically linked with the previous line and bar, it in fact represents an indented sentence, not unlike those that Nas’ uses and talks about in his much more diverse lyrical project. The primary difference is that the dent here is regular and constant, effectively tilting the song’s conception of a line rather than readjusting our point of reference for each individual enjambment.
Without further ado, please listen to some music. Below I have tried to illustrate visually the very regular lyrical structure of the song. The long version of the hook (which begins and ends the song) is four bars while the version between the verses and before the bridge is three.
Started from the Bottom
[* = ½ half beat snare]
Started from the *bottom, now we here *
Started from the *bottom now my whole team fucking*
Here, started from the *bottom now we here *
Started from the *bottom now the whole team here*
Nigga, started from the *bottom, now we’re here *
Started from the *bottom now the whole team here*
Nigga, started from the *bottom, now we’re here *
Started from the *bottom now the whole team fucking [*] – [Snare absent]
In the first line of the hook I came across a telling dilemma. It is impossible to tell here whether Drake is saying “Now we here” or “Now we’re here”. This is because the glottal stop, (the “h” sound), is entirely unpronounced, and hence the word we spills directly into the word here. Essentially, he says “Now we ‘ere” – so really either transcription could be supported. Such are the problems of transcribing song lyrics.)
Drake’s verses are short and simple. The first verse is four simple couplets, while the second verse is a Shakespearean quatrain (ABAB) followed by two simple couplets.
A protégé of Lil Wayne, Drake has long adopted Wayne’s pension to thinking outside the box when it comes to what rhymes. In recent years, however – as was in the case in his earliest mixtapes – Drake has often pursued these phonetic novelties by placing them in more and more regular, almost old-school formal structures. In the earliest rap, almost all rhymes are delivered as couplets, right on the fourth beat of a 4/4 line. Drake deviates from this structure only slightly, by delivering the rhyming word a quarter beat early in every other line.
The regular quarter beat pause this delivery creates is the most stylistically inventive aspect of the song. Don’t know if I’ve ever seen anything quite like it before.
Each of his pauses diverts attention to the song’s menacing piano loop, and allows the bass-heavy beat to continually entrance the listener. Through the pauses, Drake builds the rhythmic anticipation of each of his end-rhymes, emphasizing further the phonetic and poetic maneuvers he employs in them.
Those maneuvers are, like the rest of the song, slight and constant. All but two of the end-rhymes in the two verses – a sparse 8 bars total – are slight but definite phonetic stretches equivalent to Phil’s, “task” and “last” pairing – i.e. the end-rhyme pairs end in consonants which share same the voice and manner of articulation but differ in their place of articulation.
(At some point – hopefully soon – I will endeavor to map each of these phonetic distinctions and explain each of their importance to our conception of what rhymes. I have found that any such map necessarily changes when more syllables are added. To say the least, shit gets crazy.)
Drake begins the 1st verse with the most basic of phonetic stretches, rhyming “jump” with “month”, by pronouncing the <th> in the latter word as a hard and brief <t> sound. What we are left with – (jump/mont(h), (or dʒəmp / mənθ)) – sounds like a perfect rhyme because phonetically it is very, very close to being that: “jump” ends in a nasal continuant (<m> sound) followed by an unvoiced plosive (<p> sound (un-popped)); while mont(h) also ends in a nasal continuant (<n> sound) followed by an unvoiced plosive (<t> sound).
Here – I done kept it real *from the jump * [AA]
Living at my momma* house, we argued every mont[h]* [A]
Nigga, I was trying to get* it on my own * [B]
Working on all night* traffic on the way home*, [B]
And my uncle calling me* like where you at * [CD]
I gave you the keys*, told you bring it right back* [CD]
Nigga, I just think it’s funny* how it goes. * [E]
Now I’m on the roa[d]*, half a million for a show* [EE]
In all manners of verse, if most commonly in rap music, the correlation between end-rhymes is strengthened by the reiteration of the same sound in a different section of the line or bar. This concept pops up in numerous places in this song, including here in this first bar – where the inclusion of the word “done” in the first line is subtle yet significant glue between the two end-rhymes. Similarly, the bond in the pair of end rhymes later in the verse (goes/show) is strengthened by the presence of the word “roa(d),” in which the would be distracting voiced plosive <d> sound is entirely unpronounced, i.e. “row”.
Whereas internal rhymes in the first verse help mitigate the differences between the end-rhymes, the subtle, internal rhymes Drake employs to open the second verse accomplish nearly the opposite feat.
Nigga, boys tell *stories about the man * [AAB]
Say I never struggled*, wasn’t hungry, yeah I doubt* [C]
It nigga, I could turn you *boy into the man * [AB]
There really ain’t much*out here that’s popping off without* [CC]
Us, nigga, we just want the *credit where it’s due * [D]
I’m a worry about me, give a fuck about you* [D]
Nigga, just as a *reminder to myself * [?]
I where every single chain[*], even when I’m in the house[*] [?]
The common vowel sound in “boy” and the first syllable of “stories” – common in the way he says it, under pronouncing the <r> sound in “stories” – allows the 1st and 3rd lines to achieve pleasing musical variation while repeating both the words “boy” and “man” in each line. The genius here is that the second use of “boy” in the third line has been shifted one quarter beat over, into the spot which the first syllable of “stories” occupies in in the first line. The slight shift allows the natural, if subtle, like vowel sound in “boy” and “stories” to resonate immediately before the repeated use of “man” as an end-rhyme.
On either side of this manipulation is an enjambed rhymed: “doubt/it”, “without/us”. Because the words “it” and “us” here – which do not rhyme – fall after the end of the bar, the rhyme of “doubt” and “without” rings more perfectly.
To this point in the song, the novelty and complexity employed in the manipulation of the end-rhymes has steadily increased. That pattern regresses then accelerates dramatically in short order for the last four lines of the verse. Drake’s final two bars epitomize the understated, combative tone of the song yet in stylistically, polar opposite ways.
For the third bar of the second verse, Drake delivers his most straight forward and traditional rhyme of the song: “…Credit where it’s due”/“…Give a fuck about you”.
Next, he goes to the other extreme. For the fourth bar, Drake defies the first and only rule of the rhymed couplet – that it must rhyme. Here he pairs the words “-self” and “house”:
Nigga, just as a *reminder to myself * [?]
I where every single chain[*], even when I’m in the house[*] [?]
There is no common vowel sound here. The <f> in “self and the <s> in “house” are both unvoiced fricatives – but other than that there is no phonetic basis to consider them a rhyming pair. Still, somehow, it works. On some listens, in fact, you might start to think it does rhyme. The sonic expectation built through the regular and strict bar structure, combined with the subtle yet real phonetic correlation between the final-consonant sounds, somehow grants the bar as a whole tangible musical success.
Here Drake’s stylistic innovation wonderfully informs his desired message. Style meets subject. In the same way that he doesn’t follow the logic that a chain is meant for others’ appreciation, he disregards the traditional conception of the couplet. The poetic rules he’s been bending, he breaks – and the rhyme, or non-rhyme, is intended to offend all those who would be first to object. To wax more lyrically – the line is an affront to the unseen hater – who believes Drake gets away with the weak (non)rhyme because he is a popular celebrity talking about how rich he is. In deliberate confrontation, the artist here flouts the fact that the line works because it works.
Normally, ending such a long piece would make me feel obliged to go back and re-touch all my bases in some sort of convoluted conclusion. I don’t feel that way now. All I want to say is that this was fun – and I hope we get to do it again real soon.