It’s Not All About the Lyrics, Yo. – The Importance of Flow in Rap Music
We’ve all been there. At some point in our lives we walked up an down the hallways of some high school swearing up and down Canibus/Talib Kweli/Lyrics McConscious is the greatest rapper of all time because they’re “the best lyricists in rap.” Either that, or we saw this kid in the back of a record store hating on any remotely successful rapper because they’re “mainstream” and aren’t “real lyricists.” We then asked the kid what made those rappers such great lyricists? “Well, they’re lyrical.” But don’t all rap songs have lyrics? “No, these lyricists are much more lyrically lyrical.” But isn’t rap music equally about the beats and the rhymes? “No, these lyricists are on another level. They’re lyricists with lyrically lyrical lyricism of lyrically lyrical spiritual miracles.”
These kids either grow out of their rap phase in three years, shake this perspective off by outgrowing it and referring to it as just a “lyrical” time in their lives as they grow up to have a more refined taste, or become the bastard boom-bap dinosaurs that would rather canonize a dead career than celebrate a live one. The point is, rap can never EVER just be about lyrics and one type of lyricism alone does not make the genre great. It’s also about the flow, yo.
While the overzealous fans of the “lyrically lyrical” types do a disservice to the genre by writing-off the actual sound of it, their apathy* is shared by detractors from the music as a whole. Countless music critics and pseudo-intellectual Def Poetry types consider rap just poetry set to a drum machine. Any counterargument about the musical talent required to make these words sound good is met with the veiled racism of “those urban black kids don’t understand what they’re doing,” insinuating the way a great rap song sounds is merely coincidence or happenstance. This is not the case. While I’m the last guy to draw a parallel between, say, classical music and rap as spending eight years on an obscenely complex multi-instrumental three hour good performance is unquestionably a much greater feat than spending eight months on an obscenely complex three minute rap song, I don’t feel the need to have to justify an art’s merit by comparing it to another’s with completely different means. I also don’t think you can take away an artist’s stature as an absolute virtuoso of his craft just because his style of art doesn’t appeal to you or culturally share the same audience or history of critical discourse.
Case in point, the appropriately titled “Can You Find the Level of Difficulty in This” by Cali legends the Freestyle Fellowship. With a style influenced by the improvisation of classic jazz record, the four members took an approach to rapping that made every song an innovative as it was unpredictable. Listen to the first verse, performed by Micah-9 which goes until 1:32.
To some, that could be met with claims of “anybody could do that if they sat down and took the time to write those words and memorize it” as if all rap was the proverbial monkeys typing Shakespeare. No. What makes someone like Micah-9 a great rapper is his ability to write lyrics like that, but know when to adjust tempo, vocal inflections and breath control to make for a great verse.
Now let’s compare that performance with THAT SAME VERSE as performed by
Stephen Hawkings a computer:
Did you notice a difference? It’s that difference that makes raps work. Now, try it at home. Read aloud the lyrics to “Heat Mizer,” another Freestyle Fellowship song performed by Aceyalone HERE as you would think to rap it.
Now, read the lyrics again, only this time following along with Acey’s performance:
So, what have we learned today? Rapping is hard, learning is fun and it’s not what multi-syllable unkillible centrifical minerals you say, but how you say them. Yucky, yucky, yes, yes.