One of the great things about rap music is the multitude of ways to enjoy it. You can focus on the stories a rapper tells, following along the way they organize events and paint pictures with their words. Or you could listen to how the rapper’s voice works with the beat, as it floats now on top, beneath, or in step with the drums. You can even let the rapper fall completely into the background, and just track the beat. Taking different approaches keeps the same song fresh, listen after listen.
But you could also do something completely counterintuitive: tune out a rapper’s words, and the song’s beat. And yes, there is still something left.
In 2012, I graduated with a music degree focused in theory and piano. The classes, for the most part, concerned jazz and classical music—heavy doses of Mozart and Beethoven, Thelonious Monk and Coltrane. After class, however, I went home and listened to samplers like Dr. Dre and RZA.
There are some critical and obvious differences between rap, jazz, and classical music. First off, there are no words in many of the compositions that were written by Mozart & Co. For example, Claude Debussy’s “Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune” is meant to only evoke the emotions of the Mallarmé poem with the same title, without verbalizing any of the poem’s specific lines. Instead, the composer asks you to listen to every single musical note, creating a narrative purely from melodic progressions. You hear the story by following a note’s personality: how long it lasts for, whether it’s high in pitch or low, what instrument is playing it, and so on.
That training in close listening taught me to look for the same things in rap. When I follow along with a rapper’s flow, I don’t listen to the words at all—rhymes, stories, and wordplay all pass me by. Instead, I listen to the purely musical aspects of a rapper’s words, and one of the most important factors is rhythm.
A rap’s musical rhythm can be thought of as the time duration of each syllable. Those syllables, when considered individually, could be called musical notes. If a rap’s notes are pronounced for a very short time, then the rap is faster. If the notes are spoken for a longer time and appear less frequently, the rap is slower. This tempo spectrum stretches from Eminem’s sprinting raps on “Rap God” all the way back down to the thumping, sparse rhythms of Big Sean’s chorus on “Clique.”
Kendrick Lamar’s song “Rigamortis” is one of my favorite examples of how a rapper can use the tempo spectrum over the course of a song. Yes, the song is great for its bevy of rhymes, its wordplay, and Kendrick’s masterful delivery. But what’s really impressive to me is how Kendrick is constantly evolving the rhythmic delivery. He starts the song with a steady flow, speaking at a consistent length.
Around 2:30, he switches up his rhythm with notes that last a shorter amount of time. But Kendrick doesn’t just increase the rhythmic speed of his rap melody. His rhythmic acceleration—also called an accelerando—is much more subtle.
That’s because Kendrick raps faster using one specific, three-note rhythm that stands out in the ears of people with formal musical training. It stands out so much because this type of musical game—the use of one unique musical idea over and over, called at motive—is what used to separate classical music from popular music for centuries.
Beethoven crafts dances, instrumental solos, and even more, all out of just that small opening motive. So when Kendrick raps using a motive on “Rigamortis,” there is no way someone with piano and classical music training could miss it.
For example, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony isn’t just famous for its booming opening. It’s famous for how it uses those first four notes and the short-short-short-long rhythm throughout the entire 35-minute symphony. Beethoven crafts dances, instrumental solos, and even more, all out of just that small opening motive. So when Kendrick raps using a motive on “Rigamortis,” there is no way someone with piano and classical music training could miss it.
This “Rigamortis” motive consists of two quick notes followed by one long note. It’s first rapped by Kendrick at 2:33, on the three syllables of Kendrick’s words “and I go.” This rhythm appears again right after on the notes of “and I get,” and on “any M.”
One of Kendrick’s rhythmically elite peers is the Notorious B.I.G. Biggie’s legendary song “Hypnotize” is one of those rare classics that is as critically acclaimed as it is popular. On “Hypnotize,” Biggie also uses motives, just like Kendrick and Beethoven. Biggie’s motive first comes at 1:30, on the notes “speak my piece.”
Unlike Kendrick’s short-short-long rhythm, Biggie’s own important rhythm is a 3-note rhythm in the order of short-long-long. Biggie repeats this exact rhythm no less than 3 more times, on the notes “keep my piece,” “Jesus piece,” and “with my peeps,” with that same short-long-long rhythm each time. Biggie is mixing up short and long rhythms all over his verses on “Hypnotize,” so the specific length of each syllable isn’t what’s important at 1:30. What’s important is that Biggie takes a unique order of those lengths, and then repeats that order over and over.
He does it again in his second verse, at 3:10. “Blunts and bras,” “tits and broads,” “-nage à trois,” and “-spensive cars” are all 3-note rhythmic phrases that have a long-short-long rhythmic order.
In contrast, Kanye West is an evocative storyteller who can make his listeners feel like they’re right there with him; you can really see that car crash on “Through The Wire.” But Kanye doesn’t have any rap melodies that approach the sophistication of Kendrick’s on “Rigamortis,” or Biggie’s “Hypnotize.”
On “Black Skinhead,” for instance, Kanye raps almost exclusively in triplets, which is when a rapper places a heavy emphasis on every third syllable. This is a good musical rhythm to use, but it makes the rapper’s next move predictable. Watch these “Black Skinhead” lyrics, where every capitalized syllable receives a musical accent (emphasis) from Kanye:
“they SEE a black MAN with a WHITE woman ON the top FLOOR they gon’ COME at you KING kong”
Every third syllable in the above line is emphasized, without fail. Kanye is an example of a rapper I don’t go to for their level of rap musicality, when we’re discussing the words he writes and how they’re performed (production-wise, Kanye is still the gawd).
By creating and following along to the musical games that rappers play on songs like “Rigamortis,” I can enjoy rap in yet another new way: as pure music, without words. It’s evidence of music’s timelessness. A good composer is a good composer is a good composer, whether that music-maker comes from 18th-century Germany, or present day Compton.