Rapping, Deconstructed: How Some of the Greatest Rappers Make Their Rhymes

If high school Eng­lish teach­ers can chal­lenge skep­ti­cal stu­dents to cul­ti­vate an appre­ci­a­tion for Shake­speare and poet­ry with rap-based assign­ments, might the reverse also hold true?

Many afi­ciona­dos of high cul­ture turn up their noses at rap, believ­ing it to be a sim­ple form, requir­ing more brag­gado­cio than tal­ent.

Estelle Caswell, rap fan and pro­duc­er of Vox’s Ear­worm series, may get them to rethink that posi­tion with the above video, show­cas­ing how great rap­pers assem­ble rhymes.

Caswell uses visu­al graph­ing to explain the progress from the A‑A-B‑B scheme of ear­ly rap­per Kur­tis Blow’s “The Breaks” (1980) to the com­plex and sur­pris­ing holorimes of her per­son­al favorite, MF DOOM.

To appre­ci­ate her visu­al break­downs, you must under­stand that raps can be scored like tra­di­tion­al music. Here the bar reigns supreme—each bar con­sist­ing of four beats. The fur­ther out we go from rap’s ori­gins, the more its prac­ti­tion­ers play with place­ment and rhyme.

Above are some lyrics from Eric B. and Rakim’s 1986 cut, “Eric B. Is Pres­i­dent,” fea­tur­ing inter­nal rhymes high­light­ed in yel­low and mul­ti-syl­lab­ic rhymes picked out in pink. You’ll also find them escap­ing the tyran­ny of the bar line, con­tin­u­ing the rhyme on the first beat of the next bar.

Caswell is so intent on exam­in­ing the late Noto­ri­ous B.I.G.‘s “Hyp­no­tize,” that she over­looks a rather siz­able ele­phant in the room, the misog­y­nis­tic POV behind those en and oo sounds.

Short­ly there­after, Mos Def ups both the rhyming game and the fem­i­nist account­abil­i­ty, by stuff­ing his com­po­si­tions with mul­ti-syl­lab­ic words and phras­es that sort of rhyme—cinnamon, Entenmann’s, adren­a­line and “sent to them.”

Mean­while, Andre 3000 is play­ing with vary­ing the accent of his rhymes, rel­a­tive to the beat and bar, rather than com­mit­ting to a pre­dictable thud­ding.

Eminem, who has the dis­tinc­tion of pen­ning the first rap to win an Acad­e­my Award, places a pre­mi­um on nar­ra­tive, and refus­es to con­cede that noth­ing rhymes with orange.

Cur­rent chart top­per Kendrick Lamar’s gal­lop­ing “Rig­amor­tis” estab­lish­es a musi­cal motif that Caswell com­pares to Beethoven’s famous fifth.

MF DOOM kicks the ball fur­ther down the court with dou­ble enten­dres, word­play and a will­ing­ness to steer clear of the expect­ed “b word.”

Lis­ten to a Spo­ti­fy playlist of the songs ref­er­enced in the video.

Delve fur­ther into the sub­ject by read­ing the thoughts of rap ana­lyst Mar­tin Con­nor, whom Caswell cred­its as a sort of bea­con.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Hip Hop Music Visu­al­ized on a Turntable Cir­cuit Dia­gram: Fea­tures 700 Artists, from DJ Kool Herc to Kanye West

Found­ing Fathers, A Doc­u­men­tary Nar­rat­ed By Pub­lic Enemy’s Chuck D, Presents the True His­to­ry of Hip Hop

150 Songs from 100+ Rap­pers Get Art­ful­ly Woven into One Great Mashup: Watch the “40 Years of Hip Hop”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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