“I’m cursed. When I listen to rap songs I listen with a technical ear first. I hear all the mechanics of the flow, the depth of the subject matter, the vocal projection and after analyzing all of that I can finally relax and enjoy the damn song.” – Crooked I
The average Joe/Josephine certainly doesn’t first listen to their music with a technical ear. They pop in their earphones, and if they like it, they like it, if they don’t, they don’t. It isn’t uncommon for that person to then become a “stan” of that artist, get involved in debates or discussions, about why their “fav” is the best or the “GOAT”. But what makes a rap/rapper good? How can you empirically defend an assertion that a rap/rapper is good?
Whilst you can literally teach university courses on this topic, here’s a super brief rundown of what to look out for the next time you wish to listen with an err… informed ear. (CAVEAT: This is NOT the same as: what makes a good rap song)
A good voice is quite simply one of, if not the most important quality for any rapper to possess. If your voice isn’t enjoyable to listen to, if you don’t communicate conviction in your words, if you have no aura on the mic, there’s no point. An awesome voice can make the most basic/elementary thing sound amazing. Jay Z gave the example of Snoop Dogg on Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang:
“One, two, three and to the four”
Seriously, how many people can basically rap 1,2,3,4 and yet make it sound sexy? Level with me, how many times have you tried to say “Boss (Bawse)” whilst listening to Rick Ross?, did it sound as powerful? I thought so.
A uniquely powerful/soulful/smooth voice is the reason why even if you stole some rhymes written by a top tier emcee, it just wouldn’t “hit” the listener the same way. This is one of those times where you either have it or you don’t.
Good examples: Pop Smoke on “Element”, DMX on “Who We Be”, Giggs on “Look What the Cat Dragged In”, Notorious B.I.G on “Kick In The Door”
Syncopation is simply an irregular rhythmic pattern, where parts of a rhyme that wouldn’t usually be , are accented. A cadence is a rhythmic sequence, basically the way everything sounds once strung together. Jay Z (again) gave an example of Eminem’s 1st verse on The Way I Am:
“I sit back with this pack of Zig-Zag’s and this bag
Of this weed, it gives me, the sh*t ne/eded to be the most meanest MC…”
The emphasis on those internal syllables (underlined), which were unusually forcefully emphasised when rapped, makes your voice an additional source instrumentation. Sometimes when well executed, the listener gets so lost in the cadence/syncopation that they don’t even hear/take notice of the actual words even after multiple listens, or conversely they don’t take notice of the beat, especially if it’s an understated beat. You may think this is easy to do…..it ain’t. Cadence is the way you rhyme with the “modulation or inflection of the voice”, which can follow a wide variety of patterns.
Other Good Examples: Killer Mike’s 1st verse on “Yankee and the brave (ep.4)”; Crooked I’s verse on “Loud Noises”, Lupe Fiasco on “Dumb It Down”
Rap is poetry. Elite emcees write lyrics that can be read without you having to listen to them, and you still go “wow”. When a song is akin to a well written book, where it’s able to paint a vivid picture and emotionally transport the listener, to a different living experience by the writer, that’s a top tier writer. This could be about how well a story is told, or how well a concept is painted, how visceral and apt the choice of words are, how esoteric the song’s concept is etc.
Other Good examples of great writing: Tupac on “Dear Mama”, Royce Da 5’9 on “Tabernacle”, Ka on “Solitude of Enoch”, Mos Def on “Mathematics”
Good examples of conceptually brilliant songs: J.Cole on “Lost Ones”, Nas on “I Gave You Power”, Eminem “Stan”, Nas on “Rewind”
It could also simply be about the intellectual showboating of one’s literary prowess whilst still passing across a message e.g is Lupe Fiasco on “Mural” (from 3:15 minutes into the song) where he goes:
I prefer girls to reign all over the world/ and not rain like, rain man or rain like rain dance or rain like a slight chance of rain when its raining/ or rein like deer slaves to Santa Claus sleigh man but Reign like Queens that reign over made man/ and not Queen like Queen killer, rhapsody bohemian Queen but Queen like white glove wave hand, and not wave hand like it’s a heat wave/ So you make a fan by waving your hand, I’m talking wave, like you saying, “Hey man!”
The ability to write the best rhymes is not the same as the ability to write the best rap “song”. As a matter of fact, some of the best songs are/have been done by “average to okay” rappers (in terms of their pure lyrical ability). Here, things such as: appropriate beat selection, writing catchy hooks, lyrics that are evocative and relatable, lyrics that make you go “I felt that” in your head when you hear em etc. are the special skillset displayed. Here it’s not really “oh look how insanely skillful I am”, its more “look how much my words can hit or relate to you, whilst still being musical and enjoyable to listen to”. This is similar to a large extent with the point above, but differs, as the emphasis on the quality/soulfulness of the whole song, and how much they will touch the listener, is as much as or more than just the rhymes/lyrics themselves.
Ultimately, there is beauty in simplicity, when Drake says:
“Yeah, you say I led you on, but you followed me/ I follow one of your friends, you unfollow me/ Then you block them so they can’t see you liking someone just like me” (Summer Games)
“I know a girl whose one goal was to visit Rome/ Then she finally got to Rome/ And all she did was post pictures for people at home/ ‘Cause all that mattered was impressing everybody she’s known” (Emotionless)
Or when Nas says:
“They hardly happy for you, keep doing what you do/ You can’t please everybody, and not everybody is you/ Don’t try to force a square peg in a round circle, that ish’ll hurt you/ Don’t try to fit in either, you’re better off with neither” (10 Points)
Good Examples: 50 Cent on “Many Men”, Tupac “Changes”, Kid Cudi on “Solo Dolo”, Kanye West “All of the Lights”, Lecrae “Hallelujah”
Arguably the most important skill. If you have poor flow or delivery, you quite simply shouldn’t rap (sorry). It’s tough to define what “flow” is, but it’s basically the ability to ride a beat, how you manipulate your words to hug the beat to make everything you say, you know…flow. Delivery is also tough to define, but it’s the vehicle through which you pass across the rhymes, it’s the way you say your words, the vocal style with which you bring it all across, whether it be laid back like Snoop Dogg, aggressive like DaBaby, or even full on screaming like Meek Mill. That thing in the way you say what you, that makes each lyric “hit”. Again, you’re either a word bender or you ain’t.
Good Examples of great flow: Eminem’s verses on “Renegade”, Takeoff & Quavo on “Need It”, Lil Wayne on “A Milli”
Good examples of great delivery: J.Cole’s verse on “Down Bad”, Kendrick Lamar on “M.a.a.d City”, Drake verse on “Forever”
Poly-Syllables/Complex Rhyme Schemes
The ability to rhyme multiple syllables in sequencing lines, is a gift very few possess, thus when you see same, it behoves you to pay homage. Poly-syllabic rhyming as said in Edward Paul’s book, How to Rap: The Art & Science of the Hip-Hop MC, is a “hallmark of complex and advanced rapping”. A good example is Inspectah Deck on WU Tang’s “Triumph”:
“I bomb atomically, Socrates’ philosophies
And hypotheses can’t define how I be droppin’ these
Mockeries, lyrically perform armed robbery
Flee with the lottery, possibly they spotted me
Battle-scarred shogun, explosion when my pen hits
Tremendous, ultra-violet shine blind forensics…”
The ability to rhyme multiple syllables consecutively.
Other Good Examples: Black Thought’s verse on “Yah Yah”, Big Pun on “Triplets”, Kool G Rap on “The Anthem”, Joyner Lucas on “Lucky You”
This in rap parlance, is a witty line that involves the use of a literary device to get an “ooouuuuu” reaction when/if the listener gets what the line meant. It’s commonly (erroneously) thought to be limited to metaphors, but in reality, it’s wordplay using literary devices which may include: metaphors, similes, innuendos, pun, malapropisms, idioms and double entendres. This is the easiest and hardest thing to do in rap. Easy in the sense that it’s a basic skill that anyone can employ, but hard in the sense that if it’s not GOOOOD, it usually turns out to be absolute trash, or sound like a flat joke (à la #DontLeaveMeChallenge). More often than not, rappers who base 70%+ of their content on just punchlines, err have a low “batting average”, because there would almost most certainly be more “misses” than “hits”. Those that always hit home runs however, are usually elite.
Ni**a please, like short sleeves I bear arms (Jay Z- Brooklyn’s Finest)
If I lose 1, I bounce back like 2 3 did with 4 5 (Big Sean – Bounce Back)
Real gs move in silence like lasagna (Lil Wayne – 6 Foot 7 Foot)
“Like Slick Rick the Ruler, I’m cooler than a ice brick/ got soul like those afro picks, with the black fist, and leave a crowd dripping like John the Baptist” (Black Though – Mellow My Man)
“20 plus years of selling Johnson & Johnson/ I started out as a baby face monster/ No wonder there’s diaper rash on my conscience/ My teething ring was numbed by the nonsense” (Pusha T – Nosetalgia)
Sacha Baron Cohen Ferrell, where am I going with this? Oh yea, I bar at will (Royce da 5’9 – I Will)
Also important to note that punchlines can very cultural in nature, hence, if a listener cannot relate to the subject of the punchline; whether it be a sport they don’t watch, a term they’ve never heard, a person they’ve never heard of etc, they may simply not get it, and like most art.
Other Song Examples: Lil Wayne on “6 Foot 7 Foot”, MI on “Somebody Wants To Die”, Big L on “’98 Freestyle”
Ultimately, there’s more than one way to skin a cat, different styles employ different things in different measures in order to attain different goals. Just like in any sport, the best of the best usually can do a bit (or more) of everything. However, in the same way Messi is not not a great player because he’s not good in the air, or LeBron because he’s average at free throws, your favourite rapper’s (or the one you hate on) inability to do certain things, isn’t the end of the world.
There are certainly other things that could make a rap/rapper enjoyable, such as: humour, quirkiness, charisma, substance, beat selection, pulse on the culture, vibes etc or having some sort of inquantifiable “X Factor”, but ultimately, when you critically appraise any work by anyone, it usually comes down to the above (that’s an oxymoron).
Now imagine a rapper with a great voice, that can spit evocative punchlines over great beats, with pristine flow and delivery, and does so back to back in syncopated or multi-syllabic schemes? that’s a GOAT.
By: Oluwatobi Olowokure