This might be the most important rap analysis point of all. It explains the points of departure for all of the rest of my analyses. For that reason, I’ve numbered it “0”, as it is the starting place. You might even want to go through this a couple times until you really get it, and then head to analysis #1, on Game’s “How We Do”, to see everything I explain here in action.
As I hear more and more of the negative criticisms of rap, new ideas are starting to occur to me. One of the most interesting is that, perhaps, people who don’t like rap music simply don’t know how to listen to it. This might be a strange idea to some, to have to learn how to listen to something. Yes, most of us can hear things – but how do we really listen to something, by which I mean the music in its proper context, a context that reveals just as much about the music as the music itself does. I would posit that this idea is not as farfetched as it might first seem. Yes, when we read a book, there is the story on the page in front of us that we enjoy. But if we are aware of the greater narrative of the book, such as themes and symbols, inevitably our enjoyment of the experience deepens. Such a metaphor can be applied to music.
This whole phenomenon has struck me in a certain scientific sense. (What follows is a gross oversimplification, and might even be an outright misrepresentation of the scientific method – but such is the result when you have a humanities student trying to explain it.) I think of it in terms of a scientific experiment, where we need to isolate variables and observe their response. We have some variables that we want to measure, and we can only do so accurately if we are able to isolate them. Roughly, what I have suggested in the previous paragraph is that there is a musical meaning to rap that is able to be divorced from its textual meaning while still having an internally consistent meaning (note, however, that the two can never be studied completely in isolation from each other, as we shall see.) But how could we ever possibly isolate these, respectively, musical and textual variables? Certainly, there is no rap (here referring to both the musical and textual – that is, the lyrics – elements of rap) that has a textual meaning but no music, and there is no rap that has a musical meaning but makes no textual sense…or is there?
Enter what I currently consider THE most interesting (not necessarily in a positive sense) rap song of all time, Eminem’s “Drop The Bomb On ‘Em”, produced by Dr. Dre, from the album “Relapse”, released in 2009. This was Eminem’s first album in 5 years, since his 2004 “Encore”, a hiatus due to his writer’s block and an addiction to prescription sleeping medication. This song is located at an exceptional instance of an artist who is in the unique stance of knowing that his place in the pantheon of all-time-rap greats has already been secured, and he is still in his prime writing years (He was about 36 at the time). He is making a comeback – people haven’t heard from him in 5 years. How is he supposed to follow up “Encore”? “The Marshall Mathers LP”? “The Slim Shady LP”? “The Eminem Show”? The man has won Grammys, popular and critical acclaim, worked with the greatest producers of all time, and yet he still has to prove himself because of his hiatus. He hasn’t forgotten how to rap – in stark contrast to other legends in similar but certainly not the same circumstance, like Jay-Z or Lil Wayne, he hasn’t fallen off. But he’s just had about 50% of his lyrical material considered “off-limits” to him: he is now trying to go clean, so that means no rapping about weed, shrooms, vicodin, oxycodin, all of that stuff (Just check out his song “Drug Ballad” – but maybe the title lets you know all you need to know.) So he can still rap – but what the hell is he supposed to write about? This is the central tension, certainly palpable and almost tangible, in this song.
The answer is, figuratively, “nothing.” Eminem manages to rap over 55 bars without actually saying anything. What’s more is, this goes beyond the normal amount of nonsense that the listener naturally allows when listening to rap, simply because, as I believe, it’s predominantly a musical phenomenon, not a textual (or even poetic, in the general sense) phenomenon. Let’s take a popular example today:
In Bobby Ray’s “Ray Bans”, he raps “My whole team getting green, and I ain’t talking about pottery.” Now, not all pottery is green. I think when he says pottery he really is referring to plants, most of which are green. Still, the connection is thin. But Eminem goes beyond this point.
Nothing he says in this song really has any real connection to anything outside of his world. Let’s just say you don’t come away from the song pondering in what sense, exactly, Eminem is “like Chef Boyardee in this bitch.” Or what metaphoric meaning he is reaching for when he describes himself as “Captain America on ferris wheels.” And don’t overthink it. Okay, yes, rap is a genre built on reference and allusion – but these tools lose their power when no one at all gets them, even if they are references at all (which they aren’t, here.) This kind of shit is all over the song. What the fuck is “bumbaclot?” When Eminem tells me that I think I’m Tom Sawyer, does he really think I’m a 19th century juvenile dilenquent living along the Mississippi? When he tells me I should “Get some R&R and marinate in some marinara,” what really should I do? And these are simply the most egregious of the violations of not just commonsense, but sense.
The saddest part of this, though, is when Eminem reaches for lifesavers in the form of themes and ideas he used to rap about all the time. For instance, even if you haven’t heard Eminem’s music, you know that his relationship with his mom has been less than perfect. His earlier references to this subject come across as tortured and agonized when examined, such as his raps “99% of my life I was lied to / I just found out my mom does more dope than I do” in “My Name Is”, or ‘When I was just a little baby boy, my momma used to tell me these crazy things / She used to tell me my daddy was an evil man, She used to tell me he hated me” on “Kill You”. However, his references to the same subject on this song are delivered without any gravitas, simply as words to fill the bar: “I’m like Chef Boyardee in this bitch / Send a bomb to my mom’s lawyer / I’m a problem for ya boy…” Notice how the reference to his mom is completely isolated in theme or even sense from what comes before or after.It’s just filler.
Or how about his earlier habit of rapping directly to kids, to corrupt and influence them? “Hey kids? Do you like violence? / Do you want to see my stick 9 inch nails through each one of my eyelids?” (from his pre-2004 song, “My Name Is”) “Who woulda thought? / That Slim Shady would be something that you woulda bought / That woulda made you get a gun and shoot at a cop / I just said it – I ain’t know if you’d do it or not.” (again pre-2004, “Who Knew?”) But examine the same theme or subject matter in “Drop The Bomb On ‘Em”: “Like yo fada fuckin’ yo mada” (Bar 17.) Again, the lines are delivered without any wit, cleverness, or subtlety.
Furthermore, at times he just completely ignores all habits of English language syntax – “Them no up to par” (bar 30), not “they aren’t up to par” in, “Mi-ster fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants pantsed out, fall, [NOT FELL] hit the tram-po-line, bounced, and grabbed a pair of stilts.” (Bar 14 and 15.) Again, this is still allowing for the normal amount of leeway we give rappers in the crafting of their raps. Furthermore, he just gets words wrong: “fucking fictitional characters”. “Fictitional” is not a word; he was clearly going for fictional, but needed the extra syllable to fit the bar. This cutting of corners is very uncharacteristic of Em, and shows that he isn’t quite completely on point here.
In sum, this is the isolation of the musical variable we had discussed before – Eminem isn’t make any textual, semantic sense.
But can the same be said of his musical sense?
As awful as Eminem’s crafting of textual continuity is here, his rap as a strictly musical phenomenon is that much more awesome. His flow absolutely kills it. The word “flow” is a general musical term covering all of the musical aspects of a rapper’s rap. It is comprised mainly of the manipulation of accent. In my view, there are 3 types of accent in rap: poetic accent, verbal accent, and metric accent. The way these accents interact goes a long way to describing how a rapper’s flow behaves musically.
“Poetic accent” is a natural emphasis that occurs in the listeners ear on word-notes that are acted upon poetically: for instance, they are rhymed together, or alliterated together. Such an example can be seen early on in “Drop The Bomb On ‘Em”, in bar 2, when Eminem says, “I’m HARD as keNARD” –notice how these words stand out naturally in your ear.The poetic accent is here denoted by the little mathematical greater-than sign under rhymed words:
Verbal accent is the natural emphasis that a certain syllable in a word receives. For instance, in the word “verbal”, the correct English speaker will place the accent on the first syllable. We will see verbal accent in action a little later on in this post. Rappers use verbal accent to determine where to place words in the metric bar. Speaking of which…
Metric accent is the natural emphasis that a bar (also called a measure) of music receives. This is determined by the music’s time signature, which is that little fraction-looking thing at the start of a piece of music. It is important tto note, however, that it is NOT a fraction. The top and bottom numbers separately indicate two different things. The bottom number determines what note value receives the beat: if it is a “4”, the quarter note receives the beat, if “2”, the half-note, if “8”, the 8th note, and more. The top number says how many of the beat are in each bar. So if it’s “4”, there are 4 beats, if “6”, 6 beats, and so on. About 95% of all rap music is in 4/4. That means that there are 4 quarter notes per bar. Such is the case with “Drop The Bomb On ‘Em.” In a bar of 4/4, the natural accents of the bar are such that beats 1 and 3, are called the “strong” beats, while beats 2 and 4 are the weak beats. This has been notated below:
So, to the title of this article: how are you supposed to listen to rap? Interesting, by completely ignoring the rap: try not to pay attention to what the rapper is saying. Instead, listen only for the manipulation of the above accents. Tune out the specific words until you just hear a steady noise of the human voice. I’ve specifically picked this song to illustrate my point here, because Eminem doesn’t make any sense at all (as we’ve already established), so it does you no good anyway to listen to what he’s saying. Yes, it’s important that he says, “I’m hard as kenard,” but only because of the rhyme, not because of the point he’s trying to make. To help you do this, I’ve rendered the song roughly in MIDI.
I suggest – nay, command – you to bob your head up and down to the music while listening to it. Your nods should correspond to the eighth notes of the 4/4 bar, so your head should be at its lowest or highest point in the nod every time the piano plays its chord. Eminem’s rap is played by the wooden block sound. I’ve underlined and emphasized the word-notes that receive a poetic accent, such as all of the rhymed words, by doubling the wood block sound at those points. I’ve only notated the 3 verses. Everytime there is an extended period of lack of sound from the wooden block, it means the next verse is about to start. Verse 1 in the MIDI starts at 0:02, verse 2 at 0:48, and verse 3 at 1:54. In the real song, Verse 1 starts at 0:19, verse 2 at 1:23, and verse 3 at 2:47. Hear the midi sound below. Just go to the website below to see it:
While you’re listening, remember, BOB YOUR HEAD, and feel all of the accents. Feel it in bar 2, where Eminem leaves the music hanging mid-sentence by rapping, “I’m hard as Kenard…”, completing his grammatical idea in the next bar by adding “the little boy who shot Omar in ‘The Wire’”. (Notice how Eminem here adds a new dimension to the textual meaning of this song by actually going and BLOWING A HUGE SPOILER ABOUT THE MOST INTERESTING PLOTLINE OF THE GREATEST TV SHOW EVER. Seriously, if he had just kept spitting nonsensical things it would’ve been one thing, but to go and say who kills Omar? Man.) The little curved line under the musical notes, from the word “I’m” in bar 2 to the word “Wire” in bar 3 indicates a grammatical phrase. These are complete grammatical ideas, such as a sentence, that we hear all together in our ears as one single unit. The description of where a rapper places the start and end of their grammatical phrases in relationship to the beginning of the bar line goes a long way towards describing a rapper’s flow. Eminem, thus, here propels the music forward by leaving the sentence hanging at the bar line and completing the idea in the next bar. Keep bobbing your head so you feel it not just mentally but also kinesthetically. Eminem continues to leave grammatical phrases hanging and then completing them later on throughout this whole song.
Next, feel how the poetic accents keep falling in different places throughout the beginning of verse 1, in the first 6 bars notated. That is, they never always fall on beat 3, or always on beat 4, or in any regular pattern. For instance, in bar 4, the word “boy” falls off the beat during beat 4; in the next bar, bar 5, it is rhymed with “broiled”, but that falls right on beat 3, not on the “and” of the 4th beat, like “boy” does in beat 4. A similar thing is done when “barbed” is rhymed with “char”: they don’t fall in the same place in the bar. This is a technically complex technique to pull off. Furthermore, there is an average of about 4 poetic accents during the first verse. This is a very high average of accents to pull off. Comparatively, in the so-called Golden Age of rap, rappers like Tupac would put their rhymes (poetic accents) only at the end of the bar. That would mean 1 poetic accent per bar, because he rhymed largely in a couplet, ABAB form. Eminem, meanwhile, quadruples that rate. Additionally, Eminem utilizes internal rhyming. This means that he places poetic accents inside the grammatical phrases that we identified earlier. This also stands in stark contrast to rap during its early days.
In more dazzling verbal trickery, Eminem, in bar 8, fits 6 poetic accents in a row: “I’m a problem for ya boy” are all syllables that are rhymed with the vowel sounds of “bomb to my mom’s lawyer.” (It is important to note here that it is not always how the word is spelled in the transcription that is the way Eminem pronounces the word, which is the only important pronunciation when determining whether words are rhymed together or not.”) So keep bobbing your head, and keep feeling how those poetic accents are emphases that keep showing up in different places in the bar. However, Eminem does also place rhymes in the same metrical place from one bar to the next at certain points. For instance, in the pairs of bars 8 and 9 and bars 10 and 11, respectively, the rhymes fall in the same place – at the end of the bar. “Tom Sawyer” and “stomp on ya” both fall on beat 4, and “fairy tales” and “ferris wheels” both fall on beat 4 as well. It seems so far that there is very little Eminem can’t manipulate when he is writing his raps.
In verse 2, Eminem ups the ante. He actually drops some pretty good lines this verse, text-wise: “Boy I’m the real McCoy, you little boys can’t even fill voids / Party’s over kids, kill the noise, here come the kill joys” is sick, along with “Yeah you’re fresh than most, I’m just doper than all”, but as mentioned before, they are more than evened out by “Get some R&R and marinate in some marinara.” That line itself could be considered a microcosm of the whole song: the wordplay is sick, with its heavy amount of accents, but it just doesn’t make any sense. Of especial note should be bars 31 to 40. The rhymes on beat 3 in all of these bars are just sick: they are “blow up the spot”, “boy I’m a star”, “boy, I’m DeSean”, “Boy, you’re a fraud”, “blow you to sod”, “boy you’re the plot”, “avoid it or not”, definitely “Detroit is a rock”, and, finally, “what point it will stop.” Listen especially to this part to how every beat 3, with all of its poetic accents, stands out.
Let’s talk more about grammatical phrases. In verse 3, Eminem changes a lot where grammatical phrases start and end. For instance, sometimes they fall completely in the bar, such as at bar 44: “I’m Michael Spinks with the belt.” Other times, they are fall completely within the bar, bar 46: “I’m sick as hell, boy, you better run and tell someone else.” The word-notes “I’m sick as” and “Bring in” in the next bar are just considered pick-up notes to the bars that follow them; they just lead to the next bar, and aren’t really part of the bar itself. Sometimes his grammatical phrases are short, such as the ones we just looked at. At other times, they are very long, such as the phrase that starts “And to that boy…” and ends “black and red little sweater” in bars 47 to 48. Furthermore, in that phrase, he displaces the verbal accent of his words from lining up with the metrical accent of bar that we saw before, with the strong and weak beats. For instance, in the word “Excedrin”, the middle syllable, “-ce-“, gets the accent, but musically, the syllable “drin” falls right on beat 2. Thus, Eminem has divorced the verbal accent from the metrical accent of the bar. He does the same thing with the word “sweater” in bar 49. This phenomenon actually reveals a lot about how the beat and rap in general work. One reason why rappers can rhyme such complex rhythms in their raps is that the beat remains largely constant. It doesn’t change throughout the song; the bass kicks are on beats 1 and 3, and the snare hits are on beats 2 and 4. This shows that without the constant strong-weak, strong-weak beat, the rap would fall into chaos because the listener couldn’t follow the accents of the rap that are constantly changing, which wouldn’t be balanced by the constant feel of the unchanging beat. But again, this just shows that Eminem can do it all.
So, if we were to describe Eminem’s flow in general, it would be as follows: Eminem is capable of a great number of different styles of flow. He can internally rhyme, end rhyme, and fill up bars with multiple accents. He utilizes both musical phrases and through-composed styles of writing. Furthermore, he is adept at manipulating where in the bar the grammatical phrases fall. In short, he can do it all. In a very general sense, however, Eminem’s flow is denoted by 4 or so poetic accents per bar, with rhymes coming in groups of 2 or more, and lots of internal rhyming as well as tons of syncopation.
The complimentary song to “Drop The Bomb On ‘Em” would be another Dre beat, “How We Do”, featuring Game and 50 Cent from Game’s 2004 album, “The Documentary.” Here, the entire musical tension is based around whether the poetic accent lines up with the metrical accent or not. Throughout the first half of Game’s first verse, the poetic accent is always off the beat and syncopated. Throughout the second half, it is always on the beat. Then, in Game’s 2ndverse, after having set up your expectations, he then manipulates them, as all great music-makers do – whether composers, producers, rappers, songwriters, whoever. Because in his second verse, he switches constantly between the poetic accent being on the beat, then off the beat, then on the beat, on the beat again maybe, then off, then on, then off, then off, and so on. And, as more evidence, listen to what words Dre doubletracks in the production (answer provided at end of post.) What do they all have in common? Interesting, huh? You can find a much more in-depth analysis of this song and a greater explanation of what I just said in my Rap Analysis #1, found here.
Hopefully this helps some of you enjoy the genre as much as I do. And if you’re looking for other rappers who are as skilled as Em, my short list is Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Jean Grae. Check out my other posts, such as #7 – Jean Grae and #12 – Mos Def, to see what it is they do. Feel free to follow me on twitter @ComposersCorner, and to email me about lessons on rapping and producing! The complete transcription is provided below. Oh, and Dre doubles all of the vocals from Game that are rhymes – that is, poetic accents.