I’ve analyzed Jean Grae. I’ve analyzed Pharoahe Monch. I’ve
analyzed Mos Def…twice. The next member of what I consider the rap
Justice League that I’ll be analyzing is Talib Kweli.
Just like I did for MF DOOM here and 2pac here,
I will be taking a look at what I consider Talib Kweli’s signature flow
– the flow he uses that no one else does, that is very unique, and that
he comes back to time and again. It can be found to greater and lesser
extents throughout all of his work, but I’ve picked two of the most
exemplary instances: his rap on “RE: DEFinition”, from the Blackstar
group with Mos Def, and his verse on “Twice Inna Lifetime”, from the
same album. Kweli is similar to Big Sean, who I analyzed here,
in that they both have very identifiable signature flows. That specific
phenomenon is found in a rather more general nature in other rappers,
like Lil Wayne circa Tha Carter I.
In other articles, I noted general features of a rapper, like Jean Grae’s block rhyming skills here, but Kweli’s defining feature is the pace of his musical rhythms. In my 2pac article here
I talked about the pacing of rhymes – how a rapper varies how complex
and how long his or her rhymes are over a verse. What defines Kweli’s
signature flow is, instead, the pacing of rhythms – how quick his
syllables are delivered in musical time. We’ll see what his approach
adds up to in terms of wordiness and such at the end of this article.
You can hear “RE: DEFinition” here:
Get the Rapgenius lyrics here.
Even if you’ve never taken a day of music lessons in your life, you
can tell that there are certain points where Kweli starts talking faster
and slower – for instance, around 0:43 in the video above. Before that
he was talking slower, however.
As I explained in my 2nd article, the Busta Rhymes one here, from the “30 Days of Rap Analysis Extravaganza Bonanza” supporting the publishing of my book here,
all rap music is organized into beats. Not the backing musical track
that producers like Kanye West make, but the beat as a music theory
A beat always lasts the same amount of musical time, just like a
second. However, it does not last the same amount of chronological time
between different songs, because some songs are fast and some songs are
slow. Musicians use beats to count so that they can make any fast or
slow song still playable, because beats are easier to count. For
instance, they don’t count “1.25 seconds, 2.50 seconds”, and on.
Instead, they count “beat 1, beat 2, beat 3”, and so on. It is simply
the rate at which beats come, measured per minute, that decides whether a
song is slow or fast.
One of those beats can also be called a quarter note. To make faster
rhythms, we split the quarter note in half, making 8th notes, and 8th
notes in half, making 16th notes. The 16th note is the rhythmic level at
which most rap music happens. So, to get there, we divide the quarter
note by 4, because 1 16th note lasts ¼ of a quarter note. However, that
doesn’t mean we can’t divide a beat into other numbers, like 5, as Kweli
Below is a demonstration of the quintuplet rhythm — division by 5 of
the beat — that Kweli uses in his signature flow. In it, you’ll hear/see
that low drum playing the beat that measures the music. In the music
above it, you’ll hear/see a triangle playing first 2 quarter notes, then
2 eighth notes that are connected above the circular note heads with 1
line, and then hear the triangle play 4 16th notes that are connected
over the circular note heads by 2 lines. Then, the drum will play 2 bars
of rest, and then you’ll hear a bar of those 16th notes, which is where
most rap music happens. It’s pretty easy to follow along, because they
are slower than quintuplets, which are played next after 2 more bars of
only the bass kick playing. You can hear that there are 5 notes to a
beat, and that they come much more quickly. Finally, after 2 more bars
of the bass kick, you can hear the triangle switch back between playing 4
16th notes to a beat first, then 5 16th notes to a beat, then 4 16th
notes, then 5 16th notes, and so on, for 2 full measures. Listen for how
the quintuplet 16th notes, those with the 5 under them, are faster than
the regular 16th notes.
You can hear the quintuplet rhythms are much quicker and harder to
count and pay attention to. This makes Kweli’s rhythms extremely
These quicker rhythms are the major defining style of Kweli’s
rhythms. It is also a very good demonstration of the concept of pacing
in a rapper’s rhythms. Pacing refers to how a rapper will vary their
rhymes or rhythms in terms of how complex they are and how quickly they
drop them throughout an entire verse. A major downfall for most beginner
rappers is that they don’t know how to pace their rap. For example,
they have a constant amount of rhymes, say, 1 or 2 per bar, and they are
always end rhymes. A good rapper will vary this – start out with a
simple 2-syllable rhyme couplet, for instance, then move to a heavy
amount of internal rhymes on a single vowel sound.
Kweli’s rap demonstrates a pacing of rhythms, not necessarily the
rhymes. For instance, at the start of RE: DEFinition, he starts out with
the simple quadruplets (the 4 16th notes to a beat), with 3-syllable
end rhymes on the tragedy/passionately/cavity/gravity series:
This lays the opening for a verse very well. It’s not too fast, so we
have room to both increase the complexity or come down from it. It’s
comparable to a movie, so it makes sense: the action in a movie doesn’t
all come at the beginning, does it? No, you save the action and the
climax for later. Because, immediately after those lines, he moves into
the quicker quintuplet rhythms described before:
The rhymed words are capitalized in all the notations.
We’re interested in the “battery” to “mad at me” part of the verse
above. We see that he’s increased the speed of the rhythms, upping the
tension, and throws in multi-syllable internal rhymes at a much quicker
rate than before: battery/back of me/mad emcee/ flattery/actually/mad at
me. That’s a rate of more than double how many rhymes he was dropping
And, after upping the tension to such an unbearable and unsustainable
rate, what would we expect any good music-maker to do? That’s right,
manipulate and play upon your expectations. So, next we get:
In the above, we don’t get a constant approach to rhyme like we had
before. Sometimes the rhymes are internal, sometimes they are external,
and they don’t always fall in the same place in the bar. Sometimes there
is just 1 rhyme (the sentence with “to you”), sometimes there are more
(judo/menudo/pseudo.) Those quick rhyme flips on very unique words, like
judo/Menudo/pseudo, are very characteristic of Talib’s signature flow
as well. He’s fond of taking hard to rhyme words and then repeating them
quickly, especially across sentences, at the end of one and the start
of the next. We get another good example of that next:
There, he rhymes “Xerox” with “hair locks”, a rhyme none of us have
ever heard before (unlike something like “mother” with “brother), and
then quickly rhymes hair locks with teardrops. He follows this up by
flipping “lives” with “wives” across the sentence, and then quickly
rhymes widows/pillows/willows. Notice here, again, how he’s increased
the tension with quicker quintuplet rhythms. He is constantly changing
up the pacing of his verse in order to keep things interesting.
The rest of his verse is less tension-filled than the preceding bars.
He continues to use mostly quadruplet rhythms with end rhymes. He ends
by having 1 sentence per bar in 4 straight bars with an end rhyme all on
the same vowel sounds (partners/artist/starter/martyr):
The reader will probably remember that that is the exact way he
started the verse as well. Then, he ends with 2 bars rhyming on
enhancing/can’t run, which is the same vowel sound that Mos will rhyme
on next when he raps, “Lyrically handsome / go collect the king’s
That is one of the best techniques for two rappers to use together,
the book of which was pretty much written by Run-D.M.C. I could go more
into that, but that really deserves its own article.
We see a lot of the same principles at work in the next song, called
“Twice Inna Lifetime.” He starts off with a slower pace again, rhyming 1
syllable internal rhymes on fonts (which is mis-labelled as “Fonz” in
the sheet music)/conk/front/monch in one long sentence, another feature
of Talib’s rap.
Then, in almost the same exact position as the first verse above, he
moves into that quick, percussive spitting mode, where he separates all
the syllables from each other as he pronounces them. In music notation,
that’s called “staccato.”
Again, he has those quick, long, unique rhyme flips across sentences,
on the rhyme group
All this while dropping those characteristic quintuplets. We see the
basic principle of pacing at work again: first slow, then fast, then
The 2nd half of this verse is easily some of my favorite Kweli lines
ever. That’s because of how quickly he varies the underlying pulse of
the tempo of the rap. Let’s look at this part:
Next is coming some math, but at the end I break it all down. Just skim through it if you don’t quite follow.
You can see from the notation above that just like he’s been dividing
the beat into 5, called quintuplets, and 4, called quadruplets, he here
divides the beat into 3 (called triplets, on “both got sons”), and also
6 (on “me and” or “think I’m”), called sextuplets. If you listen to
that section, listen for how quickly the time Talib takes to say these
words changes. If you pay very close attention, you’ll notice that the
rhythmic durations are close in duration, but not exactly the same.
Although the beat of the song stays constant, Talib is changing the
division of the beat. This technique is a very contemporary rhythmic
trick that has entered classical music in full only very recently, in
the 20th century with the work of Elliott Carter. What Talib is doing
here is taking advantage of the mathematical relationships of tempo.
As I explained before, there are 4 beats to a bar, and the speed of a
song is determined by BPM, which is “beats per minute.” If there is a
high BPM, the song is faster; if there is a low BPM, the song is slower.
The BPM of this song is about 94. In layman’s terms, music can
theoretically be played at any speed, so there has to be some points at
which rhythmic layers are equivalent to each other in chronological
duration (measured in seconds), even though they might be 16th notes in
one tempo and 8th notes in another. There has to be these relations
because, while music can be played at any speed, a musical note can also
theoretically be divided by any number – 2, 3, and 4 most commonly, but
also 5 (like Talib), 6, 7, 11, and so on.
Below is the formula for finding these points at which two different tempos line up:
The above describes a shift from the speed of one song (“old tempo”
on the left) to another (“new tempo”), using a note value from the first
tempo (“pivot note value in old measure”) to a note value in the second
(“pivot note values in new measure.”) We have values for 3 of those
variables above: old tempo (94, as noted above), pivot notes in old
measure (“4”, because of the 4 16th notes to a beat as usual), and the
number of pivot note values in new measure (“5”, for all those
quintuplets that Talib uses.) So, if we solve for “new tempo”, we
eventually get new tempo = 117.5 BPM
This means that Talib’s quintuplets, fitting 5 16th notes to a beat,
sound the same as 4 16th notes played to a beat at 117.5 BPM. This makes
sense logically because those quintuplets in the song sound faster than
the normal quadruplet 16th notes, so we’d expect them to be equal to a
faster, higher BPM tempo.
But Talib also does this with the number 6 and the number 3. So, for
6, old tempo = 94 again, old pivot value = 4 again, but new pivot value =
6, so tempo speed = 141 BPM. Doing the same thing for 3, the new tempo =
70.5 BPM. This again makes sense because those triplets on “both got
sons” sound slower than the notes around it.
What all this means is that Talib, over the space of 5 bars, has
actually implied 4 different tempos: 70.5 BPM (the triplets), 94 BPM
(the quadruplets), 117.5 BPM (the quintuplets), and 141 BPM (the
sextuplets). THAT is my favorite aspect of Talib’s rap: it’s so complex,
so angular and edgy, but ultimately satisfying and handled in the exact
correct way. That is, Talib isn’t forcing complex rhythms on a word
structure that can’t carry those rhythms.
If you tune out the beat of the song and listen to how the speed of
the notes changes in ways that are divisible by numbers other than 2,
you will hear what I do. Don’t break your neck to the bass kick and
snare like usual; bounce to the changing rhythms of Talib’s words.
Sometimes he’s fast, then he’s slow…then he’s slower, then he’s faster
than ever before…
He does the same thing in the above: look for the 6s and 5s over the
notes. You will also hear all this in the demonstration video at the end
of this article. (Note that I repeated the syllable “an” of
“androgynous”, because the rhythm was too complex and would’ve taken a
while for me to figure out.) And pacing is apparent through out this
whole section: between the fast rhythms above and the section above
that, we get a series of beats with only the slower quadruplet,
Oh shit, how’d that slip in there? My bad…
Just for kicks, here are his stats. Note that he’s got the highest
syllables per bar and the lowest sentences per bar. He’s also got the
2nd longest words, behind MF DOOM, in terms of syllables per word, and
the lowest rhyme density, with 28% of his syllables being rhymed. So,
he’s very wordy and has long sentences, backing up his reputation as
being every technically complex.
As usual, here is the demonstration video of his rhythms:
And to Talib, if you’re out there: I’d love an interview. My email is [email protected]. Ask Jean or Pharoahe if it was any good!
Thanks for reading y’all.