Many rap fans complain, “Radio sucks”. While being accurate, it also relies on a common misconception: that rappers on the radio are supposed to be good musically. Musicians on the radio are really only meant to be good financially, so that they can sell records. However, record labels like Interscope spend millions of dollars every year to discover and sell their acts. Would any intelligent music fan really believe that the musicians they choose aren’t at least good at something? So what exactly are they good at?
It might do well to consider what all rappers who are on the radio have in common. They aren’t all master rhymers – Kendrick can rattle off multisyllables on “F*ckin’ Problems”, like “Hallelujah / Holla back, I’ll do ya”, where almost all the syllables rhyme, but is Big Sean’s rhyme, “I tell a bad bitch do whatever I say / My block behind me like I’m coming out the driveway”, from “Clique” anywhere close? (All songs referenced here are on the Billboard Top 10 at the time of this writing).
Macklemore can drop solid puns, like “Ice on the fringe is so damn frosty / The people like, ‘Damn, that’s a cold ass honky’”, from “Thrift Shop”, but can he rhyme in the pocket like T.I. on “Ball”? “They like, eh, look at T.I. , ballin’ in the V.I. / bunch of bad bitches with him looking like Aaliyah” So if none of those four things, what do they all have in common?
They all have awesome delivery.
Delivery in rap is the way you say your words. Delivery, rather than being measured with numbers, is instead only able to be described. Delivery can be hard as concrete, like Mos Def in “Mathematics:”
Would the line “The system break man, child and women into figures / two columns for who is and who ain’t niggas!” line from “Mathematics” be the same without Mos Def’s cynical indignation as he says it?
Delivery can be soft, as well.
Sure, on the page, the line “Soul food, you know how Granny do it / When I brought it why the guard have to look all through it?” looks pretty good, but would it be half as much without the heartbroken, lilting delivery Kanye gives it on “Family Business”?
So what can you do to have a better delivery?
When you write, be sure to rap out loud to yourself. No rapping in your head and then writing it down. Write to a beat so that your delivery fits with the song. Imagine how mismatched Mos’ delivery would be if it were on Kanye’s “Family Business”! Ask yourself some questions when you listen to your rap: do you sound like you absolutely, truly believe what you’re saying? Because if you don’t, why should anyone else? Listen closely to the rappers who have great delivery, including those on the radio.
Listen to how their voices fluctuate up and down in pitch, almost as if they were singing, and whether they flow along, or more often stop and start. As often as you can record audio of yourself rapping back and ask these questions. You might also try rapping some of your favorite verses by other rappers and giving them your own signature delivery, changing rhythms and words as necessary.
As a finale, just consider: there are better rappers, there are worse rappers, but any rapper you’ve ever heard of didn’t sound like he didn’t believe what he was saying to be so true that it should be completely self-evident to anyone who hears it too.