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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Rap Analysis - 10 Unique Rap Voices

Every talented rapper has an extremely recognizable and unique voice. Earl Sweatshirt could never be confused with Kendrick Lamar, or Joey Bada$ could never be confused with MGK. It is even those qualities, difficult to describe, that make people hear Notorious B.I.G. as a classic mafioso rapper, or Jay-Z as a celebrity that’s bigger than rap. Pretty much every rapper who gets popular has a really unique delivery, but some stand out more than others. Now, when the word “unique” is used, it doesn’t always mean “best,” as is the case here. If you look over this list of emcees, you’ll notice that few of them have blown up as solo rappers on the level of someone like Jay-Z, besides Snoop Dogg. That’s because as soon as a rapper reaches that high level of success, he spawns a legion of imitators who try and copy his style, including his delivery, which covers the way a rapper says his words in terms of pronunciation and pitch. But these emcees below have consistently stood out for their deliveries that haven’t quite been replicated exactly anywhere else.

1. Snoop Dogg

Quintessential Song: “Lodi Dodi”

One of the most unexpected things on this list is that the quintessential Snoop Dogg song is in fact a re-mix of a song that had already been made by someone else, Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di.” The fact that each song still comes off as different from the other just goes to prove how unique these two rappers are, as well as how much delivery matters in the style of a rapper. While Slick Rick delivers the same words in a more straightforward, punchy manner, Snoop Dogg’s delivery is lazy, with a slurring together of all the words. It is not a staccato delivery where all of the syllables are separated from each other, such as for our one our next men, RZA. Meanwhile, the story of a hazy summer day and a slow tempo G-funk beat fit Snoop Dogg’s relaxed style perfectly on “Lodi Dodi.” Snoop Dogg sounds almost tired. It’s as if at the moment of the song’s recording he’s living the story he’s rapping about, having just gotten out of bed at the start of it: “I woke up around ten o’clock in the morning / I gave myself a stretch and morning yawning.” For our next entry, we’ll explore more specifically what separates Slick Rick from Snoop Dogg, besides 2 coasts.

2. Slick Rick

Quintessential Song: “Children’s Story

Even though “Children’s Story” comes from the 1988 album The Great Adventures Of Slick Rick, no emcee in 26 years has been able to perfectly imitate this London-born emcee. Even though he doesn’t have the singing experience of a Frank Ocean or Lauryn Hill, both of whom are on this list, Ricky Dee similarly changes the pitch and intonation of his voice much more than someone like MF DOOM does, as we’ll see. “Children’s Story” is a great representation of this because Slick Rick changes his pronunciation to match each new character, such as the children at the start of the song, the main character, his friend, or a cop. The children start the song by imploring Slick Rick in a whiny voice, “Could you read us a bedtime story?” Meanwhile, the boy who leads the main character into trouble evokes an underhanded thief with some talking under his breath: “Me and you, Ty, we gonna make some cash.” The tough guy cop is represented with a low, dignified bass voice on the lines, “Keep still, boy, no need for static.” When Ty has a tough choice to make, he gets slow and thoughtful: “I’ll do years if I pull this trigger.” Listening to Slick Rick’s raps, you would’ve never guessed that such smooth, seductive vocals could come someone who did 5 years in jail for attempted murder, but that’s just what happened.


Quintessential Song: “Vomitspit

The ironic thing about MF DOOM is that pretty much every song he raps on is a quintessential MF DOOM song, because most of the time he utilizes only one main flow. It’s a good thing that not many try to emulate his style, because what works in this man’s hands could quickly veer into the boring for anyone else. But when you combine his almost monotonous, monotone flow with DOOM’s unique beats, it somehow all works. It fits his cryptic lyrics well, because no matter whether the rhyme is about something as amped up as crime or as chill as smoking out, it’s all the same to MF DOOM. “Criminal mind shifty / Swift with the nine” is delivered the same way as “A lot of stuff happens that the news won’t tell yous / Blues on L juice, snooze, all hell loose.” The whole result is bigger than the sum of each individual part, even on a 3-minute freestyle like “Vomitspit.” But if MF DOOM is chill on the mic, our next entry, the king of nicknames, is anything but.

4. ODB

Quintessential Song: “Da Mystery Of Chessboxin’

It is for good reason that Common drops the line, “I emcee as free as Ol Dirty Bastard,” on a Kanye West, pre-College Dropout mixtape. Even if the comparison isn’t quite true for Common — his bars are far too tightly wrapped for that — most rap listeners will know what he means after they hear the work of Ol’ Dirty Bastard/Dirt McGirt/Big Baby Jesus/Osiris. Breaking out in singing out of nowhere? “Grab the microphone, put strength to the bone DUH DUH DUH!” Rapping so what you can’t even tell what he’s saying sometimes? “Rough, kicking rhymes like Jim Kelly / Or Alex Haley, [mumbles] Beetle Bailey rhymes…” Extending single words for bars at a time? “Dirty Ol’ getting low with his flow / Introducing the Ghost – Face – killahhhhhhhhhh!” The tragic thing about ODB’s insane style is that it might literally have been insane: ODB had a drug addiction throughout his entire life, which ultimately resulted in his untimely passing at the age of 39 in 2004. But unlike our next entry, ODB’s style walks that artistic tightrope between innovative and bizarre successfully.

5. RZA

Quintessential Song: “Triumph”

His fellow Wu-Tang associate, RZA likewise stands out for his own delivery. But notice that the title of this article isn’t “10 Best Deliveries Of All Time,” because being unique isn’t always a positive. As amazing a producer as RZA is, maybe he should’ve pulled a Dr. Dre at one point in his career and just had someone hook him up with some dope lines instead. Because unlike Kanye West, RZA never quite got his style down into something easily consumed by a listener. If MF DOOM sounds like he doesn’t care at all, RZA sounds like he cares too much: “Enter through your right ventricle, clog up your bloodstream / Now terminal like Grand Central Station.” The syllables aren’t quite in rhythm, and there aren’t enough rhymes for how many words his saying. His words sound stilted, and so it doesn’t quite work when there aren’t rhymes where there should be. Whatever it is, maybe he should have stayed behind the soundboard on tracks, Just Blaze style.

6. Chali 2na

Quintessential Song: “What’s Golden”

There are many recognizable bass voices out there in the world of rap: Rick Ross, Bun B, and Notorious B.I.G. come to mind in particular. But none of them quite have the resonance of the verbal Herman Munsta. What sets Chali 2na apart is his ability to quickly deliver his lines over faster tempos while still being understood by the listener. It even works well when he half sings, half raps, as he does during the bridge of “What’s Golden.” You almost wish Chali 2na had followed a career as a singer as well as an emcee until he comes in with proper rapping: “Well, it’s the verbal Herman Munsta, the word enhancer.” His smooth bass voice does more than enhance words, it makes them shine. His voice could allow him to be anything in multiple industries: a radio personality, an announcer at a sports stadium, a voice actor for animated films…seriously, anything. Hell, if Chali 2na had come out in the 1950s his voice would’ve been the perfect bass for a Doo Wop group. And when you place Chali 2na in counterpoint to his other Jurassic 5 rappers who come with higher, baritone flows, everything is in harmony.

7. M.O.P.

Quintessential Song: “Ante Up”

What separates Billy Danze and Lil’ Fame as having one of the most unique deliveries of all time is one of degree. Sure, there are tons of rappers with aggressive styles: DMX, Ghostface Killah, 2pac, Twista, Big Daddy Kane, Busta Rhymes, and still others. But this duo seems to feed off the energy that the other supplies, and this only makes their explosive style blow up that much more. “Ante Up,” with its main theme of adrenalizing robberies, gives Danze and Fame the perfect opportunity to go crazy on their rap. Even their ad libs are thrown right in your face. You’re only 7 seconds into “Ante Up,” and you already feel like the rap has started: “Ya know what I mean? It’s getting ready to go down, Funkmaster Flex…”. But it’s when the two throw the raps back and forth that you can do nothing but break your neck: “Take minks off [UH!] Take things off [UH!] Take chains off [UH!] Take rings off [UH!]” Even on slower, more laidback beats from the same Warriorz album as “Ante Up”, like the beat “Old Timerz” and it’s smooth female singing, their deliveries come across as being ready to rumble. This style sets them far apart from their microphone brethren.

8. Chuck D

Quintessential Song: “Fight The Power

It is fitting that for a man so concerned with civil and political rights, Chuck D’s powerful, declamatory delivery calls to mind the stately, dignified cadences of fellow activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X. Chuck D’s rap always seems more concerned with its verbal message than any technical fireworks like long or complex rhyming, and that allows his delivery to come to the forefront. It is easy to imagine Chuck D pounding the pulpit and energizing a congregation during a fiery Southern Baptist homily, if he weren’t inherently suspicious of all institutional power. When Chuck D raps, it is almost as if he is delivering his message from the same mountaintop as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. “Fight The Power” is the quintessential Chuck D song because his line “I’m black and I’m proud, I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped” nicely summarizes his entire message. Meanwhile, his rhythms ride across and over the beat more than they flow inside it. Chuck D makes the music do what he wants it to, not the other way around.

9. Frank Ocean

Quintessential Song: “Pyramids”

To call Frank Ocean a rapper, you might need to finesse the definition of an emcee just a little bit. Yes, he unquestionably does most of his vocalizing in a definite singing style, such as on the hit “Thinking Bout You.” But he has actually done a lot of work with rappers, such as Earl Sweatshirt and AndrĂ© 3000 on his Grammy-winning album channel ORANGE. But unlike fellow rap singers T-Pain or his fellow Long Beach homer Nate Dogg, Ocean displays a more rap-influenced style in his own work, especially in terms of the rhymes he uses. It is hard to imagine just any singer making 4-syllable rhymes like those in the opening lines of “Pyramid.” “Set the cheetahs on the loose / There’s a thief out on the loose / Underneath our legion’s view.” That is true even if Ocean does set the words to exact pitches and not just the rhythms and intonations of the human voice. And he has actually rapped on songs before, on Earl Sweatshirt’s Doris album and the song “Sunday,” even if his rhymes weren’t quite on the level of his Odd Future mate. So while he might need to drop a few more hot 16s and freestyles in order to properly be called a true rap wordsmith alongside his undeniable singing skills, this California musician is already well on his way there.

10. Lauryn Hill

Quintessential Song: “The Score”

A fellow singer-rapper along with Frank Ocean, Lauryn Hill’s own rap is also shaped by her singing history. But unlike Ocean, Hill is also able to deliver her lines in any number of ways, including the aggressive, as she does on “The Score.” Just like her persona in real life, Hill’s rap style comes off as one that simply can’t be boxed in by norms, rules, or laws. Almost fighting the confines of her songs themselves, her delivery on “The Score” is frenetic, as if she expects the song’s beat to run out on her at any moment. The bars “So frequently your nerve endings belong to me / Wrongfully put me down, not receiving the full capacity of my smoke” are delivered so quickly that the listener is forced to hit that rewind button a few times just to catch what she said. The great changes in her voice, such as her high point on “See, even I feel the mahogany” or her pitch bending on the line “from Brownsville to queens,” could also be right at home on her singing elsewhere on the album, such as the hook for “Fu-gee-la.” Here’s to hoping that we finally get a sequel to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill so we can hear where she will take her inimitable delivery next.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Rap Analysis - Kanye West, "Monster"

Today's exclusive article will be on beats instead of rap. It's similar to one where I catalogued every instrument Dr. Dre uses on his beats between 2000 and 2009, which you can find here. To hear "Monster," the beat we'll be taking a look at today, check it out here.
Kanye never fails to blow me away. I mean, yeah, I've heard Monster before, but never really sat and listened to it. My original plan to answer this question was to make a chart like this one: 

That chart describes the entrance and exit of different ideas in Common's "I Used To Love H.E.R." rap beat, which you can hear here the chart above is tracing is the entrance and exit of musical ideas as they pertain to the structure of the song.  The musical ideas are read all the way on the left. They are the guitar riff, bass riff, synth 1 idea, and synth 2 idea. The Synth 1 idea and guitar ideas you both hear right away, as soon as the song starts. The second synth idea you hear starts at 0:20, as does the low bass idea. The chart reads left to right, top to bottom, and any numbers that occur to the right of a musical idea indicate that the idea enters at that part of the song. For instance, at the number 9 to the right of "Synth 1" idea, it shows that that idea enters back at the start of the chorus because it aligns vertically with the horizontal line that starts on the "chorus" line below it. If you read the chart above, it shows a simple structuring of musical events: the bass riff and synth 2 play during the verse, while the guitar riff and synth 1 play during the chorus.
This basic structuring of musical ideas to differentiate between different sections of the song is basically what Kanye does on "Monster," but he just takes it to an extremely complex level. "Monster" would make a chart like this 10, maybe 13 lines long, because there are so many different musical ideas in the song.  Lou Reed used a certain idea to describe Yeezus, but I think it has applied to Kanye since post-Late Registration: Kanye is fucking daring you. He's daring you to follow him where he's taking you, he's daring you to even try and follow him. Remember when he throws in a sick Charlie Wilson, hype electronic chorus in the middle of "Bound 2?" (Hear it here.) It fits in NO way into the song; a fucking soul sample track that could've been a huge hit on College Dropout or Late Registration? Just throws it away. Kanye's just showing you he's bored. He's showing you yeah, he could keep turning out "Jesus Walks" or "Through The Wire" for the rest of his life and everyone would go nuts over it, but he's bored with it because he's so good with it. Or on "On Sight," when he literally explains to us how he's bored: "How much do I not give a fuck?", and then he breaks into a soul sample, in a reversal of the situation on "Bound 2." (Hear it here) Or shit, he blows up "New Slaves" at the end by breaking into a classic, Graduation, Auto-tuned chorus with a sick soul sample in the back. (Hear it here.) He just doesn't care.
This comes across in "Monster." Kanye is literally showing off, with the number of idea he throws in there and then takes them away. I've always thought My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was symphonic and orchestral. This is shown in another article I wrote on a Kanye beat, which can be found here. There, I take a look at all of Kanye's beats on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but in particular the song "Runaway," which has an extremely complex structural form for a pop song. "Monster" displays the same level of intricate artistic planning. For example, "Monster" is 6:19 long. That's unheard of in popular music, especially pop rap. Kanye especially introduces variation into the song in really subtle ways that are so finely layered. For instance, if you listen to the chorus, you'll notice that the mix of his voice changes ever so slightly at certain points, when the gain/distortion is removed from his voice. Rick Ross' short verse doesn't even count as a verse; it's like a post-intro, pre-chorus to a chorus that doesn't come. 

Yes, Kanye has that organ idea that enters around 0:41, and is repeated periodically throughout the song, but not always in the same place or at the same time. It comes down to what we saw in the Common beat, which was actually made by — no surprise — Kanye's mentor, No I.D. For instance, the jungle drum loop that has been playing since 0:21 (NOT referring to the drum snare and bass kick) is dropped at 1:43, but the organ keeps coming. But Kanye's entering and removing so many ideas at the same time that the listener's ear is constantly kept engaged. At the first true chorus, at 2:07, an unintelligible vocal sample is entered in the background. 
All of this is encapsulated Kanye's production approach to Jay-Z's verse:
1. When Jay-Z's verse comes in at 2:24, the snare/bass drum/organ are removed, and only that jungle drum loop is kept.
2. But then everything (jungle drum loop/organ/snare/drum) is brought back in at 2:37. 
3. Then, (jungle drum loop/organ/snare) is dropped out at 2:58 to a skeletal structure of the bass drum beat that we haven't heard yet (it's in the regular drum beat, but not at the forefront until everything else is dropped out). 
4. Then, at 3:11, Kanye brings that unintelligible vocal sample that first appeared during the chorus back in. 
That's 4 noticeably different layers of musical idea combinations that Jay-Z raps over in a single 20 bar verse, and 5 if you consider his a cappella rapping at the end. A similar thing happens in Nicki Minaj's verse. The amazing there here is that the entire verse still feels unified, Jay-Z's rap still works well over it, and Kanye has found so many different musical ideas that still work together, while he's paced them all so well so that they don't fight or upset the flow of the music.
As much as it pains me to say it, what Kanye does is also similar to what Dr. Dre does, but just taken to another level. I talk about Dr. Dre's own approach to production on his beat "Oh", which you can find here.