First off, I want to acknowledge that I know very little about rap. I don’t know that many artists, and I can’t relate to most of the lyrical content. However, I do know rhythms, and that’s a large part of rap, so that’s what I’ll focus on. It may come as a surprise to some of you that I listen to rap. Well, suck it up and accept that I don’t listen just to jazz. Also, get off your elitist musical thrones and learn that rap can contribute some really good musical ideas. I own both of Kanye West’s albums, and I can’t wait for his new one because his new single, “Stronger,” kicks major ass.
A lot of Kanye’s songs succeed because every part of the song counts toward the whole in an interesting manner. To me, most of the rap played on the radio is forgettable. Part of this results from my not listening to lyrics. Pretty much ever. So, if the lyrics aren’t presented to me in an interesting rhythm, I won’t pay any attention. And in most songs*, this leaves a boring drum track, some synth overtones in the background, and maybe a lame bass line. Thus, I change the station. However, in most of Kanye’s songs, the music behind the lyrics ranges from good to great. Kanye uses his back-up musicians not only to create a solid base for him to sing over, but also as a complimentary rhythm to his lyrics. In “Jesus Walks,” Kanye raps quickly over fat, low chanted quarter notes that evoke both a hymnal and martial quality to the song. Musically, these quarter notes serve as a heavy pendulum of a metronome for Kanye to skip around. His back-up singers imitate quiet gospel choirs holding the overall solemn tone. Although the drum track in this particular song is not complicated, it lends a solid groove. Overall, the pieces fit together, and Kanye’s voice is a wonderful supplement to the song. Meaning, I don’t absolutely need Kanye’s rapping to enjoy the song.
Now, even though I consider his rapping a great top line instead of the most important part to the song, I don’t mean to say that I don’t enjoy Kanye’s rapping. His talent with putting words to rhythms is evident in last year’s hit, “Gold Digger.” On top of a bouncing drum track and repeated mantra of “She take my money / When I’m in need…” (a la Ray Charles), Kanye counters with a highly syncopated beat. By emphasizing many eighth notes in each measure and highlighting the offbeats in the chorus, Kanye creates polyrhythms within the song. Kanye uses his voice percussively, which suits me very well.
His new song “Stronger” has a fantastic intro. It opens with a robotic voice filling in legato eighth notes (“Work it, Make it, Do it, Makes us harder, better, faster, stronger”), followed by a bass thump on each quarter note. The contrast imposes a cyclical nature to the phrase, and pushes us forward into the verses. The robotic voice continues through the verses, and Kanye raps over a now syncopated drum beat. A synthesizer echoes the 1980’s throughout the rest of the song. The return of the thumping bass in each chorus really makes this song. When used effectively, quarter notes on the bass or a bass drum instantly transform a song into a danceable hit. When coupled with the legato robotic voice and Kanye’s awesome chorus, the rhythmic counterpoint results into an undeniable groove.
P.S. I realize in this post, I completely ignored Kanye’s messages in his songs. It’s not that I haven’t paid attention to his lyrics. I have. They’re really good. Take a listen sometime.
P.P.S. After posting, I saw the NYT had its own piece on Kanye’s new album. Check it out–it focuses more on the evolution of Kanye’s lyrical content.
*Okay, so “most songs” is clearly a gross generalization. Sorry. That’s why I prefaced this post by saying I don’t know much about rap. Most of what I’ve heard on the radio, however, fits the description. I’m not talking about artists such as Jay-Z, etc. They’re good. If you have any other suggestions for rhythmically interesting rappers, please let me know.