When old white men write rap lyrics

Let’s get the rat out on the table – I am a middle-aged, white man who listened to pop, rock, country, jazz and classical music growing up. My first rap experience was hearing someone play Rapper’s Delight on their boom box in a high school locker room. Since then, I have always been aware of rap, but I have never been a part of that scene.

Then last year, I decided to write a rap song.

First… what? Why? Simple. Because I like trying new things, and it keeps my writing fresh. It breaks me out of my comfort zone and foces me to learn new things. And to write a rap song, I have a lot to learn. That’s fun.

So, having made the potentially disasterous decision to proceed, the first thing I did was find some music to listen to. I got on YouTube and looked up lists of ‘greatest’ and ‘best’ and ‘most popular’ rap artists and songs in the last 30 years. I listened to a bunch of music and picked out a few favorites: Eminem, Post Malone and DJ Khaled are all on that list, though I also listened to Snoop Dog, Kanye West, Drake, Flo Rida, ASAP Rocky and many others.

Let’s put the second rat on the table. I didn’t know the difference between rap and hip-hop. Maybe I still don’t. I’ve read Hip-hop is a culture and Rap music is one element of that culture. I’ve also heard hip-hop music is more about the beat and rap is more about on the lyrics. Whatever. Regardless of terminlolgy, I had to pick a style more specific than just rap. I realized I’m not interested in writing gangsta rap, or mumble rap, but I like a lot of party, smooth and pop rap, so I’ll call what I am going for a smooth pop rap. That’s pretty close to old R&B stuff I used to listen to, so that works for me.

Next, I created a simple beat that had the mood I wanted, and then dove into the hard part – writing the lyrics. As I’ve said in earlier posts, I don’t necessarily write about me, but I have to have something to say. What I wanted to write about was that period of life when you have to decide what your path will be – separate from everyone telling you what they think you should be, and follow your own path. I’ve had to go through that a few times in my life, starting with when I decided to become a musician over the objections of my father.

Having a general idea of what I wanted to say, I started writing a story just stream of consciousness. Again, I’ve discussed that process in earlier blogs, so I won’t rehash it. Eventually I had the rough idea of a young man who had just had a fight with their girlfriend because they wanted to follow their dream instead of doing what other people wanted. With that outline, I started on the wordsmithing portion of the process.

Rap lyrics are fundamentally different from rock, pop and folk lyrics in many ways. A few of the differences are:

Word choice: Rap lyrics use many common words and phrases, of course, but some also throw in ‘big words’ and they use words in different ways. For example, they might use a line like this:

I'm gonna show them, NBA star

Can be read ‘I’m gonna show them, and be a star’, but with the obvious reference to the NBA, and being a basketball star.

Here is another line, using the ‘big words’ finessing and caressing.

I'll be caressing and finessing your body

You can look up lists of words that are commonly used in rap songs, but being an old white guy, those words aren’t things I normally say, even when I get ‘artistic’, so if I tried to use them without being totally immersed in the culture my lyrics would be pretty whack, as they say. Also, I might get accused of trying to appropriate what is a mostly black culture, and I certainly don’t want to do that. I am doing this for personal growth, but also out of respect for a prominent musical style, much the same way I learned Jazz growing up.

I listened to a lot of songs to find examples that used language I could relate to. Luckily, that wasn’t too hard. ‘God’s Plan’ by Drake or ‘Lose Yoursef’ by Eminem are both songs that don’t use too much lingo, while still painting amazing pictures in the listener’s head.

One of the next differences is the use of different rhyming schemes. In traditional songwriting, we use inner rhymes (rhyming words in the middle of a line), but mostly you are rhyming the last word of each line, in patterns like AABB or ABAB. Look at this sample from Lose Yourself (by Eminem)

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti
He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin'
What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud
He opens his mouth, but the words won't come out
He's chokin', how, everybody's jokin' now
The clocks run out, times up, over, blaow!

Eminem uses inner and end rhymes (sweaty, heavy, already, spaghetti, ready, forgettin), and rhymes the middle of phrases (calm and ready…to drop bombs). His end rhyme scheme is standard AAAA, although ‘ready’ and ‘forgettin’ are only loosely rhymed with the ‘eh’ sound, so it almost feels like AAAX. Regardless, the structure is overwhelmed by the sheer pace and asymetrical nature of the rhymes. For example, in line 3, nervous and surface form an inner rhyme that do not follow the ‘sweaty, ready’ ea sound.

Let’s highlight the rhymes to make it clearer:

His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti
He’s nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready
To drop bombs, but he keeps on forgettin
What he wrote down, the whole crowd goes so loud
He opens his mouth, but the words won’t come out
He’s chokin’, how, everybody’s jokin’ now
The clocks run out, times up, over, blaow!

In the first 4 lines he rhymes 2 words, 2 words, 3 words, then 1 word.  The next 4 lines are the same except for the additional ‘out’ rhyming with ‘now’ and ‘blaow’ on the last line.  I’m sure he did that to increase the tension and pace as the verse moved along, not because he couldn’t find another rhym to ‘ready’ and ‘forgettin’.

This blog is getting long, so I’m going to end here for now.  The takeaways here are that each musical style has it’s own sound and feel, and for someone like me who hasn’t lived with a style, I can still analyze what others have done and use that information in my writing.  It won’t make me great, but it gives me a baseline.

Next, we will start to look at my song ‘What I gotta do’, and see how I incorporated what I learned in my own lyrics.

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