By Giacomo Kuzma, Hip-Hop/Rap Columnist
The difference between rap music and other genres is no head scratcher; it’s the rapping. True, the sample-based instrumentals or 808-thumping beats are just as crucial to a rap song, but it’s the vocal, the rapping, that is the defining nature of rap music.
The emcee neither brandishes the microphone nor wields the pen as other artists do. While Charlie Parker fingers the saxophone, Eminem utters dense rhyme schemes. As Frank Sinatra glides through melodies, Jay Z flows double, nay, triple entendres.
Emcees use language as their instrument rather than a saxophone or vocal melody — the latter of which is based much less in lyricism than in sound. Rap is less focused on recurring melodies and pitches to draw the attention of a listener’s ear, though there are exceptions in the rap genre — like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony and the late Nate Dogg.
Rap relies on poetic elements such as assonance, consonance, alliteration and cadence, all of which boil down into two general components of rap: rhyming and delivery. Rhymes catch the attention of your brain by bringing together similar sounds, and delivery is the frequency and pattern in which rhymes and syllables are encountered whilst listening.
It is obvious that in the world of talented musicians, individuals stand out due to mastery of their instruments. I mentioned Charlie Parker, who with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley is recognized as one of the greatest saxophonists. Frank Sinatra, whose instrument is his voice, remains widely regarded as one of the greatest singers of all time, along with Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, Janis Joplin, Paul McCartney and James Brown. All of these individuals are masters of their respective instruments, whether it’s the saxophone or the human voice.
Imagine now listening to an unskilled saxophonist or a tone-deaf singer. It’s not enjoyable in the slightest; it’s painful, and it’s nearly impossible to consider them legitimate musicians.
Justin Bieber pales in comparison to Michael Jackson. Similarly, many contemporary and popular rappers lack the skill of established lyricists.
I have used two terms for an individual who raps: rapper and emcee.
“A rapper is someone who rhymes. You could consider Dr. Seuss a rapper,” emcee Big Daddy Kane said. “[If] you rhyme cat with hat, then, you know, you can be considered a rapper.”
Rakim said an emcee is “a little more witty with his wordcraft” and “more intricate with the vocab.” With Big Daddy Kane and Rakim’s words in mind, I term the rap artists in question as rappers — not emcees. While they do carry out the literal act of rapping, they exhibit no particularly noteworthy rhyming skill, and their delivery is largely uniform, individually and collectively.
Rapping — true rapping — is an art form. If you fall short with lyricism as a rapper, your legacy and validity will always be overshadowed by the likes of Jay Z, Eminem, Nas and Big Pun.
Drake’s lyricism has steadily weakened in quality since his 2013 album “Nothing Was the Same.” Drake’s commercial success is undeniable, but that loss in lyricism will take away from his longevity. It’s hard to believe Drake’s album “More Life” will be appreciated in the years to come in the same way Nas’ “It Was Written” (1996) or Eminem’s “The Eminem Show” (2002) continue to be.
“It Was Written” and the “The Eminem Show” were as popular as Drake’s albums when they were released, but they have retained, even gained, respect as time went on. They are praised as art pieces based on the quality put into the art. This is why a technical emcee like Tech N9ne maintain a steady following while a simplistic rapper like Soulja Boy — Remember him? — falls into the past. Despite Tech N9ne and Soulja Boy each having a discography of length, it’s almost comical to compare the two artists.
Lyricism leaves a greater impact than any current hot album, banger or persona because popular trends change frequently. A clever play on words or intricate display of rhyming doesn’t change. It is based in skill, and skill doesn’t fade in regards to a musical piece. A 2010 hit single doesn’t fly in 2017 when it’s just a catchy hook and generic sound; it reflects the trend of its times, which is now dated. This will happen to Drake, Kanye West and Migos. Their popular music now will become irrelevant in time without something more.
Thus far, it may seem contemporary artists as a whole are being attacked. However, they are not being all thrown in the same box. Examples like Dave East, Kendrick Lamar, Denzel Curry and even Lil Dicky are but a few contemporaries with substantial skill. Dave East tells vivid stories of his Harlem home. Kendrick Lamar dives into the conceptual and mixes thought and reality in much of his music. Denzel Curry has a robotically delivered flow and Lil Dicky’s strong suit lies in his comedic style and humorous topics.
Looping back to the lack of skill of some of today’s contemporaries, lacking in expertise takes away from the genre’s quality, even legitimacy. There are multiple ways to be a wordsmith. Lil Wayne, whose rhyming isn’t always the most impressive, chooses to use punchlines and wordplay nestled within a spastic flow. This is a display of creativity, and it makes Lil Wayne a great emcee. There are others who particularly specialize in wordplay, like Black Thought, Big L, Jay Z, Canibus and Cassidy.
We of course have the bards of rap, emcees that use their lyrics to paint pictures. Slick Rick, Nas, 2Pac, DMX, Lupe Fiasco and J. Cole are all excellent storytellers. Then there are the hybrid emcees like Eminem, Royce da 5’9”, MF DOOM, Tech N9ne, Kendrick Lamar and André 3000, who combine several different rapping elements together, making for highly complex rap lyrics.
These technical complexities are, sadly, slightly above the heads of many of today’s trendy rappers. I don’t disparage the contemporaries in question for the sake of targeting and picking on the new wave. I would be happy if any of them raised their own bar above the seat they have taken in rap music and ventured to improve their own craft. If they view rap as dated and wish to rebel against the traditional values of the emcee, they should do so by further innovating what can be done with the English language or by challenging their predecessors through competition.
Build on the craft of rapping, for that lyricism is what defines it. Do not taint and dishonor its beauty.