This year's Penn Reading Project book is Adam Bradley's Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. In my discussion group yesterday afternoon, several participants complained that some important things about the "poetics" of rap are lost in a purely textual presentation of the lyrics. One student observed that in pieces he knows, the rhythm is there in the written form — but the lyrics for pieces that he doesn't know seem flat and lifeless in comparison.
There are good reasons that this is more true for the works of Melle Mel or Jay Z than for Elizabeth Barrett Browning or W.H. Auden, I think.
One of the advantages of the weblog format is the combination of text, images, and audio or video clips, so for this morning's Breakfast Experiment™ I decided to present a small exploration of the "poetics of hip hop" in a multimedia — and somewhat quantitative — framework.
This exercise will clarify why transcriptions of the lyrics, even with bold-face indications of stress, are missing an important dimension. The lines' scansion depends not only on the syllable sequence and on where the performer puts phrasal stresses, but also on the alignment of the syllables with the musical meter. This alignment is not automatic or always obvious — it has artistically-relevant degrees of freedom beyond those available in most other genres of text setting.
For those whose appraisal of Bradley's book was (interpreting freely) "not enough vampires and car chases", this will probably make things worse — you have been warned.
Let's look at a piece from the classical period, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's 1982 "The Message":
The background has a clear and steady beat. The metrical pattern that lines up with a line of the verse lasts about 2.4 seconds — one period of that pattern is shown below. (I've taken it to represent two bars of 4/4 time, though Jonathan Mayhew in the comments suggests that a more standard analysis would be transcribe it as one bar.)
What matters to the analysis is that if we track this metrical pattern through the times when Melle Mel is rapping, we find that he subdivides it into (a maximum of) 16 minimal time units, as in this couplet from the first verse:
The basic pattern of the musical meter is the usual binary hierarchy — to get the 16 units, the line is subdivided into 2, subdivided into 4, subdivided into 8, subdivided into 16.
Above, I've used a couple of Audacity label tracks for the musical meter and for the alignment of the words with the metrical line divided into 8 time-units, which I've notated as 1 through 4 and then 1 through 4 again. As usual, it's the syllable onset — the place where the amplitude is rising most rapidly, known to generations of phoneticians as the "P Center" — that aligns with a given metrical "beat".
Here's the same couplet presented in tabular form, with the off-beat positions (nominally eighth notes in the transcription I've assumed) labelled with "+":
The relation between musical meter and poetic form is more complex here than in (some types of) traditional verse setting. Among other complexities, we need to deal with syncopations of the kind that I discussed in the post "Rock syncopations: Stress shifts or polyrhythms?", 11/26/2007 — thus in phrase "can't take the noise" in the first line of the couplet shown above, the syllables "can't" and "take" are aligned with the offbeats that I've labelled 2+ and 3+, rather than the nominally more prominent positions 3 and 4. Is this just a stylistic syncopation, or is it something more fundamental?
Whatever the answer to this question, a kind of statistical shape emerges if we look at the overall syllable-to-musical-meter correspondence. Here's the whole first verse (of five) in the same format — four couplets, eight lines, 16 bars, 128 minimal time units:
If we just add up the number of syllables in this verse, meter position by meter position — even without taking account of stress — we get a plot like this:
Except for position 2 in the first bar, which is clearly a kind of upbeat, an alternating binary strong-weak pattern does emerge. If we do the same thing for all five verses (74 lines in all) the pattern is confirmed:
However, in the chorus, something very different is going on. In the opening four lines — treated as a double-length couplet, with rhymes at the end of each pair of lines — each 16-count line is divided as 3|3|3|4|3. Along with Melle Mel's delivery, this shift into a polyrhythm — with the background maintaining the straight 4|4|4|4 — is a sort of metrical icon of the mental instability he's talking about:
Here's a graphical comparison of the syllable distribution in the chorus, compared with the syllable distribution in the first two verses:
And as the piece develops, the shift of the ends of lines to a 3|2|3 pattern
x x x x x x x x x x x x x x 2 + 3 + 4 + 1 + 2 +
becomes more and more common,
Here's a comparison of syllable-counts-by-position in verses 1-2 (24 lines) with verse 5 (28 lines):
For a good example of this effect, see the last two couplets:
You could see this polyrhythmic infiltration as a metrical symbol of the personal instability that the lyrics talk about.
As the genre develops, varied and complex polyrhythms become more common and are given a different interpretation, as in Eric B. and Rakim's 1987 "I Know You Got Soul":
But that's a story for another time.