Rakim packs a lot into 50 couplets; get in the flow and you can picture like a photo.
In 1988, Rakim may or may not have been the greatest MC in rap -- Big Daddy Kane was mining similar rhythmic territory, Chuck D’s subject matter was more throat-grabby, Erick Sermon and Kool Moe Dee were funnier, etc. -- but he certainly had people’s attention. Following their auspicious 1987 debut album Paid In Full, Eric B. & Rakim released Follow the Leader in 1988 to general acclaim and eternal appearances on Best Of lists. Writing in the New York Times, Peter Watrous named Follow his “Rap Album of the Week” and summed up Rakim’s achievement, “He will vary rhythms, pushing and pulling against the beat to highlight his lyrics.”
This rhythmic variety separated Rakim and his peers from earlier rappers like the Sugarhill Gang and Run-D.M.C. In a Run-D.M.C. song like “Sucker M.C.’s” or “Walk This Way”, the rappers’ cadence stays pretty much the same from couplet to couplet. They might use several different cadences in a single song, or an extra syllable here and there, but rhythmic patterns repeat regularly and predictably. The late hip-hop scholar Adam Krims called this flow the “sung” style, and “Walk This Way” (1986) remains a good example: Run-D.M.C. recited Steven Tyler’s rock lyrics in Tyler’s cadence, but the rappers sounded pretty much the same as they would in any other Run-D.M.C. song.
The new school, exemplified by Rakim, Kane, Chuck D, and others, marked a dramatic musical shift. “Follow the Leader” doesn’t stray from Run-D.M.C.’s basic couplet structure, but within that structure it opens up a world of variety. Rhymes land unpredictably on different beats, and with the exception of the title phrase, Rakim never repeats a two-bar rhythmic pattern -- which means the cadence of every couplet is different. As Watrous pointed out in the Times, Rakim does this to highlight his lyrics, which -- granted -- are easy to lose track of the first time through. He raps fast and a lot. But Rakim bet that people would sweat his technique and keep relistening until, eventually, they’d see how words and rhythm meshed into a web of musical meaning.
Hence we have this blog post! Not all of Rakim’s vocal rhythms complement his text in explicit ways; often they just sound cool. But sometimes words and rhythm add up to more than the sum of their parts, and here are five ways Rakim makes that happen:
1. Text painting
If you’ve listened polyphonic Italian madrigals from the 17th century -- or, you know, Garth Brooks’s “Friends in Low Places” -- you know how text painting works. It’s where singers make the music do what the lyrics are saying, it’s shameless and not at all subtle, and it often elicits laughs or groans. I’m not sure Rakim ever made anybody laugh, but he gets his little joke in the third couplet when he breaks a string of steady alliterated syllables with “I’m everlaaaaaaaastin’”.
2. Syncopation that builds momentum
Syncopating, or giving a beat emphasis it wouldn’t normally have, is, in the words of writer David Wondrich, “the key to every kind of hot music from the 19th century minstrel walkaround to Jay-Z and beyond” (I’d throw in some of those polyphonic Italian madrigals, which get pretty swingin’ in their own starchy way). Most rap is unimaginable without syncopation, which was built in from the start -- a 1979 recording of DJ Hollywood has him minting the (probably already well-worn) line “CLAP yourhaaands ev’rybody-- / Ev’rybody-- CLAP yourhaaands.” Hollywood’s simple line syncopates two syllables: it stresses the off-beat word “hands", and it omits the expected beat following “everybody,” which gives that final “y” an implicit little jolt.
Rakim syncopates relentlessly because that’s what you do, but in several instances his syncopated rhythms partner with the words for some subtler kinds of text painting. Right after we learn he’s everlaaaaaaaastin’, Rakim says, “I can go on -- for days -- and days -- with rhyme -- displays -- that engrave -- deep as x-rays." He builds that couplet by repeating a little rhythmic motive, two syllables + a rest, over and over, so that accented syllables fall on offbeats and everything gets all turned around. (It’s similar to Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes”, specifically the line “looked on-- as some-- thing shock-- ing now”.) Rakim makes this little nugget of rhythm go on for days and days, or at least for a few iterations, before he moves on to something else. He uses this effect again in the third verse: “The R’s-- a roll-- in’ stone-- so I’m-- rollin’."
3. Syncopation that disrupts momentum
One of rap’s most
hackneyed classic text painting words is “stop”. Two years after “Follow”, both MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice would land massive pop hits where they said “STOP” and then actually stopped. Again, Rakim was subtler. Near the end of verse one he invites us to travel at magnificent speeds across the universe, describing the Milky Way and other outer space landmarks in breathless streams of syllables. All of a sudden: “Now stop-- and turn-- around-- and look." Though it’s the same rhythmic figure as Example Two above, this line feels totally different thanks to the context -- it makes us feel like we’re stopping, turning around, and looking.
Later, in verse two, Rakim actually stops: Eric B. throws in a sample of Rakim’s voice and Rakim approves, saying “Yeaaaaaah, dope”. He then comments on this stopping with a pattern that should seem familiar by now: “Ev’rytime-- I stop-- it seems-- ya stuck." Well yes I am feeling stuck, thank you for noticing.
Remember how, with very few exceptions, Rakim constantly alters his cadence? In 1988 most previous MCs had stuck to one cadence at a time, and Rakim wasn’t above mocking them to point this out. In the middle of verse one, he gives us this couplet: “(You a) Step away from fro--zen / Stiff as if ya pos--in’ / Dig into my brain, as the / Rhyme gets cho--sen."
In abstract rhythmic terms, that’s three bars of “DAdaDAdaDA_DA”, followed by four straight quarter notes (“DA DA DA DA”), which basically sounds like how my mom, a rap hater, used to hate on rap. (“They’re not doing anything!”) (Love you, Mom.) Rakim inserts this couplet to parrot those stiff and frozen old school MCs, like Run-D.M.C. or someone, who wouldn’t or couldn’t vary their flow with every bar. Thanks to his caricature we can guess who he’s talking about, although we should note that this couplet isn’t an accurate take on old-school rap, since it’s so stiff it lacks any syncopation at all.
5. Contrasting long vs. short
By constantly changing his flow, Rakim gives himself the freedom to use the techniques discussed above; if he were locked into one beat pattern, he wouldn’t have as many options. Nevertheless, this more complex style brings with it a couple potential pitfalls, chiefly the danger that nobody will be able to understand what you’re talking about. (You sometimes get this with Raekwon and Ghostface.) To get around this, Rakim plays with long and short phrases and contrasts them for effect and clarity. A nice example from verse one: “I can take a phrase that’s rarely heard / FLIP. IT. Now it’s a daily word."
The set-apart staccato syllables of “FLIP. IT.” serve as a pivot between two similar rhythmic ideas, creating the image of some sort of abrupt action -- flipping a light switch, a boomerang reaching its apex -- between cause and effect.
As the song goes on longer, the contrasts increase. In verse one, most of the bars contain five or six syllables (out of the song’s maximum eight), while in verse two the syllable count gets pushed to the outer regions, with more bars either packed with seven to eight syllables or skimped with one to four syllables. In verse three we hear both the song’s longest run without a pause -- “dig ‘em I never dug him he couldn’t follow the leader long enough so I” -- and some sage advice: “No need to speed, slow down to let the leader lead / Word to Daddy indeed."
Yes, that’s a four-bar couplet. That Rakim makes it sound like a natural resting place and not rhythmically awkward reveals plenty about his mastery of the beat.