Since August 11, 1973, Hip-Hop music has taken over as the dominant subculture in the United States. From that very first party with DJ Kool Herc, we have come a very long way. There is quite a bit of speculation around where rap lyrics originally came from, but for the sake of this article, let’s say that Coke La Rock was the first rapper. From his time of skatty poetry over looped breakbeats with two turntables, writing rap lyrics over rap beats has evolved to such a high-level art form that it is important to understand the meaning, rhyme scheme, cadence, Iambic Pentameter, lyrical content, etc.
According to Wikipedia, the term “Rap” comes from the Oxford English Dictionary definition where rap means: “to utter (esp. an oath) sharply, vigorously, or suddenly.” This directly has to do with lyrical content and delivery. There are many different forms of delivery that even have names. You will find cadence such as “chopper,” “tounge-flipping,” etc. You will also hear people use terms like slicing, stabbing, rhythmic phrases, internal rhyming, etc. Read on as we dig into each of the facets of writing rap lyrics.
Cadence has to do with the rhythm of how you place your words in the lyrics. It involves syllable placement, vocal inflection, etc. Cadence is a major part of the difference in rhyme styles from different Geographic regions like West Coast, East Coast, Dirty South, Midwest, etc. It also breaks down to other geographic regions. For example, rappers from Mississippi have a little bit different cadence than rappers from Atlanta. Also, the individual emcee’s cadence can vary based on their own preference. This is why you might hear two MC’s from Atlanta that each sound much different. Cadence also changes over time periods. For example, East Coast Hip-Hop in the 80’s had a much different Cadence than what you might hear from East Coast artists today. Cadence is very important when discussing overall delivery. Let’s take a look at some examples:
A great comparison would be Big K.R.I.T. vs. Kendrick Lamar.
In Kendrick Lamar’s legendary verse on the record “Control” in 2 4 beat bars, Kendrick says:
“What is competition? I’m tryna raise the bar high
Who tryna jump and get it? You’re better off tryna skydive”
The first line has 13 syllables
The second line has 15 syllables
In Big K.R.I.T.’s verse on the record “They Ready” in 2 4 beat bars, Big K.R.I.T. says:
“So when it come to snappin’, Cadillacs, SpottieOttieDopaliscious, y’all pop
You thought Krit Wuz Here and R4 were the shit? Bitch, wait ’til my album drop”
The first line has 20 syllables
The second line has 18 syllables
There would be no way to deliver these 8 bars between the two artists the same way. The syllables control the Cadence right? Wrong! The Cadence of these two emcees control the syllables!!!! Now go chew on that gem for a minute!
The interesting thing about these two deliveries and cadences is that the beat is different, the rapper is different, and the Geographic areas where they come from are different. This somewhat proves how all of these things affect Cadence.
You will need to practice your cadence for quite a while before you truly master your own cadence. One of the instant signs of a wack rapper is a cadence that doesn’t ride the beat properly. You will find rookie rappers stretching words too long, or trying to tongue flip to fit syllables when that isn’t natural to their style. It is great for your cadence to be different than anyone else that came before you, but make sure it doesn’t sound wack! It shouldn’t sound like you have the wrong amount of syllables in the bar based on your actual style.
Rhyme schemes come directly from poetry. At one point in Hip-Hop history, it was considered okay for a lyricist to just rhyme the last word of each line. Now, the expectation is that lyrics will have a complex rhyme scheme with internal rhyming along with rhyming ending words. Rhyme scheme can be charted with either letters, numbers, or more complex schemes can have a combination of both.
In the song “Juicy” Notorious B.I.G. says:
“I’m blowin’ up like you thought I would
Call the crib, same number, same hood It’s all good”
The following words rhyme in this phrase:
This is an AA rhyme scheme or 1-1 with an internal rhyme of the word “hood.” Hood rhymes with the ending words of the two lines, but is inside the line instead of on the 4th beat.
One thing that you don’t find much with Rap rhyme schemes is the AB pattern or 1-2 pattern. This would be something like:
“I’m blowin up like you thought I would
Peace to Ron G, Brucie B, Kid Capri
Call the crib, same number, same hood
Funkmaster Flex, Lovebug Starski”
Doesn’t really sound right in most rap songs you can think of does it? (I apologize to Biggie for murdering the beauty of his lyrics with that example!)
The best explanation of rhyme schemes comes from Elzhi, who hails from Detroit.
There is also Monorhyme schemes where every line in the phrase rhymes. We could go on and on all day about rhyme scheme as it is an art form all to itself. The main takeaway here is to make sure you pay attention to your rhyme scheme when you are writing your lyrics. Throw in some internal rhymes and all that. But, make sure it fits your natural style as well. Nothing worse than hearing someone try to be like someone else. In Hip-Hop we call that “BITING.”
Lyrical Content is what often sets apart emcees from wack rappers. Lyrical content is about the message of your lyrics. Is your message fake? Is it about something stupid in a song that shouldn’t be corny or funny? This is where lyrical content comes into play.
For example, if I was writing lyrics to a rap beat and I said:
“I walk my cat with my bat while wearing my hat.
My teacher sat on a rat and she was fat.”
First off, this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. You cannot even really infer anything from this. But, if I said
“The problem with society is constantly watching me.
Big brother like a lover quarrel boxing me – in.”
This has congruent content. There is a message. There is a subject. It makes sense. These two lines are talking about being watched by big brother all the time and how it makes me feel like I am boxed in and against the wall with no other option.
Sidenote: These lines have a bit more complex rhyme scheme. It is rhyming the last 3 syllables of the line with an internal rhyme of “brother” and “lover”, plus I used an advanced technique that seasoned emcees use where they will use the first word of the next line to finish the thought of the previous line in order to make the rhyme scheme work properly. There is also a bit of an internal rhyme thrown in with the word “society.”
Lyrical content is how you engage the audience that you want. It often determines whether you are considered underground, pop, commercial, etc. This is where it is your job as a rapper to spread whatever message you need to get off your chest. Whether it is just talking about hood shit, or it is a meaningful life lesson you learned, or both, this is where you let it shine!
When I wrote my first rhyme it was like 3 straight minutes of just blasting the mic without even having a chorus. This is such a common issue with new rappers that even in the song “Aw Naw” by Nappy Roots, Fish Scales says “My first song was like 48 bars with no hook!” Someone shared with me a general format that has worked since the 80’s. Rap verses don’t always adhere to this format, but this is a good starting point.
A typical Hip-Hop song should have 16 bar verses and 8 bar choruses. In other words, your lyrics for a typical verse should fill 16 musical bars. One musical bar is equal to 4 beats. Each chorus should span 8 bars.
Now, you can play with these lengths to make the song however you want it to be, but this gives you a general format and starting point. Some songs have 20 bar verses and 8 bar choruses. The main thing is that you want your verse to be somewhere around 16 bars and should DEFINITELY be an even number of bars or the verse is gonna end with a weird silence and won’t musically make sense.
As you can see, there is a lot of things to consider when pondering how to write rap lyrics. This article is more than 1500 words and doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. The good news is that you just made it all the way through the article. This means you genuinely want to write great rap lyrics. As a reward for processing this information dump, I would like to leave you with the pinnacle of explanations on how to write rap lyrics. Here is Page Kennedy feat. Elzhi – Rules of Rap