Hip-hop is one of the most prevalent genres of mainstream music in the current age and we see new waves of it gain traction on the Internet every single day. But what exactly is Hip-hop? The question might seem abstract, and the answer will most certainly to some extent but like a fast worded song, pay attention, reread and let it sink in. With the emergence of multiple sub-genres (such as trap, conscious hip-hop, alternative, boom bap, gangsta rap, and so on) and its current domination of popular music we’ve forgotten the roots from which rap has originated.
The origins of this art trace back to the works of West African poets and storytellers. They inspired a wave of blues and jazz artists of the 1950s whose rhythmic pattern and lyrics were a precursor of the earliest Hip-hop songs. In the 1970s, an underground movement inspired by jazz, blues, soul and R&B began gaining pace in the Bronx, New York. This mash-up of different genres into this one style of music came to be known as Hip-hop, and as we can see today, has been a revolution to modern music. Right from its very beginning it served as a medium of expression and storytelling of the struggles and hardships of people and hence powered protests, brought down institutions, and continues to do so. Since its advent, Hip-hop is continuously growing and is more of a culture than a genre.
This culture has been moulded primarily by a category of songwriters known as MCs (emcees), whose brilliant and courageous experimentation paved the way for modern Hip-hop to walk on.
An MC (Master of Ceremonies) was a term originally associated with someone who hosts a programme of entertainment. Due to the flexibility of Hip-hop slang, it has taken a variety of new meanings such as “Microphone Controller” or “Move the Crowd”. Its meaning in the context of Hip-hop is an artist who uses his/her eccentric approach to music, by using words and rhymes to convey a message or to narrate a story while making it melodious at the same time.
This aspect of Hip-hop is what made us fall in love with this genre. As people who never had a good ear for rhythm in music, the analysis of the technicality of these poems is what drew us in. That combined with the unorthodox tones and sounds that are the heartbeat of this artform, made us understand the cohesive nature of lyrical music. The subtle nuances and the combination of lyrical/poetic devices, these are the intricacies that made analysing every single verse an insightful experience.
The thing is, you can’t really understand what is actually so amazing about Hip-hop until you understand or see some of the said intricacies. For that reason, we’ve picked out some influential MC’s who’ve written genre-defining verses and tried to put forth how it is this juxtaposition of simplicity and complexity which is at the core of this art.
Before we dive into the analyses, let’s familiarise ourselves with a few terms which are integral to understanding this art. These terms often show up in the analyses and are a great benchmark to judge the complexity of a verse :
- Beat– A Hip-hop song consists of two components that are layered. The vocals are laid by the MC and the instrumental is crafted by the producer. This instrumental is referred to as the beat.
- Bar– A bar is defined as a grouping together of four beats. In simple words, it can be considered as a single line.
- Internal rhyme– When two words or two syllables to be more precise, rhyme within one line it is called an internal rhyme.
- Multi-syllable/Compound rhyme– When more than one syllable or sound is grouped together and rhymed across multiple bars, it is known as a multi-syllable/ compound rhyme.
- End rhyme– When syllables at the ends of bars rhyme, it’s called an end rhyme.
- Double-entendre – It is a literary device that is used to identify a phrase or figure of speech which can have multiple interpretations
With that out of the way, here’s some of the most important verses of songs by MCs who literally shaped the way of Hip-hop, one beat at a time-
The Breaks by Kurtis Blow (Hook), 1980
Before the year 1980, Hip-Hop was still in the stages of its infancy and wasn’t really considered a staple genre of music it is today. Ironically, it was prophesied to be a failure, which is funny when you consider its popularity today. One of the songs which played a vital role in this current popularity is the song ‘The Breaks‘ by Kurtis Blow. It was the first commercially successful rap song of its time and brought Hip-Hop into the mainstream, introducing it to households all over the United States.
This song is extremely linear with a simple AA-BB rhyme scheme and is predictable with no wordplay, puns, or intertwining rhyme schemes.
Despite being the least complex song on our list, its impact on the genre is irrefutable. It laid the foundation for the new wave of emerging MC’s which would go on to be the voice of Hip-Hop.
Fast forward to the year 1987 and the forefather of all MC’s graces the mic, bringing in a complexity which was never seen before. This artist was Rakim, who released a joint album ‘Paid in Full‘ with Eric B. This album is often cited as a turning point in the golden age of Hip-hop, thanks largely to Rakim’s approach to lyricism.
Greatness is not only defined by how well one does something, but also if they were the first to do it. Rakim is a prime example of this statement, as his work single-handedly elevated the genre to be more complex.
His pieces of work gave birth to acts like Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, and Treach who dominated the late 80s and the early 90s with songs like ‘Lyrical Gymnastics‘, ‘The Symphony‘ and ‘Wickedest Man Alive‘ respectively. Rakim’s impact is noticeable to this day, with some of the greatest wordsmiths crediting him as their inspiration. One of these MC’s is the Detroit legend Eminem who always pays homage to the ones who paved the way for his exceptional discography.
Lose Yourself by Eminem (verse 1), 2002
When Marshall Mathers broke onto the rap scene back in 1999, all odds were stacked against him. Being a white artist in a predominantly black industry, he had to prove his mettle to be respected in the game. His multi-platinum hits like ‘My Name Is‘, ‘The Real Slim Shady‘, ‘Stan‘, and ‘Without Me‘ shook rap to its core. But, it would be another cut from the 8-Mile movie soundtrack which would cement his legacy. In 2003, Eminem became the first Hip-hop artist to win an Academy Award for his song Lose Yourself.
When we analyse the first verse, this incredibly dense rhyme scheme emerges. Every line has at least 2 internal rhymes. The verse is flooded with compound rhymes and multi-syllable rhymes which span across a whopping 11 bars.
Internal rhymes: Palms and arms, nervous and surface.
Multi-syllable rhymes: Rabbit he, mad but he and back’s to these
It doesn’t stick to any of the conventions which rap songs follow. This creates a listening experience that is smooth, unpredictable, and pleasing to the ear.
The beauty of this song lies not only in its technicality but in its powerful lines as well. It takes practice to rhyme syllables, but it takes exceptional skill to tell a vivid story while maintaining rhyming patterns. Lose Yourself is not only appealing to listen to but is also motivational for someone who has hit rock bottom. It signifies the true essence of what Hip-hop means to its listeners.
Needless to say, the next decade saw a huge growth in the underground MCing scene where wordsmiths like the iconic MF Doom, El-P, Aesop Rock, and Lupe Fiasco led the charge. Tracks like ‘Accordion‘, ‘Flyentology‘ and ‘None Shall Pass‘ featured some of the best verses of that decade.
Mural by Lupe Fiasco (verse 1), 2015
As sharp with his blade as his words, Lupe Fiasco is one of the most notable lyricists and poets in Hip-hop. He is a testament to the fact that The Art of MCing is still alive in the current era. While most all-time great MCs of the previous era struggle to maintain relevance in the modern game, Lupe has carved out his own lane and has been consistent for more than a decade.
Although he has countless jaw-dropping verses in songs like ‘Kick, Push‘, ‘Hip-Hop Saved my Life‘ and ‘WAV Files‘, nothing matches his 9-minute masterpiece of a song, ‘Mural‘ released in 2015, which is seen as his comeback to pure MCing after an unsuccessful detour to mainstream rap.
The usage of an extremely dense rhyme scheme filled with internal and multi-syllable rhymes is just mind-boggling.
Perhaps the most prevalent rhyme used here is the end rhyme with almost every line of the verse ending in a similar-sounding word-
His heavy usage of double entendres and metaphors is evident throughout this short excerpt-
coffin with a scratched ceiling
cherry picking every lemon from your berry system
Proceed with the pack feeding
The lines “What’s a coffin without a scratched ceiling” to “buried living” is an allusion to his own musical journey of trying to take a more mainstream route which included trying to dumb down his art for a larger audience, something that he as a MC was not at peace with.
This lengthy masterpiece of a song with an astonishing 1389 words of which 765 of them are unique with its technicalities is evidence of how MCing has got exponentially complex with time.
Artists today like Kendrick Lamar, Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, and Joey Bada$$ continue to use the musicality of rhymes through tracks like ‘Rigamortis‘, ‘Tell Me What I Don’t Know‘, ‘Chum‘ and ‘Hardknock‘ respectively, as a trademark of their memorable verses.
Over these last forty years, Hip-hop has evolved to become current-day pop music. The increase in dependence on electronic production and decrease in the importance of lyrical content, has caused pure MCing to see a decline in prevalence in mainstream Hip-hop.
Some purists believe that this new wave of Hip-hop has degraded the culture to shift away from its roots. But what they fail to realize is that every art form is supposed to bloom into something it was never truly intended for. Kendrick Lamar said it best-
“I want Hip-hop to continue to evolve. That’s why I can’t shun a lot of the artists that may not be Kendrick Lamar. So at the end of the day as long as you be who you are but respect what got us here, that’s how you continue to evolve.”
If you’re interested in learning more about this artform, check out this playlist-
Lyricism (this is a direct link to the playlist in Spotify).