“One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish.” Anybody can appreciate this simple sentence by Dr. Suess, because everybody knows that it rhymes. Rhymes are naturally appealing to speak and read; they flow nicely off the tongue, are easy to remember, and they’re just fun.
If one was to approach a random person on the street and ask what they thought the fundamental element of poetry was, he or she would more than likely say rhyme. Rhyme is everywhere; there is internal rhyme, approximate rhyme, end rhyme, to name a few. But there is much more to poetry than the many varieties of rhyme; poetry also incorporates many varieties of rhythm.
Rhythm and rhyme go hand in hand. Even poetry without meter has rhythm, as there is just natural rhythm in speech caused by inflection and pauses that occur–whether we intend them to or not–in all phrases and sentences.
But if all poetry has rhythm and most has rhyme, then where do we draw the line between poetry and music?
The answer to this question varies greatly based on personal opinion, but some genres of music are generally accepted as poetry. One of these genres is rap music, because it contains a very large amount of poetic elements. When we look at rap music as a form of poetry, it can help us understand more conventional poetry on a higher level. We can listen to the rhythmic delivery of lines and see how working the words around the beat in a straightforward pattern on the downbeat or a syncopated pattern centered around off-beats and see how the way lines are read can cause a much larger appreciation for the poetry in general.
One fascinating thing about rap is the appreciation that people have for it, regardless of its vulgarity and offensiveness to some people. Oftentimes people listen to rap simply because the rhythm and flow of the words are appealing to them. Some rappers, like Busta Rhymes, deliver their lines so quickly that they are basically impossible to understand; yet people still listen to, buy, and hear their songs on the radio dozens of times per day. Why?
Simply by the process of elimination, we can infer that if the listener is not listening for the lyrics, then they must be listening for the rhythm of the words and how they interact with the backbeat. This speaks volumes for the significance of rhythm in rap music and poetry. If people can’t understand the words that the rapper is saying, then the MC must make a great effort to keep his rhythm, inflection, and tone very interesting. To some listeners, the words the rapper is spitting are essentially irrelevant; they simply see the rapper’s lyrics as, explained in Bradley’s Book of Rhymes (worth buying): “an extended drum solo, the rapper [serving as] nothing more than another kick drum or snare.”
A great example of a song that exhibits rhythmic expertise “Break Ya Neck” by Busta Rhymes. The lyrics to “Break Ya Neck” are essentially indiscernible except for the hook and the random outbursts like “come on” “oh yeah” and “okay.” The interesting speeds and inflections make the listener want to pay close attention to try to see what Busta is actually saying.
The complex, rapid rhythm is a great tool to keep the listener interested. Besides the speed, there is a great amount of syncopation in “Break Ya Neck.”
The lines: “Just let me give you real street shit, To rap in yo shit with, Recline yo seat, rewind this heat, Keep bouncing up and down these streets” are delivered entirely on off-beats. In musical terms, if the lines were broken up into eighth notes, the words would only fall on the “and’s” of beats, one, two, three, and four. This creates a lot of momentum, and gives the song a lot of forward motion. It is very much on top of the beat.
This same technique is used in the poem “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks. Rather than starting her lines with “We,” she moves the first word of each line to the end of the preceding line. This makes it feel the same way that the “Just let me give you real street shit…Keep bouncing up and down these streets,” lines feel, with forward motion and cause natural excitement for the reader. It is unexpected and unconventional, just like placing all words of a line on off-beats. Even if somebody ignored the meanings of the words in a poem or song, they could steel feel some excitement if the rhythm is stimulating like it is in “Break Ya Neck” and “We Real Cool.”
Beyond making rhythms interesting, both poets and rappers need to keep their rhythms varied. One example of a rap song with a great variety of rhythm is “Animal Rap” by Jedi Mind Tricks.
In the opening verse, by Kool G, the rhythm is very crammed and hectic. There is very little space in between lines, and Kool G raps at a reasonably fast pace. This is then contrasted with a break where there is just a recording of Mike Tyson talking over the beat saying:
“People always talking ‘bout I’m being loud and vulgar, I’m talkin’ vulgar because I’m angry, you know? I’m angry about my experiences and all the things that I’ve been through, see everyone has the right to be angry, but this is just the way I express myself.”
He sometimes falls loosely into the beat (showing that all speech has traces of rhythm in it), but it causes for a blatant contrast against the preceding verse by Kool G. Following the Mike Tyson sample, Vinnie Paz brings a whole new rhythmic element to the song. His verse is dominated by pauses at the ends of his lines, almost as if he is delivering the line, giving the listener time to digest what he said, and then hitting them again with his next message. This variation of styles is effective in keeping the listener attentive, but also in highlighting the changes in tone as each rapper delivers his verse. It is similar in the way that a Shakespearean sonnet changes tone and uses a change from four quatrains to one rhyming couplet in order to highlight the shift in tone.
Besides highlighting changes in tone, rhythm is a key element in establishing the tone of a poem or rap song. An example of how this is done can be found in Grandmaster Flash’s song, “The Message.”
In the chorus, when he raps, “don’t push me, cause I’m close to the edge. I’m tryin’ not to lose my head,” he does it in a very unconventional rhythm. It feels as if it is floating over the top of the beat, which it technically is, the rhythm is a play on a polyrhythmic feel, which is noted in music for the feel of floating over the downbeats. The tone that this conveys is perfectly relevant to the lyrics. The words are slowed down and the rhythm is very thought out, exhibiting that he is “close to the edge,” and thinking about every word he says very carefully because he does not want to “lose his head.” Also, his stress of the word “edge,” which falls on the and of three (an offbeat), shows that he could be struggling to choose the right words and his thoughts aren’t exactly in the place they should be. All of this helps to establish the tone as one of a man cautiously toeing the edge of losing his head, which is exactly what the lyrics are suggesting as well.
This same concept is very evident in poetry as well. The rhythms in different types of poems all help to establish the tone. Take limericks, for example. The rhythm of a limerick is bouncy and joyous, just like the subject matter of most limericks. Being centered around a triplet feel, the poem naturally rolls off the tongue, makes the reader bob his or her head, and causes a sense of happiness. The actual words of a limerick, which are supposed to be fun little stories, coupled with the bouncy rhythmic feel, cause it to create a carefree, jubilant, and humorous tone. Another example of rhythm having a large influence on tone is in haiku. Haiku have an awkward rhythm, with three lines focused around odd numbers of syllables. The first line has five syllables, the second has seven, and the last has five again. This causes natural pauses at the end of each line, as the reader wants to fill that last syllable, making the line an even number of syllables to be consistent with music–since the majority of music is written with an even number of beats in each measure. These natural pauses at the end of each line of the haiku slow down the poem and make the tone seem more serene and relaxed. This is consistent with the subject matter of haiku, since most haiku are written about the beauty and tranquility of nature. Rhythm is often overlooked as a tool to develop the tone of a poem, but it really plays a large role in creating the tone by altering how the poem is read.
Rhythmic elements are often overlooked in poetry, but seeing how crucial they are in music, particularly rap, it can be noted that rhythm is one of the most important aspects of a poem. It helps to create the tone, establish the pace at which a poem is to be read, and it even has a large effect on how the reader feels when reading a poem. All of this is also true of the rhythm in rap music. The manner in which an MC delivers his lines can determine how his message is perceived. Fast rappers like Busta Rhymes give off a very “in your face” vibe, while more relaxed and laid back rappers find understated tempos and rhythms to mesh with their backbeat. While rhyme may get a lot of credit for being a defining element of poetry, rhyme would be nowhere near as impressive if it wasn’t delivered in an intriguing, suggestive, and tonally supporting rhythm.