Rap Theory

Rap Flow

Rap, like all forms of song, has both sonic elements and meaningful elements. The meaning of rap lyricsthe social messages, street wisdom, personal histories, criminal narrativesare more than enough to make rap a uniquely powerful art form. However, the sonic elements of rapthe rhythmic, poetic, and musical organization of the vocal soundsare also a powerful artistic medium. is dedicated primarily to the study of the sonic organization of rap, the artistic patterns and structures that are called rap flow.

It can be useful to differentiate musical theory into elements of the surface and formal structure. Elements of the musical surface are the detailed, nuances of every rhythm. Musical structures are more abstract organizational principles which give flow it's meaningful form.


Emcees create a huge variety of rhythmic patterns by different combinations of speed, metric position, use of syncopation, and cross-rhythm. Rap becomes like vocal percussion musica syllabic drum solo. Indeed, rap flow tends to be highly varied, introducing many different rhythmic ideas in a short amount of time, rather like a jazz solo.

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Rhythmic Layers

At first glance, the voice might seem like a rather flat rhythmic instrument: all there is to it is the duration from one syllable to the next. However, as we learned on the linguistics page, through a combination of stress and pitch accent syllables can be emphasized or deemphasized to varying degrees, creating different levels of syllable prominence. Syllables with different degrees of prominence form different rhythmic layers. Rhythmically, the relationships between syllables in each layer create a variety of rhythmic patterns at once. More prominent syllables are generally more rhythmically important events. The weakest, non prominent, syllables are find of like rhythmic "filler." The lowest layer includes all syllables; The next highest layer, which is generally the most rhythmically important layer, consists of only stressed syllables. The following example, from Eminem's Drug Ballad, illustrates the importance of rhythmic layers in understanding rap flow:

but in a cou- ple of min- utes that bo- ttle of Gui- ness is fi- nished.

If you only consider the relationship between each syllable and the next, it seems like a fairly boring rhythm, just straight even notes. However, if you instead consider the relationships between only the stressed syllable, you see that the there is actually a cross-rhythmic pattern happening, with stressed syllables landing on every third pulse of the fastest metric level:

but in a cou- ple of min- utes that bo- ttle of Gui- ness is fi- nished.

The key is that both of these rhythmic patterns happen at the same time: the fast blur of the constant syllables on every beat plus the cross-rhythmic pattern created between the stressed syllables.

Even higher rhythmic layers are created by pitch accents, hype, or rhyme. This next figure illustrates four rhythmic layers in the first two phrases of Kool Moe Dee's Go See the Doctor:

Rhyme: Pitch: Stress: All: I was I was I was street, beat, feet. Walk street, rock beat, clap hands stomp feet. Walk down street, rock my beat, clap hands and stomp feet. Walk- ing down the street, rock- -ing my beat, clapp- -ing my hands and stomp- -ing my feet. back to top


Hype is additional vocals that happen in a rap song, supporting the lead emcee. In many cases hype vocals simply double certain syllables of the main rap, creating emphasis. In other cases, hype vocals may interject, or engage in call and response with the lead vocalist.

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Rhythmic Motives

Emcees often give their flow some clarity and structure by focusing on one or two rhythmic ideas: these are called rhythmic motives. A really extreme example is found in Eminem's The Way I Am: In this song, Eminem uses a simple rhythmic motive consisting of a "S-S-L" pattern with the last syllable heavily accented, and the whole pattern set to the meter in a syncopated manner. This same rhythmic motive is used throughout the song with almost no variation.

I sit back with this bag of Zig- Zags and this bag of this weed. It gives me the shit need- ed to be the most mean- est em -cee on this on this earth, and since birth I've been cursed with this curse to just blurt this ber -zerk and bi -zarre shit that works.

Most rap verses have much more rhythmic variation than The Way I Am, but still important rhythmic motives are reused. Consider Jay-Z's Empire State of Mind which reuses a "S-S-S-S-L-L" pattern, starting on weak tactus pulses, many times, but still contains lots of other variation as well.

S S S S L L S S S S L L Yeah I'm out that Broo- klyn. Now I'm down in Tri- bec- ca, right next to De -nir- o, but I'll be hood for- e- ver. I'm the new Si -na- tra, And since I made it here I can make it an- y -where. Yeah they love me eve- ry -where.

In a lot of rap verses, each rhythmic idea, or motive, might only be used a couple of times.

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Timing Nuances

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The key to rap flow is the way flow utterances are organized into interesting patterns. These patterns can be regular and predictable, or irregular and variable.

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Most musical pieces are divided into different sections, with different musical ideas happening in each section. The arrangement of ideas and sections in a piece of music is called musical form. Hip-hop songs typically have two main sections, a verse and a chorus, though other sections (bridges, interludes, etc.) do occur sometimes. Typically, the verse is the section which contains rap flow, while the chorus features singing, often by a guest singer. Many hip-songs simply alternate verses and choruses throughout. Most Hip-hop songs contain two, three, or four verses, but some songs have only one long verse, while other songs might have eight or more short verses.

Rap Verses

In most types of song, verses are sections in which the same musical material (i.e. melody) repeats with different lyrics. Rapped verses are a little different: rap verses rarely repeat the exact same musical patterns of rhyme schemes the way rock or folk verses dorap verses contain very little exact repetition. In this way, rap verses are more like Jazz solos: a free-form, loose structure in which emcees present a bunch of novel lyrics, rhymes, rhythms and flow structures.

Verse length

The length of most Hip-Hop verses will match up with the hypermeter As a result, the most common rap verses are 16-measures long. However, since higher-level abstract hypermeters are relatively hard to hear, breaking them is not that uncommon. Violations of the 16-measure hypermeter are relatively common, such as 8 or 24 measures verses. Breaking the 8-measure hypermeter is also common, resulting in 12- or 20-measure verses. Lower level hypermeters are more perceptually salient, so violations are much more rare. For instance, breaking the 4-measure hypermeteras in 6-, 10-, 14- or 18- measure versesis fairly rare. Finally, violations at the 2-measure level (3, 5, 7, 9, 13 etc.) level are almost unheard of.

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Rap flow is broken up into phrases. How emcees create, and organize their phrases, is one of the most important dimensions of rap flow. Phrases in rap are often considered like lines in poetry, especially when rap lyrics are written down. However, rap is not a written art formthere are no line breaks in flow that tell us where one phrase begins or ends. Instead, rap phrasing is created through a dynamic interchange of prosody, syntax, rhythm, and rhyme. Each of these phrasing dimensions in turn are set against the static musical meter.

Most of the time rhythm, syntax, and prosody all align to make clear phrases. However, emcees can mix, match, and misalign the different elements in various ways, to create interesting artistic effects.

Subphrases and Phrase Groups

Many phrases contain sub-phrases, delineated by relatively weak boundaries (prosodic, syntactic, rhyme, etc.), yet clearly part of the bigger phrase. For example, Nelly's Grillz begins:
Got thirty down at the bottom | thirty mo' at the top. All invisible set | and little ice cube blocks. If I could call it a drink | call it a smile on the rocks. If I could call a price | let's say I call out a lot.
In addition, sometimes two or more distinct phrases are nonetheless connected by prosody (part of larger declination unit) or syntactically (part of complex sentence, or list). In these cases, the phrases form a phrase group. For example, Biggie Smalls' Juicy begins with the three lines:
It was all a dream. I used to read word up magazine. Salt 'n Peppa and Heavy D up in the limousine.
which are delivered as one large intonational group. Just like the metric hierarchy, the hierarchy of phrase groups, phrases, and sub-phrases is a little subjectivedistinguishing a phrase group with two phrases inside from a phrase with two sub-phrases is somewhat arbitrary.

Phrase length

The most common rap phrases are 1 measure, 2 measures, or half a measure (2 beats) in length. Different combinations of subphrases and phrase groups also follow these lengths: for instance, you might have 1 measure phrases with 2 beat subphrases and/or 2-measure phrase grouping. Examples...

Now let me wel- come eve- ry -bo- dy to the Wild Wild West. A state that's un -touch- a -ble like Ell- -i- -ot Ness. The track hits your ear drums like a slug to the chest. Pack a vest for your jim- my in the ci- ty of sex.

Another common approach is to alternate 2-beat and 4-beat phrases in a regular "2+2+4" pattern:

Snoop Dogg cloth- in'. That's what I'm groomed in. You got my Pic- tures on the wall in your room n', Girls keep com- plain -in'. You keep me boom- in'. But girls like that wan- na lis- ten to Pat Boone.

Of course, phrases of other lengths are also common. Emcees will mix in phrases that are 1, 1.5, 3, or 5 beats in length. The next figure shows the length of phrases in the first eight measures of Biggie Smalls' Machine Gun Funk.

5 4 5 So you wa- nna be hard- core? With your hat to the back talk- in" bout the gats in your rap but I can't feel that hard- core a- ppeal that you"re screa- min" may- be I"m drea- min" This ain"t chris- to- pher Will- iam still some em- cees got- to feel some caps I got to peel some to let nig- gaz know that if you fuck with big and hea- vy I get up in that ass like a wed- gie

If a series of phrases are all an odd-numbered length, a cross-rhythmic pattern is created, which conflicts with the meter.

Get a life. Now they on sale. Then I might cast you a spell. Look at what came in the mail. I used to get feels on the bitch. Now I throw shields on the dick, to stop me from that H. I. V. shit. back to top
Metric setting

Even if the length of phrases is not varied, there are many ways to set a phrase to the meter. The most common 1-beat phrases cover beats 1 through 4, but phrases which cover beats 4-3 are also quite common. The following figure shows two beat 14 phrases from the Beastie Boys' Brass Monkey, contrasted with two beat 43 phrases from 2pac's How Do You Want It:

4 1 2 3 4 Got this dance that's more than real. Drink Brass Monk- ey that's how you feel. Love the way you ac- ti -vate your hips and push your ass out. Got a nig- ga wan- tin' it so bad I'm 'bout. to pass out back to top


Rhymes are the most powerful events in rap flow, forming the highest rhythmic layer. Thus, where rhymes are placed is one of the most important elements of flow. This includes where the rhymes are placed in the meter as well as where rhymes are placed in phrases.

Rhyme Schemes

A rhyme scheme is a particular arraignment of rhymes within and across phrases. The dominant rhyme schema in all rap is simply one that places rhymes at the end of nearly every phrase and subphrases, helping to mark phrase boundaries. Consider these phrases from LL Cool J's "Control Myself":
The club was far from empty. It was crowded at the entry. I slide right through, like how I do. The girl began tempt me.
These phrases create a clear AABBArhyme schemeCool J uses this same scheme throughout this song.

Strict, clear rhyme schemes like the one in Control Myself are actually rare in rap flow. Beyond the basic end-rhyme pattern, emcees rarely stick to a particular rhyme arrangement for very long. Rather, emcees freely mix rhymes in at different places in their phrases.

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Elision occurs when the boundary between two phrases is ambiguous, causing the two phrases to sort of overlap. A great example can be found in the first verse of Lil' Wayne's A Milli. The sixth phrase in this verse begins: I'm a venereal disease, like a menstrual bleed. However, the flow continues: through the pencil and leak on the sheet of the tablet in my mind. The words "like a menstrual bleed" at first seems to be a continuation of "I'm a venereal disease"notice that in this case "menstrual" is a adjective and "bleed" is a noun. However, as the flow continues, we realize that "like a menstrual bleed" is the beginning of a new sentence: "like a menstrual bleed through the pencil ..."now "menstrual" is a noun and "bleed" is a verb. The result is as if there are to different sentences which elide: I'm a venereal disease, like a menstrual bleed. Like a menstrual, bleed through the pencil on the sheet of the tablet in my mind.

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Enjambment is a special type of elision created when syntactic boundaries (i.e. clauses, sentences) conflict with music/prosodic boundaries. In other words, when a single sentence or meaningful idea cuts across multiple phrases.

Here is an example of enjambment from Andre 3000's verse on OutKast's B.O.B.:

Who wants some? Don't come unprepared. I'll be there, but when I leave there | better be a household name.
The words "when I leave there" form an incomplete syntactical thought which is part of the larger sentence "when I leave there | better be a household name." However, Andre 3000 creates a very clear prosodic boundary between "there" and "better""there" is also an end-rhyme with "unprepared".

A slightly more complicated example appears later in the same verse:

Long as you know the consequences | to give and for livin'. The fence is | too high to jump in jail.
First of all, there is a weak enjambment in the words "consequences | to give and for livin'"the reason this is a relatively weak enjambment is that the phrase "Long as you know the consequences" could be a complete syntactic thought. Only when we hear the continuation ("the consequences to give...") do we retrospectively learn that the sentence isn't over yet. The second enjambment in this passage, "to give and for livin'. The fence is... |" is much stronger.

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Phrase Counterpoint

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