Ladies and gentlemen,
I know unabashedly I am not the target demographic for rap music. Or at least, that’s what I’m told all the time. It’s not my top genre but I definitely listen to it enough to say, “I listen to it”. I think the biggest contrast is against my own music. My music settles very comfortably into the “singer/songwriter” category, maybe you could stretch it to say “pop” or even “country” but you would have to be deaf and dumb to say that my music sounds anything like rap music (you also wouldn’t want to hear me rap, it would sound like Kidz Bop). But I think listening to rap music has changed my perspective as a songwriter. And to explain that I need to go back to the beginning.
My ex was not musically inclined. During our relationship I introduced him to artists like Elton John, Billy Joel and The Rolling Stones, artists you could consider pop culture staples. He exclusively listened to Top 40 and rap music. I, on the other hand, grew up on nearly every style of music outside of rap. I listened to classic rock, country, pop, classical music, jazz, Broadway, folk, vocal music (like Andrea Bocelli and Josh Groban, courtesy of my mama). Moreover, as a 17-year-old from midtown Toronto I felt I couldn’t (and had no right to) identify with rap music. I had this preconceived notion that rap was about drugs and money and women. But I quickly saw rap as a far more expansive genre than I previously had believed. It spoke of mental health, family troubles and unapologetic frustration with the world.
Up until that point I had seen singer/songwriters as these beautiful poets that went so desperately underappreciated. I couldn’t understand how people didn’t see the genius woven into Hozier’s first album. I didn’t get how people listened to Passenger’s music and didn’t see the overarching allusions to fear of drowning. And Bernie Taupin (Elton John’s lyricist) is a damn icon. It wasn’t until I started googling rap lyrics and going through the process of understanding them that I realised how much I was missing out on.
My ex and I broke up (obviously, it’s kind of in the title “ex”) and I kept listening to rap. I kept listening to Drake, Kendrick, Eminem, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg. My sister’s friends started recommending J. Cole and Joyner Lucas. I watched Straight Outta Compton and started listening to N.W.A. because I needed to know more. Rap music kind of pulled me in for reasons that other genres couldn’t.
It was passionate and frustrated and raw in a lot of ways that other genres couldn’t be. It thrives on confrontation; it’s the only genre to “battle” and be blunt with insults. Artists release singles and fill their albums with references to each other. Not to say every track is genius (Nick Cannon, The Invitation), but artists take anger and frustration and they’re turning it into something. Rap takes emotions that can be viewed as toxic and turns them into productivity. Think about Eminem’s album Kamikaze: the only reason we got that album is because he was mad at everyone for not liking Revival. It’s not to say that other genres don’t try to “battle”, but they get caught up in catchy hooks and melodrama with really poorly written digs (I’m looking at you Bad Blood by Taylor Swift). Or even worse, they take all that anger, all that frustration and get into Twitter arguments and subtweet each other.
And sure, you can argue with me that you can get angry country songs (Before He Cheats, Carrie Underwood), angry pop songs (Don’t, Ed Sheeran), or even songs that aren’t angry but give you that riled up, “fuck this” feeling (Back in Black, AC/DC). But there is something to be said about the structure of rap that gives it an edge on being able to capture this feeling of frustration.
And that’s the second reason I love rap music. The structure of it (or lack there of). Music of the recent past really loves this verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus structure. And not all modern music sticks to this structure, Regina Spektor loves to play with new structures. Classic rock loved to play with this structure, which is why you got pieces like Thick as a Brick (Jethro Tull) and Paradise by the Dashboard Light (Meatloaf). A lot of The Beatles sounds an acid trip, because it probably is.
But rap music doesn’t like to stick to rules in content or structure. Dr. Dre’s album Compton is insane; the song Loose Cannons has a full murder scene at the end. Childish Gambino’s Me and Your Mama is 6 minutes and 19 seconds of incredible because the entire thing is different and constantly changes. There are no rules about what can be included in a track. Darkness by Eminem has news clips and FEAR. by Kendrick Lamar has a phone call from a religious group (I think that’s what it is). You’re listening to more than just the same structure regurgitated into thirteen, three-minute tracks. It’s unique and crafted to make you think about things. There are other artists who are trying to break restrictions, like James Bay using small skits in the album Electric Light or Billie Eilish using The Office clips in my strange addiction, but rap breaks the rules constantly because it’s at the heart of the genre.
So, I guess when you break it down, there are two main reasons (other than for sake of listening to music): it is raw, and it breaks the rules. But the reasons I love it are engrained into its history. Rap was created to give a voice, to be an outlet. N.W.A didn’t write Fuck Tha Police because they were happy with their current situation. Kendrick Lamar didn’t put “This is why I say hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism” in DNA. just for shits, but because he had something to say about the state of culture. I’m never going to fully understand why rap music is the way it is, but I can appreciate it as a musician.
I feel like listening to rap has made me a better songwriter. It makes me think more about why I’m saying the things that I’m saying, it makes me think about the structure of my songs. Do I need a chorus? Do I need to same time signature in the verse and the chorus? Can I be angry, or do I have to hide behind metaphors and analogies to explain how I’m feeling? Don’t worry, you will never see me get anywhere close to trying to mix singer/songwriter music with rap (I’m not Ed Sheeran), and I’m not going to try to do a white-girl cover of HUMBLE. However, listening to rap gets me out of my bubble. Yeah, I still listen to primarily Hozier, Elton John, The Lumineers and KALEO, but Compton is on my “On Repeat” playlist on Spotify.
And I don’t know if you guys will find this interesting. I’m a huge music dork so I could talk about chord progressions and song structures until my throat is sore. But I’m hoping since I find it interesting enough to write about, someone finds it interesting enough to read about.
From me, with love, to you,
P.S. Thank you so much to Danni Olusanya for her help and insight into creating this piece