The Long and Rhythmic Road: Getting Into Rap

It’s never been an easy time with rap and I. Of course, I bought The Marshall Mathers LP when it came out, right around my entry into high school, but it was just an end-in-itself. I never sought out any more like, nor did I follow up with any other Eminem albums. I was into it, and then it was gone just as quickly. I was there for the 2000s rap-rock craze, but it never really did much for me (my Marshall Mathers LP story could apply just as easily to Linkin Park’s Hybrid Theory). Since that time, rap – much like its cousin in cliche music non-preferences, country – has never really gotten me excited. Every time I heard it, I would just hear the genre as heavy beats, some dude talking fast and saying ‘yeah’ a lot and reciting their own name incessantly. I would never engage with it, as any time I heard any one of those things, I would just tune it out immediately and say “oh, rap.”

Of course, when at odds with a genre, you just hear the worst in it. You pick out those things you already know you don’t like, and that just reinforces the feeling. It doesn’t help that you’ve probably decided that you dislike the genre based the most popular iterations of it, which is what you would probably hear of it most often, as you’re not going to be seeking out something you don’t think you’re going to want to listen to.  I’d made the decision previously that I didn’t like it and really didn’t feel the need to revise it for the longest time.

It’s not that I hadn’t encountered sort of the basic elements in a different context, with rapid-fire lyrics (for rock music) delivered mostly for emphasis on rhythm rather than melody in amongst my usual listened-to bands – R.E.M.’s “E-Bow the Letter” or Radiohead’s “A Wolf at the Door.” come to mind. I never ventured further, as I just thought them to be neat extensions and experiments of the bands I was listening to rather than something to explore in isolation. The first crack in the armour came with Radiohead’s most recent effort, The King of Limbs. Though there isn’t any rapping on it, whole album is based on wonky rhythms – chopped up drum parts by drummer Phil Selway re-arranged as such as to need two drummers to play the tracks on tour. After a few cursory listens, the rhythm bug got its hooks into me and I couldn’t get enough of it (in fact, this is also what drove me to start making music, realizing  I could generate some pretty good beats with my computer to build on top of).

Now having that solid basis in beat appreciation, there was something more to be found in the rap world for me, but it was still rough going. Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” was the example that I frequently brought up to people. I love the backing track – the instruments, the vocals, the hook, the beats, everything that was going on in the background totally had me hooked. At which Kanye actually came in and started rapping and it all fell apart for me. All it felt that it was doing was dulling the impact of the rest of the song. I couldn’t understand why it couldn’t have been just let be. The problem was that I was still refusing to engage with it as rap. I was trying to listen to it as a pop song or some such and then this rapper kept intruding. I was willing to acknowledge the skill in crafting the song, but that was about it. I still wasn’t ready for rap.

There may be a bright light, however. I recently re-listened to the Doomtree album No Kings, and I think I’m finally getting the hang of things. I think I’m ready to actually listen to rap for what it is rather than what I can appreciate from the view of another genre. I am into the hooks big time, but starting to appreciate the actual rapping that comprises the bulk of the songs. Take a song like “Bolt Cutter”, which reads like a radical manifesto – “my baby gave me a bolt cutter/we like to break in/and reclaim all the spaces they forgot they had taken” – a fact I had never paid attention to before. The rapping during the verses serves to colour in and give a reality to the idea that is only hinted at in the chorus, much as the instruments in most songs do. I’m beginning, too, to appreciate the variance in rhythm and flow that each of the rappers in the group brings to the table, especially when stacked up against one another in the same song, not to mention the impact a second or two of silence from the rapper can have on the rhythm.

It’s taken me awhile, but maybe I’ve listened to the right combination of songs, or maybe the time is right now for me to start to appreciate rap on its own terms. Luckily, Doomtree has seven members, all of whom have solo projects, so I feel I’ll be off to the races fairly quickly as my knowledge about the genre expands.

“E-Bow the Letter”

“A Wolf at the Door.”

“All of the Lights”

“Bolt Cutter”

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