Dear Language Nerd,
When I write sweet lyrics for phat beats, I write in patterns. Specifically, the rhyming word at the end of my lines is based on basic 4/4 rhythm. Here is how I write them, where every letter is a matching rhyme word: A A A A (cat, hat, stat, plat (ypuss)) A B A B (cat, friend, hat, end) AA BB CC DD ( [cat, hat], [friend, end], [scope, nope], [lit, spit]) and etc… What is the technical term for this? Is there any research that you know of around this topic?
Thanks, Audio Nerd
The term you’re looking for is rhyme scheme. And the simplest form, just two lines, is the couplet.
I saw a cat
Sitting on a hat.
Starting with that, you can go anywhere.
Pope was a British poet, big in the 1710s-20s. He reigned as King of the Couplet, and some of his lines were so catchy that they made their way into the general language, and we still use them now without particularly knowing where they came from. “To err is human, to forgive divine,” anyone?
Kool Moe Dee was one of the first big-name rappers, most popular in the 80s and early 90s. It hasn’t been long enough to see if any of his lyrics will stick permanently, though “How Ya Like Me Now?” has a shot. Also notable: first rapper to perform at the Grammys, and creator of The Most Incredibly 80s Music Video in Existence.
That ninja fight tho
Despite their surface differences,* Alexander Pope and Kool Moe Dee could converge in content and literary devices. They shared some of the same themes, such as the perennial artists’ favorite, “artists don’t get enough respect.”
‘Tis with our judgments as our watches, none
Go just alike, yet each believes his own.
In poets as true genius is but rare,
True taste as seldom is the critic’s share[.]
–Essay on Criticism, Part I
To say rap is not work is ludicrous
Whoever said it must be new to this.
[…] not merely
Putting words together for recreation,
Each rhyme is a dissertation.
–I Go to Work
And “other artists are frankly just nowhere near as good as me.”
Who shames a scribbler? break one cobweb through,
He spins the slight, self-pleasing thread anew;
Destroy his fib or sophistry, in vain,
The creature’s at his dirty work again;
Thron’d in the center of his thin designs;
Proud of a vast extent of flimsy lines!
–Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot
My lyrical beatdown will leave you in a coma
Cause you can’t hang without a high school diploma
Your brain’ll fatigue, you’re out of your league
You’re running out of gas and your tank is on E.
They’re both broad in range. Sometimes they’re telling stories (The Iliad,** Go See the Doctor); sometimes they’re handing out advice (Essay on Criticism, Knowledge is King); sometimes they’re criticizing society (The Rape of the Lock, No Respect). And they’re both strong in imagery, in metaphor and analogy, and in wordplay.
A little learning is a dang’rous thing,
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
–Essay on Criticism, Part II
Don’t ya know I’ll serve that boy?
Just like a waiter
Hit‘im with a plate of
These fresh rhymes and
Make sure that he
Pay the bill, and leave him standin still
When he’s had enough, hit him with a refill.
–How Ya Like Me Now
But they are drastically different in structure. Rap has one huge difference from earlier poetic forms: there’s a beat behind it.
I know what you’re thinking: no shit, Language Nerd. But because of that, everything changes. Older poetry like Pope’s is all about using the words to create the beat. Fancy poetry terms like “trochee” and “anapest” are just ways of patterning the words to get a rhythm. Pope usually wrote in iambic pentameter (previously here). That means ten syllables per line, put in five groups of two, with the first syllable in each group unstressed and the second stressed. Or, to say it less jargon-ly, a line of iambic pentameter has a beat like this: da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM.
And all they want is spirit, taste, and sense.
–Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot
At that time, writing quality poetry meant setting up a line so that the rhythm was strong and the words still felt natural. The big rhyme was that last stressed syllable, the final DUM. Since the lines were uniform, choosing a rhyme scheme meant deciding which of the DUMs would rhyme with which other DUMs.
Letters are a good way of designating the matches. Pope’s couplets were AA, and longer poems were made of sets of couplets, AABBCCDDE etc. Sonnets are ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. Ballads have the form ABAB or ABCB, while a ballade, whose single-e spelling difference somehow makes it waaay more difficult, is ABABBCBC ABABBCBC ABABBCBC BCBC. Better have a solid plan for that “B” rhyme.
But in rap, the beat is already there. It’s external. The rapper works with the beat, but doesn’t need to create it. And that opens up new opportunities.
Rap is, as you mentioned, usually in a 4/4 beat. For the nonmusical among us, that means that if you were clapping along, you’d go CLAP (pause) CLAP (pause) CLAP (pause) CLAP (pause)*** and reach the end of the line. So the length of a line has nothing to do with how many syllables there are, or anything about the words at all. If a rapper wants to be slow and clear, with two or three syllables per beat, that works. If they want to blow our minds with their rapid-fire flow, they could go with five. And the beats don’t need to all have the same number of syllables. They can, which sounds even and regular and smooth, or there can be two syllables on one beat and four the next, keeping the listeners on their toes. What was part of the rules for Pope became a series of choices for Kool Moe Dee.
And rhyme schemes also changed. There are three main differences, two of which make rhyming harder, and one easier. First, the spotlight focus on the end rhyme weakened, and rappers began to focus on internal rhyme – rhyme inside of one line. Having only end rhymes is sometimes acceptable, as when Kool Moe Dee used that scheme and a simple rhythm to focus on humor:
As I turned around to receive my injection,
I said “Next time I’ll use some protection.”
–Go See the Doctor
But in general, two rhymes are not enough. At least three is more usual, as in the basic form of one internal rhyme in the first line that matches the two end rhymes.
Hard to paint a picture, and try to get ya
Self in my shoes but they won’t fit ya.
–How Ya Like Me Now
And often there would be far, far more, seven or eight rhymes in every couple of lines. The old AABB way of marking rhyme scheme isn’t enough for this, and instead you find more complicated charts for marking, where each line of the chart corresponds to one line of the song.
(scheme for same two lines of How Ya Like Me Now)
Second, rhymes were expected to be fairly long. A simple “cat/hat” rhyme is not impressive, and “injection/protection” is more par for the course. But between needing more rhymes and needing longer rhymes, the third change arose: what counted as a rhyme became looser. Rhymes based on assonance, where only the vowel sounds match and not the consonants, became more common.
I’m so lyrically potent
And I’m flowin’
–I Go to Work
I hope all this helps you in your quest to write sweet lyrics for phat beats. Just keep trying, man – it’s all about practice and revision. Or, as Pope put it,
True ease in writing comes from art, not chance
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.
—Essay on Criticism, Part II
Or or, as Kool Moe Dee puts it,
I don’t write, I build a rhyme,
Draw the plans, draft the diagrams
An architect in effect, and it slams
And if it’s weak when I’m done
Renovate, and build another one.
–I Go to Work
The Language Nerd
*She said, waving her hand airily to brush aside such petty details as “everything.”
**A retelling, obviously. But I’ll accept it.
Got a language question? Ask the Language Nerd! firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitter @AskTheLeague / facebook.com/asktheleagueofnerds
Special thanks this time to Dr. Erin Drew, of the University of Mississippi, an expert on 18th-century poetry who sat down to talk rhyme schemes with me. She made the connection between Pope’s zingers in the Epistle to Arbuthnot and modern rap battles, which set off this whole business. Thank you!
Pope quotations from the Poetry Foundation. Kool Moe Dee quotations from Genius, which I particularly enjoy for its commentary system. Other sources include The Complete Works of Alexander Pope, which has the longest, densest introduction, good grief; and How to Rap?, a great book full of interviews with over a hundred rappers. The scheme chart, though, is from Rapping Manual. How to Rap uses big tables, super informative but unwieldy.