With tomorrow marking the release of Aesop Rock’s new album , “The Impossible Kid”, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about lyricism in HipHop and the role it plays in how I assess rappers. I also spent some time this week discussing with friends the excellent study by Matt Daniels, in which he analysed the bodies of work by a large number of well known rappers, and graphically represented their relative lexicographical strength for all to see.
I then considered weather variety of words is as important as optimal selection, with rappers like J. Cole and Yelawolf being favorites of mine. I feel they are both very lyrical rappers, but they don’t use exotic or unusual vocabulary, they just find the ideal phrasing to conjure an image or a feeling. If you take a song like Cole’s hit “Wet Dreams” he doesn’t use any complex word play or showy patterns, he just perfectly depicts teenage romance in a way which we can all relate to, and it’s undeniably a brilliant piece of uncomplicated lyricism.
In contrast I also really enjoy the verbal acrobatics and technical prowess of someone like Chino XL, R.A. the Rugged Man or Tech N9ne, with their work often being hugely impressive, built around complex rhyme patterns, clever double meanings and very intricate word play.
It is my opinion that a truly great lyricist combines all these traits, striking a balance between being relate-able, but also poetic and challenging their listeners. I have compiled a list below of five rappers who are my favorite lyricists. It is by no means a perfect list and I don’t wish to offend anyone if I have any choices you don’t agree with. It is always tricky putting a list like this together and hopefully it may help you discover a few new artists you didn’t know, or think differently about what great lyricism means to you.
Sadistik – “Petrichor” taken from the album “Flowers for my Father”
Sadistik is a Seattle based underground rapper, who doesn’t often concern himself with trivial subject matter. The album “Flowers for my Father”, from which the above track is taken, was written in the aftermath of the deaths of his father and best friend, and focuses on him trying to process the events emotionally, it’s far from upbeat but it is stunningly beautiful and you can’t help but feel his pain.
Aesop Rock “Ruby ’81” taken from the album “Skelethon”
Aesop Rock is a known lyrical beast, and critics favorite, there isn’t much to say that hasn’t already been said. His style is generally full of references to very obscure pop-culture, metaphors, and various other clever distractions; and often I find a new album of his takes me 20 or 30 plays before I can piece together the true meaning of songs. With that said, the above song is one of his more straightforward and I think one of his most powerful.
Killer Mike “Untitled” taken from the album R.A.P Music
Killer Mike’s lyrical brilliance is clear, with his witty, politically charged raps making him one of the most recognised rappers in the game, but it is even more notable once you look into his recording process. The usual lyrical process for rappers of refining and crafting a verse over hours and hours doesn’t appeal to him, he will have a clear idea in mind, and just go for it. El-P (Mike’s band mate in Run the Jewels, and the sole producer on R.A.P Music) stated in an interview that Mike freestyled “Untitled” which speaks volumes for the intelligence of the man. To be able to describe a feeling as complex as the fear of leaving your wife with no provider should you die before her, and to do so eloquently and beautifully with nothing more than a single thought is a powerful thing.
Eyedea “Even Shadows Have Shadows”
Eyedea is the best friend of Sadistik who’s death I mentioned earlier, and was truly worthy of being labeled a genius. He wrote the above song aged 19, and at such a young age he understood his own mental state better than most. He also articulates it brilliantly and I find this song helps me empathise more with some of my friends who have suffered with mental illness and depression. He has a huge catalog, and despite passing away in 2010 new material is still being discovered, with Sadistik having started with a recording he found of an Eyedea verse and engineered a song around it for the brilliant “Chemical Burns”.
Vinnie Paz “You Cannot be Neutral on a Moving Train” taken from the album God of the Serengeti
Vinnie Paz is a lyricist who is capable of brilliance, but also more than capable of generic “I’m a better rapper than you….” themed nonsense. However when he is on form he is one of the best in the game. He is known to have a passion for conspiracy, and exposing mis-taught histories, and some of his best work is centered around educating his listeners to these injustices. In this respect he reminds me of the great teacher KRS-One of Boogie Down Productions, who had an entire album exposing historical and political lies entitled Edutainment.