Journalist Estelle Caswell is a big fan of rap music, and in this video she made for Vox she and "rap scholar" Martin Connor take a look at some of the finest rhymers that have ever existed, and find out what makes their flow so special.
"When I say the word 'flow', it means the rhythmic structure that arises in a rap from the interaction between the rapper’s words and the strictly musical rhythms of those words." Connor writes in his The Rapper's Flow Encyclopedia. "That is, the rapper’s words will always inform how we understand the rhythms of any rapper’s raps."
In the video, "Rapping, deconstructed: The best rhymers of all time," Caswell and Connor argue that rappers are not only evolving but that the rhyming in rap music has been getting better over the years. They show this by looking over the rhymes of MF Doom, Kendrick Lamar, Notorious B.I.G., Rakim, and others and breaking down how they match lyric with beat.
Before they start picking apart the dense and lyrical rhymes though they look at what makes up a beat and a bar—looking at how the emcee Rakim came along in the 80s and shook things up with regards to wordplay, puns, and complexity.
Not only did he up the game in terms of putting more rhymes in, Caswell notes, but he was also layering in different types of rhymes too.
When you listen to a rap song, like most popular music, you probably don't overanalyze its internal structure. Not unless you're a Dylanologist or something, so it's fascinating to get this kind of insight into the underlying complexities of your favorite rappers and the way they rap.