Ever wonder how artists like Kendrick Lamar and J Cole come up with so many hits? Wish that you could write a rap with substance and tact? While the best artists today have spent years perfecting their craft, the recipe to create a great rap song is quite easy.
It all starts with emotion
Whatever you want the subject of your song to be, it is nothing without emotion. The first thing you need to do is determine the way you want someone to feel when they hear your song. In order to convey this you need to feel the emotion during the writing process. One of the best ways to do this is to write you are have a strong feeling. If you begin writing while in the midst of intense emotion, it should give you a guide for the rest of the song to follow.
Beat, beat, beat
One of the most important parts of any good rap song is the beat. It determines your pace and guides your tone. The beat is the conductor and the emcee is the orchestra. If you don’t pick the right beat, the song will not turn out the way you want to. Once you have found the emotion you are going to use, look for a beat that heightens those senses. The beat is what will carry the song, giving you the freedom to really play with your words.
You are getting closer to putting pen to paper but we aren’t there yet. The next step is to let loose some of the pent up emotion. Play the beat through and freestyle. Don’t worry if it makes senses. Don’t try to force anything. Just see what comes out. Typically you will find that you come up with a direction for your song within the first 90 seconds. Even then stay with it. Don’t stop the freestyle until the beat ends. Jot down any ideas or lines that you have. Then replay the beat and do it again. The second time through try to work in any of the ideas you liked from your first run through. Play with cadence and subject direction but again, try not to force anything. This part of the process is all about the flow of idea. Trying to find whatever you feel is a good topic for your song. Continue freestyling and writing down ideas until you feel like you have something you want to take on to the next step.
Once you are committed to your emotion and your subject it’s time to write your lines. Start writing your first verse one bar at a time. Once you have a bar down work it back through and write your next few lines. Try and keep it natural. If you get caught up, go back through what you already have. Plug and play until you find what works then move on. This part is still about ideas so don’t worry too much about lengthy lines or questionable rhymes schemes, we will work on that later. Just focus on the story you are trying to tell with the verses. What do you to leave the listener with at the end of each verse or the end of the song?
Once you’ve got your message or narrative down, you need to tie it all together with a hook. This is often the part that catches the listener’s attention so it is important that this really captures the essence of your song. Run through the song and each time you finish a verse try out a hook that you think will work. If you try to force it your listener will know, so keep working until you come up with something natural. Make sure that it make sure that it is able to follow one verse and lead into another.
Clean it up
Now that you have your first draft written down its time to clean it up. Run through the song looking for spots that don’t make sense or use weak rhymes. Work through trying to find something that is a better fit. Often times this just involves finding a good synonym for a word. A thesaurus is a rappers best friend. The genre gives you room to be abstract, but if it’s to over the top most listeners will not understand. This is why it is important to find the words that best fit rhyme and meaning.
Finally it’s time to add the trimmings. Cadence is one of the most important aspects of a rap. Being able to go from smooth lines to cops with lots of word play and substance is one of the most challenging techniques to master. It requires time and patience. Often it’s about knowing when to add a ‘the’ or an ‘and’ or breaking up a word to give it an extra syllable or two. This may read funny on the page but when you try it in practice you should be able to tell whether or not it works. It’s also important to recognize when a line is trying too hard to reach an unrealistic word count. This should be easy to determine as it will sound forced and you will often miss you cues for the next line. When that happens try out the line a few time to see if you can’t smooth it out. Sometimes all you need is a little bit of tongue training, but if you don’t get it after a few takes you will probably need to try something else.
From here it’s all about finding what you like. Run through the song over and over. Make sure that it all makes sense and you are happy with the message you are putting out. Play with cadence and pace. You may find as you run through it a few times that it sounds better if you slowdown in certain areas or speed up in others. This part of the process is all about finding what you are comfortable with. Once you have something you like, continue to run through it every few days. You may find that there are certain things that work better once you come back to the work. Don’t get too attached to the original. It is good to make changes to the songs as you find what works best. Once you are happy with everything you are ready to record.
Thomas Joa is a songwriter from Madison Alabama who has written over 500 songs. He has recorded 2 studio albums at Martina McBride’s Blackbird studios in Nashville Tennessee.
[Feature Image: Thomas Joa]