Many of us tune into a specific playlist when we write. This soundtrack helps the mind weave words into meaningful clusters of thought. For some writers, it’s a classical selection of Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach. Others lean into soothing lo-fi and jazz.
Me? I blasted J. Cole on my headphones as I wrote my master’s thesis.
Hip-hop has been in my ear since the sixth grade, back when Nelly was topping the charts and Baby Keem was a toddler. I blame Eminem for starting it all: “Lose Yourself” was a morning routine along with breakfast and academic lethargy. When I got to college, I had T.I. telling me to live my life and Drake hooking me on “Forever.” (My high school hip hop presence was John Cena. Don’t ask.)
Now, I’m a grizzled professional still listening to rhymes and beats. After all these years as an ardent rap fan, I realize that this genre is not just background music to me. Far from being banal Spotify stimuli, the art of rap directly influences another one of my passions: writing.
So now, I’m putting together a mixtape of advice for my fellow writers. In this piece, I’ll be breaking down how rap music can revitalize your writing. Whether your affinity for rap is limited to Ludacris’ verse on “Baby,” or you’re a true aficionado waiting for Dr. Dre to drop “Detox,” you can find rhyme and reason in these writing tips. At their core, rappers are writers themselves, so we can learn a thing or two about what they do, ya dig?
So now … like the late, great Big L, let me put it on.
“To me, he’s gotta be the best songwriter of all time. Because he writes those songs in his head. He doesn’t have a rap folder like everybody else does. His rap folder is in his head.”–Bradley “Scarface” Jordan on Jay-Z
Ever seen an emcee spit a verse while a radio host barked out random words? As if producing rhythmic lines on the spot wasn’t difficult enough, the emcee has to incorporate said random words into those lines as well. I can’t fathom how these rappers’ brains function, but I do know that this is called freestyle.
Or, at least, this is what “freestyle” means nowadays. In the early days of the rap genre, “freestyle” actually referred to something different. In his 2003 book There’s a God on the Mic, rap pioneer Kool Moe Dee stated that, in decades past, freestyling “was about how hard you could come with a written rhyme with no particular subject matter and no real purpose other than showing your lyrical prowess.”
This OG definition of freestyle is reminiscent of a basic writing strategy: when you start to write, just let your thoughts flow freely. As you begin a new composition, allow your mind to spontaneously generate words, phrases, and connections. You might miss out on some brilliant ideas if you keep inhibiting your thought process and overthink how to achieve greatness.
If we go by the contemporary definition of freestyle (that is, going off the top of the head), there’s not much room for inhibition, either. A 2012 study reported that there is less activity in the brain regions responsible for supervision and editing when a rapper is freestyling. The study also suggests that the same happens during other creative activities.
Translation: regulate your inner regulator. Though self-editing brings order to your stream of thoughts when you write, know when to activate it and when to turn off the switch. Don’t be afraid to freestyle, especially when you’re in the drafting stage. Like Black Thought blasting off the mic on Hot 97, your writing will come across as fresh, natural, and powerful when you go off the dome.
“Now who’s the king of these rude, ludicrous, lucrative lyrics?/Who can inherit the title, put the youth in hysterics/Using his music to steer it, sharing his views and his merits?”–Eminem
You had to read that aloud, huh?
It’s probably because, whether you’re mentally reciting them or actually rolling them off your tongue, those words sound so damn good.
Rap is, simply put, an alter ego of poetry, which means that the defining quality of Eminem’s verse is also that of a Shakespearean sonnet: pleasing to the ears.
There are many classic ways by which superior sound can be achieved in a rap song. Listen to the rhythm and multisyllabic patterns of Rakim on “I Ain’t No Joke.” Or the internal rhymes of The Notorious B.I.G. on “Hypnotize.” Or even the epiphora in that 21 Savage song (How many times did he say “a lot?” A lot.)
It might seem awkward to apply these sound devices to non-literary articles and books. But once you try it, you’ll find that there are practical advantages. As former radio announcer Robert F. Abbott puts it: “If we can capture some of the nuances of the spoken word, we can increase the power of our messages. When we write for the ear, our writing undergoes some subtle but important changes.”
On the one hand, you can employ the sound devices shared by rap and poetry. Get that internal rhyme inside your article title, and string multiple words in a sentence with alliteration and assonance. On the other hand, good ol’ grammar hacks can achieve the same aural effect. Abbott suggests the use of commas, colons, and semicolons; shorter sentences; commonplace words; and active verbs.
If your writing sounds good inside the reader’s mind, they’ll appreciate what you have to say. Who wants to read a long-winded article that may as well be nails on a chalkboard? Maybe try letting your writing sound like Snoop Dogg reading a slightly tweaked version of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
“Read slowly and you’ll find gold mines in these lines….”–Kendrick Lamar
We do need to bust some myths, though. You see, poetry is often misconstrued as just a bunch of lines with rhyming words in the end. And sometimes, we place rap music in the same box. As long as there is an end rhyme, it’s a good rap song, right?
Well, we have to drop this misconception like it’s hot. For one, not all forms of poetry adhere to the traditional conventions of rhyme. More importantly: Beyond their beautiful sound, rap and poetry are defined by their depth of meaning packed in so few words.
In the rap game, lines with multiple layers of substance are called bars. These are the most memorable passages in a song—the type that goes on your Instagram caption.
For me, the golden standard of hip hop bars is Nas’ 1994 album Illmatic. This critically acclaimed project is packed with nuggets that offer philosophical depth (“I never sleep, ‘cuz Sleep is the cousin of Death”); practical advice (“That buck that bought a bottle could’ve struck the lotto”); and unmatched confidence (“Nas is like the Afrocentric Asian: half-man, half amazing”).
We can draw two insights from the art of bars. First, if rappers can pack a wallop in short fashion, why can’t writers do the same? We have whole paragraphs at our disposal, so this much is clear: waste not, want not. Make every word mean something to the main thought of the sentence.
Aside from careful word choice, another strategy for concise writing is figurative language. If the guidelines (and editor) permit it, we can go beyond the literal level of meaning every now and then. Figures of speech can efficiently (and creatively) convey our ideas, thereby reducing the word count and brain processing time.
Look up the lyrics to classic rap records, and you’ll see this crisp impact. You have LL Cool J’s similes (“Making the tears rain down like a monsoon”), Lil Wayne’s puns (“I don’t owe you like two vowels”), and Andre 3000’s hyperbole (“I apologize a trillion times/I’m sorry, Ms. Jackson”).
On that note, our writing should not only be succinct; it should also be memorable. Certainly, we can achieve this with powerful diction and rhetorical devices. But, at the end of the day, we have to review our composition and ask ourselves: What am I trying to say? Am I just spewing varnished gibberish, or am I attempting to relay a message that matters to my readers?
Remember: every genre of art—writing, rapping, and so on—enables humans to share stories, emotions, and experiences. When you can compose works that communicate wisdom for the ages … well, you can safely say that you got bars, homie.
Now, if I had to round up my favorite bars of all time, this one would rank high up on the list:
“You know it’s funny, when it rains it pours/they got money for wars, but can’t feed the poor”
Imagine rhyming a cliche with scathing social criticism. Who dropped this gem? None other than the king himself.
Widely considered the greatest rapper in history, Tupac Shakur blessed the world with his unmatched passion and fearless story-telling. Though many rap legends have emerged since his untimely death in 1996, Pac remains the most iconic of them all.
Why, you ask? Because Tupac, a gifted freestyler and unrelenting activist, was uninhibited in his self-expression. Tupac mastered poetic sound, evoking every emotion known to humanity, and unraveled the wisdom of the world in the precious little space of his lines.
In other words: Rap is Tupac, and Tupac is rap.
So the next time you begin a composition, pull up a Pac song and pump up the volume. As the catchy beat conquers the airwaves, let loose and drop a little freestyle. Throw all inhibition and overthinking out the window, and allow your thoughts to spontaneously find their way into your draft.
As you continue to nod your head to the beat, create a captivating rhythm by inserting rhyme, alliteration, and other sound devices. The finishing touch: lay those unforgettable bars in your composition’s beginning, middle, and end.
Having ramped up your writing with the rudiments of rap, go ahead and sing the hook out loud.
Keep ya head up (oh child, things are gonna get easier)
Keep ya head up (oh child, things’ll get brighter…)
Simoun Redoblado is a father, husband, teacher, and school administrator. In 2012, he earned his bachelor's degree in secondary education (major in English) from the University of the Philippines. That same year, he took the licensure examination for secondary teachers, and made it to the list of topnotchers. In his spare time, Simoun reads hip hop as poetry (with Tupac as Dante and Eminem as Shakespeare). He is also an avid hoops fan who believes that life is a game of basketball - sometimes, the assists are more awesome than the dunks.