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A Source for the Perfect Rhyme? Sorry, there’s no easy solution

Rhyming is devilishly difficult. It’s a serious head-scratcher, as people who write poems, lyrics and rap well know. If you find a word that rhymes you might lose the meaning of the line, or it might just be too obvious, or too simple, or too obscure, or too angry or too…something or other. In short, you gain the word and lose the flow. I confirmed this when I tried to find a way to make it easier – unsuccessfully.

I write poems but I’m nowhere near as prolific as Brian Bilston, who seems to be able to write poems non-stop about every subject under the sun. But what gets me about him is the way he is able to make lines rhyme, even when expressing even the most quirky, individualistic ideas. When you read his latest work, Diary of a Somebody, a novel in the form of a diary for a year, with a poem for every day, you can see that the free form poems are just as good as the ones that have rhyme schemes. For rappers and hip-hoppers it gets even more difficult because of the rhythm.

Flow in hip-hop

For those readers who are not into the rap/hip-hop scene, “flow” in rapping is the rhythms and rhymes of a hip-hop song’s lyrics, and how they interact. Flow consists of coordinated and integrated rhyming, rhyme schemes, rhythm (also known as cadence), and delivery (pitch, timbre, volume – in other words, the emotion) as well. The catch to all this is that the lyrics have to stay on the beat. And this might be boring to cool people who just want to be famous hip-hop artists or rappers, but fact is you need to be able to work with concepts like syllables and metrical structure, you need to know your bars from your beats, and you need a massive vocabulary to get the rhymes.

If you go back to the lyrics of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind, which was written by a team of seven (!) including Alicia J. Augello-Cook (Alicia Keys) and Shawn Corey Carter (Jay-Z), you’ll see that not only does it use end/tail rhymes but internal rhymes and every other rhyme form, single, double and dactylic, etc., combined with slang and New York dialect. It’s actually fiendishly complicated.

Lend an ear to the artists featured on LL Cool J’s classic hip-hop channel called LL Cool J’s Rock The Bells Radio, which launched on Sirius XM on March 28, 2018, and you’ll examples of just how good at this some artists are.

How do you get a massive vocabulary?

  • By reading, reading, reading. (People learn the different forms of a language at more or less the same time, but often achieve fluency first in reading, then speaking, in other words by first recognizing the letter, then saying it. The more you read, the better your vocab will be.
  • By reading above and beyond your level of comfort or comprehension so that you have to look up the occasional word.
  • By listening to and learning from really talented lyricists and poets. Don’t just listen to the music, read and study the lyrics.
  • By not using an automatic spell-checker but your own brain, and a dictionary, so that you learn the words and they stay in your head.
  • By playing word games such as crossword puzzles, Scrabble, Hangman, Pictionary, Balderdash etc. (I use my time on the train for this. Some people do Sudoku, I do crosswords.)
  • By taking part in battle rap or spoken poetry competitions to learn to think on your feet – so that the words start to flow more easily.
  • By learning how words get made and what you can do with them, for instance turning a noun into a verb, or a verb into an adverb, etc. because it’s the word endings that matter more in rhyme than the word starts. Ever watched the comedians on Whose Line Is It Anyway make up lyrics to a tune right on the spot? Sheer genius.

For instance – here’s what you can do to a simple word like “wine” (apart from the 800+ potential rhyming words):

  • wine – wining (noun into verb)
  • wining – wined (present continuous into past tense)
  • wined – whined (verb into homophone verb – same sound, different meaning)
  • whined – whinged (verb into synonym verb)
  • wine – winey (verb to adjective)
  • wine – vinous (noun to adjective or adverb)

Or, big – bigly? It’s grammatically correct, like large – largely, but just not established usage. Call it creative.

What does a published poet do?

You are trying to express an idea or a feeling, or tell a story, but, in the end, you’ve got to have flow, baby, you’ve got to have flow. I suspected as much, and this was confirmed by Brian Bilston when I asked him on Facebook:

Brian Bilston and Cat (The Times, UK, June 7, 2019)
  • SevenCircumstances: I have a technical question for you: sometimes I really get stuck trying to find a word that rhymes and I use a rhyming dictionary. But I have to say, the ones I’ve used are not very good, though they help me get over my mental blocks. Tell me, do you ever use a rhyming dictionary, and if so, which one? Or is your vocabulary just simply ginormous and you never have a word shortage?
  • Brian Bilston  “I’m afraid I don’t use a rhyming dictionary. I could probably do with one, though, as it does mean staring into the mid-distance for long periods, running through words in my head – often with little result.”

So there’s the bad news for all us Aspiring Poets and Rappers out there. There’s no easy solution. Even if that online rhyming dictionary gives you hundreds of rhymes or near rhymes in one-, two- or three-syllable words, you still need to get one to work in the line. And chances are, it won’t easily, if you’re being original. If Brian Bilston doesn’t have a rhyming dictionary that is good enough for his use, then he, and I and all of us are indeed going to spend long moments staring into the mid-distance and keep building those vocabularies in our heads.

A Walking Hip-Hop Thesaurus

Andy Cooper of Ugly Duckling and The Allergies

There is one lyricist/rapper who seems to also have been born with a Silver Tongue and is the proverbial Walking Thesaurus, the extremely accomplished Andy Cooper, who often features on songs and albums by The Allergies. When, like me, you have their songs on repeat on your iphone, even when you’re skiing, every word eventually gets taken in, rummaged through and pulled apart, and every sloppy line, weird break and bad flow gets to look really BIG and BAD.  Not his stuff though:

This is a review of his 2018 album, The Layered Effect:

“For Andy, rap is a noble form. He’s a wordsmith extraordinaire, snappy and audacious, tipping his hat ‘to all the microphoners who still bring that dedication and expertise to their craft’ and choosing to work with equally rapid sparring partners like Blabbermouf and MC Abdominal. Ownership of the genre is a constant theme throughout the LP. Like a contact sport, you punch and fight your way to the mic and once there ‘no one can take it from me’. Reverance is constantly being paid to the dons that went before, overtly Rick Rubin & the Def Jam crew, but covertly the Reggae sound systems and jazzers of old.

    Not a sloppy note or shabby rhyme here. It’s an album that pops and fizzes with quirky beats and funky rhythms from start to finish.”

(Ryan Martin, Jammerzine Exclusive: An Interview With Andy Cooper, Jammerzine.com, Jan. 9, 2018)

To give credit where credit is due – he is brilliant at what he does. Here is a link to him rapping in an Allergies video. (He’s not bad looking either, and with nice crisp enunciation.) Below are the words by Cooper, who’s also lead vocals and keyboards, Adam Volson and Roy Spencer, to the wicked social critique called “It Won’t Be Me”, from The Allergies’ 2017 album, Push On. My favourite lines are: “And so I / Say whatever you want to hear / ‘Cause we do better when I’m insincere.” Alriiiight! (like Matthew McConaughey growls in Dazed and Confused). 

Breaking down It Won’t Be Me

It Won’t Be Me

And now ladies and gentlemen
What you’ve all been waiting for
Whoo!
Come on, come on, come on
Hey! Check it out now

[Verse 1]
Oh dear, here we go again
He’s walking over to me like I’m a no-friend

So I call out his name and shake hands
But I’m already crafting my escape plans

‘Cause this cat’s looking to start an argument
And he’ll be determined to make me a part of it

Some folks aren’t happy without conflicts
But I’m not in the mood to suffer through nonsense

When he’s speaking his words
He just seeks to perturb
To the point that it tweaks every nerve

But you can’t be direct ’cause he might get upset
So you learn to discern and deflect

See I just wanna make this conversation end
If it gets him off my back you know I’m happy to pretend

[Refrain]

And so I
Say whatever you want to hear
‘Cause we do better when I’m insincere

Now you might find someone to provoke
And poke until they’re ready to choke

But it won’t be me, nah
Said it won’t be me, nah
I gotta go!
Won’t be me

[Verse 2]

“Mister Cynical” loves to get clinical
Dragging you into a fight that’s unwinnable

He’s a grand antagonist
Pulling out loose chat from his bag of tricks

There’s no doubt he wants to spread venom
And if you get caught in his web you gotta let him

But the trick is to minimize static
It’s all about tact and being pragmatic

When he talks I’m-a wait for a pause or a break
Check my watch, dry to dodge all the hate

Look he’s trying to prod, but I smile and I nod
Hey, I won’t deny, I’m a fraud

They say you shouldn’t lie and I don’t disagree
But if you can’t hear the truth then what’s the use of honesty?

[Refrain]

And so I
Say whatever you want to hear
‘Cause we do better when I’m insincere

Now you might troll some horrible soul
That you can drag into your black hole
But it won’t be me, nah
Said it won’t be me, nah
It won’t be me
It won’t be me (Not today)
It won’t be me (You better learn)
It won’t be me

 

1 comment on “A Source for the Perfect Rhyme? Sorry, there’s no easy solution

  1. This was an awesome breakdown and I am soooo glad someone else sees how important rhyme scheme and delivery is. It really is tough to write in flowing forms, but it’s so worth it once you create a piece that you are happy to present to others

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