How to review lyrics like poetry: Answers

Test yourself with Tread Water 

Back to main poetry and lyrics review index.

Animation by Alexandra Lorens, published on YouTube, July 7, 2014

If you read the full lyrics here, then this is how the analysis pans out:

Step 1: Identify the meter

Going back to the section on meter, an x stands for an unstressed syllable, and a / stands for a stressed syllable.

  1. Ix wasx wal/ kingx onx thex wa/terx [xx/x xx/x] – dimetric tertius paeon
  2. whenx Ix saw/ ax crox cox dile/ [xx/x xx/] – tertius paeon, anapest
  3. Hex hadx dai/siesx inx hisx hat, [xx/x xx/] – tertius paeon, anapest
  4. Sox Ix stopped/ himx forx ax while/ [xx/x xx/] – tertius paeon, anapest
  1. Hex dexliv/eredx mex ax mess/agex, [xx/x xx/x] – dimetric tertius paeon
  2. ax masxsage/ tox soothe/ myx stage/ [xx/ xxx/]- anapest + quartus paeon
  3. Whatx itx was/, wasx morex thanx plug/-upsx [xx/ xxx/x] anapest + quartus paeon (+ 1 syllable cola?)
  4. Dosxagex more/ thanx DAIxSYx age/ [xx/x xx/]- tertius paeon + anapest
  1. Conxverxsa/tionx drewx ax rule/ [xx/x xx/] – tertius paeon + anapest
  2. Whichx thex crowd/ willx roarx byx mill/ionsx [xx/ xxx/x]- anapest + quartus paeon (+ 1 syllable cola)
  3. Misxterx Cro/coxdilex saidx, ‘Dove/, [xx /xx x/] phyrric + dactyl + iamb
  4. youx mustx look/ Forx nowx thex vill/ainsx [xx/ xxx/x] – anapest + quartus paeon (+ 1 syllable cola?)
  5. tryx tox hold/ youx unxderxwa/terx [xx/x xx/x] – dimetric quartus paeon
  1. Butx onex thing/ wex allx mustx heed/ [xx/x xx/] – tertius paeon + anapest
  2. Soxnyx Walk/mansx keepx usx wal/kingx [xx/x xx/x] – dimetric tertius paeon
  3. Dex Lax Soul/ canx helpx youx breathe/ [xx/x xx/] – tertius paeon + anapest
  4. whenx youx treadx wa/terx [xxx/x] – quartus paeon (+ 1 syllable cola?)

[“D.A.I.S.Y. Age” an acronym standing for “da inner sound, y’all”]

So what you can say about Tread Water is that is uses the classical formal Greek and Latin forms of three- and four-foot meter, the tertius paeon and quartus paeon, combined in some of the verses with the antibacchius, a rare metrical foot used in formal poetry.

What this results in is long lines, with multiple feet, to accommodate full sentences and long, multi-syllable words. Basically, the use of multiples of 4 syllable phrases means that the lyrics are made to fit into the typical 4/4 or 8/8 beat of Hip-hop.

When they want to emphasize a line, they changed it to a five-syllable foot, like a quartus paeon with an extra syllable on the end (“when you tread water”). Occasionally, to match a syncopated beat, they reverse the pattern and begin a line with a five-syllable foot, followed by an iamb: “Mister Crocodile said, ‘Dove”.

In fact, that is so rare I couldn’t even figure out what to call it. Perhaps just: anapest + quartus paeon + 1 syllable cola; a cola being a one-syllable hang-on. The 8-syllable combo in one line is strictly speaking, an octosyllable or octosyllabic verse. Its first occurrence is in a 10th-century  French saint’s legend, the Vie de Saint Leger. Another early use is in the early 12th-century Anglo-Norman Voyage de saint Brendan. It is often used in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese poetry.

In Spanish verse, an octosyllable is a line that has its seventh syllable stressed – exactly like in Tread Water (xx/ xxx/x), on the principle that this would normally be the penultimate syllable of a word – “plug-ups”, “millions” and “villains”. If the final word of a line does not fit this pattern, the line could have eight or seven or nine syllables. Interesting then that the octosyllabic form used in Tread Water is both old, and not originally an English device.

De La Soul’s take on their rhyming

Did the song writers, David Jude Jolicouer (a.k.a. Trugoy the Dove/Plug 2), Paul Huston, V. Keith Mason (a.k.a. Vincent Mason / Maseo / PA Pasemaster Mase) and Kelvin Mercer (a.k.a. Posdnous/Plug 1) know this is what they were doing?


Artist Profile: De La Soul (Source: Hip Hop Golden Age)

In an interview De La Soul said this about the song:

Were you guys ever embarrassed by anything you put onto a record? Was anything too personal or too silly, in retrospect?
Pos [Kelvin Mercer]: For me, songs are like that, too. It’s like, I can listen to a song, and I can’t believe I actually worded sentences like that. Or I even wanted to rhyme or whatever. Because the way you are now can change, but then you do realize that for that song back then, it was what it was. But there’s a bunch of songs that I can’t believe we did.
Like what?
Pos: “Tread Water.” I hate that shit. “Tread Water” is disgusting.
Dave [David Jude Jolicouer]: I like “Tread Water.”
Pos: “Tread Water” is disgusting. Um, there’s something else I hate. I don’t really like “Potholes [in My Lawn].” It never really came out the way it was supposed to. “Breakadawn,” blech. Three days later it was like, “Hey, hey, hey…”
Dave: “Breakadawn,” yeah, that’s my record, too. I hate that shit.
Dave: Yeah. It’s like, some songs you jump on. Some songs you feel like, “Oh, I got to do this. I got to write this.” I never felt enthused about “Breakadawn,” never felt like I had to do this record, like I was into sitting down and writing for it. It just didn’t feel like a song I wanted to write for. 

So, whether they intended to or not, De La Soul was old-school “classical” in their lyrics for this song.

A rupture in the flow

The interesting this is, in this old-school Hip-hop song, they have a typical 8/8 beat, with a “rupture” in the 2nd verse. Hip-hop basically started by deejays creating songs by repeating and building up the basic rhythm and then splicing in sampled tracks (in this case, People’s Choice, I likes to do it).

Hip-hop songs are constructed through the “repetition and reconfigurance of rhythmic patterns and movements between such patterns via breaks and points of musical rupture.” Richard L. Schur, in Parodies of ownership: Hip-hop Aesthetics and Intellectual Property Ownership explains that “while the idea of the break, the moment when the drummers and bassists briefly improvise or solo, has long been a part of music, it took early Hip-hop deejays to repeat these moments and transform them into songs in their own right.” [Part of Hip-hop’s innovation has been the shifting of rhythmic, base and percussion tracks in the middle of a song, called ‘the rupture’ as cultural analyst Prof. Tricia Rose calls it.]

By identifying, sampling, and repeating funky bass and drum tracks, the driving rhythm of Hip-hop was born. The ‘flow’ or rhythm of Hip-hop was essentially repetitious because only the best sections of music were repeated. While Hip-hop does not offer a uniform beat that all songs share, it does contain a fairly unique attitude toward repeated, rhythmic patterns. The idea that African American music is rhythmically oriented has been long assumed, [however] rhythm is not a natural element of African American music, but one that has been nurtured and constructed over time.

The roots of Hip-hop

The rhythmic patterns that underlie Hip-hop in its many forms, are not simply retentions or ‘holdovers’ from African musical culture, but a product of particular choices made by artists at distinct historical moments. In short, Hip-hop both presents a rock-steady rhythm and the lyrics to match it beat for beat, but also interrupts the flow and deconstructs it by stopping or modifying the beat” This is demonstrated by the unlikely anapest + quartus paeon + cola combination that pops up every so often in the song.

Jazz or Blues compositions are carefully constructed to both maintain and rhythm and deviate from it, building in syncopation, and layered beats (polyphonic improvisation), making it (at its most developed level, for instance Modal Jazz) hard to listen to and appreciate. Jazz and the blues rhythms and riffs are often found – or sampled – in Hip-hop, and in the case of De La Soul, reviewers often comment on their use of long jazz solos and solo instrument features, giving their music a recognizable legitimacy.

So, for this classical Hip-hop/rap album and song, De La Soul went back to the roots of the Hip-hop movement – actually they were part of the formation of Hip-hop – and in doing so, created complex, multi-layered music that has stood the test of time. The rhythms are intricate and unusual, and so are the lyrics. This means that, unlike many current Hip-hop or rap hits where the rhythm is simple and repetitive, there is hardly any melody and there is a low word-count in the lyrics, this is music you won’t be getting tired of in a hurry. Add to this their complex rhyming schemes, using multisyllabic rhyme (“a crocodile”, “a while”; “soothe my stage”, “DAISY age”) to get flow, then you can consider this particular song – and most of their other compositions – as typical of complex and advanced rapping which will have a long shelf life.

How simple can the lyrics get?

My theory of music appreciation goes that the simpler it is, the fewer notes it uses, the fewer and simpler the words, the more it will appeal to the listener’s primal brain – their basic instincts. Like any single superstimulus or super-normal stimuli, an intense sound, color or sensation or social cue will act on the human brain like a stimulant or drug. But the impact will eventually make the person unreceptive to more subtle, normal, or range of stimuli. If you are used to listening to the tuneless thumping beats and repeated, simplistic babys and yeahs and loves of some songs, then classical music, jazz, and even classic Hip-hop will sound unimpressive by comparison. So, to a certain degree, complexity or depth is a test for the longevity of a song – as far as I am concerned.

Reports indicate that pop lyrics are getting dumber and dumber over the past decade, losing sophistication, according to Andrew Powell-morse of SeatSmart. He analyzed 225 songs that had spent at least three weeks on the billboard charts, and found that in 2005-2006, an eight or nine-year old might have had trouble with some pop lyrics, but with 2014 lyrics the level of required understanding dropped to seven or eight-year olds. Strangely he found that R&B/Hip-hop came out with the lowest required reading level. Strange. Perhaps it was the choice of songs. Maybe Billboard hits ARE actually dumbed down for consumption by the masses. Read the whole report here – but I really do believe it depends on the writer and the song.

I am sometimes amazed at how many key changes and complicated harmonies the songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons have, and everyone knows by know how fiendishly complicated some Beatles songs are. I had initially thought that this criterion could not apply to Hip-hop or rap since often songs are too fast, too loud or too mumbled for me to hear the lyrics. But it turns out I was wrong for the most part – at least as it applies to the spoken word poetry a.k.a. rap.

The way to check how complex a text is, or to find out for readers at which level of education it was written for, you do a readability analysis. (check it out – it is part of the spell and grammar-check in Microsoft Word.) Tread Water has a Gunning-Fog index of 9.4, meaning that a person with 9.4 years of (US) education would understand the text on a first reading. So De La Soul obviously expects that their listeners would have something like junior high or high school education. They see them as sophisticated, with high school education. (Well, so are the members of the band.) Compare that to the lyrics of Britney Spear’s Oops, I Did It Again, and you’ll see it has a Gunning-Fog index of 6.5 – a considerably lower level. In fact it only has 184 (non-repeated) words, whereas Tread Water has 544. Katy Perry’s pop hit, Part Of Me, has a Gunning-Fog rating of 4.8, and only 201 words. So it’s really simple, and that may be true of many pop hits.

But to take it to the opposite extreme, Jay-Z’s Girls, Girls, Girls, from his acclaimed album, The Blueprint (apparently one of his best albums and one of the greatest Hip-hop albums of all time), has a Gunning-Fog score of a whopping 38.4, with 850 words. Seriously. I counted. It is in English, with Spanish and French phrases, and is literally packed with cultural references and abstract metaphors that take some untangling. By comparison, De La Soul’s Tread Water is a subtle bit of fun, not a hammer-blow to the head like Girls, Girls, Girls. But word count and grammatical complexity to is only one criterion of lyrics.

Step 2: Identify the rhyme scheme

In terms of the lyrics only in Tread Water, all of the verses except 1 uses a ABCB format, rhyming every 2nd line in simple 4-line verses, called the simple 4-line rhyming scheme, which is almost as typical as your standard country song. Except for the 3rd verse, which is not only 5 lines, but also contains run-on lines, which means that the line ends in a “cola” or single syllable.  The song uses mostly

Step 3: Identify the verses or stanzas

The rhyme scheme, mostly ABCB, is a simple 4-line form, with masculine or hard rhyme scheme with some slant rhyme of alliteration and consonance that occurs within the lines.

Step 4: Put it all together

These lyrics are from the œuvre of the group De La Soul who were, at the time, novices, but the lyrics appear to be professionally written.

While the lyrics are not current, they represent the information age of the late 1908s with themes of optimism, pacifism and collaboration.

The sub-theme is De La Soul’s D.A.I.S.Y. Age. “D.A.I.S.Y Age” referred to in the song, means “Da inner sound, y’all” – De la Soul promotes living by your own inner compass and not being fazed by others who place obstacles in your path. When faced with opposition, ask for help and wait it out, i.e. “tread water”.

They use the simile of animals talking about what they need to stay alive. This was De La Soul’s debut 1989 album.

The theme treatment is relatively shallow, but continuous, and the form fits the theme, is consistent across the album, and the group is highly proficient at it, despite it being a debut album.

The lyrics are arranged primarily in the form of quartets in 17 lines,

The form is original, combining anapests with tertius paeans and quartus paeans, for example in these lines: “I was walking on the water/ when I saw a crocodile/ He had daisies in his hat, /so I stopped him for a while.”

The rhyme scheme, mostly ABCB, is a simple 4-line, masculine or hard rhyme scheme with some internal slant rhyme of alliteration and consonance.

It is presented in written form, meant to be sung, and is set to a beat, namely rap with content, flow [rhythm and rhyme], and delivery.

The genre is further classified as alternative hip hop, psychedelic hip hop, or golden age hip hop.

The writers, Trugoy the Dove, Paul Huston, V. Keith Mason and Kelvin Mercer, use simile, comparing people to animals in need.

The final line, “tread water”, has impact. The form and function of the lyrics ensure the listener’s engagement.

Isn’t that nice? All wrapped up in one paragraph. Here’s the template I developed with drop-down lists at the end of each line, and from which I pulled together the summary. Poetic Form Analysis

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