Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Flowtation Device Presentz: RZA's verse from "Wu-Gambinos" vs. Outkast's "Babylon" (CUSSING AND WHATNOT)

In honor of RZA's recent media tour to support his new tome The Tao of Wu, and in honor of Raekwon's new sequel to Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, which I was somehow unable to find at either Borders or Best Buy, a shameful disgrace for brick/mortar retailers everywhere, The Flowtation Device would like to present a celebration of RZA's verse from "Wu-Gambinos" off the FIRST Cuban Linx, contrasted with an exploration of Outkast's "Babylon," which is right at home on this blog and will probably be thematically explored here sometime soon.

In other words--Welcome back to some esoteric horseshit! Exhibit "A" will be Andre's second verse in the Outkast song "Babylon," from ATliens '96. Exhibit "B" is Big Boi's verse from the same song. Both exemplify what world-historic hip-hop scholar Adam Krims calls "percussion-effusive" flow (Major Tom, iz you IN DA HOUSE????) [caution: I no longer get that joke], which basically means the rhymes don't occur at regular intervals and the words conform to the rhythms, not vice-versa. Both also employ triplets and 16th notes, indicated here with italicized words. (If you see two syllables joined by italics, they're 16th notes; if you see three syllables joined by italics, they're a triplet.)

The best example of words-conforming-to-rhythms is in Big Boi's verse. Big Boi uses fairly regular triplet rhythms alternating with straight 8th beats:
"AUNTiewasTIGHTlikeSOUTHwesssst-be / FOREthePINKSmovedIN.LIKEthe /
LIVin'upONthisEARTHbeFOREa / NIGgaLIKEdadDYwasBORNbut /"

Andre's verse is less regular, but still sounds like curlicued and filigreed antique furniture.

RZA's verse on Raekwon's "Wu-Gambinos" (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, '95) is the klassic Krims example of "speech-effusive," which basically means the rhymes don't occur at regular intervals and the rhythms conform to the words, not vice-versa. RZA's verse was much harder to analyze rhythmically. All these guys have some ambiguity in their rhythms--they'll attack words ahead of or behind the beat or whatever--it's like comparing a transcribed Wynton Kelly solo to what Wynton's actually playing--but RZA was totally rushing words and employing septuplets or some shit. (As payback, I totally gave up trying to figure out the penultimate line. My payback's a mutha.)

Perhaps paradoxically, the Outkast verses that focused on rhythms-over-words were much easier to comprehend than the RZA verse that focused on words-over-rhythms. I'll get down to brass tacks on the Outkast verse in a blog or two, but just reading it you can understand what they're talking about. But I have no idea what the shit RZA is talking about, except that he's awesome and he will harm me. Perhaps also paradoxically, I like his verse better than the Outkast verses, and I'm not just saying that because he'll break 206 of my bones and watch my ass get blown into a sea of fire and brimstone. His flow's livelier and looser and he covers a lot of lyrical ground. During the span of his verse he is a dapper diamond thief, a cop, a thug, Noah Bean (the actor from Damages? not in '95...), a Klan Wizard, a Revolutionary War soldier, a doctor, and a Genie inside the Bottle that is the Projects. Where Outkast sound kind of bottled by their rhythms, RZA's a total genie on the rampage.

(Not to dis Adam Krims, who seems like the kind of nutty academic I can get behind--and he's certainly researched this stuff more than I have--but take his nomenclatures with a grain of salt. After all, it's not like anyone's done any subsequent research on the subject of flow, or indeed corroborated or refuted his three-fold classification system. At least, not anyone I can find. I plan to contact him once I have something intelligent to say.)

Andre 3000 (percussion-effusive) starts at 1:04:

*i'mFASciNAtedBYthe /
WAYyo'NIPplesPEAKatMEthrough / YO'blouse*.*.*. /
FREAkyMEfreaKYyou-can't / HELPbutBEaROUSED.'SCUSEme /
LORD_LESSforTHINkin'but THATwasthe / WAYweWASbroughtUP.*. /
SNEAKin'toWATCHplayBOYatNIGHTwe / ALLmustBEcaughtUPinWORLDly /
LOT_like -whenweWENT totheWOODSand / LAID_WITHtheSQUIRrelsDURin' /
Pe*.WEbe*ex / PLORin'eachOTHers'PRIvates*. /
AHHH_*.*.*oh / NOWit'sONfromHEREonOUT. /
PUTyo'HANDS intheATmosPHERE. / IFyouKNOWwhati'm TALKin'aBOUTnow /
IFtwoHEARTSdoneWALKonOUT andi / SEEyouONtheNEXTsong*they /

Big Boi (percussion-effusive) starts at 2:03:

*.*.*.PEOpledon't /
KNOWtheSTRESSi'mDEALin'withDAYto / DAY.*.SPEAKin'aBOUTthe /
FEELingsI'MposSESSingFORre / NEE.*.MOPin'aROUNDand /
OTHerDAYiSAY.* butthe / LORDheTAKethaWAYnowGIVEit /
BACKlawd*causeTHAT'SlikeBACKboards / -withOUTtheRIMS_ MEandmy /
AUNTiewasTIGHTlikeSOUTHwesssst-be / FOREthePINKSmovedIN.LIKEthe /
LIVin'upONthisEARTHbeFOREa / NIGgaLIKEdadDYwasBORNbut /
THEYbeMAKin'aSCENE.THATmy / MUSicand CRIMEareaTEAM. *buti'm /
SPEAKin'theTRUTHnotDREAMS. *.so / WHATintheFUCKtheyMEANmyLYRics /

And then, by way of contrast:

Verse Three: RZA, a.k.a. Bobby Steels (speech-effusive) starts at 5:40:

*.*.SOlidGOLD_ /
CROWN_BEshin-in'ANDblind / -in'LIKEsomeDIAmondsIbe /
PINin'THEstyle-inTHEcloud / *withSILverLINingsDOUble /
BREASTed*.BULLET proof--vest / ED.WELLproTECTed*the /
HEARTtheRIB.CAGE.THEchest / -andSOLarPLEXusCASTin' /
STONES.*.CRACKin'TWOhun / DREDandSIXbones-andWATCHyo' /
ASS_GETblownINtoAsea / OFfire-andBRIMstone*. /
*howDARE youapPROACHitWITHdim / -pones-theOVerFIEND_ /
*theGRANDexQUISiteIMper / IAL wiz ARDOH isITtheRYza /
RECtorCOMEtoPAYyourASSa / VISit*.LOCalBIo /
SHOTSatDAvyCROCKett*. / ONtheBIcenTENniALhap /
PYmilLENniumTWOthou-sand / MICroCHIPS_TWO shotsofPENi /
CILlingoesUPyouraDRENalin*. / SONit'sTIMEforBOUTin'
It's a mileage resemblin niggaz who like followin

As I said, that RZA verse was way more difficult, and thus it's fairly impossible to read. My HOPE is that we'll somehow be able to detect the difference between "percussion-effusive" and "speech-effusive" just by looking at the flowtated lyrics--or at least that the flowtation will help differentiate in some way. Before we get to that, though, here's the reasons Krims gives for calling Outkast percussion-effusive and RZA speech-effusive (this is all from his invaluable book Rap Music and the Poetics of Identity):

1. Outkast are percussion-effusive because "the MC(s) rap rhythmic patterns that, if spoken American (including Ebonic) English is taken as 'natural,' could only be called, by contrast, 'stylized' or 'musical.'" (p.77)

2. Also true of Outkast: "The rhythms are rapid, often producing constant alterations between, on the one hand, groups of quick and even attacks, and on the other hand, slower and more differentiated rhythmic values..."
Pe*.WEbe*ex / PLORin'eachOTHers'PRIvates*. /"

3. Outkast are from Atlanta, and, according to Krims, "certain over-the-top percussion-effusive styles could... be said to mark out an MC geographically, albeit negatively as "not-New York." (Not sure where he stands on Busta Rhymes, who's from NYC but to my ears is WAY percussion-effusive.) (Dude, I should TOTALLY do his verse from "Scenario" next!)

4. In re RZA's verse on "Wu-Gambinos": RZA "is capable of engaging in extreme speech-effusiveness with very little percussiveness... his delivery veritably overflows with complex polyrhythms, but in something approaching a monotone." (p.52)

5. On the difference between the two "effusive" styles, compared with the more old-school "sung" style (think Sugarhill, Beasties...): "there is... reason to associate the percussion-effusive with the sung style. The association would then pair off the more 'musical' (for current lack of a better term) manners of MCing against those closer to 'natural' speech." That is, RZA is closer to "natural" speech--his rhythms conform to his words.

Here are my preliminary insufficient findings, on how to distinguish styles of effusiveness by looking at the flowtated lyrics:

1. As Krims says, percussion-effusive lyrics will display more regular rhyme patterns, with fewer internal rhymes, than speech-effusive lyrics. Percussion-effusive lyrics are still more variable in their rhyme schemes than "sung" lyrics, but you can discern some regularity. See, for instance, Andre's "yo' blouse," "aroused," "brought up," "caught up," "girls," "squirrels." All those rhymes fall at roughly the same place in second bars, with almost no competing internal rhymes in the first bars. In contrast, RZA's verse starts off with some fairly regular second-bar rhymes, but in context they're barely distinguishable from all the surrounding internal rhymes and assonances. In the first two bars alone we have "shinin'," "blindin'," "like some," "diamonds," and "I be."

2. This is a little subjective, but it's much easier for me to recite the Outkast verses--in rhythm--from reading their flowtations, than it is to recite the RZA verse. At this point, I can't say if that's true of all speech-effusive lyrics or just this particular (insane) RZA lyric. But the percussion-effusive Outkast lyrics seem to settle in to easily-translatable musical patterns, whereas the RZA lines do NOT. Both verses feature sixteenth-beats and triplets, but maybe it's that RZA tends to have little regard for placing strong syllables on strong beats and weak syllables on weak beats. Other rappers play with syllabic placement, but they often do so for deliberate rhythmic effects that make sense MUSICALLY. RZA's verse, while awesome, makes less sense in conventional musical/rhythmic terms.

More to come, I'm sure--any input is welcome, as this is a work in progress.

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