June 6, 2016KR BlogBlogCurrent EventsEnthusiamsRemembrances

The Data Mine of Rap

The Raplyzer is a computer program that automatically analyzes rhymes from rap lyrics and ranks rappers according to their Rhyme Factor. Created by Eric Malmi, a doctoral student in Computer Science (specifically, the Data Mining Group) at Aalto University in Finland, the Raplyzer calculates the Rhyme Factor by measuring the number of mutli-syllabic rhymes and the amount of assonance in all lines of a verse. As a kid who was a rabid fan of the Wu-Tang Clan, I knew every member was unique in some way: RZA was the conceptual mastermind; Raekwon the slang cinema specialist; Method Man the witty, pop culture bricoleur; Ghostface the narrative genius, fashion superhero, and pornographic autobiographer extraordinaire; Ol’ Dirty the most original and unpredictable, and so on.

But I had I always felt that there was something special about Inspectah Deck’s rhyme schemes, not just that they were multisyllabic, but that the music within the lines, the density of the Germanic single or dual syllable words strung together in a combination (think boxing, or bank safes) had a stampeding velocity unmatched by any other member of the Wu—or perhaps any other rapper, for that matter. I was not surprised to see that out of the ninety-four rappers data-mined by the Raplyzer, including greats like Rakim, B.I.G., 2pac, Nas, Jay-Z, Eminem, and master tongue-twisters of the baroque absurd like Earl Sweatshirt and Aesop Rock, it was Inspektah Deck that rose to the top of the list, with a Rhyme Factor of 1.187. Rakim ran a close second.

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I bomb atomically

Socrates philosophies and high prophecies can’t define how I be droppin these mockeries

Lyrically perform armed robbery

Fled with the lottery

Possibly they spotted me.

Deck’s immortal opening lines on “Triumph,” Wu-Tang’s first single from their double album, Wu-Tang Forever. When that verse hit the “Hip Hop Quotable” page in The Source, everyone who dared pick up a pen and call themselves an emcee had to close the magazine, and cancel any previous plans they had for that evening so they could put in a long, lonely stretch in the lab. The nod factor of these lines, the way the emphasis and assonance smacks the downbeats, combined powerfully with later lines so visual they feel like panels from a graphic novel—my favorite being “stomp ground and pound footprints in solid rock.” The swing of the word “tremendous” vibes perfectly with the swing of the bouncing bass kicks in the line “Battle-scarred shogun, explosion when my pen hits / Tremendous / Ultraviolet shine blind forensics.”

The grandiosity and galactic scale of his imagery blend the dynamic and unrealistic action of comic books with the quiet haunting evoked by ruins of forgotten cultures, all of it meant to make you feel as if you are listening to an immortal who has outlived the many monuments built to him by early civilizations. You get the sense that he may have even destroyed a few civilizations: “Invade your zone / Ruined like ancient Rome / I span the universe then return to earth to claim my throne,” he spits slowly on Gang Starr’s “Above the Clouds.” And on “It’s Yourz,” he opens his verse with an image cut directly from a nuclear bomb test film: “It’s only natural / Actual facts are thrown at you / The impact’ll blow trees back and crack statues.”

While Inspectah Deck’s unsurpassed Rhyme Factor score seems to be justified, one glaring omission from the list of rappers data-mined by Raplyzer is Big Pun. The Bronx dynamo was a master of assonance, from his opening salvo on Funk Flex’s 60 Minutes of Funk, Vol. 1 (1995) to what are probably his most quoted bars, on “Twinz (Deep Cover ’98)”: “Dead in the middle of Little Italy / Little did we know that we riddled some middleman who didn’t do diddley.”

Back when I had a car with two 15s and a Kenwood amp in the back, Pun’s debut Capital Punishment was a fixture in my CD player, along with Noreaga’s N.O.R.E., The Roots’ Things Fall Apart, Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty, Mobb Deep’s Hell on Earth, Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s Blackstar, Gang Starr’s Moment of Truth, Redman’s Muddy Waters, and Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival. If we stick to the battle rap side of things and set aside Pun’s “love” songs, the aptly-titled “Super Lyrical” stands out as a sustained barrage of Rhyme Factor scores. The verse ranges from talky, technically superb but substance-starved lines to hypervisual and iconoclastic scenes. Early in the verse, he lets us know about “the mathematical madness I’m on / the savage, the strong / the marriage, the bond of havoc and song.” The lines soon grow stronger, though, as he upgrades Nas’s infamous “snuffin Jesus” line from “Live at the Barbecue” to something more layered, more emotional and fire-filled: “I’m battling Jesus if he passes through my label / I’m snatching his halo / God, I’ll trade you to send my father back as an angel.”

But the track I listened to most was undoubtedly number seven, “The Dream Shatterer.” I just couldn’t resist the velocity of his flow. There are truly too many lines to quote, and as a battle rap, the song holds together in a way that many do not, as they are often series of punch lines or slick talk linked only through free association or bits of filler to build rhyme schemes that lead up to the jewels. Pun was a battle rapper’s battle rapper, with references to the culture that only those on the inside would feel, “Head to head in the street / I leave you dead on your feet / Settling beef / I’ll even let you rhyme to the Benjamins beat / But it won’t matter / Your dreams still gon’ shatter.”

There was a time when it seemed every mixtape had a freestyle over Diddy’s “All About the Benjamins,” every battle you attended had at least one verse spit over the Benjamins beat, a beat that swings as hard as any ever concocted, the guitar thin as radio waves, chirpy and funky like a broken telegraph, but placed over the rumbling, body shot bass and reverse cuts so perfectly that it feels both laid back and driving at the same time. Rhyming over that beat could make an emcee sound much better than he actually was, and someone truly great would sound simply marvelous (see Lord Finesse’s freestyle on Tony Touch’s Power Cypha 2 mixtape). Pun was also charismatic and likeable, with braggadocio and playfully inappropriate lines combining to make you laugh sometimes, and wince at other times, like a great stand-up comedian: “A man of honour wouldn’t wanna try to match my persona / Sometime rhymin I blow my own mind like Nirvana.”

Like a few other artists on the Raplyzer list, Big Pun met an untimely demise at the age of 28. His story is most similar to that of Harlem wordsmith Big L (#41 on the list), as we only saw two albums from each, and in each case the second album was posthumous. It is impossible to say how they might have elevated the art form that survivors like Nas (#40) and Jay-Z (#50) ended up taking to the next level in terms of raw lyricism and commercial appeal. When I listen to Inspectah Deck now, or Pun, or Big L, I remember the feeling from when I was 16, the sense that they were doing cosmically illegal things with language, crunching it down into a density that tested physic’s laws, with lines impossibly packed, like collapsed stars, greedily bending light toward their hidden centers.