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Just Because Eminem Was Freestyling, Doesn’t Mean It Wasn’t Musical

Tons of hip-hop artists have come out against the actions of Donald Trump in recent months, and many have even included stings in their verses. Eminem’s turn at the wheel came earlier this week in a Detroit, garage-set freestyle that aired on television during the BET Awards. And he showed, undeniably, that even when he’s winging it freely, he can still achieve sophisticated rhythmic and emotional delivery all while teaching a masterclass in creative, battle-rap rhyming.

Did you catch what he did there? Yeah, he used the unrhymable “orange,” and although he didn’t straight-rhyme it, he did manage to stick the word into an unbelievably interesting diss:

“Racism’s the only thing he’s Fantastic Four (for) / ‘Cause that’s how he gets his f^@&in’ rocks off and he’s orange.”

There are only a handful of musical takeaways from the searing attack that Eminem unleashed on Trump during a segment of BET’s awards show a few nights ago, but they say a lot about his natural ability to coax rhythmic groupings out of thin air and orchestrate rhyme schemes. Any word of who won what for which song or album at the actual award show was pretty overshadowed in the media coverage by the heaping plate of drama that Eminem served up in that moment of the night.

In keeping with Eminem’s recent musical preferences, his performance was a cappella and unaccompanied by any beat or drum set, just ambient sound — like in his series of Shady XV freestyles.

Or, his drum-less 2016 track “Campaign Speech.”

So Eminem seems to be favoring this super free-musical context lately. He probably loves this format since it allows him even more choice when deciding where to place the rhythmic accents of his crazy-complex rhyme schemes. This unexpected left turn was pretty much the only option left after virtuosic songs like “Lose Yourself” reached the highest possible level of rhyme complexity, with its opening rhyme scheme of:

ABCCCABCABBCBCABCAA

And not to mention the fact that 54% of all its opening syllables are rhymed!

In this Cypher freestyle, however, due to the lack of a backing beat, many of Eminem’s lyrical lines would not conform to a typical 4/4 time signature. Why?

Firstly, because his performance is in a free tempo rubato, and secondly, because the organizing principle of his melody here is the length of his sentences and not the measure of a beat (since there is none). Tempo rubato means that Eminem is constantly changing the tempo of this musical performance: sometimes accelerating in an accelerando and at other times slowing down in a ritardando, for example, at 4:26. There, towards the end of the video, he slightly but subtly slows down his speed, so that he can emphatically emphasize his ending rhyme on the two notes of “Hate Trump.”

As a listener, though, we’re free to group the rap into a musical structure that makes sense to us. For example, take his opening lines at 0:13: “That’s an awfully hot coffee pot / Should I drop it on Donald Trump.” If you were to hear the defined beats of his opening line in triplets, it’d fit nicely into 4/4:

But since Eminem has no beat, his phrasing could also be responsible for outlining the beat — in which case, the structure might, instead, look something like this:

I’m not saying that Eminem is rapping in 11/8; I’m saying that a general length of 11/8 at a BPM of 162 is the most accurate way to understand how this grouping of words works to create its own rhythmic structure here. Instead of thinking of this 11/8 measure as having a pulse to it, like the 2 + 2 subgroupings of some 4/4 time signatures, try to think of it like a big bucket of 11 eighth notes into which Eminem pours his accents wherever they may land.

The freedom of beat-less rapping is perhaps a political stance as well, as it promotes individuality, not conforming to convention and being entirely responsible for one’s voice and message — something Eminem would’ve wanted to convey in such a nationally televised spectacle of personal belief. It’d be much harder to convey, and simply not as cool, if he had delivered these same lines over rap’s conventional 4/4 time signature, a meter so strongly defined by its repetitive strong–weak accent.

In non-musical terms, it’s not really surprising that Eminem is getting political. What is surprising, though, is how definitively partisan this is (he praises Obama pretty clearly). Traditionally, Eminem’s views have tended to skewer the hypocrisy of the entire political establishment, whether that was Bush, Clinton, or the general ignorance Washington has shown towards dealing with issues of race inequality and police brutality as an epidemic.

Trump has shown to be a pretty polarizing figure, though, from the perspectives of both dominant political parties in Washington, so it’s not totally out of the blue. And we should, no doubt, expect to see much more of this. Rappers have already organized against Trump — just see YG & Nipsey Hussle’s song “FDT” and try to guess what that acronym stands for — and celebrities from LeBron James, Ellen DeGeneres, J. Cole, and Snoop Dogg to, of course, Colin Kaepernick have shown their support of Eminem’s message.

Music is certainly an emotive avenue for delivering your message to the world. To enhance the effectiveness of your music, check out Soundfly’s selection of Mainstage courses, and delve deeper into your practice with courses like Beat Making in Ableton Live, Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords and The New Songwriter’s Workshop.

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Martin Connor
Martin Connor

Martin Connor is a music teacher and writer from Philadelphia, PA, with a B.A. in Music from Duke University who is currently studying for his M.A. at Brandeis University. His research is focused on the vocal melodies of the rap genre and he teaches rap lessons online through the music school LessonFace.  He is a contributing writer for HipHopDX, Complex, and Pigeons and Planes, and has had multiple articles from his website go viral on BET, The Source, XXL, and MTV. His forthcoming book, The Artistry Of Rap Music, due out in late 2017 via McFarland Publishing House, is a follow-up to his 2014 contribution to their anthology, Eminem & Rap, Poetry, Race.

  • Matthew Gonzalez

    Just because you don’t support Trump doesn’t mean he’s not doing the right thing.

  • Matthew Gonzalez

    f off