Lyricism and flow are essential tools, but which rappers have truly mastered the art of "voice?"
When topics of technical prowess are broached, a rapper’s toolkit is often discussed. Lyricism and flow make up two defining attributes. Some may even cite “beat selection” as equally pivotal. In today’s climate, the value of charisma has seen a healthy spike. Yet one element remains underappreciated: the voice. The mastery of cadence. That’s not to say a rapper’s inherent tone, as such things are unchanging. Yet the most brilliant vocal manipulators seem to possess complete control of their voices, using self-applied modulation to evoke emotion, urgency, and in the most extreme cases, alternate subsets of their identity.
Many aspiring rappers are likely familiar with the uncomfortable phenomenon of hearing your own recorded voice. Even those who never picked up a mic have doubtless heard themselves and cringed. For a rapper seeking to make a livelihood, such hurdles must be overcome at the onset. Like anything, practice is the key to success in this department; eventually, hearing one’s own voice will likely become second nature. Controlling it, however, is another beast entirely.
Think of your favorite rapper. Jay-Z, Nas (the gumshoe-rendition of “Who Killed It” notwithstanding), Royce Da 5’9”, Drake, Meek Mill, 50 Cent, Travis Scott, Dave East, Ab-Soul, Pusha T, J. Cole, ScHoolboy Q, T.I, Andre 3000, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Big Boi, Kanye West. All formidable emcees, yet largely traditional where cadential manipulation is concerned. That’s not to suggest that those with malleable voices are somehow ahead of the curve. It’s simply important to respect the ones who have taken their physical limitations to an unexpected level.
Notorious B.I.G. - "Gimme The Loot"
Consider The Notorious B.I.G, who many deem a viable GOAT contender. The New York legend previously showcased his vocal mastery on “Gimme The Loot,” which largely centered around a dispute between two robbers. Both “characters” were voiced by Biggie, who imbued the second with a higher pitched, frenetic tone. The back-and-forth was so deftly handled that many wondered if “Gimme The Loot” was actually a duet. In reality, Biggie was simply capable of creating two distinct personalities through the combination of tone and lyricism. Even if his higher-pitched creation wasn’t rhyming like a trigger-happy lunatic, his cadence alone is enough to suggest a heightened mania.
Fellow New Yorker DMX showed similar prowess across his gothic masterpiece It’s Dark And Hell Is Hot. The most overt example arises on “Damien,” a sordid tale of a demonic pact gone left. Like Biggie on “Gimme The Loot,” DMX opts to perform two characters: himself, and the titular devil incarnate. Both possess distinct voices, as DMX’s low-end gravelly baritone contrasts nicely with Damien’s mush-mouthed heightened pitch. A simple dichotomy, but DMX executes it masterfully. Damien feels fleshed out with his own range of emotions, sinister at one turn, mischievous the next. X, his voice notoriously intimidating, somehow sounds utterly powerless against his creation. As a child, listening to “Damien” was a haunting experience, truly blurring the lines between hip-hop and horror; considering the relatively tame lyrical content, it seems fair to attribute a portion of its success to DMX’s brilliant performance.
It would be remiss to neglect another standout It’s Dark &Hell Is Hot cut, in “Stop Being Greedy.” The song features further subtle, yet remarkable voicework by X, who borrows the Biggie formula of self-conversation. Here, X’s vocals shift from casual to utterly hellish, his album cover incarnate. On a surface level, X’s dueling voices seem to represent the metaphorical angel and devil residing upon his shoulder, a notion evidenced by the importance of darkness and light. “Ain't a thing about the shit I came through I haven't seen, but when it gets dark, it's like a n****s havin' dreams,” raps Light X. He immediately switching his tone for the following segue. “Or nightmares, the light dares to desert me,” raps the Dark Man, “got me like everybody wants to hurt me.”
DMX - "Stop Being Greedy"
Eminem’s voice has been a divisive topic among fans, yet few can deny the sheer flexibility of Slim’s vocal chords. A song like “Kim” has gained acclaim for its unrestrained emotion, though uncomfortable subject matter somewhat hampered replay value. Regardless, Em’s voicework throughout the murderous breakdown is bone-chilling. From his unhinged, sarcastic glee, to his visceral hitching sobs, Em’s performance is as cinematic as it is haunting. On “Kim” alone, Em drags carcasses across the entire vocal spectrum.
Perhaps slipping into alternate personas, evidenced by a slew of disparate voices, helps him fully realize his fascination with darker thematic content. His Relapse album has often been associated with “the accent,” which found Slim channeling a vaguely Middle-Eastern serial killer, inspired by the likes of Ted Bundy, Ed Gein, and Norman Bates. While some found “the accent” to be off-putting, others appreciated the verisimilitude. Hearing Eminem rap about putting lotion in a bucket may have broken immersion; hearing an unfamiliar, vaguely Em-esque persona served to distance listeners from their comfort zone.
Eminem - Kim
It’s no wonder that Kendrick Lamar has openly lauded Eminem as an inspiration. A recent turn on Lil Wayne’s “Mona Lisa” found Kendrick throwing caution to the wind, channeling Em’s “Kim” to a slight degree. With no pretenses of machismo to be found, Kendrick effortless slipped into the role of a boyfriend scorned, pushing his voice to a heightened, disorienting bray. “Bitch I'm emotional 'cause I'm in stress,” hitches Kendrick, amid sniffling tears, “I'm not supposed to go through this, I guess.” His vocal fearlessness helps instill Weezy’s antics with a welcome sense of severity and consequences; a testament to Kendrick’s status as a creative visionary, willing use every tool at his disposal to heighten the aesthetic.
The aforementioned are but a few rappers to exhibit vocal mastery, but there are certainly other notable names. Rappers like Nicki Minaj, Young Thug, and Danny Brown have both proven adept at this particular element, with the latter occasionally sounding damn near unrecognizable. Consider his disturbing song "Torture," which finds Brown employing a voice vastly dissimilar from his iconic drawl; in fact, a skim through Old may introduce you to ten different Danny Browns before landing on familiar territory. It's astounding to note what a talented artist can do with their voice alone. From creating a repertoire of rich characters, to expressing metaphorical depictions of self, to establishing a tone befitting of an instrumental, the solution often lies within the cadence. An underappreciated tool, to be sure, but valuable nevertheless.